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Dark Clouds and Silver Linings: A challenging New Year 5781

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Cartoon: Steve Greenberg

The Jewish year 5780 is about to end and not a moment too soon. Still, while world events have upended almost all of our conceptions about the way modern life works, we remain hopeful that 5781 will allow us to again find our footing on stable ground. 

But first, we should reflect on the challenges that emerged this year and that we must now overcome. The COVID-19 virus engulfed the entire world and has caused the deaths of nearly 190,000 people in the United States and more than 800,000 people worldwide. 

It also has had devastating financial and emotional effects on those who have been able to remain physically healthy. People have been isolated for months, unable to mingle with close family and friends. Some have lost jobs or been forced to permanently close their businesses. 

That distance from the usual day-to-day existence has led to a dramatic increase in depression. According to a study released last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 27.8% of those surveyed reported at least one symptom of depression, compared with 8.5% of people in 2017 and 2018. 

While scientists studied this virus, we were reminded that American society still has not yet found a cure for the persistent inequality caused by the country’s long history of racial discrimination. 

People around the world watched in horror as a Minneapolis police officer fatally held his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, while he pleaded, “I can’t breathe!”  Frustrated by more instances of perceived police misconduct, millions have taken to the streets in protests, which have largely been peaceful but also included acts of looting and arson.

 That tension forced us to reconsider yet another previously held belief: that we could not possibly become any more divided as a country than we had been since the 2016 election. 

The little amount of remaining goodwill between Republicans and Democrats has become even smaller during a bitterly divisive presidential campaign. 

And finally, the Anti-Defamation League reported a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 in the United States, and Israelis were forced to slough through months of political gridlock and vote three times in one year to determine who the next prime minister would be. 

So, gulp, where are the glimmers of hope as we prepare to welcome the New Year 5781? 

Scientists here and abroad continue to rapidly work to develop an effective vaccine, new treatments for the novel coronavirus and new tests that might allow us to more easily reopen society. For evidence of this, look no further than Washington University, where researchers developed a COVID-19 saliva test, which the Food and Drug Administration recently approved and could allow people to test themselves more easily, frequently and cheaply.

In the meantime, students at some local Jewish day schools, such as Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and Epstein Hebrew Academy, have resumed classes at school while several area synagogues are holding in-person services again. Nusach Hari B’nai Zion has pitched a tent in its parking lot and holds services on weekdays and Shabbat; U City Shul reconvened services outside and has since moved back indoors, while adhering to government directives to wear masks and limit the number of people attending. 

Other congregations have organized a robust array of virtual services and events and have seen better than anticipated attendance. Congregation Temple Israel started the Lilith Readers Book Club in which participants read a different book written by a Jewish woman each month and then remotely discuss it. Kol Rinah has started a Zoom L’Chaim tradition on Friday evenings, in which congregants are encouraged to toast and schmooze before the start of their virtual Kabbalat Shabbat services. 

And then there was one more previously unimaginable news development: Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached an agreement to normalize relations between the two nations, which could presage a wider alliance between Arab nations and the Jewish State.

Finally, people frustrated or pleased with our elected officials will soon have an opportunity to make their voices heard in the most formal, important of ways in a democracy. We are less than two months from election day, and we strongly urge pessimists and optimists, Republicans and Democrats, to cast a ballot. 

 As we prepare for our High Holidays, our Days of Awe, we encourage all of our readers to not just wait for positive developments from scientific laboratories or Washington but to also look inward for ways in which we can become more kind, gracious and generous to one another, even those whom we believe are wrong.

Let us thank the Almighty for helping us through these trying days and pray that 5781 will be an easier, healthier year.