In My Own Words: Continuing to live in a pandemic

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman 

“I don’t think we’re ever going back to normal. I think we’re all going to have to decide how much risk we’re willing to take.” That quote paraphrases what a friend said to me recently when we were talking about the continuing COVID pandemic. She has a point: we’ve never conquered the flu, but rather found a way to live with it with yearly flu shots and medication when needed. People still die of the flu so the talk about a combined yearly COVID/flu shot is not unreasonable. 

However, for a few glorious months this summer, it seemed like the pandemic was under control. Yes, many cautious people (myself included) were still wearing masks when they went into stores, but even I felt safe enough to eat at a restaurant. I was not only able to visit my mom’s nursing home without having to take a COVID test, but could sit with her in her room (a much better situation than having to use the lobby or conference room for a limited amount of time). The fact that I was still required to wear a mask didn’t bother me at all.

Then Delta hit. I’m now nervous about eating in a restaurant. My mom’s floor in the nursing home was closed for three weeks when two residents and a staff person tested positive. The Federation cancelled its Super Sunday event and turned the proposed Lunch and Learn into a straight lecture. (Fortunately the speaker was already going to speak via Zoom.) While the Holocaust memorial gathering still took place, it was outside and everyone was masked.

From a psychological viewpoint, the return of restrictions was hard for many people. When the pandemic started, we went into crisis mode and learned to adjust to those parameters. After being freed from them for a month or so, it was harder to deal with the renewed restrictions. I found myself feeling isolated, even though I was out of the house far more than I had been during the winter. It was realizing that life was closing down again, rather than opening up, that affected me and others.

So, I made some decisions: I’ve been going to services at the synagogue on Shabbat, but I did not attend High Holiday services, except for Tashlich, which took place outside. (I also wore a mask.) For less well attended services, like Sukkot, I was in the synagogue this year. Since I don’t use Zoom on Shabbat or holidays where we aren’t allowed to work, I had not been at services for more than a year. That doesn’t mean I didn’t pray. I pulled out my favorite prayer book, used whatever tune I wanted to sing and sometimes sang at the top of my lungs because no one could hear me.

I did go away for a long weekend in October to visit a friend who lives outside of Philadelphia. It’s the first real vacation I’ve taken since the fall before the pandemic started. The rest stops were filled with people not wearing masks, and there were very few restaurants open at them for people to buy food. The weekend was quiet: we talked, walked and read. Usually we eat out at least one meal, but neither of us even suggested that. We didn’t want to go anywhere where there was a large group of people. It was nice to get away, though, and it had been more than two years since we’d seen each other.

But we will still have to make decisions as the fall and winter progresses. Some are harder than others – for example, if we worry that doing something will expose us to COVID. Other choices are taken out of our hands by medical needs or work requirements (that is, if we want to continue to receive a paycheck). But human beings are flexible and we can adjust to many different ways of living. I actually enjoyed the quieter pace and the reduced stress that accompanied the pandemic initially. (At least for me. I know it was much harder for others.) I do want to spend time with friends again and enjoy some of my former activities. Let’s hope and pray that medical science can make that possible.