One thousand every day. As of writing this piece, that’s how many Americans are dying from the COVID-19 pandemic. One thousand mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters, brothers, and children. Each one takes with them a whole world of relationships, influences, and experiences. We pray that these deaths will soon come to an end, but we know that positive changes need more than our prayers. Our careful and deliberate actions are the difference between saving every life we can and a reinvigorated pandemic taking tens, or even hundreds of thousands more.
Chief among our current frustrations is our incomplete knowledge about the coronavirus and how we can best keep it at bay. Every day brings news that improves our understanding, but we are far from certain. We know from observation which people bear the most risk from an infection: those over the age of 65, with hypertension, diabetes, pulmonary illness, cancer, and obesity. Even so, there are unexplained anomalies, those who show none of the known risks and die nonetheless. The WHO has concerns that a rare inflammatory disease in children may be related to the coronavirus. All the while, the most dangerous carriers and spreaders of the illness are asymptomatic.
Perhaps most unsettling is our, as of yet, unsubstantiated hope that surviving a coronavirus infection leads to immunity from reinfection. While this is common with viral infections, it is by no means assured. As we reopen our economy, state by state we are conducting a natural experiment. In another four to six weeks we will know what worked and what didn’t, and whether we are on the way to a herd immunity. For now, the risk is unquantified.
This leads us to the reopening of our communal home, our synagogue. Nothing would make me happier than declaring that it was safe for everyone to come back for worship, education, and social events. Given the risk factors for our population, and the larger population of the Cape, we cannot yet make such a declaration. PIku’ach nefesh, the saving of a life, is the greatest mitzvah we know. The synagogue’s reopening will be cautious. While so many questions remain unanswered, our leadership will not take unjustified risks with the health and lives of our community members.
If my weekly trips to the transfer station are any indicator, we still have great reason for concern at the local level. A large portion of people there, a cross section of my town, are not following Governor Baker’s order for us to wear masks in public. For whatever reason, many are making it their business to ignore our Department of Public Health in the mistaken idea that somehow, they know better. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Our best science tells us to stay home, wear masks in public, distance ourselves, and wash our hands. It is the best we can do for now to protect those at risk, which is to say, all of us.
As soon as it is safe, we will adopt appropriate measures to open the Synagogue in a way that preserves everyone’s safety. It will not look as it did in our past. Our new normal will be new. We will adapt to circumstances as we always have. This is not the first time the Jewish people have experienced dislocation and undesired change. After the loss of two ancient temples, our homeland, exile and persecution, we can take comfort in knowing that the genius of Jewish tradition has been our ability to adapt. We are going to do it again.