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My head is swimming, and it has been for many days. It’s hard to keep straight so many conflicting yet intertwined realities. What is my role as a leader? As a house guest? As a member of society? As a friend? As a parent?
I must confess that some of these questions were easier to define than others. As a leader, I understood that my responsibility is to do what I believe is right and necessary for my community. This came up in two polar scenarios. The first was easy: my monthly poker group was set to meet this coming week. Of course we should cancel. Of course! I must confess, though, that I didn’t want to cancel it. I love the group, and FOMO is real. That sentiment was the symptom, though. The real cause is much deeper, more personal, and more painful: cancelling my poker date with my friends would start me down the path that would lead to isolation and loneliness.
I cancelled the poker date, and I immediately received a few emails thanking me. It wasn’t a particularly courageous or bold act, but it reminded me of something that I had been thinking about for a couple of days: sometimes, the role of a leader is to make the decision that people know needs to be made but that no one wants to do.
I share this story not for self-aggrandizement nor to boast about my leadership capacity. If anything, this story is an admission of my wanting to be led and of my lack of inner strength. Had I really been courageous, then I would have had cancelled it a long time ago. It was my own incapacity to accept the inevitability of social isolation that made me scared and weak. Ultimately, it was Governor Tony Evers who alerted me to my own shortcomings and reminded me of my responsibility to do better.
This past Friday, Governor Evers (D-Wisconsin) announced that all public schools in Wisconsin were to close beginning on March 18, 2020 through at least April 6th, 2020. I don’t know how many closed-door meetings there were; I don’t know if Governor Evers led the call to close the schools or fought against it; and I don’t suggest here whether or not I support or supported Governor Evers as the current governor or in his recent election. His act, in my eyes, was not one of politics but rather of leadership.
He made the tough decision (or, at least, gave public voice to the tough decision) that every school in Wisconsin had to be wrestling with, not in a dissimilar fashion from how I have been wrestling with my own myriad aforementioned questions. Should schools close or stay open? For how long? How does that affect students, teachers, faculty, and parents? What we do we about hot lunches that many kids rely on every day? What about the care-taking of the children? Do we continue to pay full salaries to all employees? Fear often holds us back when we should running forward. Governor Evers’s proclamation reminded me that we need to move forward boldly and swiftly.
It is our responsibility as a society, Judaism’s responsibility as a faith practice and religion, and my responsibility as a leader.
Indeed, Judaism teaches that the value of saving a human life (piku-ah nefesh) is supreme. In mishnah sanhedrin, we learn, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if that person destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life…, it is considered as if that person saved an entire world.” In this unknown reality of COVID-19, we do know that lives are at stake. And our religion and faith instruct and demand that we do anything and everything to preserve life.
These teachings helped me appreciate what I needed to do as the rabbi of a synagogue — not for my sake, but for the sake of my community, for my sense of collective responsibility, and for my conscience. I reached out to the President of the Board of Directors of my synagogue last night and urged that we shut down our building until at least April 6th. We talked, discussed, considered all viewpoints. And we agreed that, for the safety and well-being of our community, we needed to close, painful as that decision was.
I need to take a moment here to thank both the President of the Board of Directors and the entirety of the Board of Directors. The thoughtfulness, seriousness, wisdom, and depth of compassion that every member has demonstrated is inspirational. Balancing multiple needs and demands is tough at best and impossible at worst, and they have done so with graciousness and aplomb. I deeply appreciate their support, as well, even if not everyone agrees with my / our decision.
But that’s the point of which Governor Evers reminded me. It’s easier to do nothing. It’s easier to maintain status quo. It’s easier to wait and see. It’s easier to let someone else make a difficult choice and absolve ourselves from accountability. As a rabbi, though, I couldn’t let myself continue to fall into that trap. I felt an obligation to act.
I only wish that I had had the courage to do so sooner.
If there is one common message from health workers and government officials about COVID-19 besides the need for taking personal health precautions, it is surely that we must flatten the curve of the virus’s spread. People will get sick, and many will require urgent care. Our health system, however, can only accommodate a finite number of cases at a time. While we cannot stop the spread of the virus, we can slow its reach, extending it over time, and allow our health facilities to keep pace with the diagnosed cases.
That responsibility is ours, each and every one of ours. Judaism teaches that we are partners with God in the act of creation, and so we must continue to partner with each other in keeping ourselves healthy and safe. In the end, I’d rather be rebuked for urging the closing of the synagogue too early or for too long than for allowing someone in my community to be exposed to the virus unnecessarily. Put another way: once this pandemic has passed, it will be unknown if we overreacted; but, if we under-reacted, then we will know for sure.
We have all taken turns exemplifying the axiom that it’s easier to give someone advice — even good advice! — than to follow it ourselves. That’s where collective responsibility comes in. The truth is, as I alluded to earlier, social isolation is going to be incredibly painful for me. I won’t be seeing my kids for two weeks (after not having seen them for six days). I will not have other adult or human-to-human contact for two weeks. I’ll be alone, lonely, and isolated. And likely depressed, no matter how cheery how I sound on the phone or on Zoom conferences.
As will many, many others. And it will undoubtedly be worse for many others than it will be for me.
I finally appreciated the depth of this inevitable isolation when I was talking with my ex-wife (an INCREDIBLE partner in divorce!) just a few hours ago. She asked me bluntly yet kindly if I should self-quarantine for fourteen days. As it were, I’m finishing this essay after having spent a few days visiting friends in Boston and just a couple of hours before heading home by airplane. While enjoying my visit here, I also spent my time denying the reality of that question.
Over these final few hours in Boston, however, I have gradually accepted my responsibility to self-quarantine. I have also spent more than a few minutes shedding private tears. And I realized one simple, immutable fact: if I am going to ask, urge, demand that my congregation uphold collective responsibility — and look after their own health and safety! — then I must do so, as well.
How could I show up at my synagogue when our doors re-open having asked us to close our doors to each other when I opened my own house — to my own children, no less?!? How could I model leadership or be a rabbinic exemplar were I to give in to my own fear while asking others to do the right thing? How could I urge other communities — as I am doing now with my strongest possible voice — to follow suit and close for the sake of the health of their members and for the greater good were I to prioritize my own needs over the well-being of my own family?
We are taught that misery loves company, but I do not ask you and your communities to self-quarantine and to close so that you will be lonely as well. Rather, t is anywhere from our individual and collective responsibility to combat the spread of this virus to a moral imperative that we act for the greater good. Ultimately, I do not share these words in order to put myself up on a pedestal. Instead, I share these words in order to confess my shame that I have acted selfishly for so long over the past few days when I knew in my heart what I should have been doing — as a leader, as a Jew, as a parent, as a friend, and as a human being.
I hope that you all have the strength that it took me so long to acquire. It takes all of us to combat the spread of COVID-19, and I hope that you will join me in doing our part.
“Lo alekha ha-m’lakhah ligmor, v’lo atah ben horin l’hibateyl mimenah. It is not your duty to do all work alone but neither can you desist from your part.” May these words from Pirkei Avot give us all strength in the weeks ahead.
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