By Rabbi Adina Lewittes
My Bubbie taught me you can always add another cup of water to the soup. My mother taught me there’s always room for another chair at the table. Covid-19 taught me that it’s always possible to add another square to the Zoom.
While the pandemic has been confounding and unsettling to so many individuals and communities, to others like us at Sha’ar – an innovative Jewish community offering diverse gateways into Jewish life – it has brought greater clarity and conviction around who we are, what we care about, and how we’re capable of achieving our goals. One area that’s enjoyed a particularly robust infusion of energy and imagination has been our commitment to partnerships and collaborations across the Jewish landscape.
When most synagogue’s preparations for the High Holy Days were focused on finding the right production team to create engaging virtual services, not every congregation was blessed with the means to effectively gather online. Some lacked the budget; some lacked the know-how; some lacked the structure. In response to a small congregation on Fire Island, B’nai Saltaire, who were struggling to figure out how to gather for those most special of days, we offered to share with them our online bimah. Providing another community the opportunity to lead part of our service was not just a way for us to offer them support; it was a powerful expression of Jewish communal solidarity and a model for other opportunities occasioned not only by need, but by imagination.
When the 10.10.2020 launch of Countdown, a global climate-action initiative, coincided with Shabbat/Shmini Atzeret, Sha’ar’s core commitment to environmental sustainability demanded that we find a creative way to link up to this momentous worldwide event. Impossible to conceive of prior to the pandemic, we harnessed the possibilities of this moment by inviting five other communities from across the country to co-create and co-lead a climate-themed Shabbat and Festival service. Together with me and Sha’ar that day in our expanded virtual sanctuary were Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann and Rabbi Deena Cowans of Mishkan Chicago, Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer of The Kitchen in San Francisco, Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg of Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, and Reb Ezra Weinberg, as well as participants from across the continent. In this unprecedented, live, multi-community, online prayer service, we each led a different part of that day’s rich liturgy including Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, Hallel, Yizkor and Geshem/Prayer for Rain and infused them with themes relating to our connectedness to the earth and the urgency of climate action. It was transformational both in creating unimagined collaborations as well as in its collective spiritual prioritizing of our age’s most urgent existential crisis.
One feature of this crisis dramatically exposed by the pandemic is the ongoing tragedy of racial disparities in our country. It has prompted much-needed self-examination within the Jewish community and elsewhere regarding the extent to which our cultural and religious spaces are properly inclusive and diverse. This has also prompted our Sha’ar community to consider additional dimensions of Jewish pluralism that warrant more attention, namely, the Ashkenazi/Sephardi dimension. Once again, the times we’re living in, coupled with strategic and creative efforts, opened frontiers for us we could not have previously contemplated. Our growing partnership with Rav Haim Ovadia of Torah Ve’Ahava has brought together people from across North America representing progressive, Ashkenazi, post-denominational Judaism with those from an array of Sephardi, mostly Orthodox streams for exciting music-filled, story-rich and culinary-infused online adventures to Baghdad, Mumbai and Izmir with our Armchair Pilgrim Supper Club. One Orthodox Sephardi male rabbi and one gay, liberal female rabbi make a dynamic – and disruptive – duo!
The pandemic and its limitations will end. We’ll return to in-person, direct spiritual care and connection. And when we do, we’ll carry with us the wisdom of how we adapted and how we managed to stay rooted to our mission while we sheltered in our homes. But we also pledge to carry with us the inspiration and commitment borne of how we bonded to others more powerfully than ever while being separated from them, and how we stayed the course precisely by veering off onto some original and pathbreaking side-roads. While it seems far off yet, when this plague lifts, we’ll return not only to where we left each other last March; we’ll return to the potential of places we’ve yet to discover and relationships we’ve yet to spark, knowing that our sanctuaries and classrooms, lounges and social halls are made of ever expanding walls of Jewish connection and love – real and virtual.
So go ahead and pour another cup of water into the soup. Pull up another chair. Share another link.
Rabbi Adina Lewittes is the founding Rabbi of Sha’ar whose Va’ad is chaired by Scott Weiner.