by Rabbi Marisa Elana James and Regina Linder
Plague in context
“However, if G-D’s instructions are your aims, and you repeat them all the time, you will be firmly rooted…” —Michael Goldstein, after Psalm 1.
In the first moments of COVID lockdown, the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) community received this message from its trusted leader of 30 years, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum:
The CBST community knows what it takes to live through a plague. Love and compassion and support are at the center of survival. Remember to be kind and generous while being cautious and vigilant about staying healthy and keeping others safe. We will continue being a powerful spiritual community of resistance and love. May the Holy One surround you and your loved ones and give you strength and comfort as we face the uncertainty of the times we are in. Be the reason people have faith in the goodness of others.
Rabbi Kleinbaum invokes the alarming history of AIDS, even as she offers reassurance that the skills and values we acquired then would provide the path to survival now.
During the Passover season, a time filled with imagery of liberation and hope, we explore how these strategies impacted a unique faith community. Grateful for the diminished force of the disease, we take this hiatus to explore the spiritual impact of our response. Too early for real perspective, we probe our tradition as well as the words of our leaders and congregants.
Founded 50 years ago by a few committed Jews no longer willing to choose between their faith and their homosexuality, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the LGBTQ+ Synagogue of NYC, is now an intergenerational community of 1300 members, and a larger affiliated congregation of thousands. We represent every gender and sexual orientation, and include participants worldwide. CBST is known today among Jewish and LGBTQ+ organizations as a community dedicated to fighting intolerance, racism, violence and injustice.
The first ten years of CBST’s existence were full of promise, with post-Stonewall excitement and growth, leading to a wealth of gay and lesbian organizing in the 1970s. When the AIDS crisis hit, approximately one-third of the community was lost, including a significant portion of leadership, and the whole organization could have been swept away. How did we survive? And how did we emerge stronger? The lessons we learned then became the source of our ability to face another pandemic, decades later.
When we experience world-changing events that result in major loss, we often use the words “before” and “after.” This is the story of two of those events, and how they impacted CBST.
Tools for management
“I’m gonna go crazy if I don’t think you are listening to me. But why should you listen? What have I done to save you, really? Signed a few petitions.” —Monica Raymond, after Psalm 28.
Migration to digital format of all religious services, adult and children’s education, pastoral counseling (including emergency intervention), social justice programming (including the weekly Ark Immigration Clinic) was immediate, as it was for thousands of institutions. Monthly Town Halls provided education and connection, and daily staff meetings assured fully informed status, and check-in for institutional caretakers. What we could not envision was the forceful impact of screen content on a community at risk and deeply fearful. “Lifeline” remains its most frequent descriptor.
Sharon Golub developed the role of online gabbai, greeter and liturgy guide. The title refers to the traditional role of text watcher, when scripture is read publically in the synagogue. A steadfast friend to the most isolated in our community, Sharon is indispensable to hundreds who remain virtual attenders of Sabbath and holiday services. She says: “I love our online community…it is multi-dimensional, diverse and vibrant. It thrives because of the people who are a part of it.”
Three new initiatives, each implemented upon shutdown, helped sustain the community:
- Connectors Network. 88 leaders and volunteers were assigned 10 households each, to establish and maintain weekly contact during the emergency. Conducted by phone, text, video chat, or any means available, these contacts helped to provide feedback to clergy, neutralize isolation, and in one case, diagnose an ongoing stroke. Enduring friendships are common.
- Psalms Class. Study of The Book of Psalms, a collection of 150 liturgical poems, a core holy text to the Abrahamic faiths, is a traditional Jewish practice in times of peril. Rabbi Kleinbaum’s Psalms class, (4 mornings/week, March ’20-Sept ’21/~80 students/session) reflected the full range of religious and Hebrew knowledge, and reached across the globe. Intense text study and discussion was followed by students creating their own interpretive works in writing, art or music, comprising a document that will remain in the historical record of CBST. Excerpts from a few contributions are here included.
- Science/Medical Team. A small group of volunteer physicians and scientists advise the Board and Clergy on COVID health and safety, and educate the community. Its first recommendation, to hold Sabbath services online (3/13/20), averted spread from two then-undiagnosable cases among beloved staff members. We share reflections of two participants:
“The advisory group culled experience from pediatric to geriatric care, epidemiology and basic science to community and hospital-based care. While we understood how to navigate the data and emerging evidence, we also knew how much we did not know, and how often local, state and federal guidelines were contradictory. Determined to help the synagogue leadership make difficult decisions to balance safety with spiritual access and community socialization, we worked to avoid hasty decisions we would soon regret due to the unpredictable nature of the virus. The Torah service was a key example of this delicate balance. Public reading from the scroll is a joyful and solemn activity for the community, albeit one that brings worshippers physically close to each other.” —Neal Hoffman.
“After what seemed to me a ponderous on-line lesson in COVID testing, a message from a congregant stated she could not wait to phone her beloved grandma and explain the difference between PCR and rapid antigen testing.” —Regina Linder
Invoking our tradition
“Our Rav unrolls the scrolls searching for words to calm the crying and curse the invaders…” —Peter Klein, after Psalm 9.
In the biblical story of the Flood, in the book of Genesis, Noah is told that disaster is approaching, and how to save himself. He and his family ride out the flood in the Ark, and afterwards they emerge into a new world, permanently transformed. Noah and his family have to transform themselves to find a way forward.
Rabbi Kleinbaum regularly speaks of CBST as an ark, a community of people who hold each other up and care for each other as we navigate many different kinds of floods that wash over and threaten us. Repeatedly, since the height of the AIDS crisis and since the arrival of COVID-19, we like Noah have had to face a changed world and a new way of being.
Noah’s family have mixed responses to the aftermath of the flood. When Noah emerges from the ark, he is suffering deeply. The only thing he can bring himself to do is plant a vineyard and get so drunk on the wine that he passes out in his tent. His sons have a mixed response – the middle son, Ham, goes to tell his brothers that their father is naked and unconscious. Ham has no idea what to do. The eldest and youngest sons, Shem and Japheth, quietly enter the tent with a robe over their shoulders, and cover their father, to keep him warm and preserve his dignity.
Noah and his family likely needed to mourn all that they lost. But as far as we know from the text there’s no such opportunity. There is immediate pressure to free the animals, birds and bugs. To find shelter and food, all amid the wreckage of the world as it was, with extended family and friends simply gone intensifies the challenges. And yet Shem and Japheth manage to be attentive to the needs of their father and brother, able to recognize what helpful action they can take, while Noah seeks escape, and Ham doesn’t know what to do.
Generations later, in the book of Exodus, the Israelites who flee Egypt, led by Moses, initially are terrified by the unknown future ahead of them. In the Passover seder ritual, we retell this story around dinner tables every year, starting with the bitterness of slavery under the Pharaohs, and moving towards celebration of liberation and new possibilities.
The stories that Jewish communities carry with us ground us in a shared historical narrative, and sometimes serve as models to navigate our contemporary experiences of trauma.
From Generation to Generation
“A Psalm of Aging. My rods and my staff. If I lie down in green pastures, it is hard to get back up these days.” —Laurie Krotman, after Psalm 23.
It was early apparent that COVID’s trauma was not a monolith with consistent impacts across the life cycle. As a multi-generational community, CBST was drawn to protect its most medically vulnerable, the more than 60% of our membership over 60 years old, and those living with AIDS. We were aware early on of the possibility of re-traumatization. Those older members who experienced the AIDS pandemic were again facing an unknown illness, stigma, and retaliation against minorities, all of which felt too familiar.
Damage associated with young lives interrupted produced strains at CBST, as they did in the larger society. For LGBTQ+ people, connection depends on access to meeting places, at all ages. Stresses were expressed around public health practices. Many of our younger community members struggled with emotional challenges, as so many of their regular ways of connecting were lost. Working longer hours in their own homes left congregants increasingly isolated, and in some cases losing jobs that resulted in precarious financial situations. Our community members with school-age children, also often in small shared spaces, were trying to balance work (either from home or in front-line positions) with childcare and online school supervision.
Mitigation of inter-generational strain is an example of “Lessons Learned” at CBST. Mutual support such as technical assistance and help locating vaccinations were practical, and helped with healing. Robust intervention of senior leadership both highlighted the issues, and made sustainable changes toward a more generationally harmonious kahal (community). The process of bringing together our generations with their various experiences continues, but many community members value learning from each other, and healing is ongoing.
Looking Back/the Way Forward
“So…You want to play hide and seek again… OK..I guess I’ll play the game with you once more.” —Ira Rosenblum, after Psalm 22.
The coincidence of the fiftieth Anniversary of CBST and the waning of the COVID pandemic invites vivid memories of gay life in 1973 and the coming AIDS epidemic. Rabbi Ayelet Cohen’s account of the first 40 years (Changing Lives, Making History: Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, 2014) provides a lens clarifying both phenomena, and is a key element of our yearlong celebration.
On March 7, 2022, global losses to COVID reached 6 million. To be particularly shaken by that milestone is not unique to Jews, but refocuses on the existential meanings of a viral infection. What happens when we drag ourselves through life-changing events, and never sit down to grieve what’s been lost? The unfelt grief, the anger that gets bottled, the longing that takes up space in our brains, all of it can slow us down, keep us stuck, make it almost impossible to think creatively, or to use the power we have to transform and build.
The traditional Jewish concept of gam zue l’tova refers to the kernel of good that can be found in even darkest times. From our daily classes to our weekly social gatherings; from our uninterrupted prayer services, with their blessings for healing and space for mourning; to our immigration clinic bringing volunteers together with those carrying even more trauma, we know that deep connection to others is crucial. We learned that making or receiving a phone call can be a lifeline, that even with its flaws, zoom gatherings can be profound spaces for sharing sadness, joy and loving support.
What does the next stage look like? We know that every community has its Noahs, the ones who haven’t figured out how to function in the new reality that faces them, who turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to try to escape the reality. Every community has its Hams, who don’t know what to do next, who can only turn to others unable to imagine what they could build. And every community has its Shems and Japheths, the ones who step out of the ark, take in the wreckage and the possibility, and step forward to do what they can do to bring compassion, care, energy, and thoughtfulness to the new world.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Regina Linder (CCNY, Univ. Mass, NYU) is Professor Emerita of Medical Laboratory Sciences, Hunter College (CUNY). A clinically oriented microbiologist, her research on cooperative cytotoxins of pathogenic bacteria explores tissue damage during infections. The education of medical laboratory professionals is a source of pride, as is the critical role of our students in the COVID-19 pandemic. Long congregational membership and Board service at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah provides the opportunity to ponder intersections between science and scripture.