Barbara Sofer

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Sheltering in Jerusalem during COVID-19 brings tears, pride

By Barbara Sofer

May 22, 2020

The rich tenor voice reaches my open window from the street below, chanting “Yedid Nefesh,” a poem composed by a Safed kabbalist 500 years ago. “Reveal Yourself... Let the earth shine with Your glory.”

Welcome to Kabbalat Shabbat on our street. This Jerusalem night is devoid of the cool mountain air. Instead, a hot, dusty wind called hamsin, derived from the Arabic word for “fifty,” is blowing through the Levant, typical for the transition period, also 50 days, between Passover and Shavuot.

This mid-May in Israel also marks a time of transition vis-à-vis the pandemic. The coronavirus is seemingly in retreat here, though not yet gone. Synagogues, closed to avoid the lethal spread of the virus, are opening small prayer quora with mandated social distancing. In our household, we don’t feel ready to attend. We feel safer staying away from a group where every cough and sneeze feels threatening. Not yet.

So we’re sitting beside our open window, and we’re in for a treat.

Tonight’s volunteer prayer leader is no amateur. David Behrman is often called away from his home to conduct special prayer services in Great Britain’s grand synagogues.

But no one is traveling these days. Our local talent is, well, local once again. It reminds me of a time long ago when travel was a luxury and discouraged by state ethic and taxes.

To use the agreeable American phrase, we are sheltering in place. All of the State Israel is sheltered in place. It sounds biblical.

When the pandemic struck, Israelis all over the world wanted to come home. Some were backpackers in Melbourne, Mumbai, and Machu Picchu. Others were on study programs in Oxford, England or Oxford, Georgia, or dairy farming in Oxford, New Zealand. They own boutiques in Boston, sell falafel in Philadelphia.

Reportedly, 500,000 Israelis have returned from extended stays abroad during the pandemic.

Likewise, many of us have canceled long-scheduled trips. We are a nation of enthusiastic travelers suddenly made wander-less. In 2019 Israelis made more than nine million trips abroad, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. There are fewer than nine million of us.

I run out of fingers counting the number of countries of birth represented in our modest prayer group drawn from a few apartment buildings, spread along a block of our one-way street: on balconies, on the sidewalk and, like us, leaning out windows, singing in different accents, all eager to welcome the Sabbath Queen.

Once, most travelers from Israel were those returning to the Diaspora to visit relatives and friends.

But today’s platinum frequent flyers are business travelers, sharing Israeli creativity and talent abroad, be they academic ideas, technology or art, like my Sabra neighbor Mordechai Bier, who initiated our temporary prayer group.

In normal times, Mordechai travels abroad frequently, carrying a sample case of exquisite silver kiddush cups, Shabbat candlesticks and, for this season, the silver and wood calendars for counting the Omer. Three times a day, he’s saying kaddish, the memorial prayer for his father, Yitzhak.

I think of the late Yitzhak Bier, whose family managed to escape Hitler’s rearming Germany in 1935, when he was eight. Religiously devout, at age 15, Yitzhak nonetheless decided to become an artist, completing Jerusalem’s premier Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s four-year course in three. The prize money he won for a Hanukkah menorah provided him with the start-up funds to buy tools and pursue his craftsmanship in a basement. Today, families all over the world seek his designs. A builder of Jerusalem.

Sheltering at home, son Mordechai makes use of his synagogue proficiency and his strong voice to lead daily prayers and to read a Torah scroll on his balcony.

THERE’S a tradition to review the past week during the seven psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat. That’s not a simple task in these isolation days which seem to blend into each other.

Since March neither my husband nor I had violated the 100-meter, and then 300-meter restrictions. Delivery persons left packages and groceries outside our door. We wiped down plastic bags and milk cartons, scrubbed tomatoes with soap and left our outdoor shoes at the threshold. We avoided all in-person shopping – not even at the local corner store.

But this week, with the restrictions removed, we began to venture out. When I review my week, my maiden excursion out of my home isolation stands out. I was honored to represent Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America – no one from there could come – in presenting awards to outstanding nurses at Hadassah-University Medical Center.

I was reluctant, at first, or maybe suffering from coronavirus-induced agoraphobia. But when I realized it was International Nurses Day – and this year’s Nurses Day ceremony marked exactly 200 years from the birth of Florence Nightingale – and that the ceremony would be outdoors with masked participants, it seemed safe enough. (We’re all making these decisions now, right?)

I was also drawn by the presence of the volunteer entertainment. No less than the internationally heralded Hadag Nahash band would be performing. They, too, are Jerusalemites sheltering at home.

So I tiptoed out of my apartment, wearing mask and gloves.

The hospital, of course, has been open throughout the pandemic, and I felt sheepish admitting my own nervousness at being outside the house.

Not all the nurses who got rewards on Nurses Day work in the outbreak wards, or intensive care, but everyone expressed a feeling of relief and shared achievement. The alarm of two months ago has ceded to a sense of tempered optimism. Even in Jerusalem, where the largest number of COVID-19 patients was diagnosed, the challenge has been met so far.

Highlighted again and again was the collaborative effort of the entire hospital staff plus researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Together, they had won the victory in the first battle of this war against disease. Clinical trials in Jerusalem reflecting the energy and creativity of our local physicians and scientists are abundant. What helped? That everyone is home, putting their good minds and spirits to use.

Day No. 44, as we count the Omer from Passover to Shavuot is Jerusalem Day, when our beloved city, our place on earth, was reunited. We’re at a moment when we’re also united in facing a new challenge.

How fortunate are we to be sheltering in Jerusalem, I’m thinking, a little teary, full of pride in my neighbors and our city.

Prayer leader David Behrman reaches the best-known of the Friday night prayers: “Lecha Dodi.”

Among its verses:
In you my poor people will be sheltered
And she shall be rebuilt – the city on her hill
Happy Jerusalem Day and Shabbat Shalom.



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