Observing From Home - Sheltering in Place, Finding Sacred Space

By Jodie Friedman / Special to the BJV

Some components of Jewish observance different from my own have always been at least a little daunting. To truly abstain from technology for 25 consecutive hours every week. To steer clear of a cheeseburger. Simply put, this is not, nor has ever been, part of my Judaism.

But suddenly, all our familiar routines and systems were upended in a matter of days due to COVID-19. In the weeks since, a sort of relief has bubbled to the surface on Fridays for me. While I don’t feel the need to disconnect from the things that keep me sane (yet also invalidate my sanity) in an effort to connect inward, for the first time I’ve been feeling pangs of guilt for keeping my phone on through Shabbat. My typical Friday night ritual – which might include drinking wine on the couch and decompressing from the week with my roommate – is no longer a clear contrast to the rest of the week. As I type this from my couch, with a can of seltzer, I’m finding out just how much I rely on Shabbat. And Havdalah.

There is a specific trauma response that I feel in this current iteration of the world. I’ve never lived through something like “this,” but an internal compass is guiding me out of anxiety and into confidence. Something tells me that no generation of Jews has made it through a period of time without adversity. I grew up with tail-end Baby Boomer parents telling me I have “no idea what it was like” for them. But I can think back to larger family gatherings where I saw my own parents admonished by older members of our family (mostly their own siblings), who would tell them that they really had “no idea what it was like.”

Coming up to Passover, jokes and memes shared on social media captured the pure irony of the way this year’s Pesach prep mirrored parts of the Exodus. Somehow the humor emboldened me in my performance of Passover rituals. It was as if a switch flipped when I realized that this Pesach would be the first time I would be able to host my dearest friends, now living across the country, for a virtual second night Seder. Many of the folks who would be coming already knew one another, some only knew me. Some are Jewish and some are not. A few are staying with family and some are entirely on their own. Hosting a virtual Seder really felt like my moment to gather the wandering Jews,

Part of my job at Hevreh is creating in-person programs with lots of moving parts, and since I was unable to do that, the program-planning side of my mind at first went a little meshuggah, but then swung around with an energy that had petered out during my weeks of confinement. I love Passover, and after last year’s successful Hevreh Hipsters Seder, I was looking forward to doing a similar sort of gathering, this time online. I sent out a Hagaddah that a friend had made, my mother’s charoset recipe (we use Fuji or Gala apples), and a list of pop culture viewing, listening, and reading materials that would help participants better understand this chag (holiday).

About 15 friends from California to Virginia showed up, their preparation ranging from a full Seder setup and meal to just a phone and bottle of wine. Our entire Seder went “speedily” and was just over an hour, but was full of symbolism and tradition, jokes and love. I was touched by the sincerity and gratitude my friends displayed. So many of their practices are hinged upon the family traditions, and without the typical pressure to observe with their families this year, they had not made plans. Everyone was so happy to have something to do, schvach or otherwise.

When the call was over and the leftovers had been packed up, somehow it felt like Passover had ended. Seven days of Pesach still remained, but more chag just did not feel special or exciting. I fell back into a gloomy “nothing new” attitude. But the next day was Shabbat, so I lit candles with friends over FaceTime. And the next day I schmoozed with some of our teens for what has become a weekly Havdalah hangout. As I stake my sanity in finding something to look forward to each day, I am reassured that no matter what, there will soon be Shabbat.

We are so fortunate to have the benchmarks of chagim to get excited about, and help us keep a sense of time. As the days melted into weeks and then a full month living in social isolation, by counting the Omer I have found solace in the routine that Jewish tradition provides for us. We think of the Exodus as an impossible feat – spending 40 years just trying to get to a place, seemingly without proof that we will ever arrive. As our 2020 Exodus is the opposite of physical wandering, the psychological pang of wanting to arrive someplace new and better is real and tangible. Soon our people will experience freedom from a bondage we did not know we were prepared for, and be free to do what we do so well – gather, rejoice, and reflect.

From my Hevreh to yours – I wish for safety and solace through these unprecedented times, and I look forward to the day we can re-enter our sacred spaces in comfort and connection.

Jodie Friedman is program associate at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.

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