Celebrating Life During Coronavirus!

Celebrating Life During Coronavirus!

By Esther Ochana, Director, InnovatioNation Keshet Educational Journeys

Life’s joys and sorrows give meaning to our lives, marking the highs and lows, even in this complex time of Coronavirus.  I have had the privilege of personally experiencing such events in a dramatic and meaningful way.

In mid-March the Israeli government closed down Israel’s borders, forbidding tourists from entering the country and thereby canceling all the groups and projects we had been working on for months, and in some cases, years.

During the period since the emergency regulations went into effect I have commemorated some of life’s most poignant events in ways I could never have imagined: Without wedding halls and large crowds, but feeling the warm hug (virtually!) of family and community. 

I have learned that more is not always better. That life is about the strength of family, friends and community and that celebrations are not about the hall and the food but about the heart, the meaning and the people.

My father passed away last March and his one year memorial took place just as the Coronavirus hit Israel. This was my first family event that took place under the new Corona regulations. We went to the cemetery with only a minyan (quorum) of 10 men, plus my mother and four sisters.  We did the ceremony as quickly as possible. It was a far cry from the funeral a year before when hundreds of people from all over Israel came to accompany him on his last journey. On the other hand, it was a lot more intimate.

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Two weeks later my niece got married.  There was supposed to be a huge wedding, the first event that we could all attend after the year of mourning when tradition forbids us from attending such joyous events.

Corona regulations changed all that.  My niece decided not to postpone the wedding.  With a limit of 19 people in one outdoor venue, they moved it to the groom’s backyard, The only guests were my nieces and her future husband’s parents and siblings, the rabbi and the 2 witnesses (who could not be family members).  The rest of us attended via Zoom.

It was a beautiful ceremony: Intimate and special, celebrating the new young couple’s love. The bride wore a white gown, her family and the groom dressed in their finest clothes, as if for a huge wedding. The bride’s brother played guitar, the groom’s sister the violin and his brother the keyboard.  The “Chuppa” (wedding canopy) ceremony was conducted Corona-style: the Rabbi kept his distance and only he used the microphone.  The groom’s grandfather, who couldn’t attend because of the health risk, gave blessing for the couple via cell phone. Everyone stood distanced from one another, but the joy was palpable, whether you were under the Chuppa or in the garden at this unique afternoon wedding. A few days after the wedding the groom returned to the IDF and the couple did not see each other again for 6 weeks!

During the wedding, another one of my sisters went into labor and gave birth to a healthy baby boy.  Mother and baby were discharged within 12 hours of the birth, as it was safer to be home than in the hospital.

The night before a baby’s Brit Mila (circumcision) at 8 days old, there is a beautiful tradition that children stand around the baby’s crib reciting the prayer Shema Yisrael and singing Hamalach Hagoel, the blessing which Jacob gave his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe in Egypt.  My sister lives in a special community in the city Lod.  The night before the Brit the children from all the buildings around them stood in the street outside their building and on the adjacent balconies and sang Shema Yisrael and this special blessing. Here’s a video of the event, which went viral when it was posted on social media.

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The next morning they celebrated the circumcision ceremony in the parking lot of their building with just a minyan of men and the mohel and again we all joined in via our new friend “Mr. Zoom”. My sister named her son David Aviad, David after my father and Aviad, which means “Avi” – my father “Ad” – forever.

The next celebration was a couple weeks later, on Passover eve before the “Seder”, when my youngest son, Idan, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.  In Israel we were at the peak of the stringencies.  Synagogues had been closed since Purim, the government enforced a total lockdown during Passover. 

I was torn: I wanted my son’s Bar Mitzvah to be meaningful but I didn’t want to compromise.

Being a perpetual organizer, I had organized a street minyan (community for prayer) the first Shabbat the synagogues had closed down. The morning of the Bar Mitzvah I organized a minyan of friends and neighbors who gathered on the street for morning services.  My son put on his tefilin as a man for the very first time, an incredibly emotional moment, which was of course zoomed live to our family and friends around the world.

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That evening we sat together as a family for the traditional Passover seder joining together via Zoom with my sister in law and her son who were also alone for the first time for seder (using a “Shabbat clock” to avoid desecrating the holiday). Thanks to the wonders of technology I felt they were with us in our living room during the seder.

The following morning Idan read the Torah portion for Passover in our garden holding the Torah with gloved hands but with a huge smile on his face. Two weeks later he celebrated his Shabbat Bar Mitzvah.  Unfortunately my 4 sisters and their husbands, my 2 brothers and their wives, my brother in law and his wife, my sister in law, mother in law and 23 nieces and nephews could not be part of this special Shabbat as we had originally planned.  However, my mother, along with our friends, neighbors and community were with us, making it a very special day.

I got to watch my son read loudly with confidence the entire shabbat Torah portion on the street below my house so that everybody on the street could hear him despite a strong wide and other noise.  Needless to say, I was a happy and proud mother, despite the challenges.  In no way did I feel that our joy had been a compromise!  Even the rain that was forecasted that Shabbat decided that this was not the right time to show.

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The lesson that I’ve learned:

It’s the small thing that count.  You don’t need grand, expensive celebrations to be happy.  It’s the thought that goes into the celebration and the meaning you give it that really makes it special.  Above all else, it’s the people, family, friends and community.

I hope that when this difficult period is over I can still hold onto these lessons and their simplicity.

 We are still at home waiting for the borders to reopen and to greet all of you back in Israel as soon as possible.  Then we can share our experiences and look forward to hearing about yours!

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