In 70 CE, with the destruction of the Second Holy Temple by the Romans, Jewish leaders needed to decide if and how Judaism might continue in the Temple’s absence. The rabbinic leader Yohanan ben Zakkai, on whatever spiritual or practical basis, accepted the loss of the Temple as a central organizing force for the community and moved on to the city of Yavneh. There he began the process of building the rabbinic Judaism that we know today.
This transitional moment teaches us that reinventing and reimagining ourselves is the key to keeping the Jewish communal project moving. This is certainly a powerful lesson that serves us well at this crossroads moment.
Even with the challenges, the sadness and the difficulties surrounding the pandemic, our Jewish tradition demands that we continue to push and move the community forward. We cannot remain in a holding pattern nor simply assume that we will go back to the way we used to do things. Throughout our history — from the Biblical narrative through constant displacement of diaspora life, and the more recent transfer of the central Jewish community from Europe to North America and Israel — the Jewish communal response has always been one that includes forward thinking and planning.
This also requires a populous that is willing to participate and share in the responsibility for thinking beyond tomorrow or even two years down the road. We need to think more long-term and revise what used to be. We must ask ourselves how we might institute a plan for Jewish Detroit for working, learning, praying and playing together across boundaries and buildings.
Jewish communal responses to the pandemic across North America and the Jewish world will dictate the future of organized Jewish life in ways that we cannot even begin to predict. Even after a year of profound trauma, the losses continue to mount. They include the deaths of loved ones and friends, unprecedented closures of synagogues and Jewish agencies, the absence of community celebrations and gatherings, and especially now, after a year like none other, significant burnout by rabbis and professionals in the Jewish world.
Our children lost access to formal and informal Jewish educational opportunities, including and especially because trips to Israel and summer camping experiences were nonexistent for an entire year and in some cases longer. The severe mental health ramifications across age and gender lines are astronomical; cases of suicide are rising.
Now, a new Delta variant of Covid-19 rages and its implications remain unknown. Sociologists, historians and educators will not be able to offer significant analysis or commentary about the effects of the pandemic for years.
A different element of Yohanan ben Zakkai’s story is the willingness of the community to help move the business of rebuilding forward. We know that there was significant disagreement with his plan, but those who were invested in the renewal and survival of Jewish life committed themselves to the hard work and, in the end, brought along many of those original dissenters with them. They moved, built institutions, studied, practiced Judaism differently — and most importantly, they did not sit still and wait to see what would happen.
This lesson is one that our Jewish community must start to internalize. Our Jewish commitments require that we invest in the future and work towards building a new and improved post-pandemic society. Things will not go back to the way that they were before Covid-19 entered our lives. There is no returning to what was. We need all members of the community to recognize this, accept it and begin to come together (either in person or virtually) to plan for what is next.
Where can we find synergies and share space? How will we organize ourselves now for a vibrant Detroit Jewish community of the future? What are the pain points and what are the points of pride?
Apathy will not do. Assuming someone else will handle the challenge is not acceptable. This may sound harsh and a bit patronizing, but my intent is not to shame. Instead, I hope this is more of a wake-up call after 18 months of uncertainty in which we held a “wait and see” attitude around what it means to re-engage with the organized Jewish community.
In the coming days, we will begin the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. During Elul, the blasts of the shofar every weekday confront and remind us that Jewish life cannot be passive. It requires action, commitment and hard work from everyone. Engagement with the community comes in all forms and no matter what your point of entry, we need all hands on deck to move past this crisis and into new opportunities that will ultimately serve to strengthen the future Jewish community.