In an interview taken from our latest podcast (episode 19) we speak to Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his Jewish community in North London. He is Senior Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Senior Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue. We spoke to him for the ‘Death Chatter’ section of our podcast about the impact the pandemic has had on his Jewish Community.
Rabbi Wittenberg was interviewed for the Art of Dying Well podcast, episode 19: Lockdown, loss and pandemic trauma.
Q. Thinking about the Jewish community, which is very close and family-orientated, how has it dealt with the necessary shielding, the self-isolation, the loss of personal connection within families between grandparents and grandchildren etc during the pandemic lockdown? How much have you found that to be an issue?
A. “It’s definitely an issue, we’re a very cross-generational community. Grandparents and grandchildren are often very close and our prayer gatherings are not solitary prayer but community. Our quorum is traditionally made up of 10, and the services in our synagogue also have a very strong social and identity component, and of course all this has been lacking.
“People have been very keen to abide by standards of safety; looking after one’s health and the health of other people in one’s society is paramount in Jewish tradition, so all this has been missing and it’s been a major factor not present in people’s lives, and how people have responded has been very varied.
“Some people went into self-isolation very early on, they’ve seen their grandchildren only by waving through the window or on balconies, and are delighted now at least to be able to meet in gardens, but I know that’s not been easy, and its hurt.
“We’re also very aware – we’ve tried to create structures to contact everybody over a certain age, everybody we know who’s living alone. Very interestingly there’s been quite a lot of emphasis on loneliness and isolation – it’s also made me aware that in large social gatherings there can be a different type of loneliness. There’s much less now of that sort of loneliness – the sort in which everybody else seems to have lots in common and has lots of friends, and one is lingering by the side of the wall, with hundreds of people milling around as if they all know everybody and you know nobody. That isn’t happening… but what we don’t know is what people are holding in their hearts and we haven’t reached, can’t reach, the people who don’t use devices and aren’t comfortable with them, or feel anxious to share, and that’s a worry.”
Q. And as a rabbi in your community in North London have you experienced the situation where people are really struggling to cope with the fact that their father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, family members, are sick and therefore they can’t be close to them at that time?
A. “Yes, particularly in the early stages of lockdown. The death rate in the Jewish community was very high, we’re not quite sure why that was, it may be that we had a lot of social gatherings very close up until the late decision by the British government to lock down. It may be that Jews tend to travel, they have family abroad, so we lost a number of members, some to COVID-19, some not to COVID-19, but those who were ill in hospital, on ventilators, their family could not go and see them. Or were told they could come exceptionally, but it was a high risk and they felt this isn’t what my father or mother would’ve wanted….
“People have died far more alone, you couldn’t hold somebody’s hand, of course there’s been wonderful nurses or doctors who have said… ‘we’ll hold the phone to the person’s ear and you can speak’ but it’s not the same by any means. And people have felt worried about the loneliness, and then bad that they couldn’t be with the person they love most at that crucial moment of final farewell.
“And then funerals have been very different. We’ve been allowed to hold funerals but with only the very closest relatives, and something I’ve seen is brothers and sisters, who are isolating separately with their partners or alone, unable to hug each other, unable to be close to the coffin to protect also the cemetery staff, so that’s been very tense and added a different level of sadness.
“And then in the mourning period the Jewish community would gather traditionally for the Shiva, the seven days of mourning, when many, many people would come to the bereaved family’s home to speak, and to gather sometimes in tens or even hundreds, at times of prayer, and those visits have been impossible and the prayers have taken place on Zoom, which is of course far more remote, and yet less impersonal somehow than one would’ve expected, but at the same time with very obvious limitations. And then it’s harder just simply to keep in touch.”
Q. Mentioning Shiva, I think obviously there’s some religious ignorance across all our communities really, but sometimes you don’t think about these recovery processes, I’m sure having people around you, supporting you, it’s all part of giving somebody a good send off, of course, and sending them to God, but it’s also recovering yourself, the grief process, is that something that’s been seriously impacted by this separation?
A. “Yes, exactly how, and where people are with their grieving may only become really apparent over more time, but there are a number of impacts. The fact that family can’t come together, can’t share memories, and it’s a very interesting question about what screens convey, and what they don’t convey. Obviously you can’t do touch, the signs that you pick up by being there with your body, the intuitions, that closeness of just understanding each other, the ability to sit in the same space and look at albums of pictures, look at something on the mantelpiece and say ‘Dad loved that’, this isn’t happening.
“One part of this whole process of lockdown is the stresses and griefs of our society at large, and where that has carried individuals I don’t know. I think for some there will be an anger that had the government acted more quickly, had there been better PPE, this is certainly true of significant parts of the wider community, people need not have died had warnings been heeded. There may be a level of anger, sometimes justified anger, which will make it hard for people to grieve. How that emerges in the future I think is still unknown.”
Q. Thinking about the challenges as the lockdown eases and we look to the future, this is a huge question to ask… but what is the new normal for the Jewish community? I was thinking about what you said before the interview began, about the virtual world, and particularly on the Sabbath, the connection, and again the point you made about screens, what they can give you, what they can’t give you, but there are times of course in the Jewish community when you can’t use those screens either can you?
A. “No, and the traditional community will follow Jewish law in not using screens on the Sabbath, or on festivals, and that’s a huge challenge, and that whole gathering of the Sabbath, and we’re looking now towards the high holidays in September and every sector of the community is looking with some anxiety, what will we do? It’s the most important spiritual time in the Jewish year. So that’s a big change, and a big loss, and it will take time for that to re-emerge because I think we’re looking to July 4th now for synagogues to reopen in any significant way, gatherings will be limited, singing intrinsic to services carries particular dangers, and people who still have to isolate who are vulnerable. And there will be many people who’ll be anxious about gatherings because they’ve become used to not only being behind physical walls, but being emotionally in quite enclosed spaces, that’s one aspect.
“Another more positive aspect I have to say is gain. There’s a lot of online classes, people pop up from all over the world; a close friend of mine in Italy has joined one of my weekly classes, and I think many people will decide that when we meet in person again we’ll have a screen on – so that we can include all kinds of people who can join us virtually but could never get there. And although our prayers in the house of mourning will be in person, I think again we’ll be connecting up with family in Israel, and around the world, so there will also be things that we’ve learnt are possible, and although they were possible before lockdown on Zoom, not many of us realised the potential of such tools.”
Q. Looking to the future again, this isn’t just a local trauma, it’s a national, international and global trauma, particularly as you’ve talked about the travelling Jewish community and how linked up it is around the world – is there planning on a local level to look to the recovery, the movement, the getting together again, and if we can’t – what we do instead, is that underway at the moment?
A. “It’s absolutely underway, particularly with regard to the high holidays across every branch of the Jewish community, we’re trying to do the best. The most likely scenario seems to be that we’ll be able to have gatherings but of limited size and with careful spacing, and with obvious hygiene requirements, and we take close medical advice, but we’re also looking at what we’ll do if that isn’t possible, or if the return to normal – on the other hand – is quicker than we thought. So absolutely.
“There’s a dimension of this also which we haven’t talked about yet, and this is very much an interfaith dimension, and this is that the new normal is a new normal for our society, and there’s some very important things which I would be sorry to lose as we come out of lockdown.
“I don’t think any of these are specific to our particular faith, or to faith itself, but people have often noticed that they’ve seen and noted the natural world more, they’ve realised that one doesn’t have to rush from place to place in the same way.
“There are things that we’ve treated as ‘must haves’ that we actually don’t need. And early on in lockdown there was a survey which suggested that around 90% of people didn’t want a return to how it was before, and there’s also been a greater awareness of social injustice, particularly now with Black Lives Matter but before that as well, the BAME community suffering much greater illness and mortality than others.
“And the re-evaluation of roles, like who is driving the buses, who’s putting the food on the shelves, who’s collecting our rubbish, and less taking for granted. And much more awareness of neighbourhood, lots of streets like ours – we’ve got a WhatsApp group – we’re in communication with each other in ways that we weren’t, the clapping on the Thursday’s at 8pm, people out to their doors, and lots of people didn’t actually know their neighbours. Loads of volunteering, I’ve not lived through anything like that in our society. I hope our new normal is a more communal, more local, more compassionate new normal, and much, much, much more aware of the environmental emergency.
Very well said, and a good point actually. We certainly are all in it together, that’s a very good point. You are right, there are things in our new normal that we need to retain, that we need to celebrate. Perhaps less ignorance about one another, hopefully we can doo more together and be more supportive through life, death and ongoing.
Read more about Jewish rituals for the dead and dying here.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg was interviewed for the Art of Dying Well podcast, episode 19: Lockdown, loss and pandemic trauma.