There is Nothing Normal About the ‘New Normal’


I own a ring engraved with the Hebrew phrase meaning “this too shall pass.” It’s inspired by a folktale about King Solomon, who supposedly asked a courtier for a magic ring that would always tell the truth.

We don’t know yet how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how widespread its impact will be. We do know that people will die, families will be upended, communities will grieve and many businesses and institutions will close down or shrink.

But it too shall pass, and we will be able to look back at it the way we look at era-defining events, like 9/11 and the 2008 market crash, and try to determine what went right and what went wrong.

I am already thinking about what will change in our culture, and especially within the Jewish community, as a result of the coronavirus. The unintended consequences of illness, “social distancing” and an economic downturn all have the potential to transform Jewish life in the short and long term.

Some possibilities:

♦The personal toll may well be enormous: People will get sick and die, children will lose parents, neighborhoods might lose heroes and stalwarts. The emotional toll will also be high, on kids, on parents, on breadwinners who might face the loss of jobs and deep business losses. They will need services, resources and generosity.

♦The closing of schools and the reliance on distance learning could change the way we think about education and its costs. Colleges and day schools have both long offered one traditional, and traditionally expensive, model for education. But what happens when students, parents, faculty and administration learn that there’s another model that can work, and perhaps less expensively than the current models? And if not less expensively, then with a different style of learning that could benefit students who thrive outside the four walls of a typical school? The online learning forced by the virus could create a new culture of its own, in which teachers learn new skills, schools invest in new technology and students discover something new about how they learn.

And exactly the opposite: Online learning could expose and heighten inequities, especially among families who are in no position to look after a child during the school day or who lack the necessary technology to learn online. School closings will also force policymakers to confront our unconscionable policies when it comes to childcare, paid sick leave and health care.

Of course, every family will have a new appreciation for teachers!

♦Is there any real precedent for the shutdown of synagogues, and the advice to avoid paying shiva calls, attending funerals and gathering for prayer? The communal aspect of Jewish prayer is so central to Judaism that it is difficult to imagine life without it. Congregations that are able to take advantage of remote technology may find new possibilities during the shutdown. Rabbis and ritual committees might relax their resistance to virtual services. New rituals may well emerge. This could be a boon for the elderly and those with disabilities, as synagogues invest in the technology that could reach them at home, and for institutions that serve them, like nursing homes and assisted living centers, as they find new ways to connect residents with relatives kept at a distance. The shutdown, especially as it transforms Passover, that most-celebrated of Jewish holidays, may foster a new appreciation of what it means to gather as families and friends and neighbors.

♦At the same time, the shutdown could shred some of these bonds of kinship and community. Some community intuitions may not survive. Jewish organizations have cancelled a season’s worth of fundraisers, parlor meetings, missions and conferences. Such activities define the Jewish civic sphere. The “winners” will be those who use the forced hiatus to imagine new ways of raising money, engaging supporters and sharing knowledge. Some may even learn that they don’t “need” that conference, or that gala dinner, to reach their goals.

The losers will be organizations heavily invested in old models, or not flexible enough to change, or simply too leveraged to survive a sudden economic downturn. Institutions that haven’t planned for worst case scenarios may well go under. Philanthropy will shift, at least in the short term, to meet immediate needs either directly related to the health crisis or to its economic impact.

The coronavirus crisis will pass. Its impact could last and last. In the meantime, there’s another Hebrew phrase that we need to engrave on our hearts: Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. We will need to pull together, even at a moment when an unseen pathogen is keeping us apart.

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is editor in chief of the New York Jewish Week and senior editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He previously served as JTA’s editor in chief and as editor in chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News. @SilowCarroll