From the pens of youth
As we move into the new Jewish year, the SA Jewish Report asked our Grades 4 to 7 youngsters how the changes to Rosh Hashanah and life due to the pandemic has impacted on them.
How has Rosh Hashanah changed for you and your family during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Rosh Hashanah hasn’t changed for me, because even though we can’t have big yom tov meals like we usually do, that’s not what Rosh Hashanah is about. It’s about connecting and getting closer to Hashem, which we can still do from home even if shuls are closed. The only thing that’s different is that we are going to daven for COVID-19 to end, and for a refuah shlema for everyone who has COVID-19. Rachel Barnes, Grade 5, Yeshiva
My family always used to enjoy hosting guests during Rosh Hashanah as well as the other yom tovs, giving them a warm welcome in our home, catching up and chatting about things, as well as serving wonderful food. This Rosh Hashanah will be different for the second time round as it’s still not safe to have all our friends together. That’s why Rosh Hashanah has changed for me. Shimi Donnenberg, Grade 6, Yeshiva
Usually, the whole family would celebrate together with lunches and suppers. That feeling of being in a real chag has been lost as we are just at home, but I try my best to make it special by singing songs with my brother and helping my mom cook meals for my grandparents before yom tov. Being in shul isn’t the same. I really missed standing on the bima, being shoulder to shoulder with all my friends listening to the rabbi blowing the shofar. Standing outside and standing apart is better than nothing, but it’s not the same! At least I still get to enjoy apples dipped in honey. Daniel Segal, Grade 7, KD Victory Park
On Rosh Hashanah before the COVID-19 pandemic, my family and I would go to shul, sing songs, and pray. We’d go all over Johannesburg to friends and family for lunch and eat, talk, and play games for hours. I shared a jar of honey with four other children to dip apples in, and secretly stuck our fingers in sideways. After COVID-19, Rosh Hashanah almost felt surreal. There was no shul and no friends. I did enjoy learning about it in school and doing Rosh Hashanah-based activities (the honey was delicious when I managed to get my mask off). Speaking of masks, they definitely made everything more difficult and tedious. I missed seeing people’s happy faces and gentle laughter. Close to Rosh Hashanah, my grandmother had a stroke, which made not seeing her (or anyone else) a lot harder. Maya Roth, Grade 6, KD Victory Park
I’m sad because I can’t spend Rosh Hashanah with my grandparents and entire family. Kara Rozentvaig, Grade 5, KD Ariel
Many traditions that involve physical touching (passing around apples and honey), have to be stopped or changed and of course, big family gatherings have become unsafe. Ashton Jordan, Grade 7, Crawford International Sandton
Last year, not being at shul on Rosh Hashanah was sad, but spending quality time with my family was amazing. Jesse Bregman, Grade 7, Sandton Sinai
What does Rosh Hashanah mean to you?
Rosh Hashanah means more to me during COVID-19 than in other years because it has made me appreciate every day that I’ve been alive. I’m grateful that Hashem gave me and my family another year to live in health because so many people have died, as did my grandfather last year, and therefore not everyone has been blessed to live to this Rosh Hashanah. Shimi Donnenberg, Grade 6, Yeshiva
Rosh Hashanah is special because I was born on first day of Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Suchard (from Sandton Shul) was walking around Morningside Clinic blowing the shofar for all the sick Jewish people when they told him that a Jewish baby had just been born. He came into the delivery room and blew the shofar for me and my parents when I was only 20 minutes old! I can’t remember it, but my parents tell me it was very special. This Rosh Hashanah is my Barmitzvah, so it’s extra special. I will be doing my first aliyah in shul the day after Rosh Hashanah – I can’t wait! Daniel Segal, Grade 7, KD Victory Park
Rosh Hashanah is a genuinely joyful time. It makes me feel safe to know that I can restart, and have another year filled with chags and simchas. I enjoy all the customs that give people hope for sweet years and forgiveness. Maya Roth, Grade 6, KD Victory Park
Rosh Hashanah means a sweet year with our friends and family, and to forgive others and yourself. Aiden Beifus, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
Rosh Hashanah means an opportunity for me to better myself next year. Ashira Katz, Grade 6, KD Ariel
Rosh Hashanah is important to me because it’s almost like a second chance. If in the previous year you’ve been unkind or mean, Rosh Hashanah is the chance to ask for forgiveness and turn over a new leaf. Ashton Jordan, Grade 7, Crawford International Sandton
It means that we start a new year, and can try be better people. Josie Goldberg, Grade 6, Herzlia Weizmann Primary
Rosh Hashanah means that Hashem gives us a second chance to do things better. Dean Raphaely, Grade 4, KD Sandton
Rosh Hashanah gives me another chance to be the best version of myself. Tamra Sweidan, Grade 4, KD Sandton
Rosh Hashanah is when we honour the anniversary of the creation of the world. It feels especially meaningful to me that it corresponds with the beginning of spring – a fresh, new start, a celebration of life! Liya Barnett, Grade 6, KD Linksfield
Rosh Hashanah means to think about all the good and bad things that happened in the year, and to reflect on yourself. This is the time to ask for forgiveness, and start a fresh year. Adam Gad, Grade 6, Herzlia Highlands Primary
Rosh Hashanah is the time when Hashem is really close to us and loves us dearly. Jesse Bregman, Grade 7, Sandton Sinai
Rosh Hashanah means going to shul and davening with a lot more kavanah (purpose). Azriel Shevel, Grade 5, Sandton Sinai
Do you believe there are messages for us in what’s happening in the world? If so, what are they?
The first message is that there may be a lot of negativity from the virus, but there are also positive things. For example, even though we had to stay at home for many months last year, it made me spend a lot of quality time with my parents and sisters and we had lots of fun together, especially when it was cold during winter. Another message COVID-19 has given me is that you must spend your life being as productive as possible and get as much as you can done because every day is so precious. Shimi Donnenberg, Grade 6, Yeshiva
COVID-19 has taught me that even little things like going to school and to family for supper is important, and we shouldn’t take them for granted. It has also taught me that when we are in a time of need, the Jewish community always comes together and helps each other. I have learned that our community is strong. I realise how much people actually want to be with other people. The speed with which the virus spreads shows people’s need to be together. Daniel Segal, Grade 7, KD Victory Park
I don’t believe that Hashem sends us things like COVID-19 to make us miserable. But, once something like COVID-19 arrives, humans are able to adapt and learn from circumstances. Hashem gives us that ability. Part of the message is to be grateful for what we have. It has also taught us to try harder to protect our environment. When no one went outside or flew overseas, air pollution got much less. There are also things I’ve learned about my close family that I didn’t even know before because of the quality time we spent together. We have also learned things about ourselves because we’re living in a quieter environment. I think we’ve learned to be much more grateful for the people around us. Maya Roth, Grade 6, KD Victory Park
I don’t believe that there’s a message for the world, as all I can see is people dying. Hodaya Shenker, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
A good message is not to take things for granted because things happen that you can’t control, and you realise you miss things only when it’s too late. Aiden Beifus, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
Because we’ve been stuck at home, it gives us the chance to appreciate our close family more than before. Ashton Jordan, Grade 7, Crawford International Sandton
The message is to enjoy the little things in life and hold onto those closest to us. Also, to be thankful that we can still have Rosh Hashanah in these tough times even though it might not be like it was in the past. Joshua Stein, Grade 6, Herzlia Weizmann Primary
The message is that we don’t have to be busy all the time, sometimes it’s important to have a break. Josie Goldberg, Grade 6, Herzlia Weizmann Primary
When COVID-19 started, everything shut down, and it reduced air pollution. I think it’s here to help our world. Dean Raphaely, Grade 4, KD Sandton
We have learned to overcome challenges, always stay positive, and most of all, to fight for our beliefs no matter the challenge. Adam Gad, Grade 6, Herzlia Highlands Primary
Hashem is sending us a message that we should act respectfully, kindly, and more honestly to our friends and family. Jesse Bregman, Grade 7, Sandton Sinai
We must start doing teshuva. Lockdown seems like the isolation for tzaraat, which is the punishment for lashon hara. So, I think we are speaking too much lashon hara. Azriel Shevel, Grade 5, Sandton Sinai
Has this pandemic had an impact on your beliefs? If so, what is it?
COVID-19 has had a positive impact on me because, before, I didn’t really focus on the little things in the world. But when we went into lockdown and were stuck at home, I was able to see Hashem in the small things – which I realised are really big things – like seeing the seasons changing and being healthy. Rachel Barnes, Grade 5, Yeshiva
The pandemic has made me so upset for those unfortunate people who were affected or even passed away. But it hasn’t changed my belief that Hashem will guide us out of this plague just like he did with the Jews when he took them out of Egypt. Shimi Donnenberg, Grade 6, Yeshiva
Hashem is trying to send us a message not to take things for granted, and to realise how important our health is. I have a stronger belief system since COVID-19, probably also because it has coincided with my Barmitzvah learning year. Daniel Segal, Grade 7, KD Victory Park
The pandemic has broken my world of rainbows and cupcakes, and shown me that there can be bad things too. Living with 18 months of the pandemic has stripped away my childhood, and now I can see the things that matter most. But it has also taught me to believe in human beings and that in a crisis, we can be there for each other and come up with creative solutions from medical science. Maya Roth, Grade 6, KD Victory Park
I still believe in Hashem. It’s just hard for me to daven knowing that a lot of people are sick. Kara Rozentvaig, Grade 5, KD Ariel
The pandemic has strengthened my belief in G-d, as I see people helping each other and the majority of people pulling through this horrendous virus with the help of Hashem. Joshua Stein, Grade 6, Herzlia Weizmann Primary
COVID-19 hasn’t changed my beliefs. Hashem does everything for a reason, even if we don’t understand it. Tamra Sweidan, Grade 4, KD Sandton
The world we live in today shows us that no matter who you are or how much money you have, Hashem decides what our days, weeks, months, and years will look like. My parents have taught me that I need to do everything I can in every situation, and leave what’s out of my control to Hashem. Liya Barnett, Grade 6, KD Linksfield
No matter how careful you are, if Hashem wants you to get the virus, you’ll get it. Azriel Shevel, Grade 5, Sandton Sinai
How have you adapted to learning during the pandemic – online and then in class with restrictions?
In the beginning, I thought that Zoom school would be fun but after a while, I began to wish for something I never believed I would – all I wanted was go back to school! I hated sitting in my room all day, and I missed my teachers and friends. Being back at school with restrictions is still way better than being at home. In the beginning, it was hard to wear a mask all day, but now, when I get into the car to go home, I forget to take my mask off. My friends and I still manage to enjoy break time, even with social distancing. Rachel Barnes, Grade 5, Yeshiva
Online school took a lot of getting used to at first, but once it started to become the norm, it was easier to navigate through the work and all the changes at home. It was great online, but sitting back in my class for the first time last year was definitely better. I did have to adjust to a few changes, such as the masks on our faces, sanitising our hands and desks 24/7, and making sure we kept a social distance by putting hula hoops around ourselves and our desks. Shimi Donnenberg, Grade 6, Yeshiva
Online learning has been a rollercoaster. From my bedroom being my classroom, to my bed being my locker, it has been a huge adjustment, but it has been good to find out how self-reliant I actually am. In class with restrictions, it’s almost the same as pre-COVID-19, but one puzzle piece is always missing – like playing rugby at break, or having fun activities like galas. I still love being in class and seeing my friends, but I really miss doing big group work. Nevertheless, I love school more than online learning – COVID-19 or not! Daniel Segal, Grade 7, KD Victory Park
I found learning online very difficult. There were many distractions and glitches. There was always the fear that Eskom would strike again. Adapting to online school was a long (and perpetual) experience. It was new to most people. Going online in Grade 6 was a bit better because the teachers and students had more experience. I think I speak for everyone when I say that going back to school in person was an exciting time. It was a huge upgrade from online school, but it did have its problems. Masks, of course, were one of them. It felt like there was no emotion anymore (no facial expression.) My hands got dry from the sanitiser, and social distancing was hard to control because it was so incredibly exciting to see friends. Maya Roth, Grade 6, KD Victory Park
I don’t like online school. Hodaya Shenker, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
It was hard to get used to online learning last year, but now I’m used to it and it’s easy. Masks have been a big restriction because I can’t hear the teachers properly. Aiden Beifus, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
Online, I’ve been more organised with work and sticking in worksheets. Online learning has been easier as it isn’t stressful, and (in class), the restrictions have been annoying. Ashira Katz, Grade 6, KD Ariel
There are pros and cons about hybrid learning. On the one hand, there are many physical projects that we couldn’t do, but on the other, there are many elements of online classes that have aided learning. Ashton Jordan, Grade 7, Crawford International Sandton
I have adapted easily to restrictions at school – wearing masks and sanitising has become part of my daily routine. Online classes are almost the same as school, but I would much rather be in school with my friends than online. Learning under restrictions can take its toll on people, but we have learned to adapt. Joshua Stein, Grade 6, Herzlia Weizmann Primary
I’ve become used to online and in-class learning. I’ve become much better at working on the computer because I had never experienced online school before. Josie Goldberg, Grade 6, Herzlia Weizmann Primary
I’ve learned to be grateful for online school, as other children don’t have access to it, even though I don’t enjoy it at all. In class things are different as we must be careful – social distance, wear masks, and sanitise. It’s nice to see our friends, but we still have to be cautious. Tamra Sweidan, Grade 4, KD Sandton
I’m grateful to attend a school which has given me the opportunity to learn, whether at school or online. Incredible technology gave me the tools to learn and stay close to my teachers. Liya Barnett, Grade 6, KD Linksfield
I have adapted badly to online learning. I found it difficult. It’s easier in class with restrictions. Azriel Shevel, Grade 5, Sandton Sinai
What do you miss most about the time before COVID-19?
I miss many things, mostly arrangements, sleepovers, Bnei Akiva sleep away camps, the school gala and netball matches, my other extra murals, big Shabbos lunches with our friends, and most importantly, I miss my brother and sister who have been in Israel since the beginning of COVID-19. Rachel Barnes, Grade 5, Yeshiva
I miss playdates with my friends. I really missed being in shul and davening with my community when the shuls were closed. I wish I could walk around without constantly having to cover my mouth. I also wish I didn’t have to worry that I might spread a deadly virus to someone else so that I could do simple things like share stationery with my friends during class. Shimi Donnenberg, Grade 6, Yeshiva
I miss going to a movie and sharing popcorn with my friends. I miss huge gatherings like concerts and sports events. I miss the indoor cricket tournaments I played every year from when I was nine years old, and I really, really miss hugging my grandparents. Daniel Segal, Grade 7, KD Victory Park
I miss connecting with people, social arrangements, parties, sleepovers, and even the normality of school without masks. Maya Roth, Grade 6, KD Victory Park
I miss seeing my family in Israel. Hodaya Shenker, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
I miss being able to hug or have a celebration with my friends because now you literally have to stay away from them so I miss having a proper relationship. Aiden Beifus, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
I miss hanging out and having fun with my friends the most. COVID-19 ruined it. Kara Rozentvaig, Grade 5, KD Ariel
I miss big festive family gatherings such as on Pesach, Chanukah, birthdays, Barmitzvahs, and Batmitzvahs the most. Ashton Jordan, Grade 7, Crawford International Sandton
I miss being free from wearing a mask, but we have adapted well to everything else. We have learned to appreciate the little things in life, and enjoy all the beauty around us. Joshua Stein, Grade 6, Herzlia Weizmann Primary
I miss just being able to see everyone’s faces. Tamra Sweidan, Grade 4, KD Sandton
I miss spending time with family and friends without worrying about COVID-19. I miss my routine, and the fact that I can’t show or receive love and care in a physical way. Liya Barnett, Grade 6, KD Linksfield
I wish life would go back to normal. I hope that next year we will have contained COVID-19 or stopped it completely. I hope I and my family will be healthy and embark on new adventures. Adam Gad, Grade 6, Herzlia Highlands Primary
What do you wish for in the coming year?
I know everything Hashem does for me is good, even if it’s sometimes hard, but I hope that this year will be blessed with everything that’s good and sweet. I also wish for a refuah shlema for everyone who is sick. And I wish that I could see my brother and sister soon. Rachel Barnes, Grade 5, Yeshiva
As I work towards my final year of primary school, I hope COVID-19 won’t be as serious in my first year of high school next year, and that I can go back to a normal school day without any restrictions. I pray Hashem will look after us during this terrible plague. Shimi Donnenberg, Grade 6, Yeshiva
I hope South Africa will lower the vaccination age to 12 years old, and for everyone to be vaccinated as soon as possible. Next year, I want most things to go back to normal. Daniel Segal, Grade 7, KD Victory Park
On a global level, my hope is for the development of vaccines and cures for COVID-19. I also wish it would stop mutating, and get weaker. On a personal note, this is my Batmitzvah year, and although we are trying, my Batmitzvah probably won’t be the same as how I’d always imagined it. Family overseas won’t be able to come, and there will definitely be masks involved, but I hope I can celebrate it happily and feel a change in my life spiritually. Maya Roth, Grade 6, KD Victory Park
I wish COVID-19 would end, and that people could live a happy life. Hodaya Shenker, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
I wish COVID-19 would disappear, and I wish the world peace. Aiden Beifus, Grade 5, Eden Primary School
I hope COVID-19 dies down, and I don’t get stressed about silly things. Ashira Katz, Grade 6, KD Ariel
I wish COVID-19 would reduce, and we could enjoy our lives. Kara Rozentvaig, Grade 5, KD Ariel
I don’t think we’ll ever go back to how it was before COVID-19, but I would like to have a year without the worry of COVID-19 and to start celebrating simchas again. Ashton Jordan, Grade 7, Crawford International Sandton
I hope everyone is happy and healthy next year, that we can get rid of this virus, and somewhat return to how things were before. Tamra Sweidan, Grade 4, KD Sandton
I hope Hashem will help us remove COVID-19 so that we can put all the energy we have been using to stay healthy into other activities that bring us positivity and simchas. I hope that in the year to come, Hashem will bless us with health and happiness so that we can go back to the way things were before COVID-19. Liya Barnett, Grade 6, KD Linksfield
I wish for everyone to stay healthy, and that COVID-19 will eventually go away and we can return to a “normal” fun time. Jesse Bregman, Grade 7, Sandton Sinai
I wish COVID-19 would come to an end. Azriel Shevel, Grade 5, Sandton Sinai
In the race against COVID-19, vaccination just the first lap
About 200 years ago, the Torah giant, the Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Israel Lifshitz – 1782 to 1860) exhorted his followers to be vaccinated against smallpox. The sage was meticulous in fulfilling the mitzvah aseh (positive commandment) of the obligation to avoid the much greater threat to life posed by the disease even if the vaccine itself was far from harmless. In those years, smallpox vaccination was a rather hazardous procedure coming with a mortality of close to 1:1000.
It has been ascribed to the Tiferet Yisrael that he drew up a list of non-Jews who ought to be credited with olam habah (a future in the world to come). Top of his list he put the chosid, Yenner, (Edward Jenner) who developed the first human vaccine against smallpox at the close of the 18th century which saved millions of lives down the years. About 200 years later, that virus was eradicated from the planet by global vaccination.
So, where are we now with our present pandemic – the COVID-19 pandemic? What could the future light at the end of the tunnel look like?
Our current travails with the COVID-19 pandemic are due to a new virus, SARS-Cov-2, introduced into the human population just less than a couple of years back. This is a new pandemic, against which new vaccines were developed at an unprecedented breakneck speed to prevent the resulting new disease. It was a triumph of advanced modern science to develop new vaccines within a year of discovering the causative virus in order to address this formidable new pandemic with urgency. Technologies were employed which had never previously been used for human vaccines. To add to this bewildering mix came the internet and pervasive social media – valuable tools for disseminating important public-health messages, but an equally sinister vehicle for spewing misinformation, conspiracies, and mistrust and, in no small measure, contributing to confusion, anxiety, and, unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy.
So, where do we stand on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (2021) in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic? As of 24 August (by the time you read this these figures will be quite a bit higher) more than eleven million doses of vaccine have been administered in South Africa with more than 21% of the adult population being vaccinated. Even now, the effectiveness of the vaccination programme is starting to be felt with a small, yet significant, reduction in serious COVID-19 disease and hospitalisation in the country.
What is our expectation for controlling the pandemic with vaccination? It’s interesting that when we look back at the earlier days of the pandemic last year, the scientific community thought that the SARS-Cov-2 virus was as menacing as any new pandemic was feared to be, but that it would turn out to be no more complicated than measles or polio to combat and conquer. We hoped, as with measles and polio, that it wouldn’t take long to develop an effective vaccine to conquer this newcomer.
But that was before the virus uncannily demonstrated its ability to mutate and generate new variants which could escape the protection afforded by vaccination. In turn, the Beta variant arrived, which was relatively resistant to vaccines, and after that, the highly contagious Delta variant, which is now also flexing its muscles for vaccine escape.
Common wisdom dictates that infectious diseases can be combatted in four phases. Phase one is the phase of containment. In this phase, the main damage caused by the offending infectious agent is brought under control. In the case of COVID-19, this is the phase reached by Western developed countries. High vaccine coverage has drastically reduced severe disease which, in the pre-vaccination era, resulted in wealthy countries being brought to their knees and unable to cope with the overwhelming number of critically ill patients, and mortuaries unable to keep pace with burying the dead. But, in spite of extensive vaccination campaigns, infection and illness still persist to a worrying degree. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, illness is mild. Where preventive measures are relaxed, as prematurely occurred in many countries such as Israel, the United States, and several European countries, there have been significant flare-ups. Most public-health authorities would accept this to be an interim phase, as restrictive measures still need to be in place to prevent epidemic waves of illness flaring up.
Only in a future phase two, the phase of control, may we contemplate returning to a pre-COVID-19 life. To enter into this phase, a second generation of advanced vaccines would have to be developed. They would need to provide more effective and durable immunity, be able to be effective against any new variants, and also be able to reduce transmission markedly from infected vaccinated persons. For the latter, the new vaccines will need to effect good immunity in the upper respiratory tract – mucosal immunity. There is, indeed, intensive research into developing this next generation of vaccines. In this phase, restrictions may be relaxed to the point of returning to our pre-2020 lifestyle. Infection and illness won’t totally disappear, but it will be at a tolerable level – perhaps much like the common cold or flu we all accept every winter season.
Phase three, the elimination phase, has been reached with a number of vaccine-preventable diseases. In this phase, infection and illness no longer occur in many parts of the world because of successful vaccination campaigns, although it remains present in other regions of the globe. Examples are polio, measles, and a number of other childhood infections. This phase cannot yet be contemplated for COVID-19. Our best expectation would be to enter into phase two, the control phase.
The ultimate phase four, the eradication phase, has been achieved only with one infectious disease – smallpox. About two centuries after the chosid, Jenner, invented the smallpox vaccine, and following unprecedented vaccination campaigns in every corner of the world, the disease and the virus were finally eradicated in 1980, and the virus formally declared to have been purged from the planet.
Meanwhile, let’s try make the present phase, phase one of COVID-19, as successful as possible. Get vaccinated, and continue to maintain all infection-prevention measures religiously so that we can safely look forward to phase two – maybe some time next year?
- Barry Schoub is the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines. He is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He writes in his personal capacity.
This year, be the change your shul needs
COVID-19 has drastically accelerated change in the way the world works – from a social, work, health, and travel point of view. Politics, economics, and social behaviour has shifted dramatically. And it has had a deep impact on our shuls.
As a community, we are at a watershed moment and have a unique, historic opportunity to rebuild our shuls – creatively and with renewed focus on purpose and meaning.
And we need to do it together.
Many have become comfortable davening at home, and have even begun to question the necessity of returning to shul. I would like to suggest why it’s not just important, but vital.
Praying in isolation can easily become a self-centred experience. Alone with our thoughts, we have only our own hopes and concerns to focus on. But when we pray with a minyan – when we are able to see each other and feel real empathy – we have the opportunity to pray for each other. We see the pain on a person’s face who is struggling financially. Or another person struggling with health complications. Or someone else struggling with a family issue. We are able to truly open our hearts to those around us, and pray for them in their moment of need. The Talmud tells us there is also tremendous personal merit in praying for others’ needs before our own.
And there is the undeniable spiritual power of davening in a minyan. Our sages explain that when we pray together, we come before Hashem not just on our own merit, but with the collective merit of the community – and, in fact, all of klal Yisrael. A minyan represents not just its members but links us spiritually to Jews around the world and across the generations. Our prayers are therefore exponentially more powerful. This is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we come before our Creator in judgement, and need every merit we can get.
By praying in a minyan, we become part of something greater than ourselves. When we come to shul, we are contributing to the community. Just by being there, we create a newfound energy and vibrancy.
Particularly now. The pandemic has put great pressure on our shuls, and there is an enormous challenge – but also a great opportunity – to rebuild them to positions of strength, equalling and then exceeding what they were before the pandemic. To build a new, rich sense of community that inspires existing congregants and draws new people in.
And to do that we need to get involved, to be proactive in building the sense of community within our shuls. This means starting or joining shiurim; attending services both on Shabbos and during the week; participating in chesed activities – whether it’s making meals, visiting the sick, or reaching out to fellow congregants with messages of love and support; or contributing to the everyday running of the shul, sponsoring a brocha, or championing a new programme ourselves.
There’s a paradigm shift here. We need to start viewing ourselves not as clients of our shul, but as partners, active participants – not spectators, but players. Our relationship with our shuls shouldn’t be as a consumer weighing whether the product or service is of sufficient benefit to us; the decision to return to shul or daven at home shouldn’t be a cold cost-benefit analysis about what suits us better. We need our shuls. And our shuls need us.
Ultimately, it’s for our own good. Hashem has hardwired us to derive the greatest satisfaction, paradoxically, from moving beyond self-interest. Transcending the self – acting for the sake of the collective, contributing to a greater cause – is deeply fulfilling and deeply pleasurable. Coming back to shul and driving these changes is its own reward.
Among the great challenges society is going through during this pandemic is widespread depression and isolation, each reinforcing the other. And the greatest antidote to these twin challenges is to leave our isolation – to get out there and make a contribution. To get involved in the community. This is absolutely vital for both our own mental health and spiritual vitality, and our communal vibrancy.
Now, as we prepare to welcome in the year 5782, is the time to renew our shuls as active players, not spectators, and partners, not consumers. Ready to make a difference. Together.
The day of judgement is a day of love
I recently argued with a good friend. She always tries to be strictly objective in her assessment of her children. I objected. I feel strongly that my job as a mother isn’t to be objective about my children but always to see the good in them, to judge them favourably, and love them unconditionally.
This positivity bias toward my children is obvious and natural, but at the same time, I truly believe that life experience will teach them to be realistic and humble, that I don’t have to. All the encouragement, support, and love I can give them can only build them up and make them great.
This unconditional positive regard and acceptance can swallow up so many of their problems, so much of their self-doubt and negativity. It can charge my children with all the confidence and strength they need to face life’s challenges and make a success of their lives. I believe in them, and they know it. You’re entitled to your own parenting style, but this is mine, and I stand by it.
It occurs to me that this is also a model to understand our relationship with Hashem, who is like a parent to us. Too often, we approach Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur with trepidation and fear. We become discouraged and demoralised, too mindful of our failings, too oblivious to our potential. This approach is valid if we believe that Hashem’s judgement of us is impartial – “objective” and unbiased. We could justifiably be afraid if we imagine that Hashem is coldly examining our thoughts and deeds and dispassionately attributing credit and blame.
But instead, I offer you the idea that the prevailing atmosphere of Elul is love. We are Hashem’s children, and He is not objective about us at all. At this time of year, when we are in Hashem’s presence, we can allow ourselves to feel loved, encouraged, and supported. We can believe that He sees so much more good in us than bad.
This attitude can inspire us to overcome our faults and weaknesses. Knowing that Hashem believes in us and wants us to succeed can enable us to conquer self-doubt and negativity. We’re not in a power struggle with Hashem, we aren’t His adversaries. He’s always helping us and supporting us. And in this light, on Yom HaDin, our day of judgement, we have little to fear.
We can feel safe in the knowledge that we all have the unfair advantage of being judged by our Loving Father in heaven, who believes in us. He regards each of us as a hero. He knows that our strengths can overwhelm our weaknesses. He wants only to reward us and help us succeed. Like the perfect parent, He judges us favourably, waits for us patiently, loves us unconditionally, allows us to grow up slowly, watches our choices, and gets much nachas from our growth!
Shana tovah uMetuka! May we all be written and sealed for goodness!
- Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein has been speaking, teaching, writing, and volunteering in the South African Jewish community for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, she co-founded The Shabbos Project, Sinai Indaba, and Generation Sinai.
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