By Andrea Barron
Like most people, I have been staying at home as much as possible to avoid exposure to the coronavirus and flatten the curve. I spend at least two hours a day on the phone, talking with friends and family as well as a few special people I have met only once or twice.
One of the special people I spoke to last week was Shoshana Bernstein, a Chasidic community activist and mother of five from Monsey, N.Y. I met her this past January, when my friend Judith Lelchook and I visited Monsey.
Shoshana and I could not be more different. I identify as a liberal feminist, a local leader in the movement for Jewish-Muslim collaboration and a Democratic political activist. I was raised in the Reform tradition and, until now, never independently lit Shabbat candles.
Shoshana is a Chasidic community activist and mother of five from Monsey, a center of haredi Orthodox life 30 miles north of New York City. Before Judith Lelchook and I decided to drive to Monsey in January, I had never had a conversation with a Chasidic woman.
But that was soon after Dec. 28, the day a man diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic stabbed five Chasidic Jews celebrating Chanukah at the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey. Five people were wounded, and one man is still in a coma. Judith, a social worker from Alexandria, and I decided to travel to Monsey to offer our support and sympathy to the Chasidic community.
We did not know what to expect when we arrived in Monsey. We looked so different from everyone we saw. We did not cover our heads with headscarves or wigs like the women, and I was even wearing slacks. How would people receive us?
We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went in Monsey on Saturday morning. A little girl opened the door for us into Netzach Yisroel, Rabbi Rottenberg’s synagogue, located next to his home. As soon as we entered, a kind middle-aged man named Eli said hello and gave each of us a plastic container with kosher fruit chewies.
Then we went to pray in Netzach Yisroel’s women’s section. Rabbi Rottenberg’s wife, Vitty, and the other women told us how happy they were to see us. They did not care that we were bareheaded, not dressed like them and that my Hebrew needs a lot of work.
On Sunday, we went shopping at the Blew Boutique, which sells “modest” clothing to haredi Orthodox women. It reminded me of stores I had seen in the Middle East — in Jerusalem, Damascus and Amman — that specialize in modest clothes for Muslim women.
The women said they were honoring God by dressing modestly — almost the same thing that traditionally dressed Muslim women say about their clothing.
That same day, we met Shoshana for coffee at the Hava Java restaurant, inside a Monsey mall. Shoshana has an activist history — she worked with New York State’s Department of Health to convince haredi Orthodox Jews it was safe to vaccinate their children when anti-vaccine conspiracy theories were rampant. As a long-time activist myself, I made an immediate connection. And I connected even more when she said Monsey Jews did not want to buy guns since “bearing arms is not part of the spirit of Orthodox Judaism.”
Shoshana, who had been Rabbi Rottenberg’s spokesperson following the Channukah stabbing, said she saw a “silver lining” in the tragedy. “We saw an unexpected outpouring of love from the wider Jewish community, and also from non-Jews.” she said. “This encouraged us not to hide inside ourselves, to reach out more to others.”
When I heard that half the coronavirus cases in the country are in New York, I decided to call Shoshana. She told me that of the 400 to 500 synagogues, all the larger ones have closed and that smaller synagogues which have remained open have made arrangements to maintain social distancing. Then she told me about an effort by haredi Orthodox women to encourage Jewish women everywhere to light Shabbat candles at the same time on March 21.
I asked Judith if she would join me in solidarity with our “Sister Chavurah” — the Chasidic women of Monsey — in a candle lighting ceremony. We used traditional candlesticks, but chose red candles — blending tradition and our alternative lifestyle. We also recited this message Shoshana sent me:
We are going through very challenging times.
There is so much darkness and uncertainty.
Let’s come together and spread a little light!
This was the first time I initiated a Shabbat candle lighting ceremony, thanks to our Sister Chavurah in Monsey. It was a new and comforting ritual for me during the darkness of the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty of how long this will last.
Andrea Barron, from Camp Springs, Md., is a long-time activist for Jewish-Muslim collaboration, global women’s rights, refugees and asylum seekers.