In April 2020, the Rhode Island Jewish community, like the rest of the state, country and world, was just beginning to figure out what the COVID-19 pandemic looked like and meant close to home. We all had a new vocabulary: masks, social distancing, novel coronavirus, Zoom and lockdown.
That April and May, we asked some community members to write about the impact of the coronavirus on their lives. They wrote poignant essays about the big changes they made to accommodate what few people thought would still be around a year later.
Recently, we checked in with some of the people we wrote about early in 2020 to see how they’ve fared this past year. Here are some of their comments:
Adam Smith, director of Shalom Memorial Chapel in Cranston, has certainly seen the impact of COVID-19 up close and in person. Last April, he wrote about how the pandemic had changed life for him and his family for our feature, The Conversation. Here’s what he had to say in a recent phone interview:
“A couple of us [in his family] are fully vaccinated and starting to feel out how it would be to go out into the world again.
“The last year has been a bit nerve-wracking and it’s been heart-breaking. I’m glad we could be there for the families going through difficult times and help them. We’ve done so many funerals.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the state limit on gathering outdoors was five, and Smith and his staff had to help families work through the trauma of deciding who could attend a loved one’s funeral. Now, outdoor attendance is practically limitless.
“I think Zoom and live-streaming funerals will be normalized,” he said. “Two years ago, people would ask if they could record a funeral. Now it’s normal, and that’s a positive. People can’t always get to a funeral.”
Smith’s family has enjoyed learning new skills this year, including baking and crafts. But, he added, “It’s been difficult not seeing friends.”
“2020 would have been my 25th high school reunion [he graduated from Toll Gate High School, in Warwick] and we had to cancel it. That’s just another reminder that when we have opportunities to interact safely, we should.
“People should get vaccinated when they can.
“Be careful. Look out for others. I don’t want people coming into my place [the funeral home] before their time.”
Ian Weiner was a senior journalism and communications major at the University of Rhode Island when he wrote about the impact of COVID-19 for our June 2020 issue.
When the campus shut down, just before the end of the semester, he moved back to his family’s home in Severna Park, Maryland, graduated, and started looking for a job. He has since landed in the Communications Office of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in Washington, D.C.
When contacted via email, here’s what Weiner had to say:
“Over the past year, I have truly come to appreciate how close-knit my family is. It has been very nice having my family around, especially this past winter, when we were all stuck at home. I have really enjoyed their company and the time we’ve been able to spend together, especially since I know that once I move out, it will most likely be for good and I will not see them too often.
“One thing that I may not have anticipated is how the pandemic has really made me appreciate things from my childhood. One example of this is reading. When I was younger, I used to read tons and tons of books, but when I got into high school and college, I almost stopped that completely. I’ve started reading again. It’s not only a way for me to take a break from screen time and technology, but also something that I definitely missed.
“One thing that has surprised me is how well my entire family has been able to adapt. Even though we could not be together for birthdays and the holidays, we still felt very connected. We spoke on the phone very often and got on Zoom together often too.
“Nearly all of my relatives live around me, and we used to see each other for almost all birthdays and holidays. It has been difficult not being able to see them in person, but I’m also grateful for how well everyone is doing and the positive outlook we have when we gather virtually.”
Cooper Sock, 16, was pictured on our September High Holy Days cover, with his shofar, at Prospect Park in Providence. We recently talked via Zoom to Cooper and his mother, Sharon, the advancement and membership coordinator at Providence’s Temple Emanu-El, about the impact of this past year on their family.
“It’s crazy that we are still not back to normal life. We’ve tried to see the positive side a lot and compensate for the bad times with the good times,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s parents, Sharon and Garrett, both had the virus in the fall. Sharon still suffers some after-effects, including fatigue and breathing issues, but said she is getting better every day.
Garrett was infected first, and Sharon started to feel sick just as he emerged from quarantine.
“There was such a stigma at the time,” she said. “If you got COVID, it was because you were careless.”
But that wasn’t the case – the Socks scrupulously followed the guidelines, and neither Cooper nor his brothers, Reese, a high school senior, and Kevin, a college freshman, got sick.
“I stayed in my room for a month” when his parents were sick, says Cooper, a high school sophomore.
The family has gotten closer since everyone has been home together. And keeping a positive attitude has been key.
When the weather was nice, the family took walks every day, and they are looking forward to walking again now that the weather is getting better. Sharon and Cooper also have been baking cookies and lasagna as part of programs to help people in the community.
Cooper said he’s managed to stay connected with school friends, even though some days he learns from home, and connected online with camp and BBYO friends. He’s remained active as president of the Providence chapter of BBYO, and he’s looking forward to going to Israel this summer with Camp JORI.
“Kids and parents have had to learn to be resilient,” Sharon said. “You try to make the best of it. That’s always been our motto. There’s something to be said for having to figure it out and deal with the hard times.”
Sarah Mack, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El, has helped to guide the Providence congregation from in-person programming and worship to a totally virtual synagogue experience that now includes robust programming and Zoom worship on a regular basis. She conveyed her thoughts in an email:
“This moment distills everything down to its most essential parts. This is true of Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, baby namings and brit milah [circumcision], as well as grieving and loss. That means that as a congregation we have had to learn to use the ritual differently to help transport people through these lifecycle moments. The emotional power of a Zoom Bar Mitzvah or a Zoom shivah can be very moving.
“I think the last year has emphasized to each of us just how vulnerable life is. You can’t put that back easily. It has generated a new and lasting awareness of our shared humanity. With that comes a great amount of gratitude for each and every day and renewed compassion for our shared and individual struggles.
“It has also shown us that quick change won’t break Jewish life. I hope it serves as a reminder that we can innovate and transform in the future.”
“I think we are looking forward with great hope at the ways in which we can be together in person – while maintaining accessibility through the digital means that we never would have dreamed possible before this past year.”
FRAN OSTENDORF (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.