The COVID letters

Daily

While we're in Corona Land, the JCC's Director of Institutional Programs, Sarah-Kay Lacks, sits herself down to record her thoughts on a variety of subjects, which are sent out under the header The Great Indoors. Because, oddly, the world does not revolve around the JCC, these missives are designed with more than the JCC in mind; they are ways of expanding our consciousness, encompassing a world beyond the doors of 334 Amsterdam Avenue, which, let's face it, we couldn't enter even if we wanted to these days. Yes, we've got the virtual programming, and yes, we think what we've whipped up is pretty nifty.  But in Corona Time, the Great Indoors is everything and nothing at the same time. It's the world on the head of a pin. It's a way of thinking about our lives, filtered through a lens only the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan could devise. Enjoy.


Wednesday, June 3 

Today's Great Indoors theme is The Bridge. Last week when we dreamt up this week's email themes, I never imagined how heavy my heart would feel. The murder of George Floyd took place on Monday, May 25; on Thursday, I was still in regular work mode. It took national protests for me to internalize that I should not, could not continue my life undisrupted. It was no longer OK for life to be business as usual.   

I believe in the prophecy of the past. So I've decided to use the themes I picked last week as a way of organizing my thoughts. Last week "The Bridge" meant something very different to me. It doesn't matter now. What matters is how I use this space today.

Bridges are structures that span obstacles. What's the true obstacle here? Is it power and the way it combines with prejudice to create racism? The abuse of power by those entrusted to protect? Is it the media, which conveniently conflates destruction and protesting, as if they are twin goals of the social movement? Am I the obstacle? A white, educated woman who gets to go running, wear a hooded sweatshirt, go bird-watching, and sleep in my bed?  

Kol ha'olam kulo, gesher tzar me'od, veha'ikar lo lifached k'lal. "The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is to have no fear at all." One of the most well-known bits of Jewish text, sung by a million Jewish campers. This morning, these words seem off to me. If the whole world is a narrow bridge, then we should have fear. Fear reminds us how much is at stake and how much we have to do to protect each other. Fear makes it clear that we need to stop asking Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC) for their help with rooting out our own biases. Racism exists because of the systems that white people have participated in and perpetuated. Dismantling them is our work.

The bridge that spans the many obstacles is a bridge of uncertainty, and my instinct is to race over it to solid ground. But I'm staying on it, in fear, in discomfort, so I can keep learning. I feel fortunate at this moment to be in relationship with you—our community—so we can hold each other accountable and continue to learn together, to find ways large and small to stand together for the world as it should be. A world where people are not terrorized because of the color of their skin—in Central Park, in Minnesota, and anywhere we are willing to look deeply enough to see how real racism is in our everyday lives.


Thursday, May 28 

Today's Great Indoors theme is Revelation. Lately, I've noticed that many online classes begin with the prompt "What would you like to get out of this session?" My answer, seasoned by 11 weeks of quarantine, is always the same: "I'm looking for one new idea."

Epiphanies, aha moments (or Zoom-era Zaha moments), anything that leads to revelation, feels worthwhile to me. Like Doc Brown falling off the toilet and inventing the flux capacitor, I'm aware that the next revelation can be found anywhere. Coronaworld is full of epiphanies—things we've learned about ourselves, our neighbors, city government, etc. Revelations wake us up, feel dramatic, and involve illumination (that's why people call them light bulb moments, right?). Jewish tradition uses revelation to describe receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the belief being that WE ALL WERE THERE! With Passover, we tell the story as if we too left Egypt. But this situation is different. This isn't role-play. This is first-person history. Wild, right? 

Tonight is erev Shavuot, Shavuot eve, the beginning of the holiday that marks a turning point: the moment we stood shoulder to shoulder at Sinai and agreed to the covenant, and were rewarded with something precious. To celebrate, join us in our first-ever virtual Paul Feig z"l Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Have you always wanted to attend our up-all-night Celebration of Revelation in the Nation, but couldn't couldn't drag yourself out of the house after the sun went down? Now's your chance! Join us for 36 programs celebrating Jewish life, people, study, wisdom, values, food, and culture all from the comfort of your own home. 

I hope, as you make your way through quarantine, precious revelations are emerging as well.


Thursday, May 21 

Today's Great Indoors theme is Counting. This time of year, we find ourselves in Sefirat HaOmer (counting of the Omer), the period of time between the second night of Passover and the festival of Shavuot. Passover commemorates our liberation from bondage and Shavuot celebrates the gift of the Torah and how that revelation and covenant transformed our people. 

We are counting as our secular selves too. How many days since: I last went to work (70), took the subway (81), celebrated Shabbat with my parents (90)? Why do we count the days? Part of it is structuring our days, using the calendar as a frame. Perhaps we count to assure ourselves that we are making progress. Passing through days where time feels sticky, stretchy, and slippery all at the same time. 

The rabbis say that we began counting the Omer because we knew that Mount Sinai was looming in our future like a shiny, beloved prize. We managed our collective excitement by counting until the big event. Those of us with kids at home relate to this sentiment. Kids are frequently counting to some perceived thrill ahead. How many school days left? How many sleeps until my birthday? Are we there yet?

The JCC has long used the Omer period to finish planning our Paul Feig z"l Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Perhaps our most famous program, this up-all-night celebration on the first night of Shavuot lasts until 5 am. Normally this event draws 3,500 beautiful souls and is a sensory feast—creamy cheesecake, incredible concerts, brilliant teachers, etc. Spoiler alert: This year will be different! We asked ourselves what virtual Tikkun looks like and the results will be spectacular. And, because some traditions are too good to mess with, we will be offering a gift certificate for a free slice of kosher cheesecake from Zabar's to the first 1,000 people who register for Tikkun sessions!

I was struck while writing this about another meaning of the word countI.e. to matter. We created the JCC for your sake, to acknowledge how each one of you counts to us.


Wednesday, May 20 

Today's Great Indoors theme is Safety. With sweet spring breezes so busy "they don't miss a tree," people are contemplating reasonable safety and risk factors as they assess next steps. And with so many articles weighing in on the relative safety of outdoor adventures, six-feet-apart picnics with friends, and dips in the ocean, it's clear that everyone's minds are in similar places.  

We've prioritized and ritualized safety over the last 10 weeks. As a Jewish institution, we have always been committed to values-based vision and programming, but we usually look at values like inclusion, cultural pride, responsibility to one another, accessibility, and innovation. How does safety fit in? 

One line of the JCC's mission statement really stands out to me: "We're dedicated to the well-being of everyone in our community." Normally, this refers to our commitment to health and wellness, our soul-nourishing meditation and Jewish living classes, and more. But in coronaworld, "well-being" takes on a different meaning. Now wellness goes hand in hand with safety, with pikuach nefesh, the idea that preserving a life takes precedence in every situation. When I think about it that way, safety feels expansive and worthy, grounded in our mission as a community center.  

Sometimes we are afraid to talk about safety out of fear that it does more harm than good, but the best safety conversations soothe anxiety and prioritize rational decision-making. What makes you feel safe these days? How can the JCC as the center of your community make you feel safer?


Thursday, May 14 

Today's Great Indoors theme is Nostalgia. Now is a time of great yearning. Yearning for the past. The compartmentalized, structured days. The sensory pastiche of routines and choices. Also, yearning for the future. In this science fiction existence of ours, we ache for a time of reunions; of joyful, casual, interpersonal sloppiness; of spontaneous weekend days with family and friends, where lunch never ends.  

There is much to be appreciated about our indoor lives. I like my new commute (zero minutes), work dress code (soft clothes), cooking-challenge inspired lunches (last night's tandoori chicken becomes today's fancy salad), and the millions of live touchpoints I have with the members of my co-living family members. But still I yearn. Why? It turns out that there is a psychological benefit to missing my old life. Nostalgia helps focus your attention on what you believe, what is meaningful to you, and what you have accomplished. It goes hand-in-hand with optimism and gratitude for your various blessings.  

You know what we are nostalgic for? YOU. As Groucho Marx said, "I don't have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They're upstairs in my socks." We don't have a photograph, so we made you this video to demonstrate how much we miss you. It was upstairs in our socks.


Wednesday, May 13 

Today's Great Indoors theme is Movement
 
Jewish culture and prayer are embodied practices. Traditionally in Jewish liturgy, we bow, wrap ourselves, shuckel, stand up, sit down, examine our nails in candlelight, bang our chests, and dance wildly. We are sometimes called the "People of the Book," but thanks to a verse in Psalms that asks us to devote ourselves with "all my limbs," we are also People of the Movement. Our interest doesn't stop with ritual—we love secular Jewish movement as well—for example, the sweaty fun of Israeli folk dances or the intensity of self-defense method Krav Maga. 
 
At the JCC, we love movement! We love the members of our community who intentionally take the stairs, my fellow members of Team JCC who ran the NYC marathon this past November, and the incredible experts who lead our fitness classes. We love the gorgeous works of dance that the Lambert Center for Arts and Ideas joyfully presents to our audiences. We love how the members of our beloved Registration and Membership teams used their whole bodies to greet people when they came in the door on Amsterdam Avenue. And these days, we love the way you've transformed your homes into mini-studios to bend, bow, pose, and move. We love how, for many of you, moving your body is your pathway to Jewish life. That's one of the best things about being a Jewish Community Center—being able to provide the opportunity for so many of us to observe a kind of secular religion, accessed through the modality of your choice. Whether you move your body for strength, for health, because you got the music in you, or to regulate your body and soul...we love moving with you.


Tuesday, May 12 (by Dava Schub)

Today's Great Indoors theme is Curiosity.  

What are you curious about? 

The moment we're living in invites us to linger a little longer in the questions. To wonder more and to explore the twists and turns we may never have wandered around in before.

On thousands of Zoom calls over the past nine weeks, we've seen colleagues and classmates living among cats and dogs, children, endless bookshelves, and a lifetime of knickknacks. For some, these are simply distractions, but for me they're opportunities for discovery. Maybe my Zoom explorations are the workday equivalent of doodling on a notepad, but I think it goes deeper. I want to know these people beyond their business cards or the discrete activities in which we might participate together. Each hour spent in their homes is like going on a scavenger hunt—where I get to discover precious gems that I hadn't noticed before. Either because I didn't ask, I didn't take the time to listen, or I didn't have the space to be truly curious.

When we lead with curiosity, we make a foundational choice to be more open, judge less, and leave open the chance for more to be possible.

I'd encourage each of us to lean in to curiosity and see what we learn, what we come to understand in a new way, what new questions we're led to ask.

Where will your curiosity lead you next? How many ways might our programs and classes help you explore that curiosity?


Monday, May 11

Today's Great Indoors theme is Nurture. Yesterday was Mother's Day; a laden, complex, sometimes satisfying holiday. For those without children, or mothers, this day can be a painful reminder of what we have lost or gone without. We profoundly value the contributions that matriarchs have made to our modern, ancient, and spiritual worlds, while deeply acknowledging that not all families have mothers. No matter the makeup of your family unit, what we're really asking about is something broader: What does it mean to nurture someone? 

At the JCC, we wrestle with these questions frequently. How do we nurture people at all stages of their various journeys? How can you meet someone, wherever they are, and encourage curiosity, growth, learning, and identity formation? Believing that there are multiple pathways to Jewish life, how can we use our robust on ramps (Fitness + Wellness, Social Justice, Arts + Film, Israel, Jewish Life, etc.) to foster cohort development and community-building? Embedded in all our programs are two tracks: the manifest content (activities, teachers, teachings, and performances) and the latent content (shared realizations, group formation, and communicated values). 

Nurturing you, our beloved community, has been at the heart of what we do; that was what helped us to pivot to a virtual center so quickly. Focusing on "why we connect" helped us translate to "how we connect." We like to think that you are still feeling nurtured; thousands of you have attended our virtual programs, and your incredible generosity on GivingTuesdayNow grounded our belief in the enduring power of this incredible community.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but we can almost taste the next time we will be together with our extended family and groups of friends to share favorite foods and the joy that will come with those amazing mealtimes!


Friday, May 8

Today's Great Indoors theme is Jewish Food. It says in the Talmud, "There can be no joy without food and drink." Food is cultural, ritualized, and celebratory. Food can be a family heirloom, with recipes handed down from generation to generation. Food is a community builder, with potlucks and group meals to gather folks around a table. Food connects and excites us, like the endless debates about latkes vs. hamantaschen, or the real origin of hummus.  


Food is sensory, driven by tastes, smells, and mouthfeel, so you might wonder, how can we have a communal experience while we're "inside people?" How can food unite us when you can't taste what I've cooked? Can you break bread virtually? A year ago, I might have been stumped by this question. The pandemic has given me clarity. A few weeks ago, we were invited to partner with many of our favorite folks (Gefilteria, OneTable, Hazon, PJ Library, and others) on the Great Big Jewish Food Fest, a 10-day, free, virtual, all-access experience. Since then, we've cooked up (excuse the pun) a series of beautiful programs, conversations, and relationships. 


As you enter into Shabbat (or the weekend, however you conceive of this time) we invite you to make food and cooking special, as a way of marking the separation from your week. Maybe special means cooking something unusual, or dusting off a family recipe; maybe it means practicing mindful eating, or setting a table with a handmade centerpiece. We have no prescription for what makes something special; it does not need to be complicated (remember our "conversation" a few weeks back about "shortcuts"?), we just want you to treat yourself with the same tenderness you would a beloved guest. 


Perhaps it goes without saying, but we can almost taste the next time we will be together with our extended family and groups of friends to share favorite foods and the joy that will come with those amazing mealtimes!


Wed, May 6 (by Rabbi Joy Levitt)

Today's Great Indoors theme is Gratitude. How can I possibly describe the way I feel about this community? At every moment, at every turn, you have stepped up. You have asked how you can help by making calls to isolated seniors in our community. You have supported us by donating your membership dollars. And yesterday, over 850 of you helped us reach our GivingTuesdayNow goal! This is truly amazing, and I am beyond grateful.
 
It is one of my greatest pleasures to lead an organization that I not only believe in, but that embodies my core values. The JCC lives these beliefs daily—as does everyone who walks through our now-virtual doors. You are sustaining us.
 
Your confidence in us gives us purpose and direction at a time when we need it most. Through your support of our programs—Lunch and Learns, Hebrew lessons, meditation sessions, fitness classes, programs for young children, and so much more—you remind us all that what we do matters. You remind us that together we are making a difference.
 
We miss your physical presence more than anything, but your virtual presence has kept us going. 


Mon, May 4

Today's Great Indoors theme is Telling Your Story. In the days since we've "gone inside," our storytelling abilities have been honed by necessity. Without our usual audiences—our fellow commuters, co-workers, friends—the only way to share our experiences is to narrate them for others. All our relationships have become long-distance, which might feel like a demotion for local friends and family; but it has elevated those who live far away. If everyone is a square in a Zoom call, there's no geographical hierarchy. A friend's a friend—a block away, in L.A., in Israel—what difference does it make? Intimacy is as deep or shallow as our ability to describe our realities and weave our emotions into a coherent portrait. It's helpful to organize our experiences into a central narrative. It gives us agency and control (and a dash of fate) over our lives. 

As with any diaspora/exiled community, storytelling is paramount in Jewish life. Codifying our cultural, ethnic, and religious experiences is how we built a people, even though we were all far apart. There's even a name, maggid, for Jewish storytellers. Originally a 16th-century concept, maggids were Jewish preachers who provided a folksy, accessible counterpart to the untouchable rabbi. 
 
Can we give you some homework? Think for a moment about your life. Ha! What a prompt. Appoint yourself the narrator. What's a thread that connects some of the things that have happened to you? Is it an early experience with an influential person? Is it a core value that spans life chapters? What's a theme that emerges? What does it tell you about yourself? 

"Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to." - Lisa Cron, Wired for Story


Thu, April 30

Today's Great Indoors theme is Into the Unknown. Have you heard the question "What do you think is going to happen?" more than you have asked it—or heard it asked—over the past six weeks? Type "when" into Google and it auto-populates with "when will we get out of quarantine" (which, by the way, was not the question I was going to ask it!). No one has a Magic 8-ball for coronavirus. And I keep contemplating two Jewish quotes over and over: 1) "A blessing is found only in an object that is hidden from the eye" and 2) "The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is to have no fear at all." 
 
Uncertainty is, my friends, the only certainty. 
 
For most of us, there's a day that we look back on as the day that life changed from normal to...what it is now. Maybe you went to work, someone coughed, you flinched, and calmly logged off for the next three months. Maybe your school closed. Maybe you got sick. Each of us now has a moment where we walked into our homes and basically didn't leave again without knowing the future.   
 
How many of you have seen Frozen 2? Disney+ released it on multiple platforms on March 15, knowing that families were home twiddling their thumbs, and also, somehow, sweating profusely. Watch it tonight, if you haven't already. The action begins when Queen Elsa, half-awake, hears an ethereal siren song which she follows. She sings "Into the Unknown," a power anthem that outlines the fear and struggle present when you don't know what will happen next. "This movie is about coronavirus!" I yelled to my family, a point that only I experienced as profound. 
 
We are living in the unknown. Without knowing our destination, without a map of where we're going, we are on this journey together. Resilience and loyalty are what gives us the courage to keep moving forward.


Wed, April 29

Today's Great Indoors theme is Celebrate. Today is Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's 72nd Independence Day. With just hours until the end of the British Mandate, the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was proclaimed by David-Ben Gurion in May 1948. 
 
Approximately nine years ago, the whole Upper West Side—synagogues, organizations, Jewish day schools, and more—decided to come together annually for Yom Ha'atzmaut. We called this program UWS Celebrates Israel. Collaborations like this are rare in the Jewish world. Issues around kosher food, Shabbat observance, and live music often slow down large convenings. Seeing 30 organizations come together just to celebrate was intoxicating and moving. We wouldn't be able to do this for Rosh Hashanah or Passover, but Yom Ha'atzmaut gave us an incredible opportunity. 
 
How do we celebrate in the Coronaverse? Each day, social media, like a kind of People magazine for regular folks, lets me know who is celebrating a birthday. As someone who loves birthdays, my heart swells when I think of people celebrating in quarantine. My inbox is full of requests from friends trying to make celebrations (for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations) bigger than just a Zoom call with friends. Recorded birthday greetings, rainbows in windows, and our nightly 7 pm Thank You Jamboree are all ways that we have elevated celebrations in the pandemic. 
 
It's easy and understandable to feel deprived right now—even while acknowledging your privilege, luck, or relatively good health. Maybe you're somewhat grumpy about Zoom plans. The idea of logging on to just hang out can create a huge mental block for our sensory-driven selves. But with all celebrations, even virtual ones, no one ever regrets showing up. Every Zoom happy hour, virtual family trivia, or FaceTime candle-lighting fills up our reserves and impacts our moods, perspectives, and well-being. Yom Ha'atzmaut, a day filled with celebration, including IsraPalooza, is no exception. We'll see you online! 


Mon, April 27

Today's Great Indoors theme is Sacrifice. It's been 75 years since World War II, long considered a time of great sacrifice in American History. We're a society used to individualized pursuits and self-ownership. Living in the time of COVID-19 has acquainted many of us with personal sacrifice, with a bit of living uncomfortably for the greater good. Although we aren't experiencing the rationing, wage/rent/price controls, or military service associated with wartime life in the 1940s, we can draw comparisons to our lives today. We've effectively torpedoed our "before" lives and our economy in pursuit of the fundamental belief that human life is precious. What we have given up over these past many weeks—either of our own choosing or because things have been "taken from us"—all capture various components of sacrifice. 
 
Sacrifice is an elevated value in Jewish life as well. Originally, we'd enter the temple with sacrifices of grains, wine, burnt offerings, and peace offerings. Then the Temple was destroyed, and we evolved into a culture that used liturgy, tzedakah (justice and charity), and ritual as sacrifices. Mandatory military service in Israel is another way that sacrifice has been woven into the fabric of Jewish life. Today at sundown we commemorate Yom Hakizaron, Israel's Memorial Day. This solemn experience, with its sirens, sad songs, and memorials, leads directly into Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. Why conflate the bitter with the sweet? It comes back to sacrifice. We are profoundly aware that we would not have Ha'atzmaut (independence) without the sacrifices made by the soldiers we mourn on Hazikaron (remembrance). 
 
Our community has long marked Yom Hakizaron and Yom Ha'aztmaut with enormous, live, united-we-stand programs. This year is different, as we honor Israeli sacrifices while making some of our own.
 
We're going to be providing incredible virtual content from the JCC, our partners, and the global Jewish community all week. Please join us tonight for a free concert of Music of the Fallen Soldiers, at 7 pm. If you've never marked Yom Hazikaron before, I highly recommend you join us for this moving experience. 


Fri, April 24

Today's Great Indoors theme is Rest. Shabbat is Judaism's day of rest. The idea comes from the book of Genesis, which tells us how the world was created in six days and on the seventh day, God paused. Rest is...not sleep, but not active, like work. It's leisure time, but also about the negative space that's created when you cease doing something.

When we were creating our R&R: Shabbat at the JCC program over a decade ago, we spent a long time debating the name. In some conversations, R&R stood for Rest and Relaxation; in others it referred to Radical Rest. We knew the vibe we were going for was somewhere in between those two. Some of us rest to relax; others rest to radicalize—to be the most undiluted version of ourselves—to spend our weekend gaming, partying, cooking, meditating, exercising, etc. 

In all honesty, I find the week—with my work and homeschool responsibilities, the ecstatic stress of back-to-back Zoom meetings, and the need for scheduling—easier to manage emotionally than the weekends. We know we're supposed to use the weekends for self-care and wholesome hobbies and creative activities for our families—but there's a weariness too. Friends talk about how tired they are, how no amount of sleep feels like enough—and there's a reason for this. We're grieving, we're traumatized, we're living after the rushes of adrenaline, in the emotional aftermath of shock. Fatigue is one of the ways our bodies cope!

All of this is to say that I'm trying to be kinder to myself (it helps to treat myself the way my friends do) and to recognize that three months ago, Shabbat might have meant Shabbat Shabbang and R&R at the JCC, dinners with friends, messy art projects, and adventures. Right now Shabbat means rest. Like, actual rest, "a bodily state characterized by minimal functional activities." 

No matter what shabbat and rest mean to you, I hope you and yours find ways to mark the separation of time while treating yourself as a friend would.


Thu, April 23

Today's Great Indoors theme is Purity. This weekend we read the Tazria-Metzora the Torah portions that discuss laws of purity, including ritual immersion. Tazria-Metzora also explores illness and separation, how to assess sickness, and how to quarantine from one's community and rejoin when healthy. A little on the nose, no? Israelites of antiquity believed that outbreaks were punishments—manifestations of bad choices and immoral actions. This adds a nearly heartbreaking level of shame to illness. Not only are you isolated, sick, and weak, you also have to go through the process of imagining what you did to bring this plague upon yourself. 

It's easy to get existential while living through a pandemic. It's understandable to question your beliefs in the face of such destruction. But rather than treating yourself as a leper, it's a beautiful moment to reach for b'tselem Elohim, the belief that we are created (including our sick, sad, and debilitated selves) in God's image. 

The Torah portion also develops the basis for customs related to the mikveh, a living water bath used for ritual purity (traditionally) and marking transitions (pluralistic practice). Ideas of purity bring up complex issues for people—rigid norms of cleanliness and impurity can be used to keep marginalized people in an underclass position, but modern day mikveh practices are reframing the concept in a deep, feminist, and communal way. It can be used to process deaths, celebrate births, reconnect with our bodies, and revel in birthdays. 

In 2018, the JCC took over the running of a community mikveh program called ImmerseNYC. Since then, we have invited people of all levels of observance to bring the power of mikveh into their lives to acknowledge change and the passing of time.   

It's remarkable to see that a Torah written nearly 3,500 years ago has such relevance for our lives today. I feel grateful for a tradition that provides a double portion (of wisdom, of ritual, and of sustenance) every time we need it the most.


Wed, April 22

Today's Great Indoors theme is Earth Day. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, 50 years ago today. Jewish tradition dictates that we act as shomrei adamah, guardians of the Earth. This originates in Chapter 2 of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, where we learn that Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden to "work it and guard it." This centers environmental stewardship in the heart of the Jewish narrative. We were created, in part, to care for the earth. As we find our footing in "the great pause" (i.e., social distancing, COVID-19, quarantine, however you think of this time), we have heard dozens of stories of the ways that the environment has begun a kind of self-repair

The first Earth Day I remember was in 1990. Central Park hosted an epic concert with Hall & Oates, Edie Brickell, the B-52's, and Ben E. King that attracted 750,000 New Yorkers and created, famously, 154.3 tons of litter. It was the first time I reckoned with the idea that there are conflicting levels of activism, and that a tension exists between consciousness-raising and measurable impact. I had this realization again two nights ago when my daughter, deeply attuned to my every move in quarantine, asked me why I was cutting up my Diet Coke six-pack rings. I do this tiny, silly act of respect to marine life meditatively and almost by rote, like mala beads. The rings have been biodegradable since 1994, and there are much more important and significant acts of eco-friendliness, but I will probably never stop cutting the rings and dreaming of the sea turtles.

What acts of environmentalism are part of your routines? What are the ways to honor the earth while we take this deep break from our typical footprint?


Tue, April 21

Today's Great Indoors theme is By the Light of the Moon. Rosh Chodesh, the monthly celebration of the new moon, begins this Thursday at sundown. Jewish life is largely conducted by the lunar calendar, though Jewish days and years are both measured by the solar calendar. This reminds me of my grandmother's (of blessed memory) favorite expression, "The days are long but the years are short." In quarantine life, this sometimes feels like "The days are long, but the weeks are long, and the months are long, and the years are also long." Time is perhaps a flat circle after all.

Why have Jews hitched their wagon to the moon rather than the sun, like many other ancient cultures? Some people believe this is because we saw ourselves as a small nation, an underdog whose responsibility was to provide a light in the darkness. And like humankind, the moon's strength isn't static. Some days we wax and some we wane, as quarantine mood swings have demonstrated.

Rosh Chodesh celebrates the new moon, a monthly refresh. Let's give ourselves the same option of a warm reboot, the chance to start again (my wish list of mid-course corrections is long). Instead of lamenting my mistakes, I'm going stargazing (much easier now with less light pollution and reduced airplane traffic). Many ideas below...


Mon, April 20

Today's Great Indoors theme is Memory. With Passover seders behind us, we begin the second feast period of the Jewish calendar. We are counting the Omer and commemorating three complex holidays: Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha'atzmaut. The first, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), begins this evening and continues through Tuesday.

I have long noticed the stark contrast between how we remember our slavery in Egypt during Passover and how we remember the atrocities of the Shoah. We are asked to center ourselves deeply in Passover's liberation narrative, to eat foods that remind us of Pharaoh's tyranny, and to celebrate our continued current freedoms. We are commanded to act as if we personally left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness. In comparison, Yom Hashoah is not an embodied observance. We do not remember in order to reenact. We remember to prevent atrocities from recurring. We remember to bear witness to the incredible suffering of our brethren. We remember to activate our responsibility to be upstanders. In Primo Levi's words, "It is everyone's duty to reflect on what happened."

Each year the congregations of the Upper West Side gather to commemorate those who perished in the Shoah. This year, the all-night, all-day Reading of the Names will take place via Facebook Live (which will be shared to this event page), beginning at 8 pm tonight, April 20, and continuing until 5 pm on Tuesday, April 21.

As we read names, one after the other for 21 hours straight, I am reminded each year of the horrific scope of our undertaking. In all of the years we have been reading names, we still have not made our way through simply saying all six million names of those who were killed. When I take on the sacred task of reading names, I pause with each one to do my best to pronounce the name correctly, to consider whose mother or father or sister or brother that person might have been, and to even let in a glimmer of the life that was taken and what could have become. This year, although a Yom Hashoah like no other, I will log on and continue that sacred task of remembering, and I hope you will join me.


Fri, April 17

Today's Great Indoors theme is Shortcuts. Shortcuts have a mixed reputation. We are constantly told that there are no shortcuts to excellence, but we love learning a new keyboard shortcut (like Ctrl-F) and knowing tricks to get somewhere faster.

It's easy to feel like quarantine has to be a "from scratch" time. Social media is filled with people making bread for the first time, learning to quilt, teaching themselves a new language. That's a beautiful thing. Mazel tov to them (and you, if you're one of them)! For the rest of us, everyday is a roller coaster. We can feel like heroes at breakfast for being dressed and ready for work, and then by lunch we are wallowing in our failures because we haven't learned to play the guitar in the previous four hours.

Four weeks ago I bought yeast on Mercato with every intention of making challah with my family. Every Thursday I try to summon up the will/interest/energy to carry out this plan. I simply cannot locate the tiny challah baker that lives inside me. Then I tried a little self-compassion. "From scratch" is not the only way. So I went into my fridge, took out a roll of kosher refrigerated crescent dough, rolled three pieces into snakes, then braided and baked it. Did it taste like challah? Absolutely not. Was it a sweet, eggy bread, braided and delicious? Yes. Giving myself permission to take a shortcut soothed something deep inside me. We made the traditional blessing that Shabbat:

.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha'olam, hamotzi lekhem min ha'aretz.

And no one called back to our prayer asking if we made it from scratch.

You can give yourself permission to rewatch a favorite sitcom. You can mend something with fabric glue. You can wash all your clothes on cool so you don't have to separate lights and darks. You can ask Siri to read you the news.

Some days it's lovely to take the scenic route. But go ahead and take a shortcut on a tough day. It will make your life a little easier.


Mon, April 13

Today's Great Indoors theme is Dreams. From what we're heard, people are having some very funky dreams in the time of coronavirus. Anxiety dreams. Dreams of being free. Dreams in which we can't open doors. What weirdness has popped into your dreams lately?

Rabbenu Bechaya, a 15th century rabbi, believed there are three types of dreams: 1) Dreams caused by indigestion; 2) Dreams caused by the re-creation of our "day thoughts"; and 3) Dreams that are expressions of our soul, which are the only kind of dreams that have significance. Our lives have shrunk, so currently our stomachaches, day thoughts, and souls are probably more in sync than ever before. Without the distractions of our social calendars, we each inhabit a small island with only the contents of our homes (and our devices) for company. Our dreams may range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but they are also whittled down to the essential, just like our days.

I once heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Koko the gorilla, who learned sign language. Sign language not only allowed Koko to communicate with the humans in her life, it also gave her the tools to express her spiritual self. One morning, Koko described an elaborate scene to her caretakers. When asked when these experiences had taken place, Koko signed that she saw them on the "night television," which they realized, with amazement, meant her dreams. We are stimulus-seeking creatures. We think and scheme all day and while at rest, and watch prestige night television, just as Koko did. What if you practiced jotting down the details of your strangest dreams? What if you allowed yourself to be a retroactive director of your dreams? What if you woke up in the morning and let the indigestion and the day thoughts recede into the background, and examined your dreams as expressions of your soul? What would you find?


Wed, April 8

Today's Great Indoors theme is The Search. 357 days a year, we call bread, well, bread. And we are all pretty obsessed with it. Then we get to mid-Nissan, and for eight days we call bread chametz. Last night, at exactly 7:56 pm, traditionally, we were meant to commence Bedikat Chametz, our search for chametz. Like a Jewish scavenger hunt, we hide 10 pieces of bread around our houses and search for them with a candle, paper bag, feather, and wooden spoon. Why do we hide chametz, only to pretend to discover it? Mostly because our homes should be Passover-clean by this point, and we are only "finding" this self-hidden chametz so we can fulfill the commandment of search and destroy.

Volumes have been written about spiritual chametz as well. The same way that leavening causes dough to rise, spiritual chametz induces egos to swell. Getting rid of spiritual chametz requires searching and the acknowledgement that you hid all this garbage in your own "house." Searching for it is only step one. Sweeping yourself clean is step two. Passover-in-the-time-of-corona is perfect for this. We're already consumed with ridding the world of contaminants. So this year, instead of thinking of the spiritual/physical searching and cleaning as a chore, look it at as just a reframe of compulsive hand-washing, doorknob-cleaning, and elbow-sneezing.

Searching is a fascinating pursuit. We ask each other, "Where did you last see the phone/glasses/remote?" "It's around here somewhere, right?" Other times, the thing we've lost is inexplicably somewhere we've never been before. I'm thinking of all the lost souls who go to "find themselves" on spiritual journeys. Wherever your spiritual chametz is hidden, we hope you find it and enjoy the cathartic, satisfying experience of getting rid of it. Enjoy those seders, folks! See you on the other side.


Mon, April 6

Today's Great Indoors theme is Passover. Eagle-eyed Great Indoors readers might protest, "We already had a Passover one!" Nope, that was Passover Prep. This is the O.G. Passover and in two weeks we will have...Passover Memories. We joke, but the point is salient. We are a people that talk. We talk before we do something. We talk while we are doing things (a reason why I've been shushed in Broadway theaters for almost 30 years), and then we talk to recap the experience. We ask questions and we tell stories. Good thing, then, that it's Passover, the holiday where we're required to do both.

This week I was reminded of an Israeli poem by Amnon Ribak with the beautiful words, "Every person needs to have a certain Egypt, and a Jerusalem, and one long journey, that they will forever remember in their feet." This is a great comfort. Some quarantine days are hard. The dread and monotony overwhelm and it can all feel senseless. Remember when we could go to a restaurant, hug a friend, look at the hours of a day like an old-fashioned dance card just waiting to be filled up? But then I think of Ribak's poem. This isn't senseless. We quarantine to save lives. And we brave the terror and the dullness because there's a utility and purpose in experiencing "a certain Egypt." It helps us appreciate the journey to Jerusalem.

If we all need the experience of narrow places, then this moment is part of the rhythms of our universe, the wheel of our destiny—sometimes in Jerusalem and sometimes in a certain Egypt. We find comfort entering into Passover knowing that we are following the commandment to retell the story, not just with our words, but with our whole lives.


Fri, April 3

Today's Great Indoors theme is Nourishment. We find food in every aspect of Jewish life. If we aren't fasting, we are blessing food, discussing food, arguing about what food we can eat, what food we should serve, or what food we are having for dinner. The Torah talks about food, the midrash talks about food, the rabbis talk about food, and at the JCC we talk about food constantly.

Nourishment goes beyond eating; it conjures up the sensual nature of food, of being sustained, kept alive, and cherished. We can be sustained by food, by music, and by love. Nourishment is complex in our coronavirus lives. Without the normal boundaries or restrictions on a day, we find ourselves eating three breakfasts one day and Triscuits for dinner the next. We want to nourish our brains and spirits, but the shape of the nourishment ranges from things that feel super nutritious (like taking a master class, exercising, or cleaning) to things that feel like junk food (wearing pajamas all day, watching mindless TV, venting loudly to a friend over the phone). Both types nourish, but in different ways.

Judaism has plans for feasts and plans for famines. This is ideal in a moment in which we have an abundance of some things (time, fear, canned beans) and a scarcity of others (certainty, same-day delivery, plans for the weekend). It's nice to have a blueprint for both truths. Our hope, as your community center, is to nourish you to keep your spirits up, your anxiety down, and your hands busy.

So be'te-avon, בתיאבון, enjoy your meal!


Thu, April 2

Today's Great Indoors theme is Unlocking. Let's begin with a little folklore:

"In the king's palace," said the Baal Shem Tov, "there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that unlocks all doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key is a broken heart."

In this moment, we are broken over the sickness of those we love and those we may never have met, the lives lost, the cancelled trips and celebrations. And on top of the disappointment is all the judgment we impose upon ourselves (and on others). Am I helping enough? Social distancing enough? Creating special quarantine memories? Attending enough enriching Zoom classes? We have broken hearts, and then we criticize ourselves for being broken.

What if this brokenness is the very thing that will unlock our compassion, our openness, and our creativity? What if the key to unlocking all the doors is the one commodity (besides canned goods) that we now finally have in surplus?

What if the brokenness we feel is our asset, not our liability? Together, let's use what we are actually experiencing to unlock this new world. Let's assume we have everything we need inside us to unlock our innovation, our passions, and our next steps.


Wed, April 1

Today's Great Indoors Theme is Create + Sculpt.

The opening story in the Torah is actually one of five days of creation and one day of art. Adam, the first human in the Bible, is also the first sculpture. In Genesis, God takes dust from the earth, moistens it with water, and sculpts the primordial man. First there was nothing, and then there was creation and sculpture.

Right now, we exist between these poles as well. Our days inside can be nothing; or they can be creation. We can collect the dust from our lives and from that dust we can sculpt (although considering all the #coronacleaning that is happening, you may only have metaphorical dust left) something new. We've seen this play out differently for people. People are inside cooking and making things and getting creative with what they have. Friends are dusting off instruments and playing for the neighbors out their windows. Hobbies are flourishing. Writers, musicians, crafters, and even the artistically challenged are pushing themselves to sculpt something out of this odd time.

William Shatner, cheekily dramatic intergalactic Jew, once said, "You have to create your life. You have to carve it, like a sculpture." The JCC building dedicates much space and staff to the pursuit of carving one's life. We have a whole floor dedicated to ceramics, jewelry, painting, shoemaking, and culinary arts. The fitness center sculpts us in one way and Jewish living classes sculpt us in another. The building is closed, but the JCC is very much open. Let's continue to create; to gather the dust and breathe life into its lungs.

The world was sculpted from the earth's matter, and our community is sculpted by each of you. Thank you for your many acts of creation.


Tue, March 31

Today's Great Indoors theme is Hope. Hope feels like a radical act right now. Even the centenarians in our community admit that this chapter is a new one. We've had toil, struggle, and darkness, but for Americans...this indoor life is truly a twist.

Hope is optimism turned dynamic and active. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says, "It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope." The rise of positive psychology has given us the tools to cultivate hope. And as I remind myself whenever conjuring up hope feels impossible, hope itself is often a very small flame. I don't need a surplus of hope, just an ember to fan lovingly. We think of our collective hopes often: hope for vaccines and cures; hope for supply chains delivering masks and ventilators; hope that our community will stay healthy; hope that gig employees will not suffer tremendously; hope that we will rebuild a more equitable, sustainable society on the other side.

The Jewish community has hope built into its tradition. Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel, literally means "the hope." Noah building an ark was a fundamental act of hope. Our exodus from Egypt evokes hope that there was a better life through a desert and 40 years of wandering. Hope takes courage. And courage requires hope.


Mon, March 30

Today's Great Indoors theme is Accessibility. We hope people experience the JCC as open to the widest range of identities and abilities imaginable. We want you to feel that the JCC was created for you, which is different from just being welcomed. It is not enough to have an open door; we must also provide a way for people to enter through that door.

With smaller worlds, access becomes paramount. Whether it's ensuring seniors can access Zoom programs, getting iPads to vulnerable children for schoolwork, or helping isolated friends join a seder, we strive to make solutions accessible.

In 2007, the JCC began using one of our strongest tools—film—as an access point for people to experience the lives of people with disabilities. The ReelAbilities Film Festival promotes appreciation for the lives and art of people with disabilities. We've prioritized access so the nation's largest disability-related film festival meets the needs of those it showcases, with braille guides, ASL interpretation, and ADA compliance. We hope you join us this week for one of the many film screenings online.

And now COVID-19 has hit. Accessibility has taken on new meaning. We asked, how could we bring ReelAbilities to a housebound audience? Click to see how we overcame this hurdle!

In the 125 year-old words of Mary T. Lathrap:

Pray, don't find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears.


Fri, March 27

Today's Great Indoors theme is Passover Prep. Passover commemorates rebirth, bondage, and liberation. It is a celebration of spring. If memory serves, spring is a season with nice weather? Hard to say when you live indoors! Passover is a recognition of freedom, our ability to ask questions, and a complex slave narrative. As an organization with a dedicated Center for Social Responsibility, we are often thinking about oppression, power, privilege and opportunity—all things present in the Passover story.

We are also an organization that hears from thousands of our beautiful community members every day, so we also know that no one feels free right now. We need to hold multiple truths—that our work to liberate and fight against injustice is never complete; and that, despite how lucky many of us are, we feel dependent, powerless, and imprisoned.

The JCC has been moved by how each of you has responded to this crisis with gratitude and the counting of blessings, but we know that there are moments of great sadness at the Tyranny of the Pandemic.

We would like to help you celebrate Passover this year. Thank you to the 100+ people who have already taken responded to our Passover Needs Assessment. If you haven't responded yet, then karpas diem! Seize the Parsley!

Wishing all of you a beautiful, peaceful, and easy Shabbat. Let us know how you will mark this Shabbat. We love your replies!


Wed, March 25

Welcome to a curated way to sync up and add structure. We survey mavens and influencers to bring you...the Great Indoors. 
 
Today's Great Indoors theme is Virtual Israel. Israel is famous for its technological literacy. Its percentage of GDP spending on research and development is the highest in the world. The Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, was founded in 1912, 36 years before the founding of the State of Israel. Israel was an early adopter of both Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) and has been able to quickly offer access to showcase the best of their sights and sites.  
 
VR is a great equalizer. Anyone with a smartphone can enter. In some ways, we have democratized aspects of the internet in this odd, rare moment. Companies and organizations are throwing open their doors and offering unprecedented access. Israel's longtime interest in the digital frontier makes it particularly well-positioned to provide great indoor content. 
 
We asked Moshe Samuels, of our David H. Sonabend Center for Israel, to curate today's guide to the Great Indoors. Feast your nefeshot (נְפָשׁוֹת, hebrew for souls) on the programs listed below and his ongoing list of resources and opportunities.. 


Tue, March 24

Welcome to a curated way to sync up and add structure. We survey mavens and influencers to bring you...the Great Indoors. 

Today's Great Indoors theme is GritGrit is perseverance plus resilience plus some rock star swagger. We're searching ourselves for reserves of grit right now, just as much as we are searching Amazon for reserves of toilet paper. Grit is an incredible predictor of human success. 

Jewish tradition's heroes had grit. Maimonides, in the Mishnah, writes about the Patriarch Abraham's ten hardships- including sending one son away and suffering the "binding" of the other, his wife's kidnapping, murder attempts, and one act of elderly self-circumcision. The cultivation of that grit, of continuing to move forward despite difficulty is also why the sages believed he was able to forge a covenant that created the basis for all of Jewish life. 

Passion and persistence, grit's components, make our days feel purposeful and focused. In the last weeks, many of the people best able to pivot and lean into our new Corona World lives were the ones versed in passion and persistence. Hobbies, interests, focus, perseverance, and swagger are sustaining us right now. And it's never too late to cultivate some grit


Fri, March 20

Welcome to a curated way to sync up and add structure to your day. We survey the mavens and influencers in our community to bring you the best of...The Great Indoors. 

Today's Great Indoors theme is: More Than. We love our beautiful "vertical neighborhood" on 76th street; but we are more than a building. We're a community of partners, artists, families, folks flying solo, older adults, and activists. In times of social distancing, we're finding ways to be MORE THAN to you. 

Ahad Ha'am famously said: "More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews." And our version: More than the JCC has created community, the community has created the JCC.  

We are deprived of our usual comforts. Deprivation rarely leads to generosity, so we're irritable and stingy. But when we shift to a MORE THAN stance, we work to be more than quarantined science experiments and reluctant home-school teachers.  

Heading into Shabbat, how do we separate the regular and holy in this odd monotony.  Can we unplug when our screens are our front door and town square? What's your Shabbat treat? Maybe a call with an older relative, a hot shower with a cold beer, reorganizing a drawer, or listening to Michael Winograd. Hit reply and tell us how you get a little Shabbat. We see every response, and we are listening carefully.


Thu, March 19

In our efforts to keep you sane, safe, and engaged, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan has created a highly curated way to sync up as a community and add some structure to your day. We are surveying the experts, mavens, and influencers in our community to bring you the best of...The Great Indoors.

Today's Great Indoors theme is Legacy. In between moments of boredom and panic, now is a time for great self-reflection. What contributions have we made? What are we leaving to our children? What have we received from our forebears? 

Time, the scarcest commodity in typical life, is now in abundance. We normally revolve around various "temples" like our offices, gyms, and restaurants. Like the Jewish people experienced in 586 BCE, these "temples" currently feel destroyed. However, the vibrant Judaism we experience today was created as a result of that destruction; the legacy of 586 BCE isn't a Jewish world that withered without institutions! The legacy is one of adaptation and creation—synagogues, the Talmud, new rituals, the rise of rabbinic literature! What will be our legacy from this crazy time-out? 

The JCC's legacy lives in each one of you. Our legacy is these enduring relationships and the community we have built together.


Wed, March 18

Greetings from the Great Indoors!

In our efforts to keep you sane, safe, and engaged, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan has created a highly curated way to sync up as a community and add some structure to your day. We are surveying the experts, mavens, and influencers in our community to bring you the best of...The Great Indoors. 

Today's Great Indoors theme is: Making Choices. We all have shrunken worlds right now. Our lives seem to have the same footprint as our apartments. But we contain multitudes as human beings. As Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340), a Rabbinic Scholar in Spain, said, "Days are scrolls, you may write on them what you wish."

We are proud to continue to offer virtual programming for free or at low cost. If you are able, please consider making a gift to support the JCC. Every dollar counts.