Taking Comfort and Finding Strength in Our Most Human Responses to a Crisis

A message from Federation's executive director

By Dara Kaufman

The Berkshires, together with the rest of the world, is still in the midst of this evolving pandemic. I hope that everyone in our community is safe and healthy and finding ways to remain resilient.

As I sat down to write this column, I was not quite sure where to start. My different worlds – as a Federation executive running an organization during a time of crisis, as a parent to an incredibly bored and hormonal teenager, as a daughter to two older parents dealing with health issues, as a supportive wife, friend, and sister – have converged into a very small and blurry space.

The most authentic truth I can share with you from my world right now is that this is hard, but I have faith that it won’t last forever and I have faith that we can and will be stronger in its aftermath.

I believe this because I see on a daily basis how people everywhere, including our Federation and congregations are mobilizing to support those most vulnerable, maintain connection with one another, and find meaning and purpose during these most challenging and uncertain times. I take great comfort and find great strength in our most human responses to this crisis.

I found strength in how quickly people responded to our request for volunteers to help. To deliver meals, to make grocery runs, to pick up medicine, to help someone figure out how to order from Instacart, to figure out how Zoom worked, or just to talk. There was an overwhelming need for many to just talk to one another.

I found strength in our weekly staff check-ins, hearing Federation staff share ideas on how we could pivot quickly to best meet the physical and emotional needs of those most vulnerable in this crisis. Every meeting was filled with stories of individuals whose lives we were touching and perhaps even saving by enabling them to safely shelter in place.

I found strength in watching Ken Conlow and Cindy Bell-Deane, Federation staffers who worked two very long days packaging 125 Seder meals. And I found strength in the smiling eyes and grateful waves, visible through closed car windows, by the folks as they picked up those meals. 

I found strength hearing about the hundreds of conversations that Federation staff, board members, and volunteers have had and continue to have with community members who shared how they were coping in isolation and who wanted to know how were we coping here in the Berkshires? How was our community coping?

I found strength in weekly check-ins with our local rabbis and Federation executives, who were working through similar struggles as they sought to lead their organizations and support their constituents while also balancing working remotely and being there for their own family and friends.

I also found strength at home. Hearing my daughter play guitar and watching the creative videos she made during the many drives and hikes we took together reminded me of a simpler time. I got a lot more hugs from her too. 

The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires continues to operate remotely. Our staff and social worker are working together with over 70 volunteers to continue to serve our community in these new circumstances. We have maintained close and frequent contact with the leadership of our synagogues and organizations. And we have been sharing virtual events – advertised via email, and social media – allowing all of us to connect and learn with our rabbis and our Jewish community.

We are also engaged regularly with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee, and our Israeli beneficiaries, where our recent allocations are providing support to vulnerable Jews in crisis around the world.

The long-term impact of the circumstances we are facing – as individuals, parents, children, employees, business owners, and organizational leaders – is still uncertain.

To help our community during this time, we have established an emergency relief and recovery fund to provide bridge assistance grants and interest-free loans to our Jewish community. If you would like to make a donation to this fund or know someone who needs financial assistance, please visit Federation’s website at jewishberkshires.org/Covid19 to learn more. We will also be making a community tzedakah donation to help meet needs in the broader community.

The unwavering support you have provided and continue to provide via volunteering, community participation, and philanthropy, will make it possible for our local community to work its way through this crisis. I truly believe we will come out the other side of this stronger than ever. Please be vigilant and safe, and please reach out to us if we can assist you in any way.

I leave you with a message that was shared by Rabbi Eric Gurvis during the recent webinar we hosted entitled “As Shaky As a Fiddler On the Roof: Spiritual Tools for a Time of Crisis”:

Faith is Not Certainty (Adapted from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

Faith is not certainty; it is the courage to live with uncertainty. Faith does not mean seeing the world as you would like it to be; it means seeing the world exactly as it is, yet never giving up the hope that we can make it better by the way we live. Faith is the knowledge that we are here for a reason. Faith allows us to take risks and face the future without fear. Faith defeats fear, and gives us the confidence to survive every loss and begin again. Don’t believe that faith is a small thing. It isn’t.

So what do you do if you find yourself in the midst of crisis? How do you survive the trauma and the pain?

There’s one biblical passage that is deeply helpful. It’s the famous, enigmatic story in Genesis 32 in which, at night, Jacob wrestles with an unknown, unnamed adversary: “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” It was this passage that gave the Jewish people their name, Israel, meaning, “One who struggles with God and with man and prevails.” The key phrase is when Jacob says to the stranger, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Within every crisis lies the possibility of blessing. Events that at the time were the most painful, are also those that in retrospect we see most made us grow.

Crisis makes us ask, “Who am I and what really matters to me?” So you have to say to every crisis, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The struggle isn’t easy. Though Jacob was undefeated, he “limped” afterwards. Battles leave scars.

The oldest question in religion is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But there are two ways of asking this question. The first is, “Why has God done this to me?” Never ask this question, because we will never know the answer. But there is another way of asking the question. “Given that this has happened, what can I learn from it?” Asking it this way involves looking forward, not back. “Why did God do this?” is the wrong question. The right one is: “How shall I live my life differently because this has happened?” That is how to deal with crisis. Wrestle with it, refusing to let it go until it blesses you, until you emerge stronger, better or wiser than you were before. To be a Jew is not to accept defeat. That is the meaning of faith.

Dara Kaufman is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires.