By Rabbi Julia Andelman
With the outbreak of COVID-19, we have been compelled to rethink the fundamental rituals and social structures that have organized and given meaning to Jewish life. Jewish prayer, Jewish learning, and even Jewish community have moved from synagogues, classrooms, and JCCs to virtual settings. And yet, alongside this profound disorientation has come unprecedented access to Jewish learning. With the elimination of travel time and the possibility of instantaneous connection to organizations thousands of miles away, many people have chosen to use the unexpectedly idle hours of this time to nurture themselves, intellectually and spiritually, through online Jewish learning. Learning communities spanning states and countries have developed out of a shared need for meaning, as the world we once knew has changed.
Shortly after public life began to shutdown in New York, a team at The Jewish Theological Seminary gathered virtually to brainstorm about what we could offer to address the loss and confusion that so many were experiencing. We began with a flurry of Passover programming, like several other Jewish organizations, due to the broadly felt anxiety about celebrating the holiday physically isolated. But we wanted to think more broadly about how JTS Torah – contemporary wisdom based on text study and scholarly expertise – could provide both solace and inspiration. Reflecting on how Jews have navigated their way through many difficult times before this pandemic, we conceived of a seven-part webinar series entitled Times of Crisis and Possibility, in which JTS faculty and fellows explored pivotal moments in the Jewish experience and offered a window into how Jews responded creatively to other crises in the history of our people.
Within two minutes of announcing the series by email, our inboxes were exploding with registration confirmations. Hundreds of people were signing up for every session. We scrambled to upgrade our Zoom account, reworked our plan for managing Q&A, and began to shift staff portfolios to support a massive expansion of online learning. Ultimately, over 1800 unique individuals participated in the series, which was extended to 16 sessions to meet demand.
From April to August, we traveled from biblical times through the destruction of the Temple and into the rabbinic period; we explored existential and communal challenges of medieval and early modern times, the Enlightenment, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, and ethical and cultural dilemmas of the 21st century. JTS scholars drew on every genre of Jewish text, from philosophy to poetry to responsa, exploring with participants the values and ideals that informed Jewish responses to catastrophe and change and considering what direction and guidance they might offer as we began learning how to navigate the complexities of life during the pandemic.
Due to the overwhelming response to Times of Crisis and Possibility, we decided to continue our online learning focusing on the needs of the day. Faith, Forgiveness, and Prayer: Preparing for the Days of Awe was developed in anticipation of an unprecedented High Holiday season. Do we need faith to pray? What does it look like to genuinely seek and attain forgiveness? How can we move beyond our mistakes? Over one thousand people joined us over the course of the series’ four webinars.
We have heard from countless adult learners – joining us from almost every state and province in North America and over a dozen other countries – that our Monday webinars have become not only an intellectual treasure but a communal lifeline, and we are now committed to addressing this tremendous and widespread thirst for deep and meaningful Torah study informed by top-notch scholarship.
Today we launch a new fall series entitled Living a Life of Meaning. The massive disruption to normal life – and for many, close encounter with mortality – provides an opportunity to evaluate what is truly important in our lives. Guided by JTS faculty and fellows such as Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, Dr. David Kraemer, and Dr. Edna Friedberg, we will explore the role of values, ethics, and Torah in the quest for a well-lived life. Discussions will range from the Kotzker Rebbe’s teaching that “nothing is as whole as a broken heart” to the Torah’s take on happiness; from medieval and modern understandings of the purpose of mitzvot to biblical meditations on living with uncertainty and vulnerability; from the responsibility of bearing witness to the nuances of how we transmit our heritage and values to the next generation.
Participants are able to sign up for the entire eleven-part series but can join whichever sessions capture their interest, as each 90-minute session is designed to stand on its own. Each session will include a presentation by faculty as well as ample time for Q&A with participants. These webinars will be offered at no charge, as were all of the previous series.
It is indeed a time of crisis and possibility, as the title of our opening series acknowledges. Amidst catastrophic losses of life, financial health, and psychological wellbeing, it is a moment during which we can draw upon the vast spectrum of the Jewish experience – text, history, and culture – to guide us. In our very separation, there is the opportunity to reclaim our heritage and deepen our connections to it, and one another, through Jewish learning.
Living a Life of Meaning webinars will be held each Monday from October 5 to December 21, 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.?ET (with the exception of November 16). To learn more and register, visit www.jtsa.edu/fall-series-living-a-life-of-meaning.
Rabbi Julia Andelman (RS ‘06) is The Jewish Theological Seminary’s director of Community Engagement.