the people of the book

How the five legged table holds up during the pandemic

In Short

You can’t just swim to the bottom of the ocean and come back up the same way

During one of my first trips to Israel in the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to learn from Avraham Infeld. He inspired thousands of people with his vision of Jewish life standing strong like a 5 legged table. He suggested that the more legs of the table that one has, the more connected one will be with the Jewish people.

Last year when the pandemic spread across the globe and everyone was forced to shelter in place, I had a lot of time to consider the definition of Jewish life and the ways to celebrate Judaism during a year of social isolation. As a child I had chanted United We Stand; Divided We Fall during the rally to free Soviet Jewry in 1986. How could we remain united from across millions of Jewish households? The lessons that I learned from Avraham inspired my thinking in my role consulting for small Jewish communities across the country. I challenged myself to consider the role of the Jewish community towards individuals, towards one another and towards the people of Israel.

Here is my twist on the 5 legs during the pandemic:

1) Memory – I can recall spending Shabbat in synagogue and kissing the Torah. I would sit with my friends and family in the same section and share the latest news about my children and others. Judaism teaches us the essential value of zachor – remember. We can remember Jewish life before the pandemic, and we also share ancient Jewish memories of coming out of Egypt.

During the pandemic, I found new ways to experience prayer and worship. I danced around my bedroom singing Hallel on zoom with my morning minyan. As I look back, I think about my memories of virtual Jewish life. I want to hold onto the joy of logging into Bar Mitzvahs, baby namings and weddings while comfortably sitting on my couch.  I want to remember texting and chatting on zoom with everyone in the audience during lectures and presentations. 

2) Family – what does it mean to be part of a Jewish family? It means that: Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another. My family worked closely with our synagogue leadership to develop a list of every member over age 70. If coronavirus most strongly impacted the over 70, then our Jewish community needed to care for them first. We worked with dozens of volunteers to assign a calling list to check on each congregant to see if they needed a food or medicine delivery. That is what it means to be part of a Jewish family. 

3) Mt. Sinai – we were all there, and that is where we learned how to behave as a Jewish people. Many of us used this year to learn more about our Jewish texts. I began the 7 1/2 year cycle of learning Talmud on January 5, 2020.  I feel so incredibly blessed that I began learning Daf Yomi at the beginning of the cycle because it kept me grounded. Every day I felt one step closer to the end of a chapter or section. I am now 20% of the way through the 7 1/2 year cycle, and we just completed Yoma about the laws of Yom Kippur this week. I can tell you what the Talmud teaches about the age you should start fasting on Yom Kippur, and whether you can eat pork if you are pregnant, as well as if you should break down a bathroom door if a child is locked inside on Yom Kippur – the answer fortunately, is yes.

However, the bigger story here is that we are all part of the same tradition – the people of the book. The same book. And what I have enjoyed most about learning Daf Yomi is that I learn it along with thousands of other Jewish women and men around the world – the same page on the same day. People post their thoughts on Facebook. I love sitting and listening to the podcast by Rabbanit Michelle Farber each day for 45 minutes while holding my own copy of the Talmud. This is definitely something I will continue to do post-pandemic – just as I started before – because our texts and our history connect us with one another!  

4) Land of Israel and State of Israel

It has been amazing to see the number of people who made Aliyah this year through the Jewish Agency for Israel – during a pandemic! We live in a very special period of time where there is no longer a concept of a Jewish refugee – someone who does not have a country where they can go and live. This is because of the establishment of the state of Israel. This year people from Ethiopia, France, Ukraine and Argentina packed up their things and moved to Israel where they could find a better life for themselves and their family.

I have visited Israel dozens of times. This past year I was unable to go to Israel to meet my new baby nephew. I have never felt farther away. So many people felt disconnected from Israel this year. We have become accustomed to traveling back and forth so easily. This is why I worked tirelessly all last summer to organize a Virtual Mission to Israel.  \I wanted people to feel more connected in both directions. We had people in my group who would not have been able to afford an actual trip to Israel. We had people in my group who would not have been physically able to travel for a wide variety of reasons. And it was amazing!  And it was Israel – not Jamaica! That is because Israel holds a special place in our hearts.

5) Hebrew

Another smart choice I made this year was to study Hebrew. It was so easy! I just got on zoom in the comfort of my own home and connected with a dozen classmates! The Jewish Agency shlichah was a fantastic Hebrew teacher and brought us fabulous texts to study together. I loved having a weekly obligation to exercise my brain while I was sitting at home all year.  It was a great feeling to be able to flex that muscle.  

I am so grateful that I was able to stay united with this Jewish community this past year as well as our global Jewish people. However, I am struggling with the next chapter – we are completing our journey in the desert. What do we want from our promised Land?

What will our 5-legged-table look like in the coming year?

I am mindful of the lessons that I learned scuba diving in the Red Sea in Eilat. For anyone who has ever gone scuba diving, you know that you must change the pressure valve for your oxygen tank as you reemerge. You can’t just swim to the bottom of the ocean and come back up the same way. You must change your oxygen supply. This is also true and critical as we reemerge from the pandemic. What is our oxygen level and how can we make sure that we are getting the right amount of oxygen as we complete our time wandering in the desert.

There is a wrong path forward, and it is the path we took in the past. We cannot return to how we did everything before the pandemic. We created so many new ways to experience Jewish community and Jewish life, and we do not want to give that up. Last spring I was forced to create a new reality. However, I knew that it was temporary. As we complete this chapter in our temporary shelters, I am calling upon everyone to come together to inspire new and innovative ways to build our Promised Land to be a brighter, more inclusive, thriving community than it had been before the pandemic. Let us work together to bring our 5 legs together to have a very strong, sturdy, thoughtful and well built Jewish community.

Rachel Alexander Levy has been working in the Jewish community for over 25 years with positions at Hillel International, Schechter, Jewish Women’s Archive, and Jewish Federation. Rachel is based in Providence, R.I. and has worked to strengthen Jewish life through her visits to over 22 states in the past decade. She can be reached at orlirachel@gmail.com