She’s stuck at home during a pandemic, but Chabad Emeryville rebbetzin Menucha Blank doesn’t mind. She’s got something to keep her occupied.
“The best thing to do in the pandemic is to have a baby,” she said. “It brings so much joy.”
Blank gave birth to her second child in August. Levi, now 5 months old, is one of the many Bay Area babies who have come into the world during a time that’s proven to be a mixed but definite blessing. Even if they’re lucky enough to have financial security, parents of new babies have had to cope with being separated from family and friends while juggling nursing, diapers and a baby’s many needs — often also while working from home. But the pandemic has also given them an enforced period of closeness and family bonding during some of the sweetest years of family life.
“Arya is the biggest fan of the pandemic,” said San Francisco resident Tamar Sberlo about her 11-month-old daughter. After all, she said, from Arya’s point of view, “My mom is here all the time! I only see my grandparents, and they really like me!”
For first-time mom Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel of San Francisco, raising a baby during Covid has meant letting go of expectations.
“I had envisioned a maternity leave of parent-baby yoga, and going to Tartine and eating coffee and pastries,” she said.
Instead, in the six months since her daughter was born, Cozen-Harel, a single mother by choice, has been largely one-on-one at home with her baby.
“It was hard, logistically: holding, sleeping, eating,” she said. “I spilled lots of food on my child. But there was something really special — holy — about it.”
She remembers the day the pandemic really came into focus. She was pregnant and at a doctor’s appointment in early March, when her doctor advised her to stay home on Purim. It was when the pandemic was first making headlines and people were beginning to worry, but nobody knew the scope of the situation or facts about transmission. Zoom and virtual events were new and awkward.
“It was a huge loss,” she said. “It was one of the only times I didn’t participate in Megillah reading in my whole adult life.”
It was also the first of many changes for Cozen-Harel. She had a whole support plan among friends eager to rally around as she began life as a mom. Instead, it’s been just her and the baby, who was born in the beginning of June.
It’s been an unexpected delight, she said. “It was also really nice to just sort of have that time that was just us, and not anybody else. It made time operate in a different kind of way.”
Naturally, there have been challenges. The baby-naming ceremony felt strange on Zoom, with no schmoozing. And “my child has seen no other children in her life,” she said.
More recently, Cozen-Harel, who works as a business analyst at UCSF and also teaches Jewish study through Kevah, has had to figure out how to be a working mom without child care. (She’s currently in Southern California around family members who can help, but she plans to come back to the Bay Area as soon as possible.)
“It’s hard to feel like you’re doing an OK job at all the pieces,” she said.
To get more support, last month she started a parents’ group for rabbis. They meet virtually to discuss regular parent stuff, such as how much their babies are sleeping or whether they’ve started on solid foods, as well as rabbi-specific matters, from work-life balance to how to teach over Zoom.
“It’s been a really nice way to create community,” she said.
But she still looks back on those first lockdown months with her baby with fondness. “I actually really loved having the time that was just me and her,” Cozen-Harel said.
Blank is also familiar with that “bubble” that exists when spending time with a newborn, staying home and focusing on the baby. She felt it with her first child, Hannah, now 2. With Levi, the bubble is happening again — but on a larger scale.
“This time I was, oh, the whole world’s with me,” she said on the phone with J., with Levi crooning in the background.
For Blank, who works with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Blank, at Chabad Emeryville, this is just the start. She’s used to big families; the daughter of longtime Berkeley Chabad directors Rabbi Yehuda Ferris and Miriam Ferris, she’s one of 10. And her husband comes from an even bigger family. “He’s one of 16,” she said.
She said that giving birth during Covid was more stressful than with her first child. Levi was born at Alta Bates, where Blank herself was born.
“In the hospital, I was only allowed to choose one person to be with me,” she said. Feeling it would be better for her husband to look after their daughter, Blank chose to have her doula with her. But there were many hours when Blank was by herself.
“I was lonely,” she admitted. “I was all alone for most of the stay.”
But she enjoyed visits from Jewish doctors and nurses who came to say hello, knowing she was a rabbi’s wife, and was comforted by the mezuzah her husband gave her to hold — and, in true Chabad tradition, to pass on if someone needed it. So she was thrilled when she met an Israeli midwife who needed one. “That felt really special,” Blank said.
Annie Lumerman of Menlo Park also had her second child during the pandemic. Noah was born in April.
“I feel, in many ways, lucky that this was our second, because we knew what we were getting into,” she said.
She and her husband also have a 4-year-old son, and before the pandemic they had been planning to move to the East Coast. But Covid put those plans on hold; it also meant separation from Lumerman’s parents in Florida.
“I have not seen them since September of 2019,” she said. “And they have not met this baby.”
One thing that has helped couples deal with the stresses of parenting and working during a pandemic — Lumerman is the chief operating officer at Sefaria, the Jewish virtual text database — is their synagogue.
“One bright light during Covid has been staying involved with Beth Am,” she said, referring to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.
Carol Booth, director of the Jewish Baby Network, which provides resources for parents of children under 3 years, said synagogues and organizations such as Jewish Family and Children’s Services (the JBN’s parent organization) and PJ Library have focused on outreach to parents.
“The Jewish community has really stepped up to offer a lot of support,” she said.
JBN has held two Jewish “birth prep” workshops since the pandemic started, reaching an estimated 70 families, Booth said. In a nondenominational fashion, the workshops cover how to bring rituals and Jewish values into birth and baby-rearing, as well as pandemic-specific issues.
“There’s a lot of questions about ‘How do I have a baby and have a circumcision or a naming ceremony during the pandemic?’” Booth said.
The answer, usually, is on Zoom and with limited in-person participation. Booth’s husband, Rabbi David Booth of Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth, has been Zooming into brises where the mohel is on hand with the parents, but everyone else is online. “The mohels are coming in masks and taking a lot of precautions,” she said.
But Booth knows that’s it not the same without the love and support of the community.
“I think it has been hard,” she said. “I think not having friends and family come is hard.”
That distance can have a silver lining, though.
When the pandemic hit, Sberlo and her husband, Jeff Sabin-Matsumoto, had just come off an epic year. They’d married in an exuberant ceremony (complete with alpaca) in 2018, then taken a yearlong honeymoon trip around the world. They had their baby in January of 2020, just as headlines were beginning to appear about a new pandemic in Wuhan, China.
By March, Sabin-Matsumoto, a video producer, had lost his job. Sberlo, a middle-school teacher, was on maternity leave. The parade of relatives and friends who had been coming to see baby Arya stopped. But Sberlo said that at the time, she found some comfort in it.
“Once the pandemic hit, it was kind of a relief to have that quiet,” Sberlo admitted. “It was kind of beautiful.”
Under lockdown, the couple spent several glorious months together with Arya, whom Sberlo calls “the rhino.”
“Because she’s forceful,” Sberlo said. “She’s not very timid.”
She said it was a boon particularly for her husband, who normally wouldn’t have been able to spend as much time with their daughter in those precious early months.
“That was a silver lining,” she said. “He got so much time with Arya.”
Now, with both Sberlo and Sabin-Matsumoto working from home, grandparents on both sides are taking on child care duties while the parents get things done. Sberlo said she’s busy but loves having her daughter close by. Arya, almost a year old, “thinks she can walk” and likes to look at birds.
“She is still somehow delighted by variations of peekaboo,” Sberlo said. “She will peekaboo herself.”
Getting to share those moments is one of the advantages of working from home, something neither parent would have been able to do in the same way before Covid. And while the stresses have been undeniable, Sberlo said she will always treasure those first months of her daughter’s life when the whole world seemed to stop.
“I can say that I’ve had quite a joyful pandemic,” she said. “Because I’ve been home with my family.”