Temple Israel rabbi: ‘Technology is the answer to this loneliness on some level’

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. As the outbreak evolves, we will be checking in with the participants regularly. Read all of the stories here.

All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Marcia Zimmerman, rabbi, Temple Israel 

We had a dance group that was supposed to come in from New York on March 14 and then an artist in residence coming after that. I realized maybe two weeks ago that wasn’t going to work.

Then there was a whole conversation: Do we just stop everything? Do we stop Shabbat? I said, “Let’s not go there quite yet.” What do with our early childhood centers?

By the time I started driving in on Friday, March 13, I realized the exposure rate of people were getting closer and closer to us and I was like, “Everything’s done. We are closing the doors.”

Last week, we still streamed services with the clergy on the bimah together. There were six of us, and we were not six feet apart necessarily. This week we just did a virtual Shabbat service. We couldn’t go in to stream, because if any one of us is exposed, all of us could get sick. Plus, people would have to come in to do that work, so we would be putting people at risk in many ways.

So we’re doing everything virtually. Normally we get about 10 people in for non-peak services. A service the cantor and I videotaped had more than 60 people tune in. People are just so hungry to engage. This is allowing them to engage from their homes.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned is loneliness is a plight of our time. Families are separated for jobs and other things. We could talk about so many reasons for loneliness. It has been a No. 1 issue in this generation, but we haven’t talked about it until now.

People haven’t been able to see their parents because of lockdowns in nursing homes. All of these things have made it all the more glaring that we need to address this issue of loneliness. Technology is the answer to this loneliness on some level.

We’re trying to connect with our entire congregation, which is over 2,000 households, in the next two weeks. There are people who don’t have video technology, and we want to make sure they don’t feel disconnected.

There’s been a couple statements I’m hearing from people. One is just how scary it feels. It’s just this reality of the virus that you don’t know where it is and if it’s going to affect you or how it’s going to affect you.

I think prayer is really powerful to contain that fear and have a voice for it. I think ritual is really powerful to calm the soul. How do you calm the soul? Everybody has to figure out how to not live in fear and paralyzing anxiety.

We are sharing a message of calm, of hope, of Jewish tradition being a lifeline. Lighting Shabbat candles and having that kind of experience is really important for people. You might read a prayer you’ve read all your life and find a message that really resonates today. That’s the biggest message. Because anxiety doesn’t help us be safe.

Washing your hands has become a big thing, and there’s a traditional Jewish prayer for washing your hands. So I did a video of myself saying the blessing, which takes about 40 seconds and it’s perfect. The key is to ritualize things because ritual orders chaos.

We’re all dealing with this, no one is immune, so we need collaboration and connection. These moments can bring out the best in people and can bring out the worst. This virus can stoke fear, hatred and racism, but it can also spur collaboration and connection, and that’s what we have to focus on.