Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Jewish Values Matrix for Reopening Temple Emanuel

After several weeks of sheltering in place, we are beginning to formulate a plan that addresses the issues involved in reopening our facilities at Temple Emanuel. In order to facilitate the decision-making process, we have commissioned a COVID-19 Reopening Task Force made up of lay leaders, Temple Staff, Clergy and professionals from a wide variety of disciplines.  The fluidity surrounding this pandemic makes the process of setting up a timetable for reopening both imprecise and difficult. Nonetheless, we feel it necessary to do all that we can to anticipate and respond to whatever situations might arise. By assembling a group of talented, dedicated and visionary individuals, we feel that we will be strengthened in our decision making process.
In March, when we first realized that we would be closing our facility, we created a Matrix of Jewish Values that guided us in our deliberations.  As we approach the prospect of gradually reopening our building, we feel that it is appropriate to revisit and update this matrix. What follows is an attempt to begin this discussion. Some of the values listed are repeated and/or revised from our previous document.  Others are new.  This should not be seen as a complete listing of values. It is quite possible and probable that it will be revised as we get deeper into the decision making process. We currently do not have a specific timetable in place for opening up Temple Emanuel. We hope that this process will guide us to achieve this goal.
The following Jewish values will guide our discussions, deliberations and decisions as we move forward with re-opening Temple Emanuel facilities in the days, weeks and months to come
  1. Pikuach Nefesh – Preserving Life.  This most important of all Jewish values once again tops our list. Our sacred texts teach that we can forgo almost any commandment or prohibition in order to preserve life.  In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, our top priority must be the health and safety of all. Every decision around reopening our facilities will be made with this in mind.
  2. Kehilla - Community. Every decision we make about cancelling or reinstituting programs or experiences revolves around the question of how it will enhance our community. Judaism teaches that life is best experienced with others. The concept of Minyan - the ten adult individuals required to perform certain mitzvot or engage in prayer or Torah reading - teaches us that we need to be together. The inability to congregate in person takes an emotional and spiritual toll on all of us. The more ways that we can find ways to gather - both virtually and in person - the more we will be able to experience God's presence.
  3. Kedusha Uniqueness. Often, we translate Kedusha as “holiness.” But a deeper understanding of kedusha teaches that we experience holiness on the deepest level when we look at every individual, relationship and moment as unique. When two individuals fall in love, for example, their experience is unlike that of any other. But this concept extends into every aspect of our lives. Each of us is holy – not only because we are created in God’s image - but also because our own experience is different, sacred and set apart. This also has practical applications that must be applied when we examine the unique aspects and needs of different parts of our congregation. For example, the essential childcare needs of households in our Rabbi Steven Foster Early Learning Center have a different urgency than those who participate in worship or Torah study. Some program areas (like worship and study) can be effectively and powerfully experienced online.  Others (like childcare) cannot.  Consequently, decisions that are made in one area of our congregation may not apply to others. We will work to find the holiness and uniqueness in every situation and respond as best we can under the circumstances.
  4. Dina d’malchuta dina—“The law of the land is the law” (Shulchan Aruch).  Jewish history has taught us that, as loyal citizens of the countries in which we have lived, we have a sacred responsibility to support and follow the laws of our nation – unless they violate basic and fundamental aspects of our faith. In this light, we believe that we are bound by an essential Mitzvah (commandment) to support whatever decisions our local and national leaders make in response to this pandemic. Rules around safely congregating, social distancing, health and security will be followed. We also affirm our right and responsibility to respectfully and clearly speak out when we see injustices being carried out in the name of the law.
  5. Lo Ta’aShok Sachir“Treat Workers Fairly” (Deuteronomy 24:14) Temple Emanuel is a large institution. We employ many people from different walks of life. Each person in our employ is unique and has their own needs. We are committed to doing all that we can to ensure that reopening  will have minimal impacts on our employees’ abilities to care for themselves and their loved ones. We must be very careful to understand, anticipate and support each individual’s unique needs and comfort level when we speak of reentry into our facilities. No one will be forced to comply with any policies that they feel are unsafe.
  6. Simcha “Rejoicing.” Even in times of difficulty, it is important that we look for ways to celebrate Jewish life. This can be challenging when life-cycle events are cancelled, postponed or radically reshaped due to health concerns. We are determined to do all that we can – within the constraints of the reality of our situation – to help everyone achieve this.
  7. Nechama – “Comforting the Afflicted.” Pastoral care is central to our mission at Temple Emanuel. When personal contact is limited, this can be difficult. We will continue to strive to be present for all who are in need in any way that we can. But comforting others is not limited to our clergy.  Each member of our congregation has a pastoral function in our sacred community. We are fully aware that the past weeks of sheltering in place have been traumatic– on differing levels. We have suffered personal, professional and economic losses. There is a palpable sense of grieving taking place in our homes. Some of this grief is a result of serious illness and potential or actual loss of life. But we also are grieving the loss of normalcy. Painful changes have taken place overnight. These changes can take their toll. In addition, we know that the pain of loss we feel is often amplified by memories of prior experiences. Each new loss can bring up the pain of previous grief. We need to be caring for and sensitive to one another as we navigate these uncharted waters. 
  8. Chazon - “Vision”.  This pandemic has forced us to examine and question every aspect of our congregation. With all the pain and upset caused by our need to close our building, we have also discovered new options and opportunities to celebrate Jewish life. We know that when this crisis is over, the lessons we have learned and the new modalities of worship, learning, communicating and congregating will serve us well as we move into the new normal of Post-COVID-19 life. We also have discovered the centrality and importance of sacred community in our isolation from one another. We need one another and are determined to continue to provide multiple portals of entry into our Kehillah Kedoshah – our sacred community.
  9. Hevei M’tunim Patience”.  In the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 1:1), our ancient rabbis taught that being patient while deliberating is one of the most important values we can possess. While they were most probably speaking of how Rabbis should conduct themselves while in a court of law, this value has much more far-reaching implications for us all. Given the fact that we are dealing with a situation that is constantly changing and unprecedented in our lives, we do not have all of the answers to the problems with which we are confronted. We feel confident in our abilities to make well-reasoned and appropriate decisions most of the time, but we also are prepared to learn from mistakes and missteps that we will make along the way. We are determined to learn from every experience – as well as glean important lessons from other congregations and communities around the country. One concept that we embrace, however, is that every decision we make will have been for what we believe is in the best interest of our congregation.
We hope and pray that soon we will be able to worship, study, celebrate and comfort one another in person. We give thanks for the bonds that keep us connected in this liminal and difficult time.


Rabbi Joseph R. Black

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