Zachary Benjamin | Chief Executive Officer Jewish Long Beach
As I write this column, Erev Pesach is dawning over a world that in many ways feels foreign to us all. If the scores of Passover greetings flooding our e-mail inboxes each day from Jewish organizations around the world are any indication, then it seems that the global network of Jewish communal professionals successfully received the memo requiring us to make public note of how this Passover is different from all preceding Passovers.
Under normal circumstances, the cliché would have quickly grown tiresome. However, within the context of the current reality, it reads more like a news headline, without a shred of irony, than as a mere play on words. Indeed, we find ourselves in times that are exceedingly unusual and unfamiliar to most American Jews.
It is not the mere presence of the virus, or the fact that the shocking has become mundane, that makes this crisis remarkable from a Jewish perspective. What sets this experience apart is the fact that COVID-19 is utterly indiscriminate in selecting its victims. The virus is colorblind, unknowing of religious or cultural dichotomies, and is ignorant of socioeconomic status. The privileged are no doubt better equipped to weather this crisis, with better access to basic resources, medical care, and other critical needs than the less fortunate. However, this natural disaster—and I believe it is important to distinguish that this is indeed a natural disaster—has arguably laid bare more acutely than any other in recent memory the vulnerabilities shared by us all, regardless of race, class, or cultural affiliation.
Often, American Jewish communities are shielded to some extent from the brunt of the impact caused by national and global crises. The socioeconomic success we enjoy as a people, which is disproportionate to our numbers and which has been the source of both immense pride and lethal prejudice, often renders American Jews minimally vulnerable to the ruin wrought by natural, economic, and political disasters.
In this case, however, American Jewish communities have been swept into crisis along with the broader communities to which we belong. Jewish families are no less isolated from each other than families of any other socio-cultural group. American Jews are losing jobs, missing family simchas and life cycle events, seeing friends and family members fall ill, and are absorbing the physical and mental toll of COVID-19’s ravages at rates that at least feel no less devastating than those experienced by the general population.
As is the case in any time of trial, silver linings have appeared, along with reason for immense optimism and renewed faith in the humanitarian instinct to both keep watch over our most vulnerable and care for those with whom we share communal spaces. As a Jewish communal professional, I have been moved by the embodiment I have witnessed of the Talmudic notion, kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh: all Israel is responsible for one another. I have seen congregations, Jewish agencies, Israel advocacy organizations, and other local Jewish institutions act swiftly, decisively, and compassionately to serve Jews in imminent need. I have watched the principles of lovingkindness and tzedakah, which are so central to the Jewish spirit, manifest themselves as spectacular displays of selflessness. The women and men of our Jewish community have redirected resources and in many cases placed themselves at personal risk to ensure that the isolated are well supplied with food and basic needs, that the financially struggling remain safely sheltered, that the mentally and physically ailing find care, and that our children continue to receive education and intellectual stimulation.
I have been humbled by the clear-eyed decisiveness and menschkeit displayed the remarkable board, volunteers, and staff of Jewish Long Beach, who have moved mountains to ensure that our own human, financial, and intellectual resources are directed swiftly to where they are most needed and to where their impact is most significant and sustainable. It has been a privilege to work with our partner organizations and congregations in a collaborative effort driven by the purest definition of our collective mission: to ensure that every Jewish person in our sphere has access not only to essential tangible needs, but to compassion, empathy, and the assurance that their Jewish communal infrastructure is and will remain of dedicated and uninterrupted service.
There is something inherently Jewish about the experience of living in a world ravaged by the effects of COVID-19. This crisis has instilled in all of us—Jews and non-Jews alike—shared traumas, a propensity toward caution and vigilance, and perhaps some new neuroses, both healthy and excessive. The question remains of how the human experience will irrevocably change as we eventually emerge from this slow-motion earthquake that has disrupted our concept of how we interact with each other and our environment. What I firmly believe will not change, however, is the resiliency and adaptability of the human spirit, as well as the sense of purpose with which the Jewish people carry out our obligation to be a light unto each other, our families, and our communities.