The coronavirus pandemic: A personal response

26 March 2020 – 1 Nisan 5780
Rabbi Danny Rich

26 March 2020

By Rabbi Danny Rich
Outgoing Senior Rabbi and Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism

On one thing we can be agreed: we are living in an extraordinary and challenging moment and each one of us faces one or more difficulty: our own mortality and the possible death of a loved one, illness and un(der)employment, loneliness and isolation, changed patterns of work and ways of communication – new routines for every one of us.

I want to pay tribute to, and express my pride in, the Montagu Centre staff now working in their own homes, Liberal rabbis and members of Liberal Judaism constituent communities who continue to try so hard to mitigate the physical loss of community, the closure of our shuls.

Not only have many of our communities devised telephone trees, post code groups and other means to remain in contact with the less mobile and the more vulnerable but the communities amongst whom we live have not been forgotten as members have volunteered at night shelters, hospitals, and on food delivery runs.

Further, Liberal rabbis have been at work streaming services, recording lectures and creating interactive religion school classes so that those with access to technology can have a sense of continuity.

Liberal Judaism’s national response to the virus – including the continuing provision of funerals and burials – has been led by its director of partnerships and strategy, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, who suggested that from time to time different Liberal rabbis provide a personal perspective including an inspirational reflection and a practical suggestion.

Laura, my wife, and I are blessed with five grandchildren (ages five to less than a year) who all live relatively locally and on more Friday evenings than not they are gathered at our home to light candles and taste challah – and a couple of them usually ‘offer’ to stay the night too.  Shabbat and Havdalah over ‘Google Hangouts’ where we could all see and hear each other was, to a Luddite like me, nearly as miraculous as the parting of the Reed Sea!

Technology has also played its part in my changing role as a chaplain at a busy district hospital where chaplaincy efforts have moved focus from the patient to their family and by the use of video and telephone rather than face to face.  I will not bore you with why it is necessary, but very sick patients have families whose pastoral needs are intense but whose risk of passing – or receiving –infection is high.

These very real dilemmas are underpinned, I suggest, by our modern struggle to live with the unknown and with that which we cannot control.  The marvellous advances of scientific endeavour, particularly in the fields of medicine and technology, have enabled us to feel in charge of so many aspects of our lives which once were described as ‘in the hands of God’ or ‘subject to the vicissitudes of fortune and fate’.

Jewish teaching has always, of course, acknowledged that there are aspects of our lives which are simply matters of faith.  By ‘matters of faith’ I mean that from time to time things happen to us which may be random, or that in our momentary personal struggle we, for good reasons, cannot understand in their wider context.  We can sometimes forget that the journey of life is indeed an adventure of uncertainty – the results of which can be unmeasured joy as well as uncontrolled tragedy, imaginative hope as well as deep despair.

In moments such as now, Jews often turn to the Psalms, particularly the well-known Psalm 23.  I have a good friend who is a Methodist minister in Lincolnshire, the Revd Bruce Thompson.  In a moving personal meditation, A Meditation of Hope (Church in the Market Place Publications: 2011) Bruce offers ‘A Song of Hope After Psalm 23:

          Hope is my companion when all else has been lost to me.

          Hope urges me to rest and reflect in a place of possibilities so that re-creation and renewal are mine.

          Hope is my guide when I am confused.

          Even when the darkest of nights seems never ending I find that I am embraced, comforted and consoled.

          Despair may threaten to overwhelm me.  But Hope lingers and anxiety is quelled, allowing the seeds of joy to be sown.

In what for some must be ‘the darkest of valleys’ may we all soon be restored to ‘the path of a good life’.

Finally, to the practical.  I am a badly disciplined reader who starts many books and completes far fewer volumes.  Before the ‘lockdown’ was announced I guessed I might need to find something symbolic to do for 100 days.  I have had on my shelves for some time Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millenia of Jewish Conversation (Bluebridge, New York: 2011).  I intend to read one of the short one hundred extracts each day as a discipline, hopefully as a joy, and as an acknowledgement that I have no control over the impact such an exercise may have on my future.


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