Aleph Beta Quarantined: An Introduction
Aleph Beta Quarantined
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
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Every day, every hour, almost every minute, it feels like there is some breaking news about what is happening with COVID 19. Schools are canceled. Synagogues are shutting their doors. Restaurants are closing. We are scared, we are looking into an unknown, and we feel alone and lonely. In this new podcast, Rabbi David Fohrman and Imu Shalev address some of the fears so many of us are facing, and talk about some of the most pressing topics they will address in future episodes. From preparing for Passover, to keeping kids entertained, to helping us deal with our own mental health and anxiety, we will try to deal with it all, with love, compassion, and community. Come join us.
Aleph Beta is doing everything we can to be here for you through these difficult times. If you believe in what we’re doing, it would mean the world to have your support. Please consider upgrading your account or joining our Producers Circle. Of course, if a donation isn’t something you can do right now, don’t think twice about it. The most important thing is for all of us to stay connected and keep our community strong.
Rabbi Fohrman: Hey, everybody, out there in podcast land. This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to the first episode of something new. Something un-Aleph Beta-like that we're trying over here. We have tentatively titled this podcast Aleph Beta Quarantined.
Where that came from was something which seemed unthinkable about five or six days ago; the first word of some schools shutting down in our area. We immediately decided to make Aleph Beta free for those who are suffering from quarantine and the effects of that.
My compatriot, Imu, is here with me and I'll introduce him to you in a moment. Imu and I, over here at Aleph Beta Central, kind of had this idea to try to put together a podcast that is a journey through the unknown. I know it sounds like what we do here in Aleph Beta land, Imu, is analysis of Torah text, and this isn't. This is a journey through a different kind of unknown. Not the unknown of text; of the unknown of life. Without really knowing what is coming around us.
You're my friend in addition to being my colleague. I look forward to the chance to talk with you and to bring in our larger community of Aleph Beta listeners, into that discussion as we collectively try to confront the unknown. So Imu, let me turn that over to you for just some introductory thoughts.
Imu: Yes. Thanks, Rabbi Fohrman. I think we're really just jumping in without a real clear sense of what exactly we're going to do here in this podcast. I think that's actually strangely appropriate, since nobody knows what's coming down the pike. But we are a Jewish content company. In one way, we typically focus on in-depth text study.
We are aware that many of our users all across the world, in much of the Jewish community, in the larger community, is going through a difficult time. We want to use our resources really just to meet the need, but also, we're just going to talk, Rabbi Fohrman and I, about what's going on.
Over the coming days, we're thinking about putting together a guide for how to put together a Pesach, for those of you who are finding yourselves in a situation having to do that for the first time. How to lead a Seder, some of the best videos we'd recommend for you to watch. We're also making, for the very first time ever, all of our resources at Aleph Beta free of charge for anybody in quarantine or practicing social distancing, just so that you have these resources available to you. So that you can give your kids something to do, so that you yourself can focus on hopefully some Torah that will bring about some high spirits during a difficult time.
Rabbi Fohrman: Imu, you know, I hope we can do a couple things with this podcast. Here is what I'd like to see if we can (inaudible 00:03:06) for. One of them is, almost like lifehacks. Jewish lifehacks. I was chatting with Rivky Stern, our producer over here, and the idea of Maslow's hierarchy of needs came into my mind. Which is, in the best of times, we focus on these really rarified needs, like self-actualization and stuff, but sometimes, you know, when you don't have food, that's the only thing you can think about.
I think one of our real basic needs is companionship. We're isolated and it's tough. Some of our basic need are just, like, how do I get through this new life? And what's it like to be isolated for a while, the kids home, to work from home, to be scared, to talk to my kids about this? It's frightening. It's frightening.
One of the things you can do in frightening times is to confront it together. One of the things I think we can do is offer some practical suggestions for getting through it. That's number one. Number two is, just provide some social solidarity. Open up the conversations that we're having to others. Three is, to bring in some other folks and talk to some other people in the Aleph Beta community, maybe interview them. What's going on with their lives? I don't know. I just think it's a time to be together and it's a way that we can begin to use technology to be together.
Having said that, let me talk a little bit about where we physically are. Imu is at his home office at Bergen County and I am in Israel in the lobby of the Leonardo Plaza Hotel. You could hear the chatter in the background. For starters, Imu, you and I have pretty different experiences. You're in America; I'm in Israel. In many ways, the fear is the same but the specifics are different. I wanted to at least begin, I guess, by asking you about what's going on there. How has life changed for you in the last 24 hours?
Imu: Yeah. It's pretty wild. In the last 24 to 48 hours, we were thinking about putting this podcast together. We were thinking of doing it for schools and communities that are in quarantine. My brother is in Riverdale and his kids are in SAR. They had positive coronavirus cases, so they were in self-quarantine.
But I woke up this morning to find out that the Bergen County va'ad association of rabbis together collaborated with local hospitals that are worried about the possibility of a large influx of patients. They shut down all the schools in the area and all the shuls in the area. They're asking us to practice aggressive social distancing. They've asked all members of Bergen County, so this is Teaneck, Bergenfield, to stay home. To work from home, kids taken out of school.
I think, what's wild for me is I started cooking for Shabbos and we're having guests over. But the RCBC said we should cancel those plans. Guests should stay home. No Shabbos meals and no playdates for the kids.
So I really plan to sit down and record this podcast as a service to others. But I find that my community now, in practicing extreme social distancing, I'm still reeling. I'm still processing exactly what this means for my family and for my community.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. You've got little kids. Imu's got some little ones. How old are your kids?
Imu: I have a one-year-old and a four-year-old.
Rabbi Fohrman: So the notion of having them home but isolated. No little friends for a four-year-old, especially over Shabbos. That's quite a disruption of routine, no? What's that like?
Imu: Yeah. I mean, honestly, I've been thinking about, what would happen if we needed to practice social distancing and I was expecting for my kids to be able to at least play with the neighbors? You know, we have a backyard and we can invite some people over. But I'm not really sure what we're going to do right now.
My wife is freaking out a bit; I'm freaking out a bit. I think we can handle it for a few days, but I really worry, I hope this doesn't turn into two weeks. Because I'm not sure we can handle it.
Part of me sort of thinks, you know, this is good. It's good for the community; it's good to protect people and make sure that there is no real sickness that's being spread. But right now, I guess, what's top of mind for me is, boy, this is going to be tough. To be home alone with our kids for two weeks. As much as we love our children, it's difficult to entertain a four-year-old around the clock. So yes, I don't know. I don't know how long this is going to last. And I know that this is something many people are going through.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. Difficult as it is, if I can just pitch in with my own appreciation to the rabbis of your community for having the courage to do something really tough and unprecedented.
I don't think in my lifetime we've lived to see synagogues shut down, like literally shut down, and schools shut down. Look, it's disorienting. I don't really have words for it. But I think it took a lot of courage on the part of the rabbis. But I think that the thing to keep in mind is the reason why they did it was an attempt to try to slow down the rate at which this virus travels.
On the optimistic side, the experience of China and South Korea seems to be that social distancing can have a profound effect. It's not a vaccine, but it can slow the spread of the virus. In some cases, it even appears to halt it. But if we can at least slow it down, we can avoid completely overwhelming the whole system. It feels like that's the right thing to do. So I can only hope that other rabbis in communities around the country and the world take that example and run with it, courageously.
Imu: Yeah. Can I be honest here? Because I do want to be honest. I'll tell you, when I initially heard it, to some extent I did applaud the courageousness of the local rabbinic leadership. Part of me felt that it was extreme.
I understand closing shuls, I understand closing schools, but going so far as to prohibit small social gatherings. Like crowds larger than 100 people shouldn't congregate makes sense, but to stop all Shabbos meals or to not let my kids have playdates feels really extreme.
I pendulum back and forth sometimes, where I feel like if we're going to do this social distancing, we should do it right and do it all the way. And there are parts where I think about some nuanced or moderation to preserve quality of life and not send people into a panic.
Because that's what I'm experiencing. My WhatsApp is blown up and everybody is panicking right now. So I have back and forth feelings. Part of me understands why we're doing this; part of me worries if it's too much or too far.
I'm sharing that not because I want to get judged or to be told how one way is right and the other way is wrong. I'm sharing this because I imagine other people are thinking the same thing right now.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, I can relate to that. I mean, my wife has told me that my pendulum swings are getting in the way. I think it's the same kind of pendulum that you are describing. Which is, I don't know, you're the one who tells me that it's fine to fly and what's the big deal? They have filtration systems on the planes to filter out 99.9 percent of germs. As long as the person in back of you isn't sneezing and coughing, you should be fine. And then, I'm not so sure.
Here I am in Israel. We're due to fly back on Sunday. The plane is full. And the more I think about that, the more scared I am. It's that pendulum, right? On the one hand, what could be wrong with flying? You read how they have filtration systems to filter out 99.9 percent of all the toxins. You wipe down with your hand sanitizers and you wash your hands and that's the main thing. And the virus isn't supposed to last so long in the air. And that's what you feel one time.
Then you read it and then it's, like, nobody really knows how this virus acts yet and nobody really knows what the death rate is and nobody really knows exactly how it transfers. Could it remain in the air? It, kind of, could remain in the air. But 30 minutes, even after no one's there, some research shows from China.
Then I think to myself, okay, if it takes two weeks for you to show up with symptoms from when you can track this, then two weeks from now, how many people on my flight are going to be having symptoms? Am I really naive enough to think, out of 300 people, it's going to be no one? It's going to be five, it's going to be 10? So you do you really want to be in an airplane with them for 12 hours?
It's scary stuff. But it's that same thing. For Imu, it's thinking about, how am I going to make it without Shabbos guests or without feeling like my kids are all alone and lonely and never seeing another kid? Do I go that far? And for me, it's like, do I go as far as to keep myself away from half my family? I don't know.
These are the kinds of questions that we have to struggle with now that we didn't have to struggle with before. And it's hard.
Imu: Yeah. It is tough. I've got to say, for me at least, taking time out of the craziness of the day. Because there's so much noise and things are changing from moment to moment. Like, the human mind is not able to absorb information this rapidly, so taking time away. Even just reflecting, noticing, oh, I've pendulum-ed. Admitting. I have pendulum-ed back and forth.
I remember, this past Thursday, Friday, I had e-mailed the leadership of my shul saying, hey, I think we need to maybe have multiple minyanim and not just have one big minyan. Maybe break it into smaller pieces. They were, like, no. Don't be so extreme, don't be so crazy. And then, the shul got together along with other rabbis and now closed the shul. And I'm, like, oh, I don't know, that's a little extreme. I'm noticing in myself that I'm not satisfied either way.
At the beginning, I'm upset that they didn't act and now I'm upset that they acted too much. I noticed a post online from my good friend, Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens. He said, really what gets you through a pandemic or a virus is trust. To trust local health officials; to trust, strangely, politicians.
Because we need to act as one. And as much as I don't want to cancel my Shabbos plans, I think I'm going to. As much as I think that some measures are extreme, I think the only way through this is actually to trust. But yeah, I definitely notice the pendulum-ing in my own self. I think taking the space to recognize those things can help at least reduce the, no pun intended, temperature of a very stressful situation.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. I think that point you brought up about cooperation is crucial. It's an ironic time. It's a time where physically we need to be as isolated as possible, but in ever other way but the physical, we desperately need community as much as possible.
That's true here. I think in Aleph Beta land, we've talked a lot about how wonderful it would be if we could really feel a sense of community with our listeners, reach out to them more. And frankly, there is always another deadline, there's always another thing that you have to report. It's hard to take the time. We do it. I have calls now and then with listeners, but it feels to me like this is the time to do that. The time for everybody on the staff to take some time, make those calls, create that sense of outreach and community.
The same is true not just in our little community world; it's true in every community. It's true in the country and it's true in the world. It is a time for communities in the world for building bridges. If the world could get together, it could even cooperate with a coordinated financial response, with a coordinated branch of nations to help other nations in need. They would do a lot. I don't know. Who am I to urge our leaders in that direction? But I think the more we can build bridges and a sense of community, the better.
And to be clear-eyed. Which means, clear-eyed about the facts, clear-eyed about the science. The more we can do that. Those are things that we can do. And we can reach out and put our faith in God and connect to the Al-mighty, even as we connect to each other. I think connection is the name of the game. And it's ironic because it's in every way, but the physical. The more we pull back physically, this virus demands building bridges in every other way.
Imu: Yeah. I think that's a profound message. That's definitely something I'll think about today and as long as this continues.
I'm really grateful to have spent the time talking to you, Rabbi Fohrman. I'm looking forward to continuing this conversation. We're going to try and release these episodes as often as we can. And, like we said, we're going to try and interview some people who are the experts on how to put together a kosher Pesach quickly. Haggadah tips, tips for how to be home with your kids during this time. As Rabbi Fohrman said, quarantine hacks.
We want to hear from you. If you have something you want to share, a particular story you want to share with us, or if you have feedback on this episode, please e-mail us at, email@example.com. And please, please remember that Aleph Beta is currently free for anybody in quarantine or practicing social distancing. Please feel free to log on to alephbeta.org and avail yourself of the resources that we have listed there, our videos. Great things to watch with kids and great things to help you prepare for Pesach. Please check that out.
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay, Imu. Thanks for doing this. I look forward to talking to you again and continuing a journey through a really scary time with you and with our larger community of listeners. Hopefully, we can reach out and give each other strength in numbers; even as, in some ways, we feel more and more alone.