I’m an observer. I observe people and their behaviors. Then I comment on them. And over the past few weeks – ever since we crossed the COVID one-year mark – I’ve observed that, in general, people are more relaxed.
It’s as if a big, collective sigh of relief has been let loose. In Israel, that sigh is more pronounced – and official. Restrictions have been officially loosened, if not completely lifted. In the United States, it’s more a grassroots type of easing up, both attitudinally and behaviorally.
Certainly, the US cannot compete with Israel in terms of the numbers of people vaccinated – no country can, but for a country as large as the US, its numbers, too, are pretty impressive. Some 115,000,000 Americans have received their first dose of vaccine. That is 34% of the population. And approximately 63,000,000, or 19%, have received both doses. Given the numbers of die-hard anti-vaxxers, those figures are even more impressive.
For me, synagogues are a microcosm of the world. I intentionally attend services in different synagogues, populated by differing groups of attendees in varying locales, and observe. And I have observed that in synagogues since Purim, there has been a significant change in tone and feeling. Since Passover, there has been a change in behaviors.
In most synagogues that I have attended, masks are still de rigueur. Most is not all. It is, well, just most. In some synagogues, people wear their masks into the buildings, and then lower them when services begin. But in most synagogues, they are still on throughout prayers. It is the seating that has changed. More people are attending, and the distances between worshippers has gotten smaller. Three feet is the new six feet.
Synagogues that had closed their doors to in-person prayer and relied exclusively on Zoom prayers have begun to resume in-house services. Now there are two alternatives: attending in person if you feel comfortable leaving your bubble, or Zooming for those not yet willing to venture out. Divrei Torah, sermons delivered from the pulpit, have been re-instituted. Not long and drawn-out sermons but well-prepared, pithy and to-the-point teachings.
CHILDREN HAVE returned to synagogues. Banished for the past year, Passover was the breakout moment. In most cases, announcements inviting them back were not sent out – it just happened. Spontaneous and almost across the board. It was as if the Haggadah’s “Dayenu” had an additional stanza: “Dayenu – enough, we kids are coming back.” As a result, synagogues have scrambled and re-initiated children’s programming. Looking at them, masks on and lollipop sticks sticking out from underneath, made me realize how resourceful we can be when we want to be.
Complaints of non-compliance I’ve been hearing lately are not about the dangers they present. Rather, they are about rules that are being broken: standing too close to the bimah (podium) when the Torah is being read; kissing the mezuzah when walking into the building; eating a boxed, take-away kiddush in clusters rather than at home. But those complaints are being dealt with – some, with new, more relaxed rules.
The lucky confluence of vaccinations, cabin fever and change in season has resulted in organized, outdoor activities for many congregations. Perek in the Park is just one example. Outdoor picnic Shabbat lunches with a few friends scattered and comfortably distanced, sharing food and wine, is another. Perek, as it is often called, has long been a springtime feature of many synagogues.
It is an outside, late-afternoon Shabbat social gathering during which people gather to hear a presentation and then nosh. The weather is nice, the cherry blossoms are blooming, the venue is outdoors, the population is starved for content, and more and more people are vaccinated.
But are enough people vaccinated? Is what people are doing really safe or is it too soon? Has impatience gotten the best of us? It’s too soon to say.
People are much less afraid than they were in the weeks following Passover a year ago, and less than they were even two months ago. Tensions have been reduced. Certainly, COVID is still among us. There are still spikes. The virus is still raging and yes, even some of those who have been vaccinated are testing positive and getting sick. But, thankfully, mercifully, fewer and fewer people are dying. Deaths are down and morbidity is down, but that does not mean we should let our guard down or pull our masks down.
We are not yet totally out of danger. But we are, for the first time in a long time, hopeful and optimistic. Let’s be smart, too. Let’s proceed, but with caution and with wisdom.The writer is a columnist, a social and political commentator, and the host of Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV.