In this ongoing global pandemic, I witness the inequities of this world in full relief. I hear about institutional racism and realize I have been a bystander all those years. I feel like the figure in Munch’s “The Scream.” I am all blurry lines topped with an alien-like face. I have the same mouth hole from which a scream of sorrow mixed with desperation escapes.
I have been craving the in-person companionship of many of the people in my Zoom squares. I try mightily to connect during an isolation that is also a limbo where friends visit me masked in my backyard. It is a limbo where I eat dinner and have drinks with dear ones over FaceTime.
I want to have a cup of coffee in a café with a friend less than six feet apart. I want to go to the movies and munch on popcorn in front of a big screen. I want so much to hug my almost 97-year-old friend. But how appropriate is it that I want, I want, I want, when so many people don’t have? I want, I want, I want, in the midst of this unprecedented reckoning with systemic racism.
For solace and perspective, and gratitude, I turned to others in a space I cherish and know well—a book. There’s a new anthology entitled “When We Turned Within: Reflections on COVID-19,” the proceeds of which go to the UJA Federation New York’s COVID-19 relief fund. Sarah Tuttle-Singer and Rabbi Menachem Creditor edited the book. These two very thoughtful people spoke to me about the touching, loving experience of reading submissions from Jews of all backgrounds and life circumstances. They saw submissions from people navigating the pandemic as well as mourning the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Tuttle-Singer is the social media editor for The Times of Israel and well known for her smart, unique and affecting mix of straight-talking, reflective prose. In her introduction to the anthology, she writes: “We are all here, sharing the same wild storm together—rough waters, high waves, dark clouds. Maybe we are mourning someone we love dearly and looking for a minyan to say Kaddish somehow. Maybe we are struggling with unfathomable loneliness.”
Creditor, the UJA Federation’s scholar-in-residence, writes in his introduction: “Our book is much more than a record of loss. It is a collection of reflections, prayers, and poems of many, many individual souls—165 to be exact—who collectively tell the story of right now with depth and heart and startling brilliance. On the pages of our collection you will find honest testimony of a very difficult time on our planet.”
Eight Massachusetts writers and clergy contributed to the anthology. A local rabbi and artist, Rabbi Karen Byer Silberman, illustrated the cover, which aptly shows a boat weathering the “wild storm” that Tuttle-Singer described. “Working on this project held me together during difficult times,” she said in a phone conversation. “As submissions were coming in, those powerful reflections that individuals were going through made me feel less alone.”
Creditor and Tuttle-Singer hope to edit a second companion volume and will soon put out a call for submissions. As Creditor noted, “We set out to create something worthy of this very hard moment. This collection will give us the chance to come back to this time with honest testimony.”
The same week I read “When We Turned Within,” I attended a Zoom presentation called “Global Jewish Citizenship During a Pandemic” with Rabbi Marc Baker, CJP president and CEO, and Aviva Klompas, CJP’s associate vice president of Israel and global Jewish citizenship. They discussed CJP’s engagement with the global pandemic with Asher Ostrin, interim CEO of JDC. Baker began the program by calling attention to “the additional pandemic of our history of racial injustice here in this country. We grapple with our community’s role and responsibility, both for our brothers and sisters of color and in creating the American society that we aspire to live in.”
Klompas noted that in the last year, CJP has “brought together the various Israel and international components of [CJP’s] work under the umbrella of a new department called Israel and Global Jewish Citizenship. The idea is to recognize and appreciate the interconnectedness of individuals of communities—Jews and non-Jews, and generally people around the world. JDC is an obvious and incredibly important partner in our work. We’re connected by a shared desire to support Jewish communities and invest in the resiliency and vibrancy of our people and our future, as well as people’s [futures] everywhere.”
Added Ostrin: “[Israel and global Jewish citizenship] is a wonderful term because what citizenship involves is responsibility and rights and introducing people to the notion that being a part of the Jewish people incorporates those things.”
I latched on to the notion of interconnectedness that each of the speakers mentioned. Klompas noted: “Global citizenship is about knowing that your life is tied to the lives of other people who are outside your family or local community. It’s about having a better understanding of the world and its people because that understanding brings connection.”
I have so many long-standing worries. When will pandemic-related deaths end? When will all people be treated equally in this country in a sustainable way? Will we effectively confront our ignorance—willful or not—of four centuries of institutional racism? How do we move toward a constructive empathy? Maybe part of the answers are embedded in ongoing, meaningful connections to others.