By Rabbi Joshua Mikutis
In one room, I am speaking with colleagues about virtual options as we shift from a travel based, experiential enterprise into a greater digital reality; in the other, my wife, Anna, counsels summer camp executives as they navigate the complexities of this moment. All of this takes place in an 800-square-foot Brooklyn apartment over one quasi-reliable internet connection. This is life for two Jewish professionals in the age of the coronavirus.
It’s hard for us to fathom this new world we are waking up to. Just a few weeks ago, we feverishly danced the hora with some of her best friends from college. The virus was on our minds, but our world felt stable and consistent. When we woke up on a recent Monday morning, it seemed that New York too had woken up to this new reality.
But, the work must go on. We work for JDC Entwine, the young adult platform of JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization, and UJA-Federation of New York, two of the largest legacy organizations in the Jewish world, on whom thousands of people depend for care and religious, social, spiritual, and physical connection. We can’t zone out into the abyss of Netflix or spiral into the echo chamber of social media hysteria – at least not during our nine-to-five – but have to figure out how to reposition ourselves in a world increasingly unrecognizable from the day before.
There are certainly challenges that we experience – how many times can your meal involve black beans? – and being sequestered brings its own boredom. And we recognize our incredible privilege – health insurance, able-bodied-ness, a secure job that allows us to work-from-home, and the list goes on.
But at this moment, I’m struck by the distinct pleasure of getting to spend “professional” time with Anna when otherwise we would be at work – and most significantly, getting to see her shine. I’m amazed by her sensitivity working with those who are facing challenges and uncertainty when it comes to facing the future. She directs meetings with clarity and authority but always letting people know that she is their ally. At this time of unprecedented events, it gives me daily faith that our institutions are full of motivated, energized people who will steer us through.
We both have the luxury of working with other such people who cheer us on and cheer us up. The Jewish community has no shortage of professionals who are working tirelessly to make some meaning out of this madness.
During all of this, I’ve been trying to keep up with my Daf Yomi study, and I was struck by a recent story of Hananya ben Hizkiya, who is noted for being “remembered for good.” The Rabbis wonder what he did to deserve this title. They respond that if it were not for him, the prophetic book of Ezekiel would have been banned because of its seemingly heretical content.
To prevent this from happening, he isolated himself in the upper story of his house as sages brought him three hundred jugs of oil so he would have sufficient light. By the end of his time in what we might now call “shelter in place ,” he had interpreted all of the verses so that its unorthodox content would be understood as not heretical at all.
Today, I feel like Anna and I, and thousands of others just like us, are mimicking Hananya ben Hizkiya. We’re on the second floor of our Brooklyn apartment building, not with 300 jugs of oil but approximately 300 cans of black beans – and not engaged in rabbinic interpretation, but trying to make heads and tails of the world that we are in. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we will keep forging ahead, trying to bring community and connection to a world defined by fractures and separation.
Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, a graduate of HUC-JIR, is JDC Entwine’s Jewish Learning Designer.