By Pam Hersh
The current celebration of Passover (April 8-16) is a time when all of us – no matter what our faith – are waiting for the COVID-19 plague to pass over. The signature Passover seder question – “Why is this night different from all other nights?” – might elicit a response in the COVID era that has little to do with the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and their exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago.
This Passover is different from any other we ever have experienced in countless ways – described not in the Haggadah (the text telling the story of Passover), but in millions of emails and texts with words reflecting fear, anxiety and radically new lifestyles.
For Rabbi Robert Freedman, the answer to the question of what differentiates this Passover different from others boils down to one word: connectivity.
I interviewed Bob, a longtime Princeton resident and friend of my family, a few weeks before Passover and before our lives were thrown into chaos by COVID-19. Originally, I wanted to write about how he was doing in both of his jobs: interim rabbi at the Jewish Center of Princeton, a position he has held since the sudden death in December of Rabbi Adam Feldman; and staff chaplain at Penn Medicine Princeton Health, a job he has held since 2013. When COVID-19, like a Biblical plague, infected our community, I knew I had to ask him about the COVID impact on him and his ability to carry out his two jobs.
“In my role as interim rabbi (a position he will hold until June 30), I am supposed to be a pastoral presence for the congregation to help the congregation stabilize and congregants heal after the death of Rabbi Feldman. Although my responsibilities are more limited than those of an officially appointed rabbi, my ministerial work, the essence of which is connecting with one another, is very full time,” Bob said.
“I’ve been reading ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers. It’s a book about humans who gather to protest the clear-cutting of old-growth forests in California and Oregon.
They are the main characters of the novel, but the novel’s roots are trees. … Underground, tree roots intertwine. Mr. Powers was obviously moved to write because of his fascination with them. In the past 20 years we’ve learned amazing things about trees, above all that they live in community. …
“I’m enjoying the book on many levels, one of which is as a metaphor for human communities whose members talk to, nourish and protect each other, and pass on their legacy to the next generation. Some humans, drawing from a source of energy deeper than many, weave and nourish with will and expertise. Rabbi Feldman was one such. Maybe it was what he did best. Though his outgoing public personality was readily apparent, few could see all the many caring connections he wove ‘underground.’ His loss, like the falling of a great tree in the forest, has left many links unraveled. Inspired by his memory, let’s continue his work,” said Bob, who went back to school to become a rabbi after having served as cantor for the Jewish Center of Princeton from 1982-96.
It is this same element of connectivity that is the key ingredient in Rabbi Freedman’s work at the hospital.
“What I am trying to do at the hospital is to minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of patients and get them to talk about themselves and experiences in the hospital. By talking, I try to help the individual find some way to deal with his or her situation in a spiritual and emotional way. The doctors deal with the body, the chaplains deal with the heart and soul,” he said.
Rabbi Freedman is one of the staff chaplains at the hospital, which, with the support of local congregations, provides chaplains for many different faiths. He also relies on and is most appreciative of the help he gets from volunteers who help him connect with the most critically ill patients.
The patients are sometimes the ones who nurture Rabbi Freedman’s spirit. For example, “ I talked to a woman with multiple serious illnesses: cancer, stoke and a heart attack. We talked about the source of her determination to overcome her illnesses. After we talked for a while, her response to me was, ‘I love life. … I wake up everyday and am grateful.’ … I like to say and I do believe that I am not dealing in death as much as I am advocating for life,” Bob said.
But then came COVID with its ability to zap the connectivity right out of our lives and eat away at the heart of Bob’s roles both at the Jewish Center and at the hospital. He is no longer able to visit patients at the hospital, and he no longer leads an in-person religious service.
His religious service interactions with his congregants at the Jewish Center are now dependent upon technological intermediaries – ZOOM and live streaming. His visits to sick patients are now in writing (letter and email) and by phone – when the patient feels well enough to pick it up. When he has exhausted the patient phone option, he then calls family members. The religious services in the hospital’s chapel are broadcast for patient and staff viewing.
Although he is very appreciative of technology allowing this modified functioning of his role as a rabbi and hospital chaplain, “it is inadequate. I know people are lonely and hurting. … There is nothing like connecting in person, looking in their eyes, observing the body language. I feel very uneasy not seeing congregants and patients in 3D.”
In addition, he worries about the long-term effects of social distancing and isolation. Like taking the yeast out of flour and thwarting the “rise” of the bread, this COVID-19 episode, he fears, has made us flat, numb to human contact. “I fear people might get too used to going without personal contact and not really put any effort to reconnecting when we finally are able to do so.”
Rising to the challenge of a speedy exodus, the fleeing Israelites created matzo or unleavened flatbread. And Rabbi Freedman intends to create some good from this time of oxymoronic social distancing. He sees it as his challenge to intensify his own social connectivity and inspire it in others.
“Rabbi Feldman did work that very few people knew—he kept track of people, emailed 60-70 people per week. That was his ministry; he would call, visit, text. I have met 11 people who thought they were the last people he spoke to before he died. I feel like I can try to do that, can’t do what he did – I am humbled by it –but I will keep trying to make that connection with as many people and as often as possible,” using all available means of communication with his congregants and his hospital patients.
The best way for socially isolated people to stay connected, he said, is through compassion – to think of the well being of someone other than oneself. The majority of those who suffer in this epidemic will not be the people who contract the disease. It’ll be those who are going to be laid off work without compensation, for whom being out of work is going to cause real hardship. When the crisis is over, maybe while it is still happening, may those who have extra resources share with those who don’t.”
His Purim (March 10) message to the community reflected that sentiment of compassion and giving.
“This year may you give tzedakah (charitable donations) easily and freely. Hand out sweet hamentaschen (the Purim three-cornered pastry), donate generously to the poor, and, of course, share your voice singing silly Purim songs,” said Rabbi Freedman, who after all these years as a rabbi, still hearkens to his roots as a cantor and a young man who started singing in his synagogue when he was 13 years old.