Birkat HaGomel

Rituals for reopening

This time of reopening is complex, not only logistically, but emotionally and spiritually, as well

[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Hazon. Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: http://www.cliforum.org/blog/.]

After 15 months of pandemic and social distancing, our communities are reopening. So too, synagogues and Jewish community organizations, which have been operating primarily online for more than a year, are resuming in-person gatherings. As we reopen our buildings and prepare for in-person services and events, there are many questions to address. COVID response teams and reopening committees are asking: How many people can attend an indoor event? Can we require proof of vaccination? Is communal singing safe if people are masked? Jewish organizational leaders grapple daily with the exhausting work of adapting our operations to the continually evolving public health protocols.

Beyond these kinds of safety protocol questions, there are also the spiritual and emotional questions: How do we celebrate reopening while also making space for the pain and losses of this past year? How do we return to the previous formats, knowing how much this past year has changed us? Does Jewish tradition guide us in coming back together, with all of the mixed emotions we bring to this next phase of the pandemic?

Indeed, the ancient rabbis offered the structure of ritual to support people coming back together. The Mishnah describes a choreography for pilgrims going to the Temple for festivals. All would enter the Temple and circle from the right, but these would circle to the left: a mourner, an excommunicated person, one who has an ill person in their house, and one who lost something. The rabbis understood that those who experienced suffering or loss, those who have been shunned, and caregivers to the sick needed some emotional support. Those circling to the right would ask, “Why do you circle to the left?” and those circling to the left would answer, “Because I am a mourner” or “because I have a loved one who is ill.” And those circling to the right would then respond, “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you” or “May the One who dwells in this house have compassion on your loved one.” (Mishnah Middot 2:2 and Masechet Semachot 6:11)

In coming back together after a time apart, our tradition offers this ritual to show compassion and care to those who’ve suffered. How might we apply this idea to this time? How might we create similar ways to give and receive compassion and support and to acknowledge the grief, the losses, and the mental health crises experienced by so many this past year?

At the same time, there is much to celebrate in this time of reopening, and the rabbis offer other ways to express gratitude for this moment. In the Talmud (Berachot 58b), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “one who sees a friend for the first time after thirty days recites the Shehechiyanu blessing. After twelve months, one recites ‘Blessed is the One who revives the dead (mechiyei hameitim).’” The sentiment behind this blessing resonates today. After surviving a year of pandemic, we need expressions of joy and gratitude for seeing each other alive again and for feeling our own aliveness in reconnecting to each other.

In addition, the Talmud instructs that a blessing of thanksgiving is offered by those who made it across the sea, those who made it across the desert, those who recovered from illness, and those who were freed from prison. (Berachot 54b) In later centuries, the halachic codes expanded this so that anyone who survived danger should bless what we now call Birkat HaGomel, thanking God for bestowing goodness upon us. How might we collectively offer thanks for making it across the metaphoric sea?

At Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA, where I serve as rabbi, we explored these questions with a team of lay leaders that I assembled for an innovation project that I was leading as part of my Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) Fellowship. Together we designed a series of events called “Rituals for Reflection, Reconnection, and Returning.” As our synagogue building reopens and our members come back together in person after this year of online community, we are gathering, online and in-person, to mourn our losses, celebrate our joys, and reflect on this time of returning.

One event was a communal “Birkat HaGomel,” in which we remembered those in our community who died this year, welcomed and kvelled over the new babies who were born this year, honored our frontline healthcare workers, heard from those in our community who lost loved ones to COVID and from those who survived it. It was an adaptation of the rabbis’ “circling to the left” ritual so that we could bear witness to each other’s experiences and offer support to each other. It was a deeply moving experience for all who participated, giving us a much-needed sacred space to reflect together on this past difficult year and to give thanks for surviving.

Another event planned is a Hanukkat HaBayit, a (re)dedication of our synagogue home. We are marking the return to our building with an afternoon of ritual, music, celebration and community art and tzedakah projects. This ritual will be a moment to express the emotion of Psalm 30, the Song for the (re)dedication of the House: “You turned my mourning into dance; You undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy, that I might sing of Your Presence and not be silent. I thank You always.”

This time of reopening is complex, not only logistically, but emotionally and spiritually, as well. We hope that these rituals for reopening will sanctify our coming back together by allowing us to reflect on this year, to support each other in all that we’ve been through, and to make room for the grief, the joy, and all of the emotions of this complex time.

Rabbi Chai Levy is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and is a fellow in Cohort 4 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI).