On New Year’s Eve 2020, it seemed people were expecting the winds of change to come in 2021.
Health care workers receiving their first COVID jabs in December and an election yielding a new president in November were interpreted as harbingers. In 2021, we hoped COVID would be eradicated and, in its place, would be a return to what was comfortable or a new normal that was even better than what life looked like before the pandemic.
Instead, we continued and continue to brave the unknown and move forward, adapting to COVID’s new challenges, a changing climate and political landscape.
Below are some stories from the Jewish Exponent that shaped 2021.
After having a semester to adjust to the pandemic conditions, with circumstances feeling a little less “unprecedented,” Jewish day school leaders began the spring semester anew. Some schools set up indoor classrooms; other administrators opted to rotate students in and out of the building with hybrid learning. As teachers learned how to instruct their students over the pandemic, the students showed resilience and adaptation to the new school structure.
Shortly after President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 election, Biden laid the groundwork for plans to combat the coronavirus, as well as create an agenda to make immigration to the U.S. easier, expand refugee admissions and condemn violent extremism, including antisemitism. Area Jewish leaders lauded Biden’s proposals.
Beth Sholom Congregation member Danielle Otero teamed up with Sarah Levin and Rebecca Klinger and partnered with the Kehillah of Old York Road during the early days of the COVID vaccine rollout to help older community members schedule their appointments to get the jab.
In April 2020, the Exponent created a segment called “Those We’ve Lost,” documenting the lives and deaths of those lost to COVID. In commemoration of the anniversary of the pandemic’s onset, we compiled the profiles of those named in the segment. COVID deaths in the United States have now surpassed 800,000.
Jewish tweens came of age in 2021 in a way much different than the previous generation. Celebrating Jewish adulthood over Zoom fell short for some families who missed the presence of clergy and relatives. Other families held in-person gatherings with strict COVID precautions, and some becoming b’nai mitzvah used the pandemic as inspiration for mitzvah projects, such as supporting the vaccine rollout.
After a year of canceled summer camps, camp directors were committed to having campers return in 2021 to participate in the treasured Jewish tradition. Campers created their own pods, ate meals outside and signed community covenants asking them to follow their camps’ policies. With smaller attendance, camps were able to ensure COVID exposures were minimized, and only a few camp activities were eliminated for the year.
May saw the most recent bout of violence in the Israel-Hamas conflict, and some Jewish Philadelphians were quick to show their support of Israel following the series of rocket attacks. Organized by the Israeli-American Council, the Philadelphia march to support Israel was one of 19 held nationwide. This particular rally was attended by nearly 100 people.
A disinvitation of the Moshava Israeli food truck from a Philadelphia food festival prompted an uproar from community members. Organizers Eat Up the Borders and Sunflower Philly disinvited Moshava for fear of potential boycotts of the event, as there was no Palestinian food truck also present at the event. AJC, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Jewish Community Relations Council, Anti-Defamation League, Jews in ALL Hues and the Board of Rabbis of Philadelphia met with the event organizers in July.
On June 24, a condo in Surfside, Florida, collapsed, resulting in the deaths of almost 100 residents and visitors, many of whom were Jewish. Among the lives lost were the couple Bonnie and David Epstein, Northeast Philadelphia natives who spent many of their summers down the shore.
On July 1, Michael Balaban became the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s new president and CEO. In an interview with the Exponent, he outlined his plans to combat antisemitism and build a more Jewish future by adapting the Jewish Federation’s business model during his tenure.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which flooded the Schuylkill River, brackish water filled the basement of the Jewish Community Services Building, destroying the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and displacing myriad Jewish organizations in the area. The Sports
Hall of Fame seeks to relocate after having rescued and restored many of its objects.
Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Eric Fingerhut announced on Oct. 2 a grant program to help Jewish organizations bolster their security. The creation of the grant came after a surge of antisemitism in the United States since 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which included the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Pittsburgh
After many Philadelphians received their vaccines, they were eager to return to in-person Chanukah celebrations. Many families who reunited during the holiday cited the vaccine as the reason they were able to do so, saying they all felt safe gathering indoors after receiving their COVID vaccines.
In November, members of the Pennsbury school board received threats, some of which were antisemitic in nature, after a school board meeting to discuss the district’s equity policies. At a Dec. 6 school board meeting, members of the board, including President Dana Hunter and Central Bucks Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh, condemned the antisemitic remarks.
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