The privilege of social distancing


This past March 3, the day of the Super Tuesday Democratic primary showdown between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, I made my final diary entry in the volume I had begun more than two years earlier. It felt like business as usual as I sat writing at a long, crowded table in my “office” at the Wayland Square Starbucks.
My recorded thoughts and feelings were scattered like mixed seeds: After his amazing victory in South Carolina, would Biden’s momentum continue? A friend in Brooklyn, New York, had recently turned the corner in his recovery from total knee replacement, which was complicated by a post-surgery infection. Following a recent Friday evening service at Temple Habonim, five of the Barrington synagogue’s past presidents, from “my day,” happened to arrange themselves in a semicircle – unintentional but powerful testimony to generational loyalty and continuity. A first reflection on Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” which my son-in-law had urged me to read.
As I continued to write, I had no sense of the coronavirus silently creeping in “on little cat feet.”
By the time I began a new diary notebook about a month later, on April 5, it was clear that I was now living in a brave new world; everybody could hear COVID-19 roaring like a ravenous tiger.
As we go to press, the insatiable plague has sickened more than 3 million men, women and children and killed more than 225,000 – and forced millions to remain physically separated from family, friends and neighbors.
So much emptiness: classrooms without students or teachers; stadiums without players or fans; bars, restaurants, libraries, museums, theaters, concert halls, small local stores, giant shopping malls, even municipal parks and playgrounds – all closed until further notice, or, perhaps, never to open again.
Can we ever return to the world that was? Will there ever be such a thing as “normal”? If so, what will this new normal look like, feel like, sound like?
During this stressful wrinkle in time, large numbers of us, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, feel “cabined, cribbed, confined.” Nevertheless, it seems to me that many in our local Jewish community – but by no means all of us – find ourselves in a social and economic position that eases our burden of enforced social distancing. We have access to all the food we need – although perhaps we can’t be as picky as usual. We have access to sophisticated technology so that many of us can work from home. When we feel the need for social connection, we can Zoom away to our hearts’ content.
While our recent seder nights were different from all other seder nights in the long course of our collective history, Zoom made it possible for us to celebrate Pesach with our families; though we could not touch them, we could see them and hear them and, most importantly, feel them.
For many of us, social distancing is a privilege we should not take for granted. Indeed, the headline of Charles M. Blow’s April 6 column on the op-ed page of The New York Times gives voice to those very same words: “Social Distancing is a Privilege.” Blow shows his readers how the coronavirus shines a light on our country’s savage inequities: “If you touch people for a living, in elder care or child care, if you cut or fix their hair, if you clean their spaces or cook their food, if you drive their cars or build their houses, you can’t do that from home.
“Staying home is a privilege. Social distancing is a privilege.
“The people who can’t must make terrible choices: Stay home and risk starvation or go to work and risk contagion.”
Three days later, on April 9, Samantha Power, a former U.S. permanent ambassador to the United Nations, pointed out on the Times’ op-ed page that the poorest nations face an even greater threat from the coronavirus: “Three billion people are unable to wash their hands at home, making it impossible to follow sanitation protocols.”
On a more positive, even visionary, note, let us hope that the undeniable fact of our collective, worldwide vulnerability will help heal us of our racism and xenophobia, help us transcend our us-versus-them mentality.
Let us call the disease that is literally a plague upon us by its real name – not the Chinese virus, not the Wuhan virus, but the coronavirus, COVID-19.
Our Talmud tells the story of three men sitting in a rowboat in the middle of a lake. All of a sudden, one of the men takes out a drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat.
“What in the world are you doing?” the two others cry out in astonishment and fear.
“What are you worried about? I’m only drilling the hole under my seat.”
We are all – every single one of us – in the same boat.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at

Rosenberg, COVID-19