How Jewish rituals can ease us back into the world J. – The Jewish News of Northern – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on May 25, 2021

After 15 months of pandemic and social distancing, California is reopening. So, too, synagogues and Jewish community organizations, which have been operating primarily online for more than a year, are resuming in-person gatherings.

As we reopen our buildings and prepare for in-person services and events, there are many questions to address.

Covid response teams and reopening committees are asking: How many people can attend an indoor event? Can we require proof of vaccination? Is communal singing safe if people are masked?

Jewish organizational leaders grapple daily with the exhausting work of adapting our operations to the continually evolving public-health protocols.

Beyond these kinds of safety protocol questions, there are also the spiritual and emotional questions: How do we celebrate reopening while also making space for the pain and losses over the past year? How do we return to the previous formats knowing how much this past year has changed us? Does Jewish tradition guide us in coming back together, with all of the mixed emotions we bring to this next phase of the pandemic?

Indeed, the ancient rabbis offered the structure of ritual to support people coming back together. The Mishnah describes a choreography for pilgrims going to the Temple for festivals. All would enter the Temple and circle from the right, but these people would circle to the left: a mourner, an excommunicated person, one who has an ill person in their house and one who lost something.

The rabbis understood that some people those who had experienced suffering or loss, those who had been shunned and caregivers to the sick needed some emotional support.

Those circling to the right would ask, Why do you circle to the left? and those circling to the left would answer, Because I am a mourner or Because I have a loved one who is ill. And those circling to the right would then respond, May the One who dwells in this house comfort you or May the One who dwells in this house have compassion on your loved one. (Mishnah Middot 2:2 and Masechet Semachot 6:11)

In coming back together after a time apart, our tradition offers this ritual to show compassion and care to those whove suffered.

How might we apply this idea to this time? How might we create similar ways to give and receive compassion and support and to acknowledge the grief, the losses and the mental health crises experienced by so many this past year?

At the same time, there is much to celebrate in this time of reopening, and the rabbis offer other ways to express gratitude for this moment.

How might we collectively offer thanks for making it across the metaphoric sea?

In the Talmud (Berachot 58b), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, [O]ne who sees a friend for the first time after 30 days recites the Shehechiyanu blessing. After 12 months, one recites Blessed is the One who revives the dead (mechiyei hameitim). The sentiment behind this blessing resonates today.

After surviving a year of pandemic, we need expressions of joy and gratitude for seeing each other alive again and for feeling our own aliveness in reconnecting to one another.

In addition, the Talmud instructs that a blessing of thanksgiving is offered by those who made it across the sea, those who made it across the desert, those who recovered from illness and those who were freed from prison. (Berachot 54b)

In later centuries, the halachic codes expanded this such that anyone who survived danger should bless what we now call Birkat HaGomel, thanking God for bestowing goodness upon us.

How might we collectively offer thanks for making it across the metaphoric sea?

At Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, where I serve as rabbi, I explored these questions with a creative team of congregants, and together we designed a series of events tabbed Rituals for Reflection, Reconnection, and Returning.

As our synagogue building reopens and our members come back together in person after this year of online community, we are gathering, online and in person, to mourn our losses, celebrate our joys and reflect on this complex time of returning. One event was a communal Birkat HaGomel, in which we remembered those in our community who died this year, welcomed and kvelled over the new babies who were born this year, honored our frontline health care workers, heard from those in our community who lost loved ones to Covid and heard from those who survived it.

It was an adaptation of the rabbis circling to the left ritual so that we could bear witness to each others experiences and offer support to each other.

Another event, upcoming on June 6, is a Hanukkat HaBayit, a (re)dedication of our synagogue home. Well be marking the return to our building with ritual, music, prayer, and community art and tzedakah projects.

I hope that these rituals will allow us to reflect on this year, to support each other in all that weve been through, and to make room for the grief, the joy and all of the emotions of this complex time.

I hope that these rituals of reopening will create sacred spaces to express the emotion of Psalm 30, the song for the (re)dedication of the House: You turned my mourning into dance, You undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy, that I might sing of Your Presence and not be silent. I thank You always.

Rituals of Reopening, a 50-minute session led by Rabbi Levy in the JCC East Bay Tikkun for Shavuot, can be viewed here with passcode c%%8WSCF. Her source sheet for the session can read here.

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How Jewish rituals can ease us back into the world J. - The Jewish News of Northern - The Jewish News of Northern California

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