Navigating this Strange New World

What a strange new world we're living in. Only 10 days ago, we were managing the novel coronavirus situation by recommending vigilance around hand washing. You should still be washing your hands (thoroughly and often, and also refraining from touching your face as much as possible!), but from our new vantage point today, the idea that this might be enough feels almost quaint.

What a strange new world we're living in. Only 10 days ago, we were managing the novel coronavirus situation by recommending vigilance around hand washing. You should still be washing your hands (thoroughly and often, and also refraining from touching your face as much as possible!), but from our new vantage point today, the idea that this might be enough feels almost quaint.

Like everyone, Kavana is paying careful attention to the developing situation, here in Seattle and beyond. The many healthcare professionals in our community advise that things are about to really change, and will get more severe and challenging before they get better. We are fortunate to live where we do, with a robust infrastructure of excellent medical centers, research institutions, and public health professionals, and to be following the solid guidance of level-headed local and state leaders.

Our job -- as good citizens, and as members of a faith community that cares deeply about the value of human life -- is to do what is being asked of us, which is to reduce physical contact dramatically in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Doing so will give our doctors, nurses and hospitals a fighting chance. Without a doubt, doing so will save countless lives. As Jews, we know that there is no higher value than this -- in our tradition, we call this "pikuach nefesh."

From our new perch on the Jewish calendar -- just over the hump of Purim -- we can now begin to see ahead of us with a longer-term horizon, looking towards Pesach and beyond. In other words, we are bracing to be in this new mode for a while. Kavana will follow the lead of Governor Inslee's orders concerning schools, cancelling all of our in-person gatherings through April 24.  

From the outset, Kavana has predicated our Jewish community on the belief that people need each other, and that the best way to build community is through face-to-face interaction. The new measures we're taking are necessary, but expose us to a different very real threat: that of being isolated. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, the senior rabbi of a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles, reflected on this beautifully this week, and I share his words with you now, because they ring so true for me:

One of the brand new terms that has entered our daily conversation is "social distancing". It is shorthand, as we know very well, for the practical physical precautions that we all need to and must take in order to protect ourselves and others. I'd humbly suggest though, that we use the term itself sparingly, if at all.  Language is a powerful shaper of thinking. And the very last thing we need right now, is a mindset of mutual distancing. We actually need to be thinking in the exact opposite way. Every hand that we don't shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise. It is obvious that "distancing", if misplaced or misunderstood, will take its toll not only upon our community's strength and resiliency, but upon the very integrity and meaning of our spiritual commitment... Let's stay safe. And let's draw one another closer in a way that we've never done before.

And so, we ask you to reach out and support those in your network, and each other. As we said earlier in the week, Kavana will be as creative as we can in trying to keep people connecting meaningfully with one another and with Jewish tradition. These plans are coming together in real time, and we will have many more details to share with you next week.  Stay tuned for the following:

  • More regular email communication.

  • For kids in our afterschool programs (Moadon Yeladim, Middle School Program), we will have resources for at-home learning and will be curating on-line gatherings, beginning next week. Our Education Director, Cara Abrams, is developing these plans now; if you have ideas to share or expertise to offer, please email Cara.

  • Webinars and on-line gatherings. We're already brainstorming about ways to connect existing social groups, bring together new groups, and provide stress-reduction programming. What else are you craving right now? What do you want to discuss or learn? What could you offer to teach/lead/facilitate for peers? Email us with ideas and we'll do our best help make it happen.

Right now, we are excited to announce these new Kavana virtual events:

  • Calling Parents (with kids at home): As we adjust to this new reality and prepare to structure the first full week of life at home together with our kids, let's come together via technology for a little support. Kavana partner Sarina Natkin, LICSW, a parenting coach, has offered to curate this informal session. She will walk us through some key topics: how to talk to kids about what's happening, what do kids need, what do parents need, what not to stress about, and how to manage sibling conflict, and we'll try to leave time for Q&A and discussion. This Sunday, 3/15, 8:30-9:30pm. Click here at that time to log into Kavana's Zoom event.

In addition, we'll try our best to share resources for high-quality online Jewish programming from friends in other locations. This unprecedented situation is forcing so much to go online, which actually creates an amazing opportunity for those of us here in this upper left-hand corner of the map to be exposed to some of the most exciting music and ritual that's happening around the country these days. A few opportunities to get you started, this Shabbat and over the coming days, include:


  • Shabbat INSpirit: A Virtual Gathering. Join Rabbi David Wolpe, Craig Taubman, and more for an hour of spirit, healing and community. Today, Friday 3/13 @ 3pm Pacific, click here to watch live via youtube


  • A Virtual Melava Malka (singing to end Shabbat), with the leadership team of Hadar's Rising Song institute (Deborah Sacks Mintz, Joey Weisenberg, and Yosef Goldman). Saturday 3/14 @ 6pm Pacific. Here's the event info with the link to the livestream.

Next Week

Finally, last but certainly not least, Kavana's very own staff have prepared a Shabbat treat for you this evening -- a mini-Shabbat service with musician Traci Marx which is intended to be grounding, centering, and connective (click here to access the recording through Dropbox, and sing along at home!), and a d'var torah specifically for this Shabbat by Rabbi Josh Weisman (keep scrolling below).

Sending virtual hugs as we head together into the first Shabbat of this new reality.  Keep in touch, and keep breathing... we will weather this strange new world together!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum

Rabbi Josh's Dvar Torah: Torah guidance for times of epidemic: Value each life, do your part, wash your hands... and don't panic.

We often say that the Torah speaks to our lives and times, but that has perhaps never been more true than this week. As the vast scope of the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on our daily lives became fully apparent this week, we need look no further than the opening two verses of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, to see not only that epidemics are not new, but also to find vital counsel about how to face them as a community:

   “YH/WH spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for themselves on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to YH/WH.”

Right out of the gate, we see that the Torah is not only aware of, but vigilant about preventing plagues and epidemics. (The Torah’s method for preventing a plague — having people pay a registration fee instead of being counted — is no longer relevant, since we know that counting people doesn’t induce plagues, as the ancients believed, but the Torah’s insistence on an organized response to prevent epidemics is evident.) It’s not something I ever thought about much before, but the Torah talks about plagues quite frequently — clearly it’s something that has been on our minds for a long, long time. I for one find great comfort in knowing that this is not new. An epidemic as disruptive as this one may be new to us in our lifetimes, but as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) said, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

But there’s much more than precedent encoded in these verses. The Torah’s prescription for preventing a plague — as scientifically inaccurate as it is — is nonetheless morally invaluable. Commentators have long noted that this half-shekel registration system is a great equalizer — the Torah goes on to emphasize that “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD’s offering as expiation for your lives.” The Torah is telling us in a very literal way that everyone’s life has the same worth. This is such an important part of our response to this epidemic — much of the disruption that we are being called upon to go through is ultimately to protect other people we don’t know from getting sick or dying. Even when we are healthy, even we are not personally at high risk, we have to take measures to prevent the spread of the virus to others who are more vulnerable. And, as far as I can tell, our community is living up to this high standard pretty well so far!

And not only does the fee indicate our worth, it highlights the importance of our efforts. This half-shekel fee goes towards the construction of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary that is being constructed to be a place for God’s presence to dwell amidst the people. Everyone is being called upon here to do their part to create something of value to the whole community. So not only do we all have the same worth, we all have the same ability to contribute to the greater good!

There’s yet more. After another amazingly timely reminder — to wash hands “that they may not die!” — the Torah portion goes on to describe a key event in the history of our people, one that we continue to learn from throughout the generations — the sin of the Golden Calf. We don’t often stop to consider why the people made this collective blunder, but they say so quite clearly — in the (temporary) absence of information and leadership, they didn’t know what was going to happen, so they hastily grasped for something seemingly concrete to hold onto. When their leader went up the mountain and didn’t come down, they freaked out: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.” When God sees what they’ve done, God tells Moses that “they have quickly gone astray.” In other words, they panicked.

It’s the most human of instincts — we abhor the unknown, we hate not being in control. That lack of ability to predict the future is actually with us all the time, a situation like the coronavirus only makes it harder to ignore. But the necessary responses to the unknown are always the same, as our Torah portion counsels — stick together, remember that we’re all of equal value, each do your part for the collective good… and don’t panic.

Wishing you each a Shabbat of greater Shalom than the week we’ve just been through.

Rabbi Josh Weisman