Corona Diary: Week Five

Posted on Apr 23, 2020

A letter arrived for my Dad the other day. “URGENT ACCOUNT NOTICE,”  the envelope declared in bold red capitals. “Don’t let your membership slip away!” And on the back, in bigger letters still, “Please do not discard!” It’s been over eleven years since my father (who never lived at our address) slipped away, taken by a pneumonia that I think he decided at some point not to fight. My thoughts upon seeing the envelope went immediately to the families who received similar letters this week, addressed to loved ones who just a short time ago would have been at home to open them, but had since fallen victim to Covid-19. Others, thanks to selfless hospital staff and access to medical equipment that is still in shockingly short supply, would yet make it home to open letters like the one staring at me on the table, and savor the gift of answering or discarding them.

Last week, as Passover ended and we passed the close of the fifth week  of enforced confinement, New Yorkers got the news from our governor that our lockdown would last at least another month. I received the word, I confess, with a combination of mild frustration and immense relief.

The frustration comes of my desire to get back to normal life: to see my friends again, and sometimes hug them; to celebrate holidays like Passover with family around the table, rather than via Zoom; to shop in a store, sit down at a restaurant, go to synagogue, go to work. My upset at the governor’s announcement is mild rather than painful because I am among the lucky ones in this teeming city who can shelter in place fairly easily at home. I am grateful to the many thousands—including some JTS security and facilities staff—who, because their work is essential, must leave their homes every day, while others do not. I do not have small children at home, for whom I need to find care. I do not have to teach or entertain children at the same time as I struggle to get work done. I can catch my breath when needed, even relax. And truth be told, the place where my wife and I shelter is quite comfortable: there is a park nearby and enough books to last me for months. Food is delivered fairly dependably, and very occasional early-morning expeditions to the store or pharmacy seem a reasonable risk to take. We’ve learned to enjoy Zoom dinners with friends, and video chat daily with our grandchild.

My relief at the governor’s postponement of escape from lockdown reflects the palpable anxiety I feel—some nights it morphs into actual fear—at what awaits us when word comes that the time for sheltering is over. We will go out to the streets and back to the office, and the virus will be right there with us, working with undiminished efficiency. I was glad to hear Governor Cuomo say he believes it is his job to protect New Yorkers from the threat of a second round of illness and death. I want to be protected. The New York metropolitan area—world epicenter of the infection—apparently still lacks the means to do the widespread testing needed to know who carries the disease and who is immune from it. Without such testing, residents like me—even with masks in place, hands gloved, Purell at the ready—will feel like we are putting our lives at risk every time we go to work or the store—a fear that many essential workers feel every day right now. 

I know we all will need to do this at some point. The calculus of risk has got to shift sometime. Life is uncertain. It didn’t take a pandemic to teach us that. I get it; most people do. It is not entirely wrong to argue that a deep, long-lasting economic recession will take its toll in life and suffering as surely as the virus. But: I wish that we as a nation paid a lot more attention than we normally do to those left behind and in the cold. The economic and racial inequities revealed in the rates of infection and death these past few weeks have been shocking reminders of the cost of tolerating so many Americans living in poverty, or a couple of paychecks away from it, for so long. Cities around the country are scrambling to provide meals to school children who would not have had breakfast, in pre-pandemic days, had it not been provided to them at school. Many students cannot learn remotely at home because there is no internet, much distraction, and few books. It is hard to bear the thought that those who perennially have so much “less” of the goods of this world also have less chance at safety—and at life!—in the face of the pandemic. The possibility that their state of having “less” might continue uncorrected after the pandemic is passed threatens to fill one with hopelessness, at a moment when hope is most needed.  

I counter that thought by bringing to mind all the people doing more, those whom New Yorkers have taken to cheering from their windows at 7 each evening: the health care workers doing far more than is required of them, giving more of themselves, risking more than could reasonably be expected. Their number and example restore hope, indeed make it bountiful. In the face of shortages of lifesaving equipment, they have exhibited enormous  compassion and courage. One is buoyed by their action. I am inspired to hope that more of us will do more for those who have less when relief at last comes from the plague. 

None of us knows when that will be; more than a month into lockdown, it is not clear when the situation will let up, or even ease. In the meantime, I allow myself sober confidence that my family and friends will emerge okay, and that the same will be true of the institution it is my privilege to lead, and others like it. JTS will emerge from this crisis intact and even strong and those who have supported the institution over so many years will continue to invest in its future. We went into pandemic mode strong, quickly adapted every area of activity to the new realities (the world turned upside down, appropriately enough, at Purim), and have from the start made the safety and well-being of students, faculty, and staff our first concern. We have ensured that instruction, community programming, and management have all continued at the level of excellence and commitment for which  JTS is known. Higher education will never again be exactly as it was before the virus struck, and we are actively planning how JTS can continue to lead in our new reality. 

As the Jewish calendar continues its counting down of days from Passover to Shavuot, the holiday that recalls the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai, I hope that America will renew and strengthen its commitment to the values that JTS teaches and serves. Life is precious; there needs to be more justice and compassion in the world; human beings created in God’s image are empowered and required to help with that work. Our fulfilment as individuals comes through the good we do together, and the love we share along the way. We need to trust one another, greet one another with open hands, regard strangers as potential partners rather than threatening carriers of misfortune. Making things better demands that we draw upon every bit of knowledge, every science, every art, every realm of experience, every culture and religion, that we can. The walls erected across national borders to stop the spread of disease, the doors slammed shut in the name of social distancing, must not become the rule of how we operate. Exactly the opposite is the case. With proper hope, determination, and courage, “more” rather than “less” may yet be ours.