For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Brad Levenberg—Rabbi at Temple Sinai—describes the virus’s impact on his congregation and his hope for the future. (Levenberg was interviewed on March 20.)
We’re hearing a lot from people from all different ages who are looking for hope and affirmation during this time. When the airwaves are filled with so much negativity about what the pandemic is going to mean and how it’s going to get worse before it gets better, we have people who are processing it in different ways. We have seniors who are utterly terrified about going out in public. “Death by handshake” is something I’ve heard from a few of them.
One member yesterday was in a difficult place. After we spoke for a while I realized we weren’t making much inroads. I asked her to tell me about 9/11. “How did you cope?” I asked. She said, “We all were gathered around the TV, crying with each other.” So many of us have relied on physical gatherings to provide comfort when we’re going through difficult times. When it’s joyous we gather to celebrate. In the days after 9/11, we gathered in homes and apartments to watch the news. Now, this kind of support is all being challenged. We need to find other ways.
I am blessed with a family that’s very understanding and a clergy team that’s dividing a lot of these phone calls and responses. We’re also keen on mindfulness practice. We take the important moments to uplift each other when we can. If I’m feeling the burden or stress of this moment, I know others are too. The nature of people in clergy is when we’re feeling something to imagine others too and to provide healing for ourselves and others.
Congregants are composing poems to respond to this moment. For me, there’s an overall belief that’s afforded in Jewish tradition that tomorrow can always be better than today. The idea of hope is central the Jewish experience. For people with as rich a history as we have of going through traumatic moments, we can also know that these moments cannot last forever and better days are ahead. This too shall pass.
This is a time when you don’t have to put your life on the line to be a hero. You’re a hero when you pay your yard people to not show up. When you pay your cleaning people to stay home. When you send a gift card to teachers who are learning new tools to teach your children. These are all heroic measures. When people say, I don’t know what I can do to help, we all have resources, and we can all do something that’s in our power.
I hope we have a renewed understanding of those who are more marginalized than we are and of the privileges we claim by default. Maybe that sense will be awakened in people who are seeing that there are a lot of people who are worse off, who are seeing that they’ve milked the existing system for their families at the expense of others.
Interview edited for length and clarity.