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Cultural Appropriation and Effects of COVID-19 on the Jewish Community

 

Blog #1

One of the things that I really dislike about our current culture is what some might call pigeonholing - to unfairly describe someone or something as belonging to a particular group such as Right, Left, Liberal, Conservative etc. Many people are far more complex than these simple labels and their ideological positions vary depending on the issue. A great example of this is the following article by R. Avi Shafran, who, because of his affiliation with Agudath Yisroel of America, is typically pigeonholed as Rightwing/Conservative. This article demonstrates how one person is multifaceted and cannot be stereotyped into a superficial or simplistic classification. 

If there were a contest for the most tasteless use of a slogan this summer, it would be hard to pick one out of several recent candidates reacting to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disallowal of overnight camps in the state this year.

Two of the slogans are featured on signs being held by chassidic children in a photo that appeared online and in at least one respectable Jewish print publication. One sign reads “Kids’ Live Matter” [sic] and the other, “No camps, no justice.”

The third was part of a caricature in a Jewish magazine intended for young people.  It portrayed Mr. Cuomo dressed as a police officer with his knee holding down a child wearing a summer camp t-shirt and crying out “I can’t breathe.”

What were the creative minds who thought those lines clever thinking? Did they not realize that equating the cruel snuffing out of lives with depriving children of a summer camp experience is obscene?

Please don’t misunderstand. Overnight camps are a very important part of many Jewish children’s lives and educations.  Such camps provide some 41,000 young Jews with opportunities to grow physically, emotionally and religiously.  Camps are particularly needed this summer, after months of children attending classes remotely and being denied the camaraderie and human interaction so vital for human development.

I fully realize that.  And also that Mr. Cuomo’s edict was woefully wrongheaded.

He ignored a 17-page safety plan provided to him by a consortium of Orthodox Jewish overnight camps, signed by no less than nine nationally-recognized infectious disease doctors and medical professionals. It explained how precautions could be taken at overnight camps to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of Covid-19 infections.  The experts contended that children in camp environments would actually be safer in the protective bubble of isolated camps than they will now be if the edict stands.

But the cogent case for overnight camps doesn’t deserve to be sullied by outrageous, offensive comparisons.

Did the sloganeers consider for a moment how a black citizen, anguished by the seemingly endless parade of killings of unarmed black men and women by police, would perceive the “borrowing” of chants used to protest such carnage in the cause of demanding that… summer camps be opened?

Leave aside how a black American would feel.  How should any thoughtful person feel?

And if it’s really necessary to bring the issue closer to home, how would any of us Jews feel if “Never Again!” was co-opted to describe some summer vacation resort’s pledge to not ever repeat the same entertainment experience? No need to even imagine. Just recall the howls of Jewish outrage last summer when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred (not even inaccurately) to detention facilities on the southern border as “concentration camps.”

More disturbing than the tone deafness of the offensive borrowings is the lack of empathy it reveals.

The Torah teaches us to treat our fellow Jews in special ways.  We are family, after all, and family comes first.

But is the concept of tzelem Elokim limited to Jews?  Does the word brios in mechabed es habrios (Avos, 4:1) not, on its face, mean all people?  Did Dovid HaMelech not mean to include all human beings when he sang (Tehillim, 65:3) “You, Who hears prayer, to You all flesh will come”? Were korbanos not accepted from non-Jews in the Beis HaMikdash?

Is “darkei shalom,” for some reason, a lesser halachic ideal than others? Is not the goal of history, as our nevi’im prophesied, to bring all the earth’s inhabitants to recognize Hashem? Do we not then have to be concerned about them?

Back in 1964, Dr. Marvin Schick, a”h, writing in The Jewish Observer, asserted:

“It is our historical and religious heritage that compels us to sympathize with the plight of the Negro. It is unthinkable that a people so oppressed throughout history would not today rally to support the cause of the American Negro, now afflicted by the irrational forces of hatred and bigotry. Anything short of this by American Orthodox Jewry is to reject the principles that we have stood by through the millennia of persecution and to which we must remain equally faithful in a free society.”

Yes, there has been hatred for Jews among some blacks. I can testify to that from personal experience. Many experiences, in fact.

But I have also had enough interactions with black citizens of good will to know that the haters aren’t the norm. And all of us have witnessed more than enough in current events to know that being black in America remains a difficult, even dangerous, thing.

“Black Lives Matter” is a name that has been adopted by scores of organizations, some larger, most smaller. But Black Lives Matter is also an idea — essentially a reiteration of what was once known as the “civil rights movement.”  That movement qua movement, as Dr. Schick wrote more than 50 years ago, is one that should resonate with us.

The concept of darkei shalom (fostering a peaceful environment), if nothing else, should compel us to show black Americans, and all people, that Jews committed to living Torah-faithful lives are fully committed to the safety and equal treatment by society of all human beings, no matter the color of their skins.

Blog #2:

A growing number of surveys are being conducted on the societal and sociological effects of COVID-19. Some have touched on aspects of the Jewish community, but they are based on relatively small samples and do not explore issues specific to the Jewish community. Nishma Research has released the first broad survey of the Jewish community on this topic. This non-random, opt-in survey was conducted May 4-19, 2020, among 860 Jews in the U.S., across Non-Orthodox and Orthodox denominations, and was sponsored and funded by Nishma Research as a service to our community.

According to Mark Trencher, president of Nishma Research, “the coronavirus pandemic has created stress, challenges and sadness within our Jewish community, but it has also spurred thought and creativity around ways to continue and even enhance our Jewish practices and ideals. This survey was both needed and an opportunity, and we took advantage of this unique time period to explore a broad range of related issues.”

Some findings:

The Haredi Difference – Haredi responses are usually different from those of both Modern Orthodox and Non-Orthodox (generally Conservative) Jews – two groups that respond somewhat similarly in a number of areas. For example:

~ 26% of Haredi respondents report having contracted the virus, compared to 4% of Modern Orthodox and 5% of Non-Orthodox.

~ 64% of Haredi are worried that someone in their household will contract the coronavirus, compared to 71% of Modern Orthodox and 72% of Non-Orthodox.

Different Impact on Younger vs. Older Groups – In many ways, younger adults suffer more from the pandemic than their elders. Those under 40 suffer more from social isolation and economic insecurity, and singles are particularly affected (36% feel personal isolation to a great extent, the highest level among all groups). Interestingly, couples with one child experience more feelings of isolation than other couples.

~ Older people (age 70+) are certainly medically more vulnerable and express more worry, but they experience little sense of isolation and they are not much affected financially.

The Pain of Being Poor – Groups most affected financially include those with lower incomes, less education, unmarried and the self-employed. Across all metrics of physical, emotional and financial impact, those with less than a college degree are most adversely affected. 

Religious Institution Initiatives and Value – Over 85% of synagogues are offering online classes, and a majority of their members have participated. Orthodox synagogues less often offer online prayer (90% of Non-Orthodox do so, compared to 67% of Modern Orthodox and 20% of Haredi). Across denominations, a plurality of respondents say they are “somewhat satisfied” with online prayer.

~ In terms of perceived value, synagogues have more than held their own. More than two thirds of synagogue members say their views on the value of synagogue membership haven’t changed, and the vast majority whose views have changed now see more value in being a synagogue member.

Impact on Feelings of Jewishness” – Some other surveys have asked whether the pandemic has affected people’s faith. We asked whether people’s experiences have affected how they feel “Jewishly” in such areas as sense of connection, community, involvement, and spirituality.

~ Very few (5% or less) say their feelings of Jewishness have been weakened, and a substantial majority feel no change or have mixed feelings.

~ Interestingly, a notable minority say their feelings of Jewishness have been strengthened, and this feeling is strongest among the Haredi (38%), which is interesting in light of the heavier incidence of the virus among this group.

Technology is a Big Winner … Here to Stay? – People like the new uses of technology that they have experienced. The majority of Non-Orthodox (90%) and Modern Orthodox (68%) say their synagogue is offering online prayer, but this is uncommon among the Haredi (20%). All groups are active in conducting online classes.

~ A minority of Modern Orthodox (29%) believe their rabbis should give thought to halachic flexibility (e.g., technology on Shabbat or Jewish Holidays) even after the pandemic.  

Federal Flop  But Little Political Impact – Respondents are satisfied with the coronavirus responses of their local Jewish community, the medical/scientific communities and their local government, but dissatisfied with the federal government response.

~ Satisfaction with “how President Trump has responded to the coronavirus outbreak” stood at 8% among Non-Orthodox, 20% among Modern Orthodox and 46% among Haredi.

~ There is little measurable impact on political views. Haredi are still strongly pro-Trump, while Modern Orthodox are still strongly pro-Biden and Non-Orthodox are still virtually unanimously pro-Biden. Voting preferences since February have shifted between 1% and 2% toward Biden, but the small shifts are within the margin of sampling effort, so it is safe to say that views have not changed notably.