By Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Over the past year, I have led efforts to teach, guide and coach rabbis and other clergy of every Jewish denomination. We have worked with over 500 individual members of the clergy, serving hundreds of thousands of people since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
So let me say this to my dear clergy colleagues: As we celebrate another High Holiday season under the shadow of the pandemic, I know that there is nothing you need more than support in making (or when prevented from making) impossible decisions about vaccinations, masks, social distancing and the integrity of worship.
Which is why I am baffled as to why some would add to your burden with irresponsible, pain-inducing criticism that could only worsen the challenge, trauma and moral injury that you are experiencing at this moment, and which I spend all of my professional time trying to lessen.
I agree that mitigating all risk at the expense of our Jewish way of life is untenable, and there are certainly appropriate ways to debate safety measures during a public health crisis. Yet second-guessing rabbis like you, as you work overtime to protect the physical safety while meeting the spiritual and communal needs of your communities in ever-changing ways, is not one of them.
Those of us actually paying attention have seen your tremendous creativity and labor to ensure that our people have meaningful spiritual and communal ways to learn, to observe and to be connected to Torah and each other, even as COVID has precluded or restricted large in-person gatherings. I see you toiling to create innovative outdoor or remote opportunities for our unvaccinated children to engage in Jewish learning and living, and to feel a sense of belonging. I see you teaching congregants to lead backyard minyans; managing complicated technology to lead interactive remote services and study groups; introducing walking meditations and Torah treks and prayerful hikes; and countless other new ways of helping our people to engage with each other and practice our traditions while reducing health risks.
I hear your trauma at having buried the many older members of your shul who have died miserably alone this year. I know that when you gather again, the seats of so many “regulars” will be tragically empty. I understand your fear that the immunocompromised and younger, unvaccinated members may be endangered by the high risk that in-person gatherings can pose this year. I know that this informs your decisions as the delta variant wreaks havoc, especially, but not only, when unvaccinated people gather.
I listen to you agonize as you balance the calls for individual choice and/or trust from some in your community with your desire to have proof of vaccine and/or testing and mask mandates to protect the vulnerable, especially in locations where this is culturally unacceptable (and often the same places where hospitals are now failing under the burden of illness).
You tell me about working with your professional colleagues, lay leaders and local experts as you carefully enact decision trees informed by Jewish values, COVID-era rabbinic opinions and public health experts. Many of your communities model remarkable shared leadership, as clergy, boards and medical advisors together make decisions carefully. Others of you suffer, having to carry out, and even be blamed, for decisions that you fear are dangerous. With every change, we see you creating backups to backups, even as it means having to do twice the work, ignoring your exhaustion and pastoring to flocks who require your help as they, too, deal with their justified angst.
And I know that you are experiencing moral injury and burnout from this reality, and that you also fear for your own and your family’s health while also feeling a loss of spiritual connection as a result of your inability to pray in groups, to sing with full voice or to facilitate the mitzvah observances, simcha celebrations, prayer obligations and mourning rituals that give your own life meaning.
Life under COVID is full of difficult calls, weighing physical well-being against mental health; our children’s education against the threat of an insidious virus; the risks of gathering or singing in our beloved sanctuaries versus the atrophying of our communities and our souls. No one wants to needlessly undermine centuries of tradition and our religious choices and obligations.
But you, our clergy, know that preserving life is the paramount value of the Torah, and that our tradition is rife with examples of moderating our observances to protect our well-being. You have contributed to and read the myriad rabbinic opinions offering halachic and ethical ways to adapt beloved customs for this emergency situation. You do not need to be cut off at the knees while you run this ultra-marathon, all the while carrying the heavy weight of existential Jewish decisions. Your detractors may be loud, but I hear the quiet cheers of the many who want only to offer you water as you continue the race.
My dear colleagues, please know: You are enough. You are doing enough. You can and you must make decisions that are the best and safest you can make, to preserve the lives and the health of your beloved members (and yourselves). Ignore the naysayers, especially those simply looking for clickbait who care not for your health or well-being. I pray that those who see how hard you are working will raise their voices and bolster you with love. With all of the hugs, love and hope for your spiritual renewal. l
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein is executive director of the Center for Rabbinic Innovation, a project of the Office of Innovation.