Come for the Mountains, Stay for the Guilt


Excepting day hikes and occasional trips to the store, I had my first real public outing in months when I spent a morning at MASS MoCA, the vast modern art complex in the Berkshires.

I’ve described the Berkshires — the western Massachusetts home to Tanglewood, museums, summer-stock theaters, quaint inns and more antique shops than drug stores — as what The World to Come would look like if the Zohar were rewritten by liberal Jews. We can’t go kayaking or biking or shpotsiring here without running into someone from my synagogue, or your synagogue, or the synagogue you won’t set foot in.

It’s a weird summer here, as it is everywhere else. Tanglewood, the classical music mecca that attracts 350,000 guests a year, cancelled live performances. The stages are dark, the restaurants are takeout only. Unemployment in Berkshire County reached 28 percent in May, and the arts and hospitality industries are suffering. MASS MoCA had to lay off 120 of its 165 employees.

Still, the hills are green, the lakes sparkling blue, the farm stands are bursting with fresh corn. MASS MoCA and the Clark Art Institute are experimenting with limited crowds. That’s a lot easier for MASS MoCA, which covers 550,000 square feet of space in 17 cavernous buildings that used to house a fabric factory. We felt perfectly safe wandering the spaces in our masks, and maybe a little smug that New York, Massachusetts and much of the Northeast had acted responsibly in containing the coronavirus.

One evening we went to a short story reading at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox. A few dozen of us sat at a safe distance from one another in an open-air courtyard; disinfectant and bug spray were included in the price of a ticket. We met friends in their backyards, chatting over our individual snack bowls.

So at least for a week we felt able to breathe a little, away from home and what’s been a brutally hot August back home. And we are well aware of our privilege: the luxury of working, and working from home; the freedom of having adult children, who don’t need us to entertain or educate them; the ability to take even a short vacation in the middle of a pandemic. We’re constantly reminded of the huge inequities in society, especially in a country whose vestigial and mythical “pioneer” spirit thinks a strong social safety net is for losers.

I am guessing that will be a major theme of this fall’s High Holiday sermons — or it should be. I’ve seen more essays trying to deny the very idea of “Jewish privilege” — or bemoaning the loss of in-person services — than grappling with the advantages we have as a community with relative means and the hard-won experience of overcoming crises.

Yes, we’re a small people with our own communal priorities. And yes, there’s a danger in acknowledging our privilege; for example, giving ammunition to the likes of Jeremy Corbyn. A senior advisor to the British Labour Party leader says Corbyn had trouble empathizing with Jews over anti-Semitism because he saw Jews as “relatively prosperous.”

Dwelling on our relative prosperity can also obscure the poverty and marginalization that persists among some Jews. A National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty, convened by Jewish Funders Network and The Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, wants to make sure the Jewish poor aren’t overlooked, especially amidst the Covid-19 crisis.

And there are plenty of examples of individuals and organizations who have stepped up both for us and others. Masbia, the Brooklyn-based food pantry, found itself feeding about 40,000 people a week at the height of New York City’s outbreak, a four-fold increase from typical times. Yale student and Stuyvesant High alum Liam Elkind co-founded Invisible Hands, which delivers meals, groceries and comfort to homebound people during the pandemic. Agencies across the city and across the region — from the Riverdale Y to Mid-Island Y JCC — have expanded their programs for homebound seniors and low income families. Forbes told the story of Avraham Berkowitz,  a Chabad rabbi who “used his community and health contacts to find new reliable supply chains to provide NY hospitals with PPE.”

The largest Jewish charities, including New York’s UJA-Federation, are allocating tens millions to Jewish and non-Jewish nonprofits during the pandemic.

There’s a lot of pain in the Jewish community, but also a lot of privilege. We should be able to harness the latter while alleviating the former – and to reach beyond ourselves to address the challenges of others. We have so much to give back as a community (for a few more examples, read this essay by a JDC staffer on the global Jewish response to Covid-19).

The haftarah read on Yom Kippur is a warning about communal privilege and complacency. Frankly, it freaks me out. Isaiah demands, “Is this the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?” No, he says, channeling God: Real repentance means “sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the wretched poor into your home, clothing someone you see who is naked, and not hiding from your kin in their need.”

It will be a lost opportunity – and perhaps a hillul Hashem – if the only thing we worry about during the Days of Awe is how much we miss the pomp and pilgrimage. I hope we come out of this strange, anxious summer with renewed energy to support one another, and give neighbors the help and reassurance they so desperately need.