Joan and Sherman Silber had some unexpected houseguests from Israel for the High Holidays this year.
As the number of coronavirus cases in Israel spiked last month to the point where the country now has the highest rate of daily new coronavirus infections per capita in the world, Joan and Sherman’s son David, his wife and seven of their eight children had a decision to make: Stay in Jerusalem and prepare for a second lockdown or go stay with the Silbers in Frontenac, where the Orthodox family would not be within walking distance of a synagogue.
They opted for the latter and say it’s been an extraordinary experience — not only because they are on the other side of the world but also because of the opportunities created by the new constraints.
Basically, their exodus to St. Louis “closed the door on our communal life but opened the door on our family life,” said David. “We had an incredible Rosh Hashanah experience where we had only ourselves to rely upon to get the tunes going and put the meaning to it.”
David Silber grew up in St. Louis and then attended Yale University, which he left in the middle of his studies to move to Israel. He then spent 20 years studying and teaching at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he met his wife, Sharonne, who was from Sydney, Australia. David was ordained as a rabbi and later attended law school; he now practices commercial law. Sharonne spends her time raising their children in Ramat Shlomo, a religious settlement in East Jerusalem.
Israel had already been through a lockdown in March and April and by June, had among the lowest case rates in the world. The country then reopened. By September, Israel had a surge in cases and was nearing the High Holidays, when there are typically large gatherings throughout the country. The country is now the first in the developed world to reenter a lockdown.
As David put it, “World Series champs to the cellar dwellers.”
He attributes it to the fact that Israel is good at fighting wars — but “only short wars.”
On Sept. 16, two days before Rosh Hashanah, the family debated whether to take a flight six hours later.
That night, Ben Gurion Airport, usually flooded with people before the High Holidays, was empty.
When they arrived in St. Louis, they immediately headed to the basement at the Silbers’ home and quarantined there for the next two weeks, during which they each took two COVID tests.
“We didn’t know how Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were going to go for us because if we had stayed in Israel, we would have a minyan, a shul and everything. Maybe we wouldn’t daven in a big shul with 300 people, but we would still have a minyan,” said Chaim, 17. “But it was really nice to have family time.”
Nomi, 18, said she and her siblings were worried what the High Holidays would be like in St. Louis because in Israel, the “High Holidays are really special.”
But rather than go to synagogue, they sat around discussing what the prayers meant to them, which proved impactful.
“It was an opportunity for us to do something different and be together in a new kind of way,” said Sharonne. “Normally we would never have dreamed of leaving during Rosh Hashanah, but God is everywhere, and wherever you go, you bring him with you in your heart, and we had the opportunity to have a really special time here.”
On Rosh Hashanah, David walked out into an island in the middle of his parents’ street and started to below the shofar. About seven or eight people came outside.
“We had an incredible experience; they had an incredible experience, and the point is this never would have happened on Frontenac Woods Lane. Hadn’t happened before. Probably won’t happen again, and so that’s a door that COVID opened,” he said. “Tons of doors have been opening in our relationships here. With nine people here, it comes out to 36 relationships and the door is now open in all 36 of those relationships.”
In essence, his approach is, “If you see it as, ‘Oh, look at all the doors that are closing,’ you can put up with it for a few days, but when it starts to really set in that this is the way of life, then you just rebel, but like many things in life, it closes some doors and opens others.”
After two weeks of quarantine, the family could also freely open the doors at Joan and Sherman’s home. And then they started to build a new shelter: a sukkah, in which they ate meals. Some of them slept in the hut, as is the tradition in the Orthodox community.
Joan, a member of the national board of the American Jewish Committee and a Light trustee, hadn’t hosted her son’s family in five years.
“It’s been really a joy to have them here — a lot of work, but it’s been a real treat,” she said.
“I know a lot of friends whose children and grandchildren are either in town or far away, and they are not able to see them, so for them to be willing to come and do that quarantine — and now we’re able to hug and move around like normal.”