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Going Back to In-Person Synagogue Services

            I’m on the Ritual Committee at my synagogue and we were tasked with deciding whether or not (but really when) to go back to Friday night services in person. The re-opening committee (a group with health and building expertise, brought together by Covid) gave us the go ahead, saying that we could safely have one hundred people in the sanctuary – as long as they are masked and socially-distanced. Our job was to decide whether to take them up on the offer, and if so, how to manage the transition, especially whether to do a hybrid service or not.

We’ve had in-person Bar and Bat Mitzvah services all along, adapting to changing protocols as necessary, with limited in-person guests and a lot of Zooming and masks and social distancing and temperature taking. They even started to have food trucks outside of the synagogue, to allow for some kind of celebration. But most of our congregational events have been on Zoom for the past year. We had a few hybrid beach services last summer, but the Zoom side of those services was not very good. And while the hybrid synagogue school classes have been acceptable, they haven’t really been successful.

But now, with so many congregants vaccinated, and planning for High Holiday services in September underway, it seemed like the right time to consider in-person Friday night services, for those who would want them.

“I’m ready!”

            (By the way, I had my second vaccine shot a few weeks ago and survived; there was that one day when I felt like I was on a creaky rowboat in the middle of a thunderstorm, but the feeling passed. Sort of.)

“Ugh. I’m gonna vomit.”

We decided immediately that, if we returned in person, we would have to do a hybrid service, including interactions on Zoom, because we couldn’t go back to a one way/streaming style for online services, with a single camera catching the service from a distance and no chance for online folks to participate in discussions. Over the past year of zoomed services, congregants who wouldn’t usually be able to get to the synagogue on a Friday night, because they were out of town or not feeling well or not up to driving at night, have been able to attend by Zoom and feel like full members of the community. We’ve had members who were wintering in Puerto Rico or Vermont, or living full-time in New York City or Albany zooming in on a regular basis and participating in ways that used to be impossible. We couldn’t go back to what we used to do and leave those members out.

            The problem is, in order to do this right, we are going to need better technology – like overhead microphones to capture the in-person audience singing and speaking, and more cameras placed around the sanctuary, and someone to keep track of the tech, and…it’s a lot.

“Oy.”

            Given the difficulties involved in hybrid services, and the fact that we still can’t have an Oneg (coffee and cake and schmoozing in the social hall) after services, and we’ll still have to wear masks and social distance in the sanctuary, and we may not even be allowed to sing indoors, it’s hard to get excited about returning to in person services again. And going in person will mean leaving the dogs at home, and actually having to get dressed, and drive. These are definite downsides. I get tired by eight o’clock at night and just want to sit around in my pajamas and watch TV, not get dressed up and drive and worry about how my hair looks from the back. And spending most of the service on mute means I can try out new harmonies without feeling self-conscious that someone will hear me and object, and I can turn to Mom and make snide comments about whatever I’m seeing on screen, as long as I cover my mouth to avoid the lip readers. But, there’s something special about getting to see people in person, and I feel an obligation to at least try to make it work.

“People are over-rated.”

And yet, chances are high that people will be impatient and obnoxious, out of frustration with the inevitable glitches, and online folks may unmute themselves in the middle of the service to tell us that they can’t hear what’s going on, or to complain that they are being neglected. And the in-person folks may get angry about all of the pauses, and having to repeat themselves. We are not a quiet, what-will-be-will-be sort of congregation, so the complaints will be plentiful. And a lot of the stay-at-home people still haven’t figured out zoom etiquette, so we will have big screens in the sanctuary full of people’s foreheads or ceilings, and I will definitely get seasick from the constantly moving iPhones.

            I don’t really want to go back yet, honestly, but I feel like I should. I can’t donate thousands of dollars to a fund drive to pay for new technology, but I can sacrifice a few hours to be a Guinea pig and help figure out how to make the hybrid services work a little better. And I miss being in an actual space with other people, instead of just a virtual one. But, the singing part really is a deal breaker for me. If we can’t sing in person I’d much rather be on Zoom. Progress be damned.

            But, despite all of that, we decided to go ahead with the experiment, even with the costs and complications involved, even though I will miss being able to turn off the computer and instantly be at home, without having to make awkward small talk or try to signal Mom across the social hall that I really want to go home, even though she is in the middle of a fascinating discussion of how best to protect her plants from the insect hordes. She has a tendency to “misunderstand” my signals, or ignore them entirely, when a conversation really interests her.

            I’m not sure I’m optimistic about how this will turn out, but I am determined to try. And we’ll see how it goes. It might be terrible, but it could also be the first step on the road back to normal. Whatever that might be.

“We have no idea.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Life in the Absurd

            Out of the blue, one evening, Mom got an email about a pop-up vaccine site taking people over 65, and she called and got an appointment for the next morning. And then, after she’d gotten the vaccine and scheduled her second shot, she felt so guilty that she’d gone without me, and that so many of the sites on Long Island were reserved for older people and not for essential workers or teachers, that she started obsessively watching for new sites, and nagging me to do the same. I didn’t enjoy having to jump onto the computer each time she saw a hint of a possibility of an appointment for me, especially because they all turned out to be nothing. But then, three weeks later, an email arrived saying that there was a site taking people over 60 and teachers, from our town. She emailed back and got me an appointment for that evening.

            The only problem was that I was still at synagogue school, where I was so overwhelmed with the laptop and iPad (to teach the remote kids), while also corralling the in-person kids, that I didn’t think to check my phone. By the time I got home Mom was standing in the parking lot, waiting for me. She yelled through the window of the car that I had an appointment, and I screamed back, for what?

            The Pharmacy was in a small strip mall two towns over, down a badly lit hallway and behind a non-descript door. It was some kind of specialist compound pharmacy, with one pharmacist and two helpers, and I was one of the last appointments of the day. I made sure to tell the pharmacist that I teach synagogue school, in case she wanted to disqualify me on the spot as not a real teacher, but she just nodded and asked where I teach, and then she told me that I was getting the Moderna vaccine, and stuck the needle in my arm. One of her assistants filled out a vaccine card and scheduled my second appointment, and then they sent me on my way.

            It took all of five minutes, and I had a hard time processing that I had really gotten the shot, even while holding an ice pack against my right shoulder. Two days later my left shoulder started to hurt, in the same spot as on my right shoulder. I tried to find a reasonable explanation for it, like maybe I’d been sleeping on my left side to protect the right shoulder, though that didn’t explain the pinpoint nature of the pain. But I was still wiped out from synagogue school, or from the vaccine shot, or both, and I couldn’t really think it through.

 The next day, which turned out to be the second windiest day of the year, I decided I had plenty of energy to do the food shopping on my own, even though Mom said it was too cold to go out and she and the dogs all gave me funny looks. Instead of wearing my hair in braids or a pony tail, which is what I’ve been doing since my hair got so Covid-long, I left it down, and it rose in a whirlwind around my face until I couldn’t see a damn thing. Then I went into the supermarket and filled my cart with everything on the shopping list, and only realized at the checkout that I didn’t have my pocketbook with me. I asked if they could watch my cart, melting ice cream and all, at the customer service desk, and then ran out to the car, hoping my pocketbook would be sitting on the passenger seat waiting for me. It wasn’t.

“Oy.”

I knew I had to drive home and find my pocketbook, but I was afraid someone would see me driving away and think I was a criminal of some kind, racing out of the parking lot. It was only when I’d pulled out into traffic, heart racing, that I thought to check under Mom’s cushion on the passenger seat, and of course my pocketbook was right there. I was relieved and flustered and had a hard time figuring out where to make my U-turn back to the supermarket. I parked in the same exact spot I’d just left and then ran out, forgetting my mask in the car, so I had to race back and find it on the floor, under Mom’s cushion, which I’d managed to toss into the air in my frenzied search for my pocketbook.

I tried to walk back into the supermarket like a sane, rational person and gracefully guide my cart from the customer service desk to the next open checkout lane, but there were no open lanes, except for the self-checkout. I hate self-checkout. I don’t understand how this is supposed to be more convenient when every time I try to buy a fruit or a vegetable someone has to come over and play with the machine to get it to recognize my broccoli. But I paid for all of my groceries and managed to put them in my reusable and refrigerator bags, piled to the top of the cart. As soon as I got outside, of course, the bag on top of the pile fell off the cart, and the receipt flew away in the wind, never to be seen again. By the time I got home I felt like I’d been through all of the Herculean labors, and fell into bed, exhausted.

“I totally get it.”

            I’m pretty sure my life isn’t the only one falling into the absurd lately, but I like to tell myself that mine is the most absurd, just so I can feel like I’m winning at something.    

The fact is, everything has seemed nonsensical for a long time now, as if we’ve all been suffering from pre-Covid brain fog for years. There was that weird four year period when our president was a white supremacist, and then that year when people refused to wear face masks to protect them from a deadly disease. And then there were those news outlets that only believed in alternative facts. It was weird. Okay, it’s still weird. States are rapidly putting new voting restrictions into place, after what was deemed the most secure election in US history by the Republican in charge of cyber security. And US senators are proclaiming that they didn’t feel threatened by men with bear spray and flag poles attacking the Capitol police and setting up a gallows to hang politicians, but one little black woman knocking on a door in the Georgia Legislature clearly scared the bejeezus out of them.

“Humans are weird.”

            There are times when I believe that God is everywhere, and that the universe is a web of invisible circuits that bring us all together. And then there’s the rest of the time, when I still believe that God is everywhere, but I’m pretty sure the web of invisible circuits is broken, or at least rotting at significant junctures. Hopefully, once we’ve all been vaccinated we can start to do the work of fixing those connections.

To that end, I thought I’d share some new liturgical music from the musical director/composer/rabbinical student from my synagogue whom I’ve mentioned in the past (I make a short appearance in the choral section of the video.) The title of the song is HaRofei, which means the healer, and it’s based on Psalm 147. The lyrics alone are wonderful, but with the music and all of the voices and instruments he was able to bring together, it’s a stunner. https://youtu.be/fmsMljlUWok

“Where are the dogs?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Waiting for the Vaccine

            Last weekend, my boss sent out a text to all of the teachers in the synagogue school with a phone number to call in order to get on the waiting list for the Covid vaccine in our area. The peer pressure to call right away was enormous, with all of the dings on my phone as texts came in from other teachers who’d been on hold for fifty minutes, fifty-five minutes, seventy minutes…

“Can we go for our walk first?”

            I put it off for a little while, because I was busy doing something else, and because I hate making phone calls, and waiting on hold brings up all of my social anxiety because I’m afraid I’ll forget what I called to say by the time someone finally answers. But I finally did it. I sat on hold for eighty minutes, getting other work done that didn’t require too much attention, keeping a notebook close by to remind me what information I meant to convey and why I was even calling to begin with.

“Oy.”

            I felt awkward when I finally got through, because I always feel awkward on the phone. I’m afraid I’m going to misunderstand the questions asked of me, or lie unintentionally, or get myself in trouble in some way. My biggest fear with this particular call was that, as an after school Hebrew teacher, I shouldn’t really be identifying myself as a teacher, because I’m not all that essential, even though I do teach kids in person once a week, just not every day.

            I ended up chatting with the operator, a mom from Florida with a seven year old son in virtual classes, for ten minutes. She told me about her son’s second grade teacher, who had also taught her two older kids, and usually decorated the classroom but this year she couldn’t, but she’d managed to adapt to teaching online and she is saving my life. I asked if she could put my mother on the waiting list too, because Mom is over seventy-five and therefore also in group 1B, and she asked if my mom has any pre-existing conditions, other than boredom. I told her that Mom is busier than I am, with all of her Zoom groups, and that my great aunt (105 years old) is keeping busy too, but she just got her appointment, and the operator said that once this is over we should all go on a cruise to celebrate, because it’s been such a trying time for the older people who haven’t been able to hang with their girls all year. Then she told me about a time she went to the store and suddenly felt naked, and realized she’d forgotten her mask in the car.

            Basically, I made a new friend. And I was proud of myself for having done the grown up thing, the responsible thing, and signed me and Mom up on the waiting list for the vaccine. I was so relieved and proud of myself that I actually felt like I deserved my three hour nap in the aftermath (usually I still take the nap, but I feel guilty about it).

“Naps are ALWAYS good.”

            By Monday, though, the teacher text chain was buzzing again. Individual teachers had found different websites where you could actually make appointments to get the vaccine. Try here! No, try here! But hurry! Hurry!

            But, what was my ninety minute ordeal for over the weekend? What about my big grown up accomplishment? Was I really supposed to sign up in a whole new location? Then someone texted that we’d need proof that we’re teachers, and would our paystubs be enough? I hadn’t even thought about that.

            The dings from the texts just kept coming, so I went to one of the websites, but when it asked if I was a teacher it specifically asked, are you a P-12 teacher or do you work in a school district, and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to answer. There was no option for after school Hebrew school, and I knew I didn’t work in a school district, but did I qualify as a P-12 teacher? I had no idea.

            I was so afraid of getting into trouble that I didn’t finish the form, even though the website link had been sent by my boss, who certainly knows what kind of teachers we are. I was afraid of jumping ahead in line before it was really my turn. And I was afraid of getting an appointment at a distant vaccination site and finally getting there and handing over my pay stub and being told, in front of the real essential workers, that I was a fraud.

            But I also felt guilty for NOT pushing to get the vaccine appointment, because I was failing in my duty to be a responsible adult and get vaccinated as soon as possible, to protect my students and fellow teachers, and Mom, and everyone I come in contact with.

“Am I going to get sick too?”
“Don’t be silly.”

            Once Mom woke up from her nap, I told her about the website and the question that tripped me up and she said, Duh, of course you’re a P-12 teacher. Well, she probably didn’t say “Duh,” but I heard it anyway.

            A few hours later I got an email from the original waiting list, telling me where to go to make an appointment (a different website than either of the ones mentioned on the text thread), but all of the appointments were taken and I was told to keep checking in case new appointments were added.

            It’s not clear to me why this is being run as survival of the fittest (or most persistent), rather than genuinely being organized by the priorities already set in place. Why are there still health care workers who haven’t been vaccinated yet? Why was the age range lowered to sixty-five, rather than seventy-five, at the last minute, if we’re still so low on doses and appointments? Will the list of people who end up with appointments even resemble the original priorities stated by the CDC? Or will it prioritize the people with the right contacts or the most patience, and free time, to sit on hold?

            I’m told that in other states, where they’re struggling to convince people to take the vaccine at all, you can just walk in at the last minute without an appointment. I’ve also heard that only five hundreds doses were sent to Long Island to begin with, which would explain why it’s so hard to get an appointment out here in the first place.

            Meanwhile, the reports on Covid cases and Covid deaths are now in horror movie range, with over four thousand deaths in one day, and hospitalizations continue to rise so that in a few weeks the four thousand a day number will seem miniscule.

            And people are still refusing to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces (Congress people?! Police officers?!) And there are new, more contagious Covid variants, and forget about the insurrection at the Capitol building, and constant threats of more violence there and at state capitols across the country.

            Why can’t I just hide in my room until it’s over? My fellow teachers keep ding ding dinging with new vaccine locations, and cancelled appointments, and my email and Facebook feed are full of the hurry hurry hurry, but I’m not up to fighting for my spot in line. Except, I’m worried that, the way things are going, we will all be infected with the latest Covid variant which will inevitably make us into zombies, all before we get enough doses of vaccine on the Island. But that’s crazy, right? I mean, we’ll all be fine. Right?

“Uh oh.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?