COVID-19 story by Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, 2020

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, shares a story about what her work as a rabbi looks like in the time of social distance measures, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This story was recorded as part of the Madison podcast, Inside Stories. To hear the full episode and to subscribe to the podcast, click here:

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  • Identifier: covid19-041
    Narrator Name: Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman
    Interviewer Name: N/A
    Date of Interview: 05/06/2020

    Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman: How do you set up an internet hotspot with your phone? Prop up your laptop so a hundred people can see you on Zoom? And officiate at a funeral where it’s just you, an undertaker, and two gravediggers? How do you convince an elderly congregant to let a volunteer buy her groceries after she’s made herself sick eating spoiled food because she’s too scared to go shopping? How do you marry a couple over Zoom, when they had planned a beautiful weekend that’s now been cancelled? Do you do the legal part on video, and postpone the religious ceremony and the reception? Or do you stand in a park with them, six feet apart, decked out in a mask?

    These are the questions that my colleagues and I discuss when I try to make sense of this crazy world we live in. As a rabbi, I could have never imagined not being able to sit with someone who's grieving, not being able to make a hospital visit, not being able to officiate at a bat mitzvah. In some ways, my work now is similar to my work before COVID-19. I still teach, I do counseling, plan holiday celebrations, write budgets, and work with members of my congregation on social justice issues. In other ways, life has turned upside down.

    It's an adjustment, working at home with my partner, who's also a rabbi, and our two kids. Today, after I took a shower, I walked into my bedroom to get dressed, and only then realized that my partner was in the room, doing a funeral intake on Zoom. That was a close call.

    We're all trying to adapt to this new reality. I've never been so inundated with opportunities for online trainings. Sure, I'm supposed to do some professional development here and there, but there are so many choices right now. There are webinars on effective ways of Zooming with kids, and on counseling youth and elders and wedding couples. There are webinars on ethical decision making around finances and end-of-life issues, and how to help patients navigate a broken healthcare system all alone. I could study what ancient texts could teach us about pandemics and grief and fear, and longing for what we have lost, and having faith in difficult times. At some point it just gets too much.

    A few days ago I co-led a webinar for rabbis on how to plan for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services this coming September. These are the most important Jewish holidays of the year. The sanctuary is always packed. Even Jews who are not that involved in Jewish life or observant of religious traditions will take off work, or celebrate in some way. These holidays require a tremendous amount of preparation. It's hard to imagine a synagogue even existing without devoting major energy to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

    I thought fifteen rabbis would show up. Over fifty came. We were an anxious bunch. Can we congregate at all over these holidays, even in small groups? And if so, how do you exactly sit six feet apart? How do you keep the bathrooms clean? Do you sanitize the prayer books? How do you correct the Torah-reader's mistakes if you can't stand inches from him? There's no shofar blowing indoors? And apparently group singing can launch droplets farther than six feet, and is deemed to be not safe. So we're going to ask people to sit spaced out in the room, wearing masks, hearing all the prayers they grew up with, but remain silent? What is that?

    But the alternative, to think that I would stand in an empty sanctuary, live streaming almost eighteen hours of services over these days? Or do it on Zoom, where I can see little boxes of congregants? That's almost worse! Prayer is supposed to be a communal spiritual experience; how, exactly, do you pray to a computer screen? It feels so performative. The last time I led services on Zoom, all I noticed was that I needed a haircut.

    My colleagues are pretty creative, and after the shock of realizing how different Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would be, we realized we had other options, and we would force ourselves to try new things. We could move outside for certain socially-distanced gatherings, and have small discussion groups virtually or in person. We could pre-record my sermons, live stream shorter services, and invite interesting speakers. We could still create space for people to share and cry and celebrate.

    Living through a pandemic is challenging, and I'm still learning how to move through my own anxiety so I can hold the anxiety of others. I'm still learning to mourn the loss of in-person community. And, like everyone, I'm still learning to be flexible and to live with tremendous uncertainty.