My neighborhood is the first built next to the ancient port city of Jaffa in Tel Aviv. It is a charming area with cobbled, pedestrian-only streets, contemporary Art Nouveau architecture and Bauhaus-style residences. Its name, Neve Tzedek, “oasis of righteousness,” is a fitting one.
Neighborhood lore has it that this is where the famous early Zionist Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook formulated his vision of an agrarian society, labeling it “a Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” between 1901-1905, well before veganism and its offshoots were fashionable.
As one can imagine, Friday evenings, which mark the start of the Jewish Sabbath, are special in Neve Tzedek. Yet, in all my time living here, none was more special than this past week. For it was this week that the State of Israel eased its coronavirus restrictions, allowing small groups (up to 19 people) of any religion to congregate again. Through the weekly prayers bouncing off the walls of the buildings, Judaism’s triumph over COVID-19 could be seen and heard.
The Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest for the Jewish people. To say that I needed my day of rest is an understatement. After spending a week working and living under the harsh coronavirus restrictions, I was ready for a year-long Shabbat, prepared to hibernate until a vaccine had been found and coronavirus was an unpleasant memory of the past.
But for the five weeks prior to this, it had been my usual “Shabboses” that were the memory; instead I read the weekly Torah portion and prayed on my own, in my living room instead of in the beautiful synagogue as part of a community. COVID-19 had even managed to stifle my day of rest—my entitled commandment as a Jew.
So as I was walking to clear my head this past Friday afternoon, you can imagine my surprise to hear some of the traditional Sabbath eve Jewish songs. I was so surprised that I thought I was hearing things. I did a double take and rubbed my eyes. Standing right in front of me was a group of Jews, all standing two meters apart, wearing masks and singing the traditional Friday-night songs. And, as usual, as if it were inside the synagogue, kids ran about freely, playing with one another as the adults prayed. Judaism had survived.
The first part of Shabbat evening services is called “welcoming the Shabbat,” where we separate the hustle and bustle of the work week from this day of rest. On this Shabbat, as the equidistant people stood with their masks and their kids frolicked in the park, the neighbors stood on their balconies to join in singing “Lecha Dodi” (“Come, My Beloved”). Religious or secular, everyone was drained by the relentless coronavirus restrictions, and Shabbat was a way for them to escape and feel some camaraderie.
Just as it has the Holocaust, pogroms, the expulsion of the Jews in 132 CE and the ancient Greek wars, Judaism will survive the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, while many ask what the post-COVID-19 world will look like, Judaism does not have to, as its traditions have been carried on from generation to generation, and will continue to do so. The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we learn that we carry on their traditions, sing the same songs with the same tunes, and even eat the same foods. Judaism has been a stable force through time. It has been a consistent force.
And, while many Jews practice differently, and some observe more and others less, it is always there—something for us to draw upon day to day, as well as in times of need.
While some debate Judaism’s relevance in the world today, it still defines our understanding of right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral, as well as other basic blocks of our modern existence. Without it, we only have state law, where things can be legal but also immoral, corrupt and even evil.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has noted: “The Jewish people would exist, in Jeremiah’s words, as long as the sun and the stars and the waves roared in the sea. Israel would be God’s witness, and their eternity would mirror His. Jews survived for a simple reason. Interwoven in our history was something larger than history: Divine Providence.”
Judaism continues to live on. We should all be proud to be Jews. I know I am.