Jody Passanisi and her kids
Jody Passanisi and her kids

The means of community have changed, the meaning has not

As I walked the other day in my neighborhood, acknowledging I am privileged to be able to do that, I saw posted on a window: “We are inside separately, but we have never been more together.”

I understand this sentiment. The pandemic has affected everyone, albeit in different ways. It would be naive to say that we are all experiencing it in the same way. Each of us has our own set of circumstances that make our situations more or less manageable — not the least for those who are on the front lines: medical workers, first responders, essential workers, those with food or shelter insecurity and those who have lost work.

But what I thought of when I passed that sign was “how?” I wondered to myself: How are we all together? How are we creating opportunities for community?

At my school, Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, this particular “how” has been at the forefront of our minds. Long before the shelter-in-place order, we put together a distance learning plan and committed to our families, students, teachers and community to continue to provide our excellent academic program. But we are a Jewish school, so in addition to excellent academics, of course we needed to make sure to maintain the tenets of our community — those moments of togetherness, many of which, for traditional Judaism, cannot happen without 10 adults together in a room — that allow us to feel connected during these times when we are separate and apart.

Through the diligence, creativity and flexibility of our faculty and staff, and the leadership of our Jewish studies team, we have been able to provide consistent communal opportunities for our students and their families, to come together to celebrate, to mourn, to wish and to hope for the future.

On Monday mornings we mark a new week together with Havdalah, the prayers at the end of Shabbat (l’shem chinuch — for the sake of education). On Thursday mornings we do Shacharit, morning prayers, and on Fridays, Kabbalat Shabbat. Each time we meet in the middle school we say the Misheberach, the prayer for the sick, and we end our programs with the song “Gesher Tsar Meod.” When we sing this song we remind ourselves that as we go through life right now in this difficult time, the world is a very narrow bridge, but we can move forward together and not be overwhelmed by fear. We have commemorated Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), and we will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut (Day of Independence) — and all points in our Jewish year, whether virtually or in person. Our community grows as families join from near and far in these rituals we can do together.

Now more than ever, the prayer for the sick, the prayer that asks for healing, the prayer that appreciates being all together, the prayer that shows gratitude for waking up each morning and the physical and emotional parts of ourselves that we take for granted — these have taken on new meaning and new importance.

My youngest is not in Jewish day school yet, he’s still a preschooler, but he wants to share in these communal times as well. He often settles himself on my lap when I am with the middle-schoolers. Since we have gone into quarantine, he has asked for Shabbat every night (he’s right once a week) — the lights, the songs, the ability to breathe for a second, away from the news, away from the worry, is important for us all, young and old alike.

Since he has cystic fibrosis, he’s been inside for longer than most of us. We’ve been holding our breath to keep him safe — the CF community is used to keeping 6 feet apart and used to creating rituals and community through technology. Their rituals are often online first, in person second.

Though we have needed to move our rituals online, we are lucky in Judaism to have these rituals in place that require us to come together — and the technology allows us to expand to members of the community beyond the walls of our schools or synagogue.

My children’s savta (grandmother) Zooms into these community meetings at Hausner, and I know that it fulfills a spiritual need for her as well. One of the unexpected benefits of our separation is a new ability to share our school rituals with family members from all over the world. This is the “how” we are more together than ever. We call it Hauser @ Home, but it is still our spiritual community, whether we are home or in the school space.

The rituals of Jewish life are “how” Hausner @ Home keeps us together. Our togetherness is not physical now, but a spiritual and expansive construct: through our ability to reflect on what we now have, to purposefully provide a space for these larger questions and concerns, fears and hopes, this is how we are able to really be together.

Your Jewish day schools are here. We continue to provide our K-8 students opportunity to explore their world, think deeply, and give back to the community — but now we are needed more than ever. Our kids’ souls are searching for meaning, for connection. We are here for them. We are here for the community.

Jody Passanisi
Jody Passanisi

Jody Passanisi is the director of the middle school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto.