Merriam Webster defines the noun “normal” as “a form or state regarded as the norm; STANDARD”. Today, it is common to hear people speak of “the new normal” when referring to our “pandemically” changed lives, suggesting that our way of life has been forever transformed into a new “state regarded as the norm”. I reject this notion. The term “the new normal” when invoked to describe the impact of the Carona virus on our daily lives suggests that it has affected a permanent change to our lives; that our lives will never return to what they once were. I am unwilling to concede such a “defeat”. Rather, I prefer to view the pandemic as causing temporary changes to my daily routine which the dictionary defines as “a regular course of procedure”.
So why is this important? What difference does it make if it is a new normal or a new routine? To me, it is the difference between hope and despair; between confronting the pandemic’s challenges and buckling under them; between making wise short term decisions that protect the future and making decisions that consider only the present and ignore future consequences. It is the difference between looking beyond today’s trying times to a brighter day and being mired in the current stresses and difficulties.
I prefer to look to the day when my life returns to normal. In the meantime, I will just have to continue to adjust my routine to accommodate the pandemic.
Hard to believe but we are in our sixth month of the Corona virus pandemic and we have a long way to go. While I was home during under the shelter in place directive I would often take a brisk morning walk in a beautiful park and botanical garden near where I live. Frequently, I took a camera with me to capture spring images. One image in particular from that period has become for me a source of inspiration. It is an image of a section of the park with a brilliant morning blue sky punctuated by white upward streaks across the sky. The image reminds me to keep looking upward and to focus on the positive and the bright future that awaits us all.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020
As the pandemic rages on the negative financial and operational effects on important community institutions grows more acute with every day that passes. Our schools and synagogues have been especially hard hit by the operational limitations required in a Covid-19 world. They are struggling to service their constituencies in a relevant and effective manner. Additionally, their regular sources of income have been undermined and compromised The impending new school year and High Holidays represent challenges to the very survival of these critically important institutions.
Two examples are sufficient to underscore the threats facing our (and many other) communities. First, governmental directives prohibiting private schools from conducting in person classes in the fall has sent shock waves through our educational institutions many of which were planning to begin with in school programs. Second, the restrictions on public gatherings and and particularly religious services means that a large segment of the community will not only continue to be unable to attend regular services but even more significantly, will be unable to attend High Holiday services. Each of these challenges represent not only short term operational and financial obstacles but more importantly threaten the continued relevance of and very existence of our schools and synagogues.
These challenges are real and will not disappear any time soon. The question is how will we respond? Will we take a short term personal view and make individual decisions accordingly? Or will we take a long term broader view and act boldly to preserve the long term future of our institutions? In considering our response we must acknowledge that the pandemic does not allow for easy answers or simple solutions. To the contrary, every decision is met with contradictions and opposing interests. To over simplify – what is good for public health is bad for the economy. Limiting the health risks in a school environment creates material educational challenges. Observing the limits on the number of worshipers at a service necessarily excludes the majority of synagogue members. There are no perfect answers in a pandemic.
But I submit there is a clear choice. We can and must act boldly, courageously, and unselfishly to preserve our institutions. We must join forces as a community, keep our children enrolled in our schools, pay tuition, and support our educators to make the remote educational platform as successful as possible. We must help those households in financial distress and those which require devices or bandwidth. Synagogue members should continue to purchase High Holiday seats and make annual contributions as they would normally do even though they may be unable to attend services.
In short, we need to quickly come together and protect and sustain our community institutions for the day after the pandemic.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020
The news media has been reporting for several weeks what seem like constant reports of rising rates of infection, governmental inability/refusal to devise an effective strategy to control the spread of the virus, increased economic hardship across large swaths of the population, congressional deadlock in enacting a further economic stimulus plan, anger among citizens, civil unrest, and even violent protests. At a time in human history when unity of purpose and action is needed most, citizens and their government are at odds. There is a highly acerbic tone to the discourse; one that is not only often disrespectful but strident, one that in some quarters conveys hatred.
This week Jews the world over will observe Tisha Baav, a national day of mourning over the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem in 587 BCE and 70 CE. A fundamental lesson of this sacred day is most appropriate for our time. The Talmud teaches that the first Temple was destroyed because the Jewish People violated the three cardinal sins: idol worship, promiscuity, and bloodshed. The second Temple, however, explains this Talmudic passage, was destroyed not because of a violation of a religious practice but rather because of sinat chinom, wanton hatred, among the Jewish People. The Talmud concludes, “This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three cardinal sins.”
In another passage the Talmud relates a troubling story of a Jew who hated another Jew by the name of Kamtza. This same man was friends with another gentleman by the name of Bar Kamtza. The Talmud tells of a large party which the man threw to which he invited many guests and rabbis. Lo and behold, and much to his chagrin, when he arrived at his party he found his enemy Kamtza had been invited by mistake and was sitting among the invited guests. The host, overcome by his hatred for Kamtza, refused to allow him to remain. In front of all the assembled guests he demanded that Kamtza leave immediately. He refused Kamtza’s pleas that he not be disgraced in such a cruel fashion, but his pleas were dismissed. Kamtza was banished from the party as the rabbis watched silently and without objection. This painful incident, explains the Talmud, was the cause for the Almighty’s destruction of the Temple.
This Tisha Baav I will not be able to attend services in my own synagogue. I will commemorate Tisha Baav at home by myself. Thus, during this year of the pandemic Tisha Baav will be very personal. Tisha Baav’s lessons should also be highly relevant this year for all of us.
We are living in a moment in time when all of mankind, literally, is confronted with a common enemy, when people of all types need to unite, to help one another cope, to care for those in need, to protect each other from infection, to provide support to those in need of financial assistance, and to show an extra measure of compassion and understanding. Tisha Baav during the pandemic, however, is coming at a time of increasing conflict and discord. Conflicts over masks, conflicts over pandemic restrictions, conflicts over economic stimulus programs, over politics, over discrimination, conflicts and more conflicts. Everywhere you turn, whether Chicago or Portland, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, sinat chinom, wanton hatred, reigns.
We all should know better. We should know that such discord brings destruction. We should know that unity brings redemption. We know better. We should act better, as well.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020
Over the last two weeks I have been involved in discussions about how best to advance two organizations to a return to their pre-pandemic modes of operation. Specifically, I have been an active participant in the transition planing at SLS and at Sulam.
After three and a half months of remote, virtual operations our law firm needs to transition back to full time operations at our offices in order to increase our productivity and efficiency and to gain back the full benefits of cohesive team work. Simply put, we are stronger and better when we are all together. Fortunately, our offices are located in historical townhouses which has made it much easier to prepare our space to be Covid-19 safe. The process of bringing all of our personnel back to full time office work, however, has proved to be a more challenging task.
Deciding whether Sulam, a special education program, should attempt to begin the new school year with in-school instruction or utilize a virtual platform as it did when schools were ordered closed in March, has also been a difficult exercise. Issues of health and safety of students, teachers and staff, practicality of maintaining CDC guidelines in a school setting, impact on families and parents, and the uncertainty of what the future will bring in terms of infection rates are just a few of the complicating factors that make Sulam’s educational decisions so very difficult.
The transitions of both the law firm and school have presented conflicting interests. On the one hand – in the case of SLS – the need to maximize operational efficiency and profitability and – in the case of Sulam – the need to deliver an effective, excellent educational program – conflict to some extent with issues of health, safety, child care, transportation, and fear of infection. In going through this process I found that some concerns raised by individuals resonated with me and others did not. The process, however, did clearly demonstrate that the pandemic does not afford many easy answers. Covid-19 has created a world of contradictions. What is good for one’s health is bad for the economy. What is necessary for sustaining a business and keeping people employed may conflict with an employee’s personal or family needs. Personal health fears, concerns, and stress impact everyone and further complicate decision making.
These recent experiences further informed my thinking and approach in another way. Beyond the pandemic basics – social distancing, personal hygiene, masks – there are few givens or absolutes; there are few clear answers, very few right and wrong choices and decisions. There is, however, a constant level of personal concern and stress which impacts us all. Decision making during this pandemic requires one to “step back”, to listen better and harder, to encourage rather than demand, to balance the need to return to the pre-pandemic “normal” with the search for a workable “new normal” for the duration of the pandemic. It is a work in process.
In prior posts I have expressed concerns with the pandemic’s effects on the economy in general and on our law firm in particular. Four months into life under Covid-19, I am finally recognizing how important it is to look back and in the present and be thankful for how fortunate I and our law firm have been to date, rather then to stress over what will be in the days to come. Since the pandemic became reality in March, we successfully transitioned “over night” to remote operations and functioned in a fully remote mode for three months. Since June we have begun the process of returning to our offices and are well under way to resuming work in our warm (and safe) collaborative office as we have for the past thirty years. Most importantly, we have, so far, managed to keep everyone employed with no lay offs or furloughs.
My wife was so right when she recently took me to task for obsessing about the uncertainties of the future rather than acknowledging with much appreciation the blessings of the past and the present. Yes, these are stressful times. But that does not give license to ignore the good.
I have been blessed for thirty years to practice law with an amazing group of professionals. Together we are and will continue to confront the Covid-19 challenge and see better days.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020
The following news report tells the story of a community which suffered greatly during the “first wave” of Covid-19 and how it has responded to help us all.
A COVID-19 ‘mitzvah’: Orthodox Jews donate blood plasma by the thousands
One Saturday in mid-April, a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders held a conference call with a Minnesota doctor as they grappled with spiking coronavirus cases in their New York area communities.
Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic is leading a nationwide study on the use of blood plasma to treat patients with severe COVID-19. On the call that afternoon, he told the religious leaders he needed something for his research: more blood from people who have survived the virus.
“Do what you can,” Joyner said, according to Yehudah Kaszirer of Lakewood, New Jersey, one of the rabbis on the call.
About 36 hours later, Kaszirer boarded a private jet with roughly 1,000 vials of blood stored in coolers. It had been drawn from members of the community through a blood drive organized with military-like speed.
The blood would be taken to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and tested for antibodies.
“It felt like being on a godly mission,” Kaszirer said.
And, as it turned out, a very successful one. Roughly 60 percent of the plasma samples were found to contain antibodies.
Since that overnight flight, Orthodox Jews in Kaszirer’s community and others across the country have provided an extraordinary quantity of antibody-rich plasma for the U.S. government supported COVID-19 expanded access program, accounting for roughly half of the supply used to treat 34,000 people, Joyner said.
“There’s no way we’d be able to treat so many people without them,” he told NBC News. “They were the straw that serves the drink in a lot of ways.”
The role Orthodox Jews have played in contributing to a promising but yet unproven coronavirus treatment has garnered far less attention than the incidents of community members flouting social distancing guidelines.
Police broke up several large gatherings in Lakewood during the month of April, resulting in criminal charges for violating quarantine orders. Near the end of the month, thousands of Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn gathered for the funeral of a beloved rabbi. And some in the Orthodox community made headlines again last month by breaking into a closed playground in Brooklyn, with few masks and no social distancing
Dr. Israel Zyskind, a pediatrician in a Brooklyn neighborhood with a high concentration of Hasidic Jews, said the vast majority heeded the warnings to remain indoors. He said the virus spread rapidly during the Purim holiday in early March.
“When Purim was around, we didn’t know anything about social distancing, about mask wearing,” Zyskind, who practices in Borough Park, said. “Nobody wore masks. Nobody knew to stay indoors and not be with your families … There were very few cases in the United States.”
Borough Park was especially hard hit by the virus. The community has the fourth largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city and the highest in the borough of Brooklyn, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The latest figures show 226 confirmed deaths in Borough Park, meaning there have been 243 deaths per 100,000 residents in the neighborhood.
Other factors also likely contributed to the rapid spread of the virus within Orthodox communities in the Northeast. In places like Borough Park, Zyskind said, many families have six to eight children and live in small apartments in tightly-packed buildings.
The communities are insular and some tend to maintain an old-world way of life. Many families, Zyskind said, still live without televisions or computers.
Once the full scale of the crisis became clear, his community and others got the chance to turn the high infection rates into something positive.
“Because we were ravaged by COVID so early on, we recognized that we had the opportunity to give back to the scientific community and to our fellow brothers who are suffering,” Zyskind said.
“We don’t just care about ourselves,” he added. “We care about everyone, and we will do what we can.”
Last week I was taken to task for my recent posts which emphasized concerns and worries. I was challenged to write about the good; the things that I am thankful for during these trying times. The challenge made me think: While there is much to be concerned and worried about, isn’t my critic correct? Shouldn’t I also be acknowledging the positive and not dwell on the negative? As I went through the week I not only considered this challenge in terns of this blog but more fundamentally in terms of my state of mind. Thinking about what I would write reminded me that getting through the more difficult times in life is all about attitude. A positive attitude keeps one healthy and makes it possible to confront life’s difficulties and crises. Dwelling on the negative just brings one down. So today, I begin a weekly post series about the positive, about those things, large and small, that I am and should be thankful for – especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
First and foremost, I am thankful for my family and that, with G-d’s help, we are weathering the Corona virus storm and as the images below demonstrate even finding safe ways to spend time together.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020
Teachers hold a special place in my heart. My mother was a lifelong teacher and I am proud that both of my daughters are extraordinary teachers. The following is a recently published article, written by my daughter Tamar Volosov, in which she discusses the challenges faced by teachers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Making Lemonade with No Lemons: A Teacher’s Perspective on the Return to School
By Tamar Volosov
Today ended my 10th year of teaching. There is no need to discuss the strangeness, the uncharted territory of teaching I, every teacher, and frankly, every human visited this past year. It would be beating a dead horse.
Every teacher I have spoken to has a Carona related tale to share. A funny story of a Zoom “mishap,” a moment of sadness when a student’s family member was ill, or that breakthrough moment when you finally reached a struggling student – made even sweeter because it was through a computer screen.
As usual, our last two days of meetings were a jump start to next year’s planning. But this planning was anything but usual. It consisted of talks of virtual versus in-person teaching, isolated small group pods, and protocols of social distancing and PPE.
Teaching is a second career for me. I have spent much of the past ten years honing my craft, trying to make up for the lost time. I worked for my master’s in education. earned various certifications, and spent numerous hours doing professional development. All done in pursuit of excellence and to ensure I am on the cusp of best practice. Learning and staying current on educational trends has been a priority, making sure my lessons are multi-sensory, engaging, and child-centered.
It is well known that young children learn through action, play, and their senses. And I am not just referring to preschool-aged children, this goes well into the primary and elementary ages as well.
It is the reason our swift shift to virtual learning was frightening. Learning a new platform, engaging students, implementing movement and sensory experiences was a challenge. Yet, overall we did it. And we did it pretty well. We made lemonade out of lemons.
But how do you make lemonade when you don’t even have any lemons?
As I sat in front of my computer these past 2 days, in meeting after meeting, I could not help but feel as if I, and my fellow colleagues, are being asked to complete an impossible task. Make lemonade … without lemons, sugar, or water.
A return to our school building and face-to-face teaching is what I and every teacher wants. But the protocols, rules, and guidelines being discussed seem to contradict everything I know to be true about young children, their needs, and how they learn.
It is well known that in order for a child to be successful or even available to learn, their basic needs must be met. It’s one of the many reasons schools offer free meals for students. Children with empty bellies or tired eyes simply are not available and thus not able to learn.
But even more basic than a good night’s sleep, or even a full stomach, is a child’s need to feel safe. They need to feel secure, protected, and comfortable in their classroom.
So while limiting a student’s social network to their own small pod will be difficult, implementing sensory experiences through layers of PPE challenging, and loss of engaging special programming is a bit sad, I can jump on board and adjust to this new normal. I can make lemonade out of lemons.
But the protocols discussed in my meetings; students maintaining constant social distance within pods, the inability to openly share classroom materials, and ensuring students remain within a small personal radius, is not only forgoing best practice, it is not even meeting a child’s most basic needs. It is asking me to do the impossible. I simply cannot make lemonade without any lemons.
All I need is a lemon or two; a classroom model that will provide a safe and comfortable environment for my young learners – even if it lacks the bells and whistles of best practice; With just a lemon, I know I could improvise. It won’t be my typical recipe for lemonade, but I bet with the effort and love it just might taste sweeter.
Tamar Volosov is an Elementary school teacher at the Berman Hebrew Academy. She lives in Silver Spring with her husband and three children.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020