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Message to Reform Communities about easing lockdown

by Senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

We are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. The past few months have been difficult for our society and acutely difficult for the Jewish community. Being physically together is core to our DNA. Seeing family and friends, hosting, supporting those going through sickness or bereavement, celebrating together — so many vital aspects of what it means to be Jewish have been put on hold by the physical distancing needed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

So many of us are yearning to return to our familiar ways. The recent announcements easing some restrictions in England and identifying a path forward may feel like the beginning of the end. I wish it was easy. But it’s not.

We have made the toughest decisions possible to stem the tide and save lives. Our community must continue to show the utmost caution now to avoid our efforts going to waste.

Yes, the temptation is going to come to return to our synagogues, to our community centres and to our families. However, as a community, we must be even more vigilant than society as a whole and even more careful about our return to normality. We already know that the toll this virus has placed on our community — the number of lives we have tragically lost — has fallen heavier on us than on some others. We are, for many reasons, a group at an increased risk. With that comes an increased responsibility on us.

We have already risen to this challenge. We have taken essential but heartbreaking decisions: to shut our synagogues physically, to stop visiting the sick and, most difficult of all, to stop attending funerals and shivah houses. This crisis has also seen us adapt with the most positive and innovative solutions to maintain our Jewish way of life in a different form. Suddenly we are all tech-whizzes, with services, education and children’s programming from across the Jewish world available at the touch of a button. As ever, Judaism’s strength is its ability to innovate and survive.

We cannot throw our efforts away now.

This means confronting another festival, Shavuot, distanced from one another. Realistically, it even means facing the idea that we may not be physically together for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September, and for our communities to start planning for what that might mean. The speed of innovation shown across our communities has been breathtaking, and whilst our physical doors may be shut, our communities are very much open and facilitating a full Jewish life. For Shavuot, there are a plethora of opportunities to pray, learn and join together virtually with our communities. I hope as many people as possible take advantage of these spaces as thousands have been doing in recent weeks. This virus is not going to vanish quickly. We will one day return to our usual routines, but right now we must take every precaution.

Our clergy and lay leaders are showing the leadership we need and are thinking ahead. In partnership with the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors, we are producing guiding principles. These are based on Reform Jewish values and will underpin the decisions we make as to when we do reopen. They ensure that our actions reflect the needs of our communities and challenge whether reopening synagogue buildings whilst some members are forced to watch from afar is right and fair. When we come together again physically, we want to be a community inclusive of everyone, knowing we each played our part in keeping one another safe.

We recently finished reading the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) in the Torah. Customarily we mark this occasion by saying “Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazek” — be strong and strengthen one another. Well, that is what we have done: we have been strengthening one another for weeks now. Even at a distance, we must continue being a source of strength for one another for as long as is needed. No matter wherever we are physically, spiritually our communities will continue to flourish.

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