The COVID Letters
While we're in Corona Land, the JCC's Director of Institutional Programs, Sarah-Kay Lacks, sits herself down to record her thoughts on a variety of subjects, which were sent out under the name "The Great Indoors" from March 18-July 15, and, starting August 5, under the name "Mission: Possible." Enjoy.
Mission: Possible / January 13, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 15: Commitment to a Better World.
Last Wednesday, in the aftermath of a frozen nation watching a coup play out on live television, glued to the news, replays, checking in with friends and family, I caught myself wondering how we managed to be surprised yet again. Shouldn't we be more prepared for shared misery by now?
As the footage of the attack on the Capitol spooled and looped in our living room, I struggled to describe to my children what exactly was happening, and felt uselessly unable to convert the grief into something worthwhile. Luckily, I work for this powerhouse of an institution with a visionary for a CEO, and by 5 pm Wednesday, Rabbi Joy Levitt had activated a task force of JCC staff, local politicians, and gifted spiritual leaders from multiple faith traditions to create a healing service called We the People. This vigil, planned in less than a day, Zoomed into people’s homes and weary hearts on Friday afternoon right before Shabbat.
My gratitude to be part of this remarkable live event was both global and self-centered. Global because we birthed a free experience in 24 hours better than anything created with endless dollars and months to plan; global because we worked collectively and without shame to use our beliefs and rituals to offer relief in a moment of communal agony. And self-centered because it gave me something productive to do in a moment of profound inertia. Every partner, house of worship, and leader offered generously of their time and resources. By the time we opened our Zoom doors at 3 pm Friday, over 2,000 people had signed up for our offering, a 45-minute spiritual grab bag of hope, prayer, and soul salve. One of many highlights was Mandy Patinkin singing “God Bless America” in Yiddish. Click here to experience the humanity.
Soon into the frenzied, all-hands-on-deck planning, we realized that we wanted to focus the crowd’s energy toward activism. This set off a mostly fruitless deep comb of Twitter and frantic Googling. What did we want to ask the community to do? Reach out to their local representatives? Educate themselves? Donate money? All useful interventions but none a slam dunk given the specifics of what was unfolding. Eventually we realized an elegant solution. We could point people toward the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday and the United States’ only day of service, a tremendous focused stream of energy to honor a legacy of action and thought.
For the second year in a row, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan will host our Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival over MLK Weekend, this year from January 14–18. We will use film as our immersive medium, providing opportunities for discussion, empathic curiosity, and acts of service.
Cinematters presents documentaries and narrative films, engaging the community toward a more democratic, inclusive, and just society. Our movies inspire social responsibility and tell compelling stories about the environment, LGBTQI issues, race, food insecurity, and women’s rights. Our festival goal’s include educating our already compassionate and connected audience as well as providing clear pathways for action and activism. In addition to the film screenings, we take the films “off the screen” with insightful conversations with directors, writers, and actors; as well as workshops and special events designed to help our community create collective change.
To begin your journey, click here.
Hope is a currency. So is action. I know we can be rich in both together.
Mission: Possible / December 24, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 2: Well-Being of Everyone.
This installment of Mission: Possible will be our last of 2020. It feels buoyant to play you off the stage with such a well-rounded element. Well-Being of Everyone is holistic; rather than a niche program serving a narrow cohort with an attainable goal, this one goes grand, stretching out luxuriously in all directions. We love the phrase “everyBODY” at the JCC, but this takes an additional step. It’s not just the body, not just fitness; this is about wellness, our scaffolded term that makes room for the whole self: your mental health, your body, and your spiritual self—the whole 360 degrees of you.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have long played up their liminality. Existing in the fluid transition between one year and the next, here is a truly ambivalent holiday that says “hello” and “good-bye” simultaneously. It’s practically a cliche to discuss 2020 as a guest we are eager to send packing. It was a year that wasn’t, where everything memorable was cancelled, and one we probably will have no difficulty remembering. This year, we learned both shocking and glorious truths about ourselves and our world.
We deserve the upcoming New Year’s celebration and the chance to have an infinitesimal pinch of retrospect, to organize this past year, and set some intentions for 2021.
New Year’s Day has always been our well-being for EveryBODY ticker tape parade. People make resolutions about their health and their bodies on New Year’s Eve. Hope and Fear are the twins born on December 31. It’s our job to give you something to wake up to on January 1 that helps you celebrate (and achieve) the promises you made the night before, when anything felt possible.
For nearly two decades, we have held our annual New Year’s Day Fitness Fair, welcoming thousands into our building on January 1 for a free day of wholeness and wellness for everyone. This year we will gather online, bookended by a morning keynote by neuroscientist Wendy A. Suzuki, Ph.D. on Exercise and Mental Health, and an afternoon panel exploring the film Aulcie. We will present 18 (Chai! Life!) programs with on-ramps suitable for everyone. Our easily navigated event, accessed by a single registration, will work for fitness super-users as well as newbies interested in nutrition for skin care, therapeutic doodling, core strength, Nia dance, and more. For those who spend January 1 hung over, we welcome you in our positive psychology and vision board sessions. For those who want to sweat out the toxins of 2020, we have some cardio that feels tres tres 2021.
We are in the waiting room of a new year. My incandescent colleague, Caroline Kohles, reminded me of a Victor Frankl quote: “Between the stimulus and the response, there is a space, and in this space lies our power and our freedom.” New Year’s is that space between the stimulus of 2020 and the response of 2021, and our power is choosing to invest in our wellness. In other words, this is an opportunity for us. What we do on January 1 sets the tone for our next solar journey.
Hello, 2021! You aren’t here yet, but I see your headlights through the dark night, winding your way up to us. We are standing in the doorway. We are ready.
Happy, Happy New Year,
Mission: Possible / December 16, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 14: Redefining Jewish Life.
As my children remind me by chanting their daily countdown, “Chanukah is here.” In a different year, I might work harder to help them place Chanukah towards the bottom of the Jewish holiday hierarchy. Appearing nowhere in the Bible, based on a midrash (ancient commentary) of the Book of Maccabees (which aren’t even considered to be Jewish scripture), Chanukah requires no synagogue service and has no restrictions on work or action, like Shabbat or other holidays. As many a cynic is fond of repeating, its proximity to Christmas created the urgency around gift-giving, and although its message regarding miracles is lovely, its themes around the horrors of assimilation feel wrist-slappy and provincial. But for my children, given their hothouse flower, indoor-cat existence, I see no problem elevating Chanukah to the major leagues for 2020. It’s already a home-based holiday, so the COVID-deprivation factor is played down. Unlike the pivoted masterpiece that was the High Holidays, Chanukah in COVID looks similar to other years. Only for this go-round, I’m upping the magical elements to reinforce their natural reserves of awe. I don’t have the stomach to manage their expectations regarding the relative unimportance of Chanukah. It’s got oily food, miracles, and fire!
As a Jewish Community Center, we infuse Judaism in everything we do—the sublime and the ridiculous, the macro and the miniscule—and it gives us myriad blueprints for celebration and conversation. Our approach to Jewish life at the JCC is a broad one. We know some people experience Shabbat from the “sanctuary” of our fitness center. We know that others value our experiential approach, celebrating the calendar through cook-alongs with gastronomes, film screenings capturing the holiday zeitgeist, and concerts that synthesize liturgical music and storytelling. When Chanukah Pandemica came around, we worked together as a program team to explore the values, themes, and rituals of the holiday in a more expansive way.
As an institution, we have spent much of the past 10 months thinking about Jewish life. We often discuss the difference between a Jewish life—namely, a life that a Jewish person leads, and Jewish Life—an umbrella that encompasses the sum total of our traditions, history, wisdom, and practices. I’m equally excited about both aspects because they are mirrors facing each other. If enough people identifying as Jewish take on a new practice, or a way of studying or celebrating, it becomes reflected in the larger Jewish culture and codified experience. And if Jewish leaders, historians, and ritualists work together to disseminate traditions and innovations, it’s then mirrored in the practice we each follow at home.
Chanukah became an ideal laboratory for these Jewish Life/life explorations. Working collaboratively with our Centers for Film, Special Needs, Arts + Ideas, Family Life, Modern Aging, Social Responsibility, and Health + Wellness, we crafted 30 programs that allowed people to encounter Jewish Living/living while also experiencing community, combating isolation, and celebrating our shared humanity. From a film about a Cambodian donut entrepreneur to a workshop designing Winter rituals using Jewish tools to our upcoming latke draw-along as part of our Last Night celebration for families, we know that you want a big tent that reflects the personal and communal practices and reassures you that, yes, this is all part of Jewish Life/life. If you haven’t already, take a look at our Chanukah webpage. And if you missed a program, email me for a recording of the session.
Mission: Possible / December 4, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 10: Spiritual Growth.
It should come as a surprise to no one that attendance is up in our Makom: Meditation + Mindfulness classes. The ability to observe your circumstances, release stress, and increase self-acceptance sounds heavenly right about now. How do you stay in the present when the present is a gut-churning blend of uncertainty and shifting realities? In March, we accepted our conditions, thinking they were temporary. We got into it: baked bread, binged TV, and indulged in comfort eating, figuring we would break our bad habits when we were liberated from our homes. Then the temporary became the semi-permanent. Taking things one day at a time led to us becoming feral, scurrying around our apartments in survival mode, allowing our COVID-19 weirdness to solidify like quarantine beards and undyed roots. Eventually, we had to create routines, treat this like a marathon, not a sprint, and find more sophisticated coping mechanisms than stress cleaning and aromatherapy.
People reached out for what was beautiful and holy and found themselves on new paths. Temporary spiritual communities popped up in Zoom rooms and on Facebook Live. Our undomesticated hearts transformed into vulnerable souls; virtual services filled up and so did our meditation classes.
I had the opportunity to connect with Sheila and Sheldon Lewis, two extraordinary spiritual practitioners, longtime Upper West Siders and JCC contemplative educators. What they described during our conversation was a fascinating oral history of COVID-19 through the lens of anxiety and salvation. Sheila and Sheldon first noticed in April and May that even long-time meditators and normally relaxed students were suffering. They began to cultivate a rhythm in their daily drop-in meditation sessions that spoke directly to the moment. Classes needed to be chatty and welcoming at the onset, followed by a deep dive into the practices. With an entire world living through trauma simultaneously, they needed to offer their students 1) tools to gain insights beyond the elaborate stories we tell ourselves, and 2) the use of mindfulness modalities to connect deeply to values and reserves of self-compassion. And perhaps most importantly, Sheila and Sheldon want meditation’s impact to be cumulative, meaning that once you leave the meditation space, the feeling of grounding doesn’t evaporate with every minute that passes.
What I realized as a nonmeditator during my conversation with these spiritual dignity restorers is that they take all these deep, dark stances that people bring with them into the Zoom room—reactivity, loneliness, despair, rage, sorrow—and they don’t expect anyone to transcend them. They ask them to sink in, to send a blessing to oneself, to accept and forgive. Much of it comes down to breathing. Within the deprivation of lockdowns and quarantines, the generosity of treating your own breath as nourishment feels revelatory. We are rich in breath. Inhale and exhale. In-breath. Out-breath. It helps create a shift and brings us back into our bodies. It’s a vaccine for panic and dread.
After our talk, Sheldon emailed me a phrase by Jack Kornfield that he had been using in sessions. It's sweet and full like water in the middle of the night.
May you be held in compassion.
May your pain and sorrow be eased.
May your heart be at peace.
A tip of the hat to my colleague and thought partner Rachel Kunstadt for connecting me to (in her words) the Makom Power Couple and for her dedicated work with the teachers and students of this program area.
Mission: Possible / November 4, 2020
In Mission: Possible, we stand in front of you with a pointer and a bulletin board full of photographs, newspaper clippings, and red string connecting everything, while we gesticulate wildly and explain the plot. We try to take you a little deeper, to show you the why. This week feels different and I want to acknowledge each of you, spread out like stars in a crushed lapis sky. What do we do in liminal moments? In transitional spaces? We set intentions for ourselves. We create stability based on our core truths. We explore Element 17: Daily Practice of Our Values.
With less than a week until election day, and during a moment in human history in which we consider others every time we put on our masks, our ideas about collective responsibility have belly-crawled to the front of our consciousness. What are our obligations to one another? How can we be so hyper-aware of our personal burdens and COVID-19 troubles and simultaneously share the weight of the world on our non-Atlas-sized shoulders?
A daily practice is a holy thing. We stumble toward expertise and enlightenment with our rituals and routines, the goals we chip away at every afternoon. Here’s the short list of what we can’t control: A presidential election. Now check out the marquee of what you can control: what you do each day and what you value. What are the values we will practice at this moment? There are no wrong answers.
Our Center for Health and Wellness has shepherded positive psychology into the JCC lexicon. The science of human flourishing feels essential. How do we cultivate the good stuff—compassion, authenticity, resilience, and fulfillment? A lot of it comes down to gratitude. We begin this month with an election, and end it with Thanksgiving. How lucky are we to have a tangible date waiting for us, requiring us to count our blessings?
The word “Jew” comes from Judah (Yehuda), from the Hebrew hoda’ah—giving thanks. The root of our entire system of blessings and prayers is recognizing the ordinary and extraordinary miracles of our lives. Perhaps the most salient way we commit to Thanksgiving is through the mealtime blessings. Before we break bread, we acknowledge the path the food took to our plates. When you’re hungry and anticipating the meal, gratitude comes easy. What gives me goosebumps is saying grace after the meal. And not the one sentence blessing we say in advance. Birkat Hamazon is a four-part table-banger and we really put our backs into it.
The research on gratitude is pretty undeniable. Studies demonstrate that when people are reminded on a regular basis to articulate gratefulness, they’re more optimistic about the future, more likely to exercise, feel a greater sense of well-being, and have increased levels of dopamine and serotonin. You may be thinking, “Great, I get it. Gratitude is better than staring out the window wondering if we’ll wear masks for the rest of our lives. But how?” I’m glad you asked.
We’re kickstarting a 14-Day Gratitude Challenge leading into Thanksgiving. Each day you’ll receive a daily prompt inviting you to evoke gratitude through simple activities and calls to action. We practice gratitude in order to fuel our energy and build the resources we need to go forth with grace and grit. Yaroslav Aristeiguieta (pictured), Positive Psychology Coach from the Wholebeing Institute and founder of Humanly Positive, created this online challenge to help us foster a practice of appreciation while retraining our neural pathways and nurturing joy. The challenge begins Wed, Nov 11 and is absolutely free (and totally priceless). Join us here.
My family keeps a dry erase board in our kitchen. In my wonky handwriting, it says “Gratitude and Blessings” on the top. This is a COVID-19 practice. I write what I have to be grateful for. I read it when I feel small and angry. I recite it when gratitude feels far. I treat it as a talisman to keep away the evil eye. It’s not a life raft, but it is an eternal flame.
Mission: Possible / October 29, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 34: Sense of Shared Responsibility.
With less than a week until election day, and during a moment in human history in which we consider others every time we put on our masks, our ideas about collective responsibility have belly-crawled to the front of our consciousness. What are our obligations to one another? How can we be so hyper-aware of our personal burdens and COVID-19 troubles and simultaneously share the weight of the world on our non-Atlas-sized shoulders?
Judaism asks us to take responsibility for our individual behavior but also places emphasis on the collective. During Yom Kippur, we recite the viddui, a prayer of confession. As we knock on our hearts with each offense, we use the plural “we” to describe our actions. We have given harmful advice. We have mocked. We have rebelled. We confess in plural, in aggregate, in tandem, because our destinies are intertwined. We go together or we don’t go.
In 2016, we founded The Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility. The name is an acknowledgement of the impact we make when we act in lockstep. Part of our work is encouraging enhanced perception—creating opportunities for the community to investigate issues. Part of our role is to help determined folks take action. We are civic students and actors. We believe in the three matriarchs of social responsibility: learning, volunteering, and activism. We are also a pack, a flock, and a pride. Our job is to instill sparks of activism, customized to each of you, but designed for implementation by the collective. Your job is to be a part of the community while discovering your path to engagement.
COVID-19 amplified our feelings of helplessness. Confined to our homes, we sought meaning—through hobbies; nightly clapping; and for many, through service. We created Justice in Action, a virtual, weekly session hosted by JCC Social Justice Activist-in-Residence Ruth Messinger and NYC City Council Member Brad Lander. Justice in Action began as a COVID-19-centric space to engage as a cohort of leaders and citizens. It’s a place to examine police reform, educational inequities, worker's rights, and other relevant issues, all through the lens of a pandemic that has taken so much from the most vulnerable among us. With a broken world all around, having a weekly structured discussion to study the policy of an issue and the realities in NYC neighborhoods empowered us. Being on a call with 200 other people committed to learning about food insecurity, immigrant communities, and voting rights empowered us. We stare up at the mountain of change and transcend our helplessness when we share the work.
Now a monthly program, Justice in Action continues to tackle issues at hand. Join us tonight for a free conversation about the spread of COVID-19 in New York’s Orthodox Jewish Neighborhoods. How can religious freedoms, public safety, and social norms live in harmony during a pandemic? Journalist Jacob Kornbluh, national reporter for Jewish Insider, joins Ruth and Brad for this profoundly topical evening.
We are our brother’s keeper. Our shared responsibility is an inheritance and a passport to greater humanity. Take a tour of our Center for Social Responsibility and find your path today. We can’t create a just world without you.
Mission: Possible / September 3, 2020
Show us a Jewish life. Sketch us the contours. Is it shaped like a house with a mezuzah and a drawer of Jewish debris? Can you see the bookcase with the social justice tomes, the hardcover copy of Exodus, and old Philip Roth paperbacks? Are we living Jewishly when we buy kosher meat, when we march in a protest, when we exercise? Yes. Definitely. Yes. Ask us how we know.
In 2001, we took a gas station at Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street and built a vertical neighborhood. We designed it so you could live Jewishly on every floor. Take a class, see a film, throw a pot, meditate, talk in an elevator. Take a bus uptown. Stop at JCC Harlem. Check out the In[HEIR]itance project. Shabbat in the Lot. Get an earful on the census. Are we living Jewishly? Yes. Ask us how we know.
We know because you told us. You said this is a Jewish life. That’s how we know. It’s Big Tent. As Dorothy murmured, sleep-drunk and thrilled at the end of The Wizard of Oz, “And you and you and you...and you were there.” All of it counts as a Jewish life, and we were all there.
We birthed JCC Harlem in January 2017 as a collaboration between the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and UJA-Federation of New York, after an eight-year project to locate emerging and re-emerging Jewish areas. We joined Harlem Minyan, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Kehillat Harlem, and other wonderful, grassroots Jewish organizations already doing deep work in the neighborhood. We also found a network of welcoming, thoughtful community partners serving Black and Brown Harlemites through a variety of other lenses. The idea, from JCC Harlem’s inception, was to create an open center with an enormous welcome mat. Instead of unilaterally developing programming, we would be hosts, filling up our dance card with presenters from the neighborhood who appealed to an inclusive list of potential attendees.
To create expansive Jewish offerings, we invited Chabad, secular Israelis, independent minyanim, established synagogues, and religious organizations like Lab/Shul and Beineinu to create an integrated landscape of Jewish experiences. As we say in our JCC Harlem minhag (Hebrew for “custom”) document: “You are welcome to experiment with these customs, ignore them completely, or do whatever you feel comfortable with. But we ask everyone to be open-minded and generous when interacting with one another. There are NO RULES—just opportunities for growth, reflection, and meaning.”
JCC Harlem generally reminds me of the incredible breadth of Jewish life. It’s not Jewish because we say so, or because every time you make a friend we call it Jewish life. Nope. JCC Harlem demonstrates the breadth of Jewish life because it takes the best of Jewish living and offers a giant on-ramp from every angle. An open door. Not everyone we serve is Jewish. And we aren’t a synagogue. But then the staff starts talking and it’s unmistakably something Jewish. As it says on the JCC Harlem website, “this is your place.” We have invited literal strangers off the street to folk dance with us; we have pressed olives to make oil on Chanukah; we have given people a space to watch an Israeli film on a Tuesday; and then borne witness to Vy Higginsen’s Sing Harlem Choir the next night. And you shouted while listening, while dancing, while thinking, moving, exercising, volunteering, and praying. “This is a Jewish Life.” And we said "Amen."
Mission: Possible / August 27, 2020
What does it mean to live in community? Is it about proximity? For many, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and JCC Harlem are “local haunts”—convenient, walkable sources of fitness, education, and culture. Running into our center directors in the supermarket or waving to an orange-clad Camp Settoga kid across Columbus Avenue are divine echoes of what we create together in the buildings. “We belong...long...long...long.”
For others, community is more existential: “I came all the way from Westchester,” many a proud attendee will announce at check-in. For those of us who aren’t Upper West Side or Harlem residents, we “live” in the JCC community in equally meaningful but completely different ways. Commuting an hour requires kavanah, the Hebrew word for intention. One doesn’t accidentally travel that far for work, exercise, or Jewish life unless there’s some kind of reward awaiting them.
Our vision of community celebrates geographic diversity. We’ve always been a meeting spot for friends and families coming from multiple directions. We see this in Shabbat and holiday programs, where grandparents drive in from the suburbs to celebrate with parents and grandchildren. But when our lives went virtual, we held our breaths for a moment. Would families and friends still “meet” at programs if they couldn’t sit down next to each other and whisper until they got shushed? How would we create spontaneous momets that make one feel alive, fulfilled by the program and also connected to those in the room?
Community life is about concentric circles. At the center is a precious heart, and the circle surrounding that is a relationship. In Jewish life, we love pairing off. We even classically learn in dyads known as chavruta (Aramaic for friendship).
Mother-daughter duo Judy and Susan Greenfield are one of those incredible chavrutas. Judy (age 85) and Susan (age 60) are separated by a pandemic, by a park (Judy lives on the East Side), by a quarter of a century, and by the concerns and helplessness we all have felt since March. Despite their different needs and life stages, they each crave connection, a way of checking in, and a focused practice to quiet their minds. Enter our free, nightly, virtual meditation. Every evening at 5:45, this crosstown mother-daughter pair logs on to share a mindfulness port in the storm. They can connect with each other, create a ritual all their own, and receive the incredible benefits of a meditation practice. These beloveds have been isolated for months and yet, in Susan’s own words, “The JCC became our main point of contact, our touchstone. Knowing I would see my mother there...I can’t even describe how precious that is.”
We live modern lives and have access to many forms of communication, but when you live in (virtual) community simultaneously, you feel your humanity restored. “It’s more than just knowing she’s OK,” Susan says. “It’s the connection we have by doing something together.”
Susan and Judy embody multiple ways of living in community. Their connection enriches their lives, and those in their nightly class love their familiar dynamic. Their story is at the epicenter of how we create meaning in the modern world, and we feel deep gratitude to them for sharing their story with us and their spirits with our meditation class. Tip of my hat to my talented colleague Sherri Lerner for bringing their story to light.
Mission: Possible / August 19, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into each element of our vision and values. Today we will explore element 23: Engage with the Arts.
At the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, we tend to move forward at a frenzied pace. In a given year, we run 3,600 programs (200 chai for those of you that are into that kind of thing). And the life cycle of each of these programs is a complex, rhythmic sequence involving program creation, marketing, fundraising, and registration, all leading to that intense moment when you open the door and watch excited people walk in, ready to experience something. It’s a live taping of the award-winning Israel Story. It’s the Vertigo Dance Company. It’s a book talk with literary agent extraordinaire Julie Barer. It’s 3,600 opportunities to create a tabernacle or temporary community in our hallowed spaces, in a box, on a Zoom call. We all work together to make that moment feel like butterflies being released—hopeful, expectant, fulfilling, cathartic. There’s even a word in Hebrew for this particular kind of joy, semachim, which captures the anticipatory feeling one gets when waiting for something to happen.
And then, a heartbeat later, it’s over. The lobby empties, the 76th Street exit is closed for the night, the Zoom participant numbers begin to dwindle. It’s a relief. It’s a grief. The program is over. You get maybe 24 hours to be proud, to post-game with your colleagues, to write back to the emails you receive from participants saying they learned or felt something. Something incredible happened, and then the next night, something else incredible will happen. It’s a real ‘carousel of time’ kind of existence.
At our JCC, we talk a lot about engagement. How to engage cohorts, how to engage with Israel, how to engage with the arts. There’s no one path. And part of being a JCC, rather than a traditional cinema, or theater, is providing scaffolding for these experiences. Artist talkbacks, the Conversations series, gallery guides, podcasts—all are ways we seek to capture our programs (fleeting as they may be) in butterfly nets for further discussion, analysis, and savoring. It’s a kind of artistic preservation, and it reminds me of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says about the Hebrew Bible, that it is “preserved not as a historical document, but as a living memory.”
Two years ago we debuted 76West, our first foray into the episodic world of podcasts. Using the best of our Conversation series, we created these artsy engagement tools; part public archive, part artistic experience in and of itself. In our maiden voyage, we featured National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead (pictured, below) in conversation with our executive director (and his cousin) Rabbi Joy Levitt. The episode tackles Whitehead's book The Underground Railroad and the legacy of slavery in America today. 76West features original music by Perl Wolfe, formerly of the Bulletproof Stockings, and is edited/produced in-house by the stars of our marketing/Arts + Ideas programming/audio-visual departments. I would say that listening to it now harkens back to a simpler time pre-COVID, but at this point, we could also say that convincingly about old car commercials.
With 24 episodes (so far!) and four seasons under our (borscht) belt, we’ve captured something that otherwise would have been ephemeral. We’ve enabled engagement that goes beyond the 230 people who witnessed this experience live. Each of the 24 parts of this conversational art form contains a piece of someone remarkable—
Alan Alda, Judy Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, Nora Ephron Z”l, Bill T. Jones, Nathan Englander, Abigail Pogrebin, Kathy Griffin, Roxane Gay, Thomas L. Friedman, civil rights attorney Yetta Kurland, and so many more holy souls. This is our scrapbook of 10 years of conversations, taped before a live studio audience. Lend your ears and join us for a listen here. With gratitude and deep curtsies to Zabar's and Zabars.com (shipping to the lower 48!), our 76West sponsors.
King Solomon said: "Life and death are in the hands of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21) and the Torah says that we are separated from all other beings because we are “speaking creatures.” 76West encapsulates some pretty sacred conversations. And it is a way of slowing down, remembering and engaging with an arts program. Magic.
Mission: Possible / August 12, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into each element of our vision and values. Today we will explore element 26: Support Each Other.
We live transactional lives. If we look at the apps on our smartphones, some are designed for social connection (texting, email, Facebook, Instagram); and some were created to help us purchase books or groceries, find someone to build a complicated Ikea dresser, or give us directions. There is little overlap between these two kinds of apps. The people I love and need for emotional connection are not the people I ask for food deliveries, rides to various places, or errand-running. In fact, even as a communally driven human who loves to be a part of groups that take care of one another, I find (like many) I lack the finesse required to ask a loved one for a favor. Hence the mechitza between my phone apps—half for love, half for transactions. And never the twain shall meet.
Because I have promised to take each word of our mission as gospel, I have to assume every word is our destiny. So why might we promise to support each other? How does this language capture the reciprocity fostered when we choose to sustain one another? The fact is, there is no pecking order between helper and helped. We are all as valuable and as vulnerable as one another; it just depends where the great wheel of fate has found you at a particular moment.
At the JCC, we have founded an extraordinary community of 185 active adults aged 60+ to break down the walls between social connection and life’s transactions. Living Well Together is a cohort of astonishing humans that has created a kind of covenant between them, where they take turns helping each other as needs arise. Members of the program share requests and generous offers of help, assisting one another with escorts to doctor appointments, referrals for specialists, trips to the grocery store, and more. Even the Living Well Together workshops like How to Ask for Help and How to Communicate with your Doctor are led by members.
Sharing needs, volunteering precious free time, witnessing others at their most exposed and being exposed yourself is a generous, courageous freefall into a different kind of society, one in which Atticus Finch gets repaid for legal counsel to the Cunninghams with a load of stovewood, a crate of holly, and a sack of turnip greens. It’s charming because it uses a pre-industrial solution to a decidedly modern problem, but it’s also innovative and elegant.
Living Well Together is a kind of kibbutz without walls, a celebration of mutual support, and a blending of the social and transactional into a new kind of flattened leadership model, where we take turns, destigmatizing having needs and democratizing leadership. Take that, loneliness! For more information on how you can participate in Living Well Together (the next introductory session is Thu, Sep 10), please email Rabbi Brian Fink.
There’s a groovy little bit of text in the Talmud that came to me as I wrote to you:
Guard me, guard me,
help me, help me,
support me, support me,
wait for me, wait for me until I enter and come out, as this is the way.
Mission: Possible / August 5, 2020
In its ideal form, a mission statement tells you why an organization exists, what its shared goals are, and how it intends to achieve those goals. Crafting an effective mission statement requires art and science, humility and pride. A good one is universal enough to appeal to a diverse cohort, while capturing a particular vision that helps individuals understand exactly what one stands for. Easy peasy? Not so much.
COVID life has profoundly changed our realities. Our perception of equity, of childcare, of the composition of a weekend, have all shifted and become dismantled by the pandemic. But the most resilient among us—gritty individuals, communities, and organizations—see COVID-19 as an opportunity for mission, not intermission. We could treat this like a great interlude and throw our vision and values up in the air. Or we can double down on our mission, and assume that every word, like our most sacred books, is intentional and matters. That second choice sounds more like us.
The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan's mission, vision, and values statement can be found here. Like the best Jewish texts, it provides an ethical blueprint, a clarification of enlightened values, and an annotated scrapbook of our past, present, and future.
In college, as a religion major, I studied biblical analysis. As a discipline, it requires patience and faith. You have to believe that every word has a purpose and is rich in meaning. For the next…period of time, we will treat the JCC's mission, vision, and values statements with the same reverence and attention reserved for holy documents. We have taken a kind of spiritual centrifuge to our mission, distilling it into its most foundational elements. We have created a periodic table of these elements and I invite you to take a deep dive into the 34 purest substances that form the work that we do every day—in quarantine and beyond. This is an odyssey through the organization we have promised to be, and the most tangible explorations of each of these elements. Week after week, we’ll highlight life, communal experience, and our mission’s building blocks. Adam, meet Atom.
Join us, push us, engage with us. Write back and opt in. Give us a mountain, and we'll figure out how to climb it together. This is Mission: Possible.
The Great Indoors: Wednesday, July 15
Today’s Great Indoors theme is Sunrise, Sunset. Believe it or not, I’ve thought about Tevye, the patriarch from Fiddler on the Roof, quite a few times in quarantine. What would the milkman of Anatevka, so beholden to tradition and the ways of the past, have made of coronalife? The Zoom weddings, the leisurewear, the toilet paper shortages? Would he be mystified by our modern complications and pandemic workarounds? Would he be moved and fascinated by our pandemic traditions (clapping at 7 pm, bowls of masks by the door, sourdough starters, and shortcut challahs)?
I think about Tevye at the end of Fiddler—leaving for America with Golde and his two youngest daughters, his oldest three having made their own paths. He is scared, but he is willing. A new chapter is waiting. Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years, one season following another, laden with happiness and tears.
When we sent the first Great Indoors on March 18, our lives were very different. We called it the Great Indoors because our existence had shrunk down to the four walls of our apartments and for the first time in real estate history, the three most desirable factors of a property were not “Location, Location, Location.” Does it really matter if your home is close to the subway, near great restaurants and bars, and on the same block as your kids’ best friends if you can’t experience any of these things? Our lives were small, and the Great Indoors sought to make them feel bigger—rich in hobbies, connections, and knowledge.
Time hurries on. Even when every day is a year. Even when time is a flat circle and a road to nowhere. It is now July. For many of us, life has expanded. We are no longer solely indoors. We take walks, we have socially distant picnics, maybe we even eat at a sidewalk cafe or in a little lucite hut. The Great Indoors sees that you are leaving for America with Golde, Bielke, and Sprintze. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers. Blossoming even as we gaze. The Great Indoors has come to say goodbye.
In two weeks, we will return with a new weekly email, Mission: Possible. There we will pat the bench next to us and ask you to sit (six feet) beside us, as we outline our vision and values and usher you into the next chapter of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. The last 17 weeks (what is time?) has changed us, and talking to you, every week, has made this crazy experience bearable. Thank you for listening, for meeting us, for joining our programs, and for helping us build community while we once again found ourselves in a kind of exile.
The Great Indoors: Thursday, July 2
Today’s Great Indoors theme is Independence. My family has a Fourth of July ritual. We assemble in our summer glad rags (bathing suits, shorts, and flip flops) and read the Declaration of Independence as a group, each person taking a shockingly powerful stanza. We have done this for as long as I can remember. It is always remarkable—causing chills, yelps, and awe. Then, as a collective group of around 30, we sing the national anthem, God Bless America, and Hatikvah, just to keep our bases covered.
The last few years have been more challenging. Reading a declaration of independence in a country where freedom is elusive and fiercely argued on all sides (without any agreement over the terms) feels a little like eating a delicious meal in a restaurant (what's a restaurant?) near a window where a homeless person stands. How can we chant our independence when so many are in literal and symbolic shackles?
This Saturday, as we read together, may be the hardest Independence Day yet. I’m holding several questions that I’d like to bring to my family: How can we leverage our own independence to keep the doors open for those who are not yet free? How do we acknowledge modern forms of tyranny and disenfranchisement, and take concrete steps toward throwing off oppression? Learning the details of Juneteenth felt like a twist in a film. I’ve been celebrating the Fourth of July my whole life without considering the irrefutable truth that independence cannot be separated from emancipation. And that emancipation in a vacuum—without enfranchisement and implementation—is meaningless.
At Passover, we spill 10 drops of wine from our cups, one for each of the plagues. We do this to acknowledge the fact that we cannot enjoy a full cup of wine when our joy comes at the expense of others. How can you translate this to your Fourth of July experience? How can we read the Declaration of Independence while spilling out wine for those who broke their backs for our freedom?
The Great Indoors: Thursday, June 25
Today's Great Indoors theme is Side of the Street. My friend from college has a great expression: "You can only sweep your side of the street." I love this for a few reasons: (1) It captures our personal responsibility to make real change; (2) it reminds us that self-improvement is not a narrow focus; and, finally, (3) it helps us disengage with someone else's drama. We have power over how much effort and energy we give to other people's side of the street. Seen more broadly, sweeping "your side of the street" also begins the job, effectively fortifying us as we approach the communal work we must do together.
As New Yorkers, we are well versed in "alternate side parking," or ASP. This parking rule forces the clearing of parked cars to facilitate a street cleaning schedule. When ASP is suspended for holidays or storms, New Yorkers with cars rejoice, because they can keep their holy grail, a coveted street spot, for another day. At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor de Blasio paused ASP for months to enable staying inside. But, dear readers, as much as we love not having to move our cars, we should probably love street cleaners even more. They enable us to literally sweep our side of the street!
There is something apocalyptic about seeing an urban area with piles of garbage. From the disease-ridden end of the Byzantine Empire to the last season of The Sopranos, when we are shown a society with heaps of trash, we know it's a type of Chekhov's gun, meant to foreshadow the collapse of civilization. In coronalife, the need for a swept street comes into sharp focus. As Han Solo implored the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, "Hear me, baby? Hold together."
No matter what galaxy you're in, metaphorically sweeping our side of the street isn't easy. When God asked Moses to take responsibility for ending Jewish bondage in Egypt, Moses wasn't immediately galvanized into action. God expanded Moses' side of the street to include the fate of all the enslaved. We are facing a similar moment in our lives—our "side of the street" expands daily as we think about communal health and strengthening antiracism muscles. But when I picture us, out in the world, broom in hand, simultaneously sweeping, I feel the calm wash over me like cool water.
The Great Indoors: Wednesday, June 24
Today's Great Indoors theme is The Highest Level. Yesterday I went to the supermarket. It was nearly empty and sparkling clean. There was a station with bleach wipes and hand sanitizer at the entrance and all shopping carts are now kept outside in the sun (rather than inside the store). This was my first time in a supermarket in 16 weeks. I wore a mask. A sweaty, uncomfortable, too-tight mask. Everyone in the store also wore masks. My shopping companion, who had tested positive for antibodies, also wore a mask.
People mostly wear masks to stay healthy. And yet, via social media and various private conversations, we see some people who do not think they have to conform. "I'm young and not sick! Why do I have to wear a mask?" After a conversation with our executive director, Rabbi Joy Levitt, on Monday, I started to think more about the whys. Do we wear masks to stay well? To perpetuate a status quo of personal health? Or is something else at play? And what is the right analogy to share with others to unlock that empathy that might inspire those who dissent?
What if we recognized that wearing masks is akin to giving blood, or voting, or donating generously to a favorite cause? Wearing a mask could be like wearing the "I voted" sticker, inspiring others to do the same and providing a positive extrinsic motivation. In Jewish life we often refer to tzedakah (literally meaning justice, but used to describe charitable giving) as having eight levels. The eighth level is when you give, but you do it like a begrudging grump. As you ascend through the levels, we see greater and greater altruism. Near the top is giving without receiving credit for your gift and without knowing your recipient. The highest level is giving before someone is desperate for your help. (I'm not a statistician; I can't tell you for sure exactly how many lives you will save by wearing a mask. I can tell you that wearing a mask prevents others from getting sick, and seen that way, doing so is the highest level of justice and charity our tradition recognizes.)
We are taught that saving a human life (pikuach nefesh) is one of the most important acts one can do, beyond almost any other commandment. So, as you wipe down your doorknobs one more time and get ready to walk outside, wear your mask. Not only is it for the public good—Jewish law says so.
The Great Indoors: Wednesday, June 17
Today's Great Indoors theme is Time Travel.
As a '70s baby, I was at the perfect age to be dazzled in 1985 when Back to the Future hit movie theaters and drive-ins everywhere. The movie—so timeless and so '80s at the same time—captured the magic, the science, and fear of the topic of today's theme perfectly. Discussions of time travel are found in the earliest mythologies of world religions, and the time machine was popularized in 1895 (an anagram of 1985, if you want to get trippy) by H.G. Wells. Great Scott!
Time travel is a fantasy, the desire to reach into the past and impart the hard-earned wisdom of today. If we had time machines, how far back would we go? Would we travel back to fall of last year and warn leaders about a virus overseas? Would we visit ourselves in the future to bring back the proof that this moment of simultaneous pandemic and protest/civic unrest yields to real change? If you had a time machine, where would you go? Would you see yourself as a historian, visiting another time to silently witness? Or as an activist, hurtling through time to correct an injustice or mistake?
Jewish life contains a fair amount of time travel. Shabbat is a kind of time machine, briefly transporting us to HaOlam HaBa, or "the world to come." We travel through time on Jewish holidays, re-creating our liberation from bondage (Passover) and revisiting Mount Sinai, where even modern Jews are said to have stood (Shavuot).
Time travel is both universal and particular. As a species, we explore it regularly through the arts, and we use it as colloquial shorthand to describe the frustration of bad ideas ("I never would have poked that giant bear with a banana.") Mostly, these days, when a friend laments their lack of time travel access, what I really hear is: How do I feel a measure of control over a time with so much uncertainty? How do I revisit my memories of the past when some aspects of life felt simpler? How can we reach into the future and resurface to a world of peace and empowerment? Even without a DeLorean and 1.21 gigawatts, these questions force us to confront both past and future during this moment of intense retrospection. See you in time, friends.
The Great Indoors: Tuesday, June 16
Today's Great Indoors theme is Next Steps.
This weekend I noticed something new. After nearly 14 weeks of coronavirus hibernation, people seem to be tentatively starting to make plans. Not global plans, more like bike rides and picnics, friends texting wondering if a shared, mostly outdoor experience is possible. In many ways, we have gone appropriately limp these last months. With the dueling rabbis of state and city government (are Cuomo and De Blasio the Hillel and Shammai of the five boroughs?) we have been our most compliant selves. Perhaps it is the inspiration of Phase One beginning? Perhaps it is the spirit of protest that has gripped our nation? Whatever it is, I'm noticing that people are cautiously determining their next steps.
This past weekend, we read the Torah Parshat Beha'alotcha. Like many of the Bible stories that take place after we received the commandments at Mount Sinai, it contains a lot of to-do lists. These lists are different from our modern ones. I doubt any Great Indoors readers have sticky notes on their fridges telling them to "make two silver trumpets." But when I dig deeper, I see the parallels.
The reason the Israelites were asked to make the trumpets was to create a call to the community. Seen through that lens, we actually have something in common. The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan thinks frequently about calling our community. Moses was to sound the horn twice for everyone and once for the highest officers. This idea of differentiation resonates deeply right now. How do we best communicate? What are the times that we speak to our staff and when do we call you, our beloved constituents, in for conversation? As we make tentative next steps toward a world in the sunshine, with less bias and oppression, we keep our own silver trumpets in mind. Our next steps, designed for clarity and justice, require us to mark time and celebrate the burgeoning phases. May we all find success as we navigate.
The Great Indoors: Tuesday, June 9
Today's Great Indoors Theme is After the Revelation.
In the liminal space between the end of May and the beginning of June, we experienced a shift. After months of deliberation, we made the careful decision to move our Tikkun Leil Shavuot online, a decision we debated on a number of fronts. We worried about alienating the traditionally observant in our community who do not use technology on Shavuot. We fretted about not being able to capture on Zoom the magic of our usual live, sensory-rich celebration. We wondered if people would be interested in staying up all night without the motivation of seeing thousands of friends, neighbors, and strangers, and enjoying unlimited coffee and cheesecake throughout the night. But we decided that this was an opportunity to try something new, while holding on to something we have built over the past decade plus. We were amazed that close to 4,000 people logged on to explore revelation. The night felt like one of those turning points in which our screens seemed to vanish and it was just us talking, learning, singing, and laughing with this incredible community.
Shavuot went right into Shabbat, and by the time we logged back in on Sunday morning. May 31, the world had changed. National protests and cries of the oppressed took over our screens and the world outside our windows. With no room for Tikkun-inspired kol hakavod (Hebrew for "all the honor," basically "good job"), we steeled ourselves for the new reality of civil unrest and collective mourning.
Back in 2016, we emerged from the Shavuot holiday period into another national catastrophe, the Pulse nightclub shooting. The contrast between celebrating receiving the Torah (knowledge, peoplehood, covenant) and being glued to our screens to get the information from victims and lawmakers was striking. It feels like this is an emerging theme: coming out of revelation into tragedy. Is this a uniquely religious theme? Becoming conscious and aware and then seeing the sadness around us? In the biblical narrative, Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge and are then exiled from Eden. Is the revelation of Shavuot a kind of sanctioned forbidden fruit that opens our eyes to our nakedness?
What comes after the revelation? It's a question we're all wrestling with right now. I have no answers, just the knowledge that these are the right questions. And that wrestling is our work.
The Great Indoors: Friday, June 5
Today's Great Indoors theme is Commitment.
On Tuesday morning, we had our usual weekly all-staff Zoom meeting, but it didn't feel like the usual. Rabbi Joy Levitt, our executive director, who is tremendously skilled with extemporaneous words, read powerful, prepared remarks. She spoke personally about her commitment to activism, the brokenheartedness of a Jewish child believing that the civil rights movement would carry us into a just future, and the misery of realizing how little has changed. She echoed those words in the letter she wrote to all of you on Wednesday; if you missed it, you can read it here.
Then she gave the Zoom floor over to JCC Social Justice Activist in Residence Ruth Messinger, who is both tactical and strategic. She had clearly worked hard to find a message that would resonate specifically with our staff. I've marveled this week watching for-profits and non-profits strive to find both the words and the interventions that feel appropriate to the mission and vision of their organizations and companies. Ruth and Joy's words moved me to make some commitments and to ask those around me to join in. Personal commitments enable us to choose the catalyzing agent that works best for us. Some folks choose to protest. Some folks will have their first conversation with their children (or older parents) about racism, or donate money, or buy from black-owned businesses.
I like making commitments. Maybe that's because covenant is in my Jewish DNA. Maybe because when I commit I feel less helpless. The JCC is in the important process of figuring out what commitments feel genuine and authentic to us. Looking at the world today, then identifying the desired outcomes, feels overwhelming and formidable. But we have a commitment to you, to our staff, and to our mission, to find the JCC-natural interventions that will help us speak loudly and clearly about violence inflicted on Black and Brown communities.
The Great Indoors: Wednesday, June 3
Today's Great Indoors theme is The Bridge. Last week when we dreamt up this week's email themes, I never imagined how heavy my heart would feel. The murder of George Floyd took place on Monday, May 25; on Thursday, I was still in regular work mode. It took national protests for me to internalize that I should not, could not continue my life undisrupted. It was no longer OK for life to be business as usual.
I believe in the prophecy of the past. So I've decided to use the themes I picked last week as a way of organizing my thoughts. Last week "The Bridge" meant something very different to me. It doesn't matter now. What matters is how I use this space today.
Bridges are structures that span obstacles. What's the true obstacle here? Is it power and the way it combines with prejudice to create racism? The abuse of power by those entrusted to protect? Is it the media, which conveniently conflates destruction and protesting, as if they are twin goals of the social movement? Am I the obstacle? A white, educated woman who gets to go running, wear a hooded sweatshirt, go bird-watching, and sleep in my bed?
Kol ha'olam kulo, gesher tzar me'od, veha'ikar lo lifached k'lal. "The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is to have no fear at all." One of the most well-known bits of Jewish text, sung by a million Jewish campers. This morning, these words seem off to me. If the whole world is a narrow bridge, then we should have fear. Fear reminds us how much is at stake and how much we have to do to protect each other. Fear makes it clear that we need to stop asking Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC) for their help with rooting out our own biases. Racism exists because of the systems that white people have participated in and perpetuated. Dismantling them is our work.
The bridge that spans the many obstacles is a bridge of uncertainty, and my instinct is to race over it to solid ground. But I'm staying on it, in fear, in discomfort, so I can keep learning. I feel fortunate at this moment to be in relationship with you—our community—so we can hold each other accountable and continue to learn together, to find ways large and small to stand together for the world as it should be. A world where people are not terrorized because of the color of their skin—in Central Park, in Minnesota, and anywhere we are willing to look deeply enough to see how real racism is in our everyday lives.
The Great Indoors: Thursday, May 28
Today's Great Indoors theme is Revelation. Lately, I've noticed that many online classes begin with the prompt "What would you like to get out of this session?" My answer, seasoned by 11 weeks of quarantine, is always the same: "I'm looking for one new idea."
Epiphanies, aha moments (or Zoom-era Zaha moments), anything that leads to revelation, feels worthwhile to me. Like Doc Brown falling off the toilet and inventing the flux capacitor, I'm aware that the next revelation can be found anywhere. Coronaworld is full of epiphanies—things we've learned about ourselves, our neighbors, city government, etc. Revelations wake us up, feel dramatic, and involve illumination (that's why people call them light bulb moments, right?). Jewish tradition uses revelation to describe receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the belief being that WE ALL WERE THERE! With Passover, we tell the story as if we too left Egypt. But this situation is different. This isn't role-play. This is first-person history. Wild, right?
Tonight is erev Shavuot, Shavuot eve, the beginning of the holiday that marks a turning point: the moment we stood shoulder to shoulder at Sinai and agreed to the covenant, and were rewarded with something precious. To celebrate, join us in our first-ever virtual Paul Feig z"l Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Have you always wanted to attend our up-all-night Celebration of Revelation in the Nation, but couldn't couldn't drag yourself out of the house after the sun went down? Now's your chance! Join us for 36 programs celebrating Jewish life, people, study, wisdom, values, food, and culture all from the comfort of your own home.
I hope, as you make your way through quarantine, precious revelations are emerging as well.
The Great Indoors: Thursday, May 21
Today's Great Indoors theme is Counting. This time of year, we find ourselves in Sefirat HaOmer (counting of the Omer), the period of time between the second night of Passover and the festival of Shavuot. Passover commemorates our liberation from bondage and Shavuot celebrates the gift of the Torah and how that revelation and covenant transformed our people.
We are counting as our secular selves too. How many days since: I last went to work (70), took the subway (81), celebrated Shabbat with my parents (90)? Why do we count the days? Part of it is structuring our days, using the calendar as a frame. Perhaps we count to assure ourselves that we are making progress. Passing through days where time feels sticky, stretchy, and slippery all at the same time.
The rabbis say that we began counting the Omer because we knew that Mount Sinai was looming in our future like a shiny, beloved prize. We managed our collective excitement by counting until the big event. Those of us with kids at home relate to this sentiment. Kids are frequently counting to some perceived thrill ahead. How many school days left? How many sleeps until my birthday? Are we there yet?
The JCC has long used the Omer period to finish planning our Paul Feig z"l Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Perhaps our most famous program, this up-all-night celebration on the first night of Shavuot lasts until 5 am. Normally this event draws 3,500 beautiful souls and is a sensory feast—creamy cheesecake, incredible concerts, brilliant teachers, etc. Spoiler alert: This year will be different! We asked ourselves what virtual Tikkun looks like and the results will be spectacular. And, because some traditions are too good to mess with, we will be offering a gift certificate for a free slice of kosher cheesecake from Zabar's to the first 1,000 people who register for Tikkun sessions!
I was struck while writing this about another meaning of the word count, I.e. to matter. We created the JCC for your sake, to acknowledge how each one of you counts to us.
The Great Indoors: Wednesday, May 20
Today's Great Indoors theme is Safety. With sweet spring breezes so busy "they don't miss a tree," people are contemplating reasonable safety and risk factors as they assess next steps. And with so many articles weighing in on the relative safety of outdoor adventures, six-feet-apart picnics with friends, and dips in the ocean, it's clear that everyone's minds are in similar places.
We've prioritized and ritualized safety over the last 10 weeks. As a Jewish institution, we have always been committed to values-based vision and programming, but we usually look at values like inclusion, cultural pride, responsibility to one another, accessibility, and innovation. How does safety fit in?
One line of the JCC's mission statement really stands out to me: "We're dedicated to the well-being of everyone in our community." Normally, this refers to our commitment to health and wellness, our soul-nourishing meditation and Jewish living classes, and more. But in coronaworld, "well-being" takes on a different meaning. Now wellness goes hand in hand with safety, with pikuach nefesh, the idea that preserving a life takes precedence in every situation. When I think about it that way, safety feels expansive and worthy, grounded in our mission as a community center.
Sometimes we are afraid to talk about safety out of fear that it does more harm than good, but the best safety conversations soothe anxiety and prioritize rational decision-making. What makes you feel safe these days? How can the JCC as the center of your community make you feel safer?
The Great Indoors: Thursday, May 14
Today's Great Indoors theme is Nostalgia. Now is a time of great yearning. Yearning for the past. The compartmentalized, structured days. The sensory pastiche of routines and choices. Also, yearning for the future. In this science fiction existence of ours, we ache for a time of reunions; of joyful, casual, interpersonal sloppiness; of spontaneous weekend days with family and friends, where lunch never ends.
There is much to be appreciated about our indoor lives. I like my new commute (zero minutes), work dress code (soft clothes), cooking-challenge inspired lunches (last night's tandoori chicken becomes today's fancy salad), and the millions of live touchpoints I have with the members of my co-living family members. But still I yearn. Why? It turns out that there is a psychological benefit to missing my old life. Nostalgia helps focus your attention on what you believe, what is meaningful to you, and what you have accomplished. It goes hand-in-hand with optimism and gratitude for your various blessings.
You know what we are nostalgic for? YOU. As Groucho Marx said, "I don't have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They're upstairs in my socks." We don't have a photograph, so we made you this video to demonstrate how much we miss you. It was upstairs in our socks.
The Great Indoors: Wednesday, May 13
Today's Great Indoors theme is Movement.
Jewish culture and prayer are embodied practices. Traditionally in Jewish liturgy, we bow, wrap ourselves, shuckel, stand up, sit down, examine our nails in candlelight, bang our chests, and dance wildly. We are sometimes called the "People of the Book," but thanks to a verse in Psalms that asks us to devote ourselves with "all my limbs," we are also People of the Movement. Our interest doesn't stop with ritual—we love secular Jewish movement as well—for example, the sweaty fun of Israeli folk dances or the intensity of self-defense method Krav Maga.
At the JCC, we love movement! We love the members of our community who intentionally take the stairs, my fellow members of Team JCC who ran the NYC marathon this past November, and the incredible experts who lead our fitness classes. We love the gorgeous works of dance that the Lambert Center for Arts and Ideas joyfully presents to our audiences. We love how the members of our beloved Registration and Membership teams used their whole bodies to greet people when they came in the door on Amsterdam Avenue. And these days, we love the way you've transformed your homes into mini-studios to bend, bow, pose, and move. We love how, for many of you, moving your body is your pathway to Jewish life. That's one of the best things about being a Jewish Community Center—being able to provide the opportunity for so many of us to observe a kind of secular religion, accessed through the modality of your choice. Whether you move your body for strength, for health, because you got the music in you, or to regulate your body and soul...we love moving with you.
The Great Indoors: Tuesday, May 12 (by Dava Schub)
Today's Great Indoors theme is Curiosity.
What are you curious about?
The moment we're living in invites us to linger a little longer in the questions. To wonder more and to explore the twists and turns we may never have wandered around in before.
On thousands of Zoom calls over the past nine weeks, we've seen colleagues and classmates living among cats and dogs, children, endless bookshelves, and a lifetime of knickknacks. For some, these are simply distractions, but for me they're opportunities for discovery. Maybe my Zoom explorations are the workday equivalent of doodling on a notepad, but I think it goes deeper. I want to know these people beyond their business cards or the discrete activities in which we might participate together. Each hour spent in their homes is like going on a scavenger hunt—where I get to discover precious gems that I hadn't noticed before. Either because I didn't ask, I didn't take the time to listen, or I didn't have the space to be truly curious.
When we lead with curiosity, we make a foundational choice to be more open, judge less, and leave open the chance for more to be possible.
I'd encourage each of us to lean in to curiosity and see what we learn, what we come to understand in a new way, what new questions we're led to ask.
Where will your curiosity lead you next? How many ways might our programs and classes help you explore that curiosity?
The Great Indoors: Monday, May 11
Today's Great Indoors theme is Nurture. Yesterday was Mother's Day; a laden, complex, sometimes satisfying holiday. For those without children, or mothers, this day can be a painful reminder of what we have lost or gone without. We profoundly value the contributions that matriarchs have made to our modern, ancient, and spiritual worlds, while deeply acknowledging that not all families have mothers. No matter the makeup of your family unit, what we're really asking about is something broader: What does it mean to nurture someone?
At the JCC, we wrestle with these questions frequently. How do we nurture people at all stages of their various journeys? How can you meet someone, wherever they are, and encourage curiosity, growth, learning, and identity formation? Believing that there are multiple pathways to Jewish life, how can we use our robust on ramps (Fitness + Wellness, Social Justice, Arts + Film, Israel, Jewish Life, etc.) to foster cohort development and community-building? Embedded in all our programs are two tracks: the manifest content (activities, teachers, teachings, and performances) and the latent content (shared realizations, group formation, and communicated values).
Nurturing you, our beloved community, has been at the heart of what we do; that was what helped us to pivot to a virtual center so quickly. Focusing on "why we connect" helped us translate to "how we connect." We like to think that you are still feeling nurtured; thousands of you have attended our virtual programs, and your incredible generosity on GivingTuesdayNow grounded our belief in the enduring power of this incredible community.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but we can almost taste the next time we will be together with our extended family and groups of friends to share favorite foods and the joy that will come with those amazing mealtimes!
The Great Indoors: Friday, May 8
Today's Great Indoors theme is Jewish Food. It says in the Talmud, "There can be no joy without food and drink." Food is cultural, ritualized, and celebratory. Food can be a family heirloom, with recipes handed down from generation to generation. Food is a community builder, with potlucks and group meals to gather folks around a table. Food connects and excites us, like the endless debates about latkes vs. hamantaschen, or the real origin of hummus.
Food is sensory, driven by tastes, smells, and mouthfeel, so you might wonder, how can we have a communal experience while we're "inside people?" How can food unite us when you can't taste what I've cooked? Can you break bread virtually? A year ago, I might have been stumped by this question. The pandemic has given me clarity. A few weeks ago, we were invited to partner with many of our favorite folks (Gefilteria, OneTable, Hazon, PJ Library, and others) on the Great Big Jewish Food Fest, a 10-day, free, virtual, all-access experience. Since then, we've cooked up (excuse the pun) a series of beautiful programs, conversations, and relationships.
As you enter into Shabbat (or the weekend, however you conceive of this time) we invite you to make food and cooking special, as a way of marking the separation from your week. Maybe special means cooking something unusual, or dusting off a family recipe; maybe it means practicing mindful eating, or setting a table with a handmade centerpiece. We have no prescription for what makes something special; it does not need to be complicated (remember our "conversation" a few weeks back about "shortcuts"?), we just want you to treat yourself with the same tenderness you would a beloved guest.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but we can almost taste the next time we will be together with our extended family and groups of friends to share favorite foods and the joy that will come with those amazing mealtimes!
The Great Indoors: Wed, May 6 (by Rabbi Joy Levitt)
Today's Great Indoors theme is Gratitude. How can I possibly describe the way I feel about this community? At every moment, at every turn, you have stepped up. You have asked how you can help by making calls to isolated seniors in our community. You have supported us by donating your membership dollars. And yesterday, over 850 of you helped us reach our GivingTuesdayNow goal! This is truly amazing, and I am beyond grateful.
It is one of my greatest pleasures to lead an organization that I not only believe in, but that embodies my core values. The JCC lives these beliefs daily—as does everyone who walks through our now-virtual doors. You are sustaining us.
Your confidence in us gives us purpose and direction at a time when we need it most. Through your support of our programs—Lunch and Learns, Hebrew lessons, meditation sessions, fitness classes, programs for young children, and so much more—you remind us all that what we do matters. You remind us that together we are making a difference.
We miss your physical presence more than anything, but your virtual presence has kept us going.
The Great Indoors: Mon, May 4
Today's Great Indoors theme is Telling Your Story. In the days since we've "gone inside," our storytelling abilities have been honed by necessity. Without our usual audiences—our fellow commuters, co-workers, friends—the only way to share our experiences is to narrate them for others. All our relationships have become long-distance, which might feel like a demotion for local friends and family; but it has elevated those who live far away. If everyone is a square in a Zoom call, there's no geographical hierarchy. A friend's a friend—a block away, in L.A., in Israel—what difference does it make? Intimacy is as deep or shallow as our ability to describe our realities and weave our emotions into a coherent portrait. It's helpful to organize our experiences into a central narrative. It gives us agency and control (and a dash of fate) over our lives.
As with any diaspora/exiled community, storytelling is paramount in Jewish life. Codifying our cultural, ethnic, and religious experiences is how we built a people, even though we were all far apart. There's even a name, maggid, for Jewish storytellers. Originally a 16th-century concept, maggids were Jewish preachers who provided a folksy, accessible counterpart to the untouchable rabbi.
Can we give you some homework? Think for a moment about your life. Ha! What a prompt. Appoint yourself the narrator. What's a thread that connects some of the things that have happened to you? Is it an early experience with an influential person? Is it a core value that spans life chapters? What's a theme that emerges? What does it tell you about yourself?
"Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to." - Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
The Great Indoors: Thu, April 30
Today's Great Indoors theme is Into the Unknown. Have you heard the question "What do you think is going to happen?" more than you have asked it—or heard it asked—over the past six weeks? Type "when" into Google and it auto-populates with "when will we get out of quarantine" (which, by the way, was not the question I was going to ask it!). No one has a Magic 8-ball for coronavirus. And I keep contemplating two Jewish quotes over and over: 1) "A blessing is found only in an object that is hidden from the eye" and 2) "The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is to have no fear at all."
Uncertainty is, my friends, the only certainty.
For most of us, there's a day that we look back on as the day that life changed from normal to...what it is now. Maybe you went to work, someone coughed, you flinched, and calmly logged off for the next three months. Maybe your school closed. Maybe you got sick. Each of us now has a moment where we walked into our homes and basically didn't leave again without knowing the future.
How many of you have seen Frozen 2? Disney+ released it on multiple platforms on March 15, knowing that families were home twiddling their thumbs, and also, somehow, sweating profusely. Watch it tonight, if you haven't already. The action begins when Queen Elsa, half-awake, hears an ethereal siren song which she follows. She sings "Into the Unknown," a power anthem that outlines the fear and struggle present when you don't know what will happen next. "This movie is about coronavirus!" I yelled to my family, a point that only I experienced as profound.
We are living in the unknown. Without knowing our destination, without a map of where we're going, we are on this journey together. Resilience and loyalty are what gives us the courage to keep moving forward.
The Great Indoors: Wed, April 29
Today's Great Indoors theme is Celebrate. Today is Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's 72nd Independence Day. With just hours until the end of the British Mandate, the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was proclaimed by David-Ben Gurion in May 1948.
Approximately nine years ago, the whole Upper West Side—synagogues, organizations, Jewish day schools, and more—decided to come together annually for Yom Ha'atzmaut. We called this program UWS Celebrates Israel. Collaborations like this are rare in the Jewish world. Issues around kosher food, Shabbat observance, and live music often slow down large convenings. Seeing 30 organizations come together just to celebrate was intoxicating and moving. We wouldn't be able to do this for Rosh Hashanah or Passover, but Yom Ha'atzmaut gave us an incredible opportunity.
How do we celebrate in the Coronaverse? Each day, social media, like a kind of People magazine for regular folks, lets me know who is celebrating a birthday. As someone who loves birthdays, my heart swells when I think of people celebrating in quarantine. My inbox is full of requests from friends trying to make celebrations (for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations) bigger than just a Zoom call with friends. Recorded birthday greetings, rainbows in windows, and our nightly 7 pm Thank You Jamboree are all ways that we have elevated celebrations in the pandemic.
It's easy and understandable to feel deprived right now—even while acknowledging your privilege, luck, or relatively good health. Maybe you're somewhat grumpy about Zoom plans. The idea of logging on to just hang out can create a huge mental block for our sensory-driven selves. But with all celebrations, even virtual ones, no one ever regrets showing up. Every Zoom happy hour, virtual family trivia, or FaceTime candle-lighting fills up our reserves and impacts our moods, perspectives, and well-being. Yom Ha'atzmaut, a day filled with celebration, including IsraPalooza, is no exception. We'll see you online!
The Great Indoors: Mon, April 27
Today's Great Indoors theme is Sacrifice. It's been 75 years since World War II, long considered a time of great sacrifice in American History. We're a society used to individualized pursuits and self-ownership. Living in the time of COVID-19 has acquainted many of us with personal sacrifice, with a bit of living uncomfortably for the greater good. Although we aren't experiencing the rationing, wage/rent/price controls, or military service associated with wartime life in the 1940s, we can draw comparisons to our lives today. We've effectively torpedoed our "before" lives and our economy in pursuit of the fundamental belief that human life is precious. What we have given up over these past many weeks—either of our own choosing or because things have been "taken from us"—all capture various components of sacrifice.
Sacrifice is an elevated value in Jewish life as well. Originally, we'd enter the temple with sacrifices of grains, wine, burnt offerings, and peace offerings. Then the Temple was destroyed, and we evolved into a culture that used liturgy, tzedakah (justice and charity), and ritual as sacrifices. Mandatory military service in Israel is another way that sacrifice has been woven into the fabric of Jewish life. Today at sundown we commemorate Yom Hakizaron, Israel's Memorial Day. This solemn experience, with its sirens, sad songs, and memorials, leads directly into Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. Why conflate the bitter with the sweet? It comes back to sacrifice. We are profoundly aware that we would not have Ha'atzmaut (independence) without the sacrifices made by the soldiers we mourn on Hazikaron (remembrance).
Our community has long marked Yom Hakizaron and Yom Ha'aztmaut with enormous, live, united-we-stand programs. This year is different, as we honor Israeli sacrifices while making some of our own.
We're going to be providing incredible virtual content from the JCC, our partners, and the global Jewish community all week. Please join us tonight for a free concert of Music of the Fallen Soldiers, at 7 pm. If you've never marked Yom Hazikaron before, I highly recommend you join us for this moving experience.
The Great Indoors: Fri, April 24
Today's Great Indoors theme is Rest. Shabbat is Judaism's day of rest. The idea comes from the book of Genesis, which tells us how the world was created in six days and on the seventh day, God paused. Rest is...not sleep, but not active, like work. It's leisure time, but also about the negative space that's created when you cease doing something.
When we were creating our R&R: Shabbat at the JCC program over a decade ago, we spent a long time debating the name. In some conversations, R&R stood for Rest and Relaxation; in others it referred to Radical Rest. We knew the vibe we were going for was somewhere in between those two. Some of us rest to relax; others rest to radicalize—to be the most undiluted version of ourselves—to spend our weekend gaming, partying, cooking, meditating, exercising, etc.
In all honesty, I find the week—with my work and homeschool responsibilities, the ecstatic stress of back-to-back Zoom meetings, and the need for scheduling—easier to manage emotionally than the weekends. We know we're supposed to use the weekends for self-care and wholesome hobbies and creative activities for our families—but there's a weariness too. Friends talk about how tired they are, how no amount of sleep feels like enough—and there's a reason for this. We're grieving, we're traumatized, we're living after the rushes of adrenaline, in the emotional aftermath of shock. Fatigue is one of the ways our bodies cope!
All of this is to say that I'm trying to be kinder to myself (it helps to treat myself the way my friends do) and to recognize that three months ago, Shabbat might have meant Shabbat Shabbang and R&R at the JCC, dinners with friends, messy art projects, and adventures. Right now Shabbat means rest. Like, actual rest, "a bodily state characterized by minimal functional activities."
No matter what shabbat and rest mean to you, I hope you and yours find ways to mark the separation of time while treating yourself as a friend would.
The Great Indoors: Thu, April 23
Today's Great Indoors theme is Purity. This weekend we read the Tazria-Metzora the Torah portions that discuss laws of purity, including ritual immersion. Tazria-Metzora also explores illness and separation, how to assess sickness, and how to quarantine from one's community and rejoin when healthy. A little on the nose, no? Israelites of antiquity believed that outbreaks were punishments—manifestations of bad choices and immoral actions. This adds a nearly heartbreaking level of shame to illness. Not only are you isolated, sick, and weak, you also have to go through the process of imagining what you did to bring this plague upon yourself.
It's easy to get existential while living through a pandemic. It's understandable to question your beliefs in the face of such destruction. But rather than treating yourself as a leper, it's a beautiful moment to reach for b'tselem Elohim, the belief that we are created (including our sick, sad, and debilitated selves) in God's image.
The Torah portion also develops the basis for customs related to the mikveh, a living water bath used for ritual purity (traditionally) and marking transitions (pluralistic practice). Ideas of purity bring up complex issues for people—rigid norms of cleanliness and impurity can be used to keep marginalized people in an underclass position, but modern day mikveh practices are reframing the concept in a deep, feminist, and communal way. It can be used to process deaths, celebrate births, reconnect with our bodies, and revel in birthdays.
In 2018, the JCC took over the running of a community mikveh program called ImmerseNYC. Since then, we have invited people of all levels of observance to bring the power of mikveh into their lives to acknowledge change and the passing of time.
It's remarkable to see that a Torah written nearly 3,500 years ago has such relevance for our lives today. I feel grateful for a tradition that provides a double portion (of wisdom, of ritual, and of sustenance) every time we need it the most.
The Great Indoors: Wed, April 22
Today's Great Indoors theme is Earth Day. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, 50 years ago today. Jewish tradition dictates that we act as shomrei adamah, guardians of the Earth. This originates in Chapter 2 of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, where we learn that Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden to "work it and guard it." This centers environmental stewardship in the heart of the Jewish narrative. We were created, in part, to care for the earth. As we find our footing in "the great pause" (i.e., social distancing, COVID-19, quarantine, however you think of this time), we have heard dozens of stories of the ways that the environment has begun a kind of self-repair.
The first Earth Day I remember was in 1990. Central Park hosted an epic concert with Hall & Oates, Edie Brickell, the B-52's, and Ben E. King that attracted 750,000 New Yorkers and created, famously, 154.3 tons of litter. It was the first time I reckoned with the idea that there are conflicting levels of activism, and that a tension exists between consciousness-raising and measurable impact. I had this realization again two nights ago when my daughter, deeply attuned to my every move in quarantine, asked me why I was cutting up my Diet Coke six-pack rings. I do this tiny, silly act of respect to marine life meditatively and almost by rote, like mala beads. The rings have been biodegradable since 1994, and there are much more important and significant acts of eco-friendliness, but I will probably never stop cutting the rings and dreaming of the sea turtles.
What acts of environmentalism are part of your routines? What are the ways to honor the earth while we take this deep break from our typical footprint?
The Great Indoors: Tue, April 21
Today's Great Indoors theme is By the Light of the Moon. Rosh Chodesh, the monthly celebration of the new moon, begins this Thursday at sundown. Jewish life is largely conducted by the lunar calendar, though Jewish days and years are both measured by the solar calendar. This reminds me of my grandmother's (of blessed memory) favorite expression, "The days are long but the years are short." In quarantine life, this sometimes feels like "The days are long, but the weeks are long, and the months are long, and the years are also long." Time is perhaps a flat circle after all.
Why have Jews hitched their wagon to the moon rather than the sun, like many other ancient cultures? Some people believe this is because we saw ourselves as a small nation, an underdog whose responsibility was to provide a light in the darkness. And like humankind, the moon's strength isn't static. Some days we wax and some we wane, as quarantine mood swings have demonstrated.
Rosh Chodesh celebrates the new moon, a monthly refresh. Let's give ourselves the same option of a warm reboot, the chance to start again (my wish list of mid-course corrections is long). Instead of lamenting my mistakes, I'm going stargazing (much easier now with less light pollution and reduced airplane traffic). Many ideas below...
The Great Indoors: Mon, April 20
Today's Great Indoors theme is Memory. With Passover seders behind us, we begin the second feast period of the Jewish calendar. We are counting the Omer and commemorating three complex holidays: Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha'atzmaut. The first, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), begins this evening and continues through Tuesday.
I have long noticed the stark contrast between how we remember our slavery in Egypt during Passover and how we remember the atrocities of the Shoah. We are asked to center ourselves deeply in Passover's liberation narrative, to eat foods that remind us of Pharaoh's tyranny, and to celebrate our continued current freedoms. We are commanded to act as if we personally left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness. In comparison, Yom Hashoah is not an embodied observance. We do not remember in order to reenact. We remember to prevent atrocities from recurring. We remember to bear witness to the incredible suffering of our brethren. We remember to activate our responsibility to be upstanders. In Primo Levi's words, "It is everyone's duty to reflect on what happened."
Each year the congregations of the Upper West Side gather to commemorate those who perished in the Shoah. This year, the all-night, all-day Reading of the Names will take place via Facebook Live (which will be shared to this event page), beginning at 8 pm tonight, April 20, and continuing until 5 pm on Tuesday, April 21.
As we read names, one after the other for 21 hours straight, I am reminded each year of the horrific scope of our undertaking. In all of the years we have been reading names, we still have not made our way through simply saying all six million names of those who were killed. When I take on the sacred task of reading names, I pause with each one to do my best to pronounce the name correctly, to consider whose mother or father or sister or brother that person might have been, and to even let in a glimmer of the life that was taken and what could have become. This year, although a Yom Hashoah like no other, I will log on and continue that sacred task of remembering, and I hope you will join me.
The Great Indoors: Fri, April 17
Today's Great Indoors theme is Shortcuts. Shortcuts have a mixed reputation. We are constantly told that there are no shortcuts to excellence, but we love learning a new keyboard shortcut (like Ctrl-F) and knowing tricks to get somewhere faster.
It's easy to feel like quarantine has to be a "from scratch" time. Social media is filled with people making bread for the first time, learning to quilt, teaching themselves a new language. That's a beautiful thing. Mazel tov to them (and you, if you're one of them)! For the rest of us, everyday is a roller coaster. We can feel like heroes at breakfast for being dressed and ready for work, and then by lunch we are wallowing in our failures because we haven't learned to play the guitar in the previous four hours.
Four weeks ago I bought yeast on Mercato with every intention of making challah with my family. Every Thursday I try to summon up the will/interest/energy to carry out this plan. I simply cannot locate the tiny challah baker that lives inside me. Then I tried a little self-compassion. "From scratch" is not the only way. So I went into my fridge, took out a roll of kosher refrigerated crescent dough, rolled three pieces into snakes, then braided and baked it. Did it taste like challah? Absolutely not. Was it a sweet, eggy bread, braided and delicious? Yes. Giving myself permission to take a shortcut soothed something deep inside me. We made the traditional blessing that Shabbat:
.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam, hamotzi lekhem min ha'aretz.
And no one called back to our prayer asking if we made it from scratch.
You can give yourself permission to rewatch a favorite sitcom. You can mend something with fabric glue. You can wash all your clothes on cool so you don't have to separate lights and darks. You can ask Siri to read you the news.
Some days it's lovely to take the scenic route. But go ahead and take a shortcut on a tough day. It will make your life a little easier.
The Great Indoors: Mon, April 13
Today's Great Indoors theme is Dreams. From what we're heard, people are having some very funky dreams in the time of coronavirus. Anxiety dreams. Dreams of being free. Dreams in which we can't open doors. What weirdness has popped into your dreams lately?
Rabbenu Bechaya, a 15th century rabbi, believed there are three types of dreams: 1) Dreams caused by indigestion; 2) Dreams caused by the re-creation of our "day thoughts"; and 3) Dreams that are expressions of our soul, which are the only kind of dreams that have significance. Our lives have shrunk, so currently our stomachaches, day thoughts, and souls are probably more in sync than ever before. Without the distractions of our social calendars, we each inhabit a small island with only the contents of our homes (and our devices) for company. Our dreams may range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but they are also whittled down to the essential, just like our days.
I once heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Koko the gorilla, who learned sign language. Sign language not only allowed Koko to communicate with the humans in her life, it also gave her the tools to express her spiritual self. One morning, Koko described an elaborate scene to her caretakers. When asked when these experiences had taken place, Koko signed that she saw them on the "night television," which they realized, with amazement, meant her dreams. We are stimulus-seeking creatures. We think and scheme all day and while at rest, and watch prestige night television, just as Koko did. What if you practiced jotting down the details of your strangest dreams? What if you allowed yourself to be a retroactive director of your dreams? What if you woke up in the morning and let the indigestion and the day thoughts recede into the background, and examined your dreams as expressions of your soul? What would you find?
The Great Indoors: Wed, April 8
Today's Great Indoors theme is The Search. 357 days a year, we call bread, well, bread. And we are all pretty obsessed with it. Then we get to mid-Nissan, and for eight days we call bread chametz. Last night, at exactly 7:56 pm, traditionally, we were meant to commence Bedikat Chametz, our search for chametz. Like a Jewish scavenger hunt, we hide 10 pieces of bread around our houses and search for them with a candle, paper bag, feather, and wooden spoon. Why do we hide chametz, only to pretend to discover it? Mostly because our homes should be Passover-clean by this point, and we are only "finding" this self-hidden chametz so we can fulfill the commandment of search and destroy.
Volumes have been written about spiritual chametz as well. The same way that leavening causes dough to rise, spiritual chametz induces egos to swell. Getting rid of spiritual chametz requires searching and the acknowledgement that you hid all this garbage in your own "house." Searching for it is only step one. Sweeping yourself clean is step two. Passover-in-the-time-of-corona is perfect for this. We're already consumed with ridding the world of contaminants. So this year, instead of thinking of the spiritual/physical searching and cleaning as a chore, look it at as just a reframe of compulsive hand-washing, doorknob-cleaning, and elbow-sneezing.
Searching is a fascinating pursuit. We ask each other, "Where did you last see the phone/glasses/remote?" "It's around here somewhere, right?" Other times, the thing we've lost is inexplicably somewhere we've never been before. I'm thinking of all the lost souls who go to "find themselves" on spiritual journeys. Wherever your spiritual chametz is hidden, we hope you find it and enjoy the cathartic, satisfying experience of getting rid of it. Enjoy those seders, folks! See you on the other side.
The Great Indoors: Mon, April 6
Today's Great Indoors theme is Passover. Eagle-eyed Great Indoors readers might protest, "We already had a Passover one!" Nope, that was Passover Prep. This is the O.G. Passover and in two weeks we will have...Passover Memories. We joke, but the point is salient. We are a people that talk. We talk before we do something. We talk while we are doing things (a reason why I've been shushed in Broadway theaters for almost 30 years), and then we talk to recap the experience. We ask questions and we tell stories. Good thing, then, that it's Passover, the holiday where we're required to do both.
This week I was reminded of an Israeli poem by Amnon Ribak with the beautiful words, "Every person needs to have a certain Egypt, and a Jerusalem, and one long journey, that they will forever remember in their feet." This is a great comfort. Some quarantine days are hard. The dread and monotony overwhelm and it can all feel senseless. Remember when we could go to a restaurant, hug a friend, look at the hours of a day like an old-fashioned dance card just waiting to be filled up? But then I think of Ribak's poem. This isn't senseless. We quarantine to save lives. And we brave the terror and the dullness because there's a utility and purpose in experiencing "a certain Egypt." It helps us appreciate the journey to Jerusalem.
If we all need the experience of narrow places, then this moment is part of the rhythms of our universe, the wheel of our destiny—sometimes in Jerusalem and sometimes in a certain Egypt. We find comfort entering into Passover knowing that we are following the commandment to retell the story, not just with our words, but with our whole lives.
The Great Indoors: Fri, April 3
Today's Great Indoors theme is Nourishment. We find food in every aspect of Jewish life. If we aren't fasting, we are blessing food, discussing food, arguing about what food we can eat, what food we should serve, or what food we are having for dinner. The Torah talks about food, the midrash talks about food, the rabbis talk about food, and at the JCC we talk about food constantly.
Nourishment goes beyond eating; it conjures up the sensual nature of food, of being sustained, kept alive, and cherished. We can be sustained by food, by music, and by love. Nourishment is complex in our coronavirus lives. Without the normal boundaries or restrictions on a day, we find ourselves eating three breakfasts one day and Triscuits for dinner the next. We want to nourish our brains and spirits, but the shape of the nourishment ranges from things that feel super nutritious (like taking a master class, exercising, or cleaning) to things that feel like junk food (wearing pajamas all day, watching mindless TV, venting loudly to a friend over the phone). Both types nourish, but in different ways.
Judaism has plans for feasts and plans for famines. This is ideal in a moment in which we have an abundance of some things (time, fear, canned beans) and a scarcity of others (certainty, same-day delivery, plans for the weekend). It's nice to have a blueprint for both truths. Our hope, as your community center, is to nourish you to keep your spirits up, your anxiety down, and your hands busy.
So be'te-avon, בתיאבון, enjoy your meal!
The Great Indoors: Thu, April 2
Today's Great Indoors theme is Unlocking. Let's begin with a little folklore:
"In the king's palace," said the Baal Shem Tov, "there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that unlocks all doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key is a broken heart."
In this moment, we are broken over the sickness of those we love and those we may never have met, the lives lost, the cancelled trips and celebrations. And on top of the disappointment is all the judgment we impose upon ourselves (and on others). Am I helping enough? Social distancing enough? Creating special quarantine memories? Attending enough enriching Zoom classes? We have broken hearts, and then we criticize ourselves for being broken.
What if this brokenness is the very thing that will unlock our compassion, our openness, and our creativity? What if the key to unlocking all the doors is the one commodity (besides canned goods) that we now finally have in surplus?
What if the brokenness we feel is our asset, not our liability? Together, let's use what we are actually experiencing to unlock this new world. Let's assume we have everything we need inside us to unlock our innovation, our passions, and our next steps.
The Great Indoors: Wed, April 1
Today's Great Indoors Theme is Create + Sculpt.
The opening story in the Torah is actually one of five days of creation and one day of art. Adam, the first human in the Bible, is also the first sculpture. In Genesis, God takes dust from the earth, moistens it with water, and sculpts the primordial man. First there was nothing, and then there was creation and sculpture.
Right now, we exist between these poles as well. Our days inside can be nothing; or they can be creation. We can collect the dust from our lives and from that dust we can sculpt (although considering all the #coronacleaning that is happening, you may only have metaphorical dust left) something new. We've seen this play out differently for people. People are inside cooking and making things and getting creative with what they have. Friends are dusting off instruments and playing for the neighbors out their windows. Hobbies are flourishing. Writers, musicians, crafters, and even the artistically challenged are pushing themselves to sculpt something out of this odd time.
William Shatner, cheekily dramatic intergalactic Jew, once said, "You have to create your life. You have to carve it, like a sculpture." The JCC building dedicates much space and staff to the pursuit of carving one's life. We have a whole floor dedicated to ceramics, jewelry, painting, shoemaking, and culinary arts. The fitness center sculpts us in one way and Jewish living classes sculpt us in another. The building is closed, but the JCC is very much open. Let's continue to create; to gather the dust and breathe life into its lungs.
The world was sculpted from the earth's matter, and our community is sculpted by each of you. Thank you for your many acts of creation.
The Great Indoors: Tue, March 31
Today's Great Indoors theme is Hope. Hope feels like a radical act right now. Even the centenarians in our community admit that this chapter is a new one. We've had toil, struggle, and darkness, but for Americans...this indoor life is truly a twist.
Hope is optimism turned dynamic and active. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says, "It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope." The rise of positive psychology has given us the tools to cultivate hope. And as I remind myself whenever conjuring up hope feels impossible, hope itself is often a very small flame. I don't need a surplus of hope, just an ember to fan lovingly. We think of our collective hopes often: hope for vaccines and cures; hope for supply chains delivering masks and ventilators; hope that our community will stay healthy; hope that gig employees will not suffer tremendously; hope that we will rebuild a more equitable, sustainable society on the other side.
The Jewish community has hope built into its tradition. Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel, literally means "the hope." Noah building an ark was a fundamental act of hope. Our exodus from Egypt evokes hope that there was a better life through a desert and 40 years of wandering. Hope takes courage. And courage requires hope.
The Great Indoors: Mon, March 30
Today's Great Indoors theme is Accessibility. We hope people experience the JCC as open to the widest range of identities and abilities imaginable. We want you to feel that the JCC was created for you, which is different from just being welcomed. It is not enough to have an open door; we must also provide a way for people to enter through that door.
With smaller worlds, access becomes paramount. Whether it's ensuring seniors can access Zoom programs, getting iPads to vulnerable children for schoolwork, or helping isolated friends join a seder, we strive to make solutions accessible.
In 2007, the JCC began using one of our strongest tools—film—as an access point for people to experience the lives of people with disabilities. The ReelAbilities Film Festival promotes appreciation for the lives and art of people with disabilities. We've prioritized access so the nation's largest disability-related film festival meets the needs of those it showcases, with braille guides, ASL interpretation, and ADA compliance. We hope you join us this week for one of the many film screenings online.
And now COVID-19 has hit. Accessibility has taken on new meaning. We asked, how could we bring ReelAbilities to a housebound audience? Click to see how we overcame this hurdle!
In the 125 year-old words of Mary T. Lathrap:
Pray, don't find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears.
The Great Indoors: Fri, March 27
Today's Great Indoors theme is Passover Prep. Passover commemorates rebirth, bondage, and liberation. It is a celebration of spring. If memory serves, spring is a season with nice weather? Hard to say when you live indoors! Passover is a recognition of freedom, our ability to ask questions, and a complex slave narrative. As an organization with a dedicated Center for Social Responsibility, we are often thinking about oppression, power, privilege and opportunity—all things present in the Passover story.
We are also an organization that hears from thousands of our beautiful community members every day, so we also know that no one feels free right now. We need to hold multiple truths—that our work to liberate and fight against injustice is never complete; and that, despite how lucky many of us are, we feel dependent, powerless, and imprisoned.
The JCC has been moved by how each of you has responded to this crisis with gratitude and the counting of blessings, but we know that there are moments of great sadness at the Tyranny of the Pandemic.
We would like to help you celebrate Passover this year. Thank you to the 100+ people who have already taken responded to our Passover Needs Assessment. If you haven't responded yet, then karpas diem! Seize the Parsley!
Wishing all of you a beautiful, peaceful, and easy Shabbat. Let us know how you will mark this Shabbat. We love your replies!
The Great Indoors: Wed, March 25
Welcome to a curated way to sync up and add structure. We survey mavens and influencers to bring you...the Great Indoors.
Today's Great Indoors theme is Virtual Israel. Israel is famous for its technological literacy. Its percentage of GDP spending on research and development is the highest in the world. The Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, was founded in 1912, 36 years before the founding of the State of Israel. Israel was an early adopter of both Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) and has been able to quickly offer access to showcase the best of their sights and sites.
VR is a great equalizer. Anyone with a smartphone can enter. In some ways, we have democratized aspects of the internet in this odd, rare moment. Companies and organizations are throwing open their doors and offering unprecedented access. Israel's longtime interest in the digital frontier makes it particularly well-positioned to provide great indoor content.
We asked Moshe Samuels, of our David H. Sonabend Center for Israel, to curate today's guide to the Great Indoors. Feast your nefeshot (נְפָשׁוֹת, hebrew for souls) on the programs listed below and his ongoing list of resources and opportunities..
The Great Indoors: Tue, March 24
Welcome to a curated way to sync up and add structure. We survey mavens and influencers to bring you...the Great Indoors.
Today's Great Indoors theme is Grit. Grit is perseverance plus resilience plus some rock star swagger. We're searching ourselves for reserves of grit right now, just as much as we are searching Amazon for reserves of toilet paper. Grit is an incredible predictor of human success.
Jewish tradition's heroes had grit. Maimonides, in the Mishnah, writes about the Patriarch Abraham's ten hardships- including sending one son away and suffering the "binding" of the other, his wife's kidnapping, murder attempts, and one act of elderly self-circumcision. The cultivation of that grit, of continuing to move forward despite difficulty is also why the sages believed he was able to forge a covenant that created the basis for all of Jewish life.
Passion and persistence, grit's components, make our days feel purposeful and focused. In the last weeks, many of the people best able to pivot and lean into our new Corona World lives were the ones versed in passion and persistence. Hobbies, interests, focus, perseverance, and swagger are sustaining us right now. And it's never too late to cultivate some grit.
The Great Indoors: Fri, March 20
Welcome to a curated way to sync up and add structure to your day. We survey the mavens and influencers in our community to bring you the best of...The Great Indoors.
Today's Great Indoors theme is: More Than. We love our beautiful "vertical neighborhood" on 76th street; but we are more than a building. We're a community of partners, artists, families, folks flying solo, older adults, and activists. In times of social distancing, we're finding ways to be MORE THAN to you.
Ahad Ha'am famously said: "More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews." And our version: More than the JCC has created community, the community has created the JCC.
We are deprived of our usual comforts. Deprivation rarely leads to generosity, so we're irritable and stingy. But when we shift to a MORE THAN stance, we work to be more than quarantined science experiments and reluctant home-school teachers.
Heading into Shabbat, how do we separate the regular and holy in this odd monotony. Can we unplug when our screens are our front door and town square? What's your Shabbat treat? Maybe a call with an older relative, a hot shower with a cold beer, reorganizing a drawer, or listening to Michael Winograd. Hit reply and tell us how you get a little Shabbat. We see every response, and we are listening carefully.
The Great Indoors: Thu, March 19
In our efforts to keep you sane, safe, and engaged, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan has created a highly curated way to sync up as a community and add some structure to your day. We are surveying the experts, mavens, and influencers in our community to bring you the best of...The Great Indoors.
Today's Great Indoors theme is Legacy. In between moments of boredom and panic, now is a time for great self-reflection. What contributions have we made? What are we leaving to our children? What have we received from our forebears?
Time, the scarcest commodity in typical life, is now in abundance. We normally revolve around various "temples" like our offices, gyms, and restaurants. Like the Jewish people experienced in 586 BCE, these "temples" currently feel destroyed. However, the vibrant Judaism we experience today was created as a result of that destruction; the legacy of 586 BCE isn't a Jewish world that withered without institutions! The legacy is one of adaptation and creation—synagogues, the Talmud, new rituals, the rise of rabbinic literature! What will be our legacy from this crazy time-out?
The JCC's legacy lives in each one of you. Our legacy is these enduring relationships and the community we have built together.
The Great Indoors: Wed, March 18
Greetings from the Great Indoors!
In our efforts to keep you sane, safe, and engaged, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan has created a highly curated way to sync up as a community and add some structure to your day. We are surveying the experts, mavens, and influencers in our community to bring you the best of...The Great Indoors.
Today's Great Indoors theme is: Making Choices. We all have shrunken worlds right now. Our lives seem to have the same footprint as our apartments. But we contain multitudes as human beings. As Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340), a Rabbinic Scholar in Spain, said, "Days are scrolls, you may write on them what you wish."