Rabbi Cassi Kail
As I write this article, I can’t help but think of the old Yiddish phrase Mann Tacht, Un Gott Lacht, “Man plans and God laughs.” As the past few weeks have demonstrated, the future is not always what we envision. We had been prepared for a wonderful April. A brilliant young girl was to become a bat mitzvah. We were gearing up for a community seder, a Taus lecture, a Salon concert, and even a celebration in honor of Marthe Cohn’s 100th birthday.
As the seriousness of COVID-19 became increasingly apparent, we recognized that this month would not be business as usual. So, we tossed out half our newsletter and decided to begin again (Thank you to our editor, Mary Cohn, for your patience and dedication!). As important as it was to gather, more important still was the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving the safety and health of human beings. We had to postpone all events that could put people’s lives at risk.
Suddenly we were a Jewish community that could not come together within synagogue walls, or within any walls at all. Overnight, our interactions were relegated to telephones and computers. For a short time, at least, our community would need to undergo a dramatic shift. Throughout Jewish history, there have been moments of large disruptive change. Sometimes the changes have been positive, such as the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Other times, it has been sparked by hardship, such as the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Rather than throwing up our hands, our people have responded to each change in circumstance with innovation. This resilience and creativity have sustained us throughout the years, allowing us to adapt and thrive as a people. When the temple was destroyed, we learned that community was much stronger than any building, and that our connection to God was personal and ever-accessible. When the state of Israel was founded, we birthed new life into the Hebrew language, facilitated an explosion of Jewish culture, and fostered a diverse Jewish community once more.
Today, as we mourn the temporary loss of physical closeness, and the use of our temple building, we reach out to one another by phone, Facebook, and ZOOM. We form a virtual home for prayer and support, laughter and study, meditation and introspection.
Much like our fore-bearers, we find unexpected blessings along the way. We partnered with the interfaith community in order to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society. Our Social Action Committee rallied together to organize a weekly lunch for homeless people in San Pedro. People who are only able to travel to temple a few times per year are becoming regulars on ZOOM calls. Attendance at Torah study, Coffee Talk, and other Temple Beth El staples has gone up. New friendships are emerging. I’ve witnessed teenagers and 80 year-olds offering one another support, adults offering mentorship to the next generation, and creativity flowing through personal prayers, writings, and artwork. People who had been members for 40-plus years met one another online for the very first time. As one person said, “For a virtual community, what we’re doing feels surprisingly intimate.” It hasn’t always been comfortable, and there is surely more work to be done, but I am proud of the ways in which we have risen to the occasion.
Like all of you, I long for the day when we can exchange hugs and gather in person once more. Even then, I don’t want to let go of the intimate, profound ways in which technology has brought us together. We are a strong community within our Temple walls. We are just as strong inside our virtual ones. Man plans and God laughs, and sometimes along the way we find hidden blessings.