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Faith in Focus: Finding new way to connect
Faith in Focus

Faith in Focus: Finding new way to connect

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I keep thinking about the adage “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Right now, life is giving us a lot of lemons; we are in the midst of a global pandemic, so it is not safe for us to do many of our normal activities. We see friends and neighbors get sick from COVID-19. A lot of people in our community have lost jobs. It is not safe even to visit friends, hold parties, send our children to school or hold religious services.

And we don’t know when this will be over, when it will be safe for us to resume normal life and normal activities.

Last October, long before any of us thought of global pandemics and lockdowns, the Jewish Community Foundation held a one-day conference to bring together small Pennsylvania Jewish congregations to talk about sustainment of Jewish life in small communities. I was privileged to attend, with several members of Congregation Beth Tikvah. We came out of that conference with the idea of creating a “collaboration” among the multiple Jewish communities on the West Shore.

Beth Tikvah is only one of several small Jewish communities on the West Shore of the Susquehanna. We are all concerned about how we will sustain our congregations in the future. We thought that it made good sense for us to do joint programs from time to time with other congregations. So with the assistance of the Jewish Legacy Foundation and the Jewish Community Foundation, we planned a one-day meeting of those congregation leaders for March 15, 2020.

Well, you can imagine what happened to that meeting. That was the weekend we all started cancelling all our activities as the state went into lockdown. So our carefully planned follow-up meeting was canceled, too. We hoped that this would just be a temporary delay, and we would be able to reschedule for later in the spring.

Again, that did not happen.

So we decided to start meeting over Zoom, and we had our first West Shore Jewish Zoom meeting in May. But by May, of course, we were getting concerned that this shut down of our “normal” lives was not going to be over any time soon. We have not been able to hold in-person Shabbat services or our Sunday school classes. And all congregations were starting their yearly planning for High Holy Day services; Rosh Hashanah starts Sept. 18.

So we started talking, in our Zoom meetings, about how we would run High Holy Day services—that was a problem that we all were thinking about. We usually have very large crowds at High Holy Day services ... and who is going to show up for that this year?

And that was the start of our making “lemonade” out of the lemons that the pandemic hit us with. We all know that we cannot have our usual in-person services for High Holy Days, so we are working on making Zoom services available for all members of the West Shore congregations to “attend” in their own homes. We are also planning some online study and discussion sessions during this time. This will make it possible for all members of the Jewish communities to observe the holidays and pray, without anyone risking their health.

And we decided that we would do a trial run of this kind of Zoom collaboration for the minor holiday of Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, which was on Aug. 5. Tu B’Av follows Tisha B’Av (9th of Av), which is a major fast day for mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as a series of historical disasters experienced by the Jewish people. Tisha B’Av was July 30.

But Tu B’Av is quite the opposite. It is a day of joy, a “festival of love,” that has existed for over 2,000 years. In Israel today, it is celebrated as a kind of “Valentine’s Day,” and it is considered a good day for weddings.

On the evening of Aug. 5, we held a Zoom Tu B’Av Celebration that included eight different, small Jewish communities. We had members of these eight communities read stories about love, read poems about love, perform music, and of course, prayers and study appropriate to the day. What a wonderful idea to make delicious lemonade from a sour, difficult situation.

This Tu B’Av celebration showed us that despite being stuck at home much of the time, we can still celebrate Jewish life, and be with new and old friends. I think we never would have thought of doing this until the pandemic pushed us to try.

When I think of the two holidays—mournful Tisha B’Av, followed six days later by joyous Tu B’AV, I find a message of hope for us all. We may be right now in a state of mourning and difficulty, confronting losses of all kinds, and we don’t know when things will get better. But like our ancestors who survived famine, war, plague and persecution, we will at some point move again into a time where we will be able to be with people again in person. We will go forward from a time of mourning and loss, into a time of joy and love.

Stay safe, stay well, and remember, we are all in this together!

Emily Burt-Hedrick is the President of the Congregation Beth Tikvah.

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