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What Faith Looks Like Now: A Conversation with Rabbi Ari Sunshine

How the Rabbi is navigating the new world, which has already included a funeral and Passover.
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courtesy Shearith Israel

Rabbi Ari Sunshine has been the senior rabbi at Shearith Israel since 2017, and if you’ve ever spoken with him, you know his last name is accurate. There is a lightness to him that is comforting, even if you are not a member of his congregation. It’s especially helpful now, when each day seems to bring a new set of questions you’d never expected to have to answer. For his conservative synagogue, for example, after “How can we have a Seder when we can’t be together?” there was “Can we use Zoom during Passover?”

The truth is, he’s just trying to get through this, too.

“No, we’re not perfect. And we’re all trying our best, everybody,” he says. “And sometimes we’ve got to look at ourselves and say that that’s good enough and know that others will accept that of us. And whether that’s our friends or family or God.”

I met him for the first time over the phone a few days after Passover ended. Our lightly edited conversation follows.

But first, a prayer.

How was Passover? Passover was different, that’s for sure. [laughs] As people have said, a lot of folks have reflected to me, yeah, this Passover was different than all other Passovers, which keeps with the four questions line of why is this night different from all their nights? And we’ve certainly heard people joke—not my original joke—but that is the year of the Zeder, you know, the Zoom Seder, a chance to get people together virtually, if not physically. But it’s still been an opportunity for people to connect with each other. And we’ve found ways, we’ve adapted to these incredible circumstances and difficult challenging circumstances to bring people—at least connect their spirits to each other and make each other feel our presence, even if we’re not sitting around the same physical table.

I saw on, I think maybe on Twitter, somebody had created an account for Elijah and added him to their Zoom Seder. [laughs] Yes, yes, well, if we’re looking for Elijah to come and herald the time of redemption, I think we still may be waiting a little bit And the other joke about Elijah and the Seders this year is, if he came to the door, would we even open it? Right, because he’d be too close. He might be within 6 feet. So we might say: Elijah, sorry, not this year. Can you come back next year?

But at least, with all this, there was a tiny bit of preparation time before Passover hit. We were shut down I guess maybe a couple weeks before it started, right? Yeah, things started to shut down in mid-March, and certainly after the initial shift in general for our services and offerings and outreach, you know, fairly quickly we ended up in, in Passover. But I will say—speaking of adapting, really, not just locally but in general—in the Jewish community there was a very quick move to open doors, in a sense, to let people experience the Passover in as full away as possible. And that included things like—our synagogue and I are from the conservative movement, the centrist movement in Judaism, and our law committee, which is the one that helps us formulate responses in Jewish law to certain questions, you know, raised the question of: can we actually do these virtual Seders? Because normally we wouldn’t be using electricity or electronics, on Sabbath or holidays.

Oh, right, of course. So at least in the center and the right, you know, the center-to-right spectrums of Judaism, this was actually a question, right? How can we do this? Because we wouldn’t normally be using this technology on a holiday or on Shabbat. And the truth is, we figured out ways and we made accommodations and said, “Here are some ways to do it. Zoom might be the best, because you can just sort of set it up and let it run, and you don’t have to fumble too much with the device itself. But even Facebook Live—there are ways to do it with minimal interaction with the technology.

And again, it all comes down to we’re trying to find a pathway for people to be able to celebrate and serve. We’re not trying to find ways to say no. We’re trying to find ways—especially in a time where people need rituals, they need celebration, they need family and community more than ever, arguably.

We want to clear the decks and make that more possible. So, thankfully, we had a little bit of time and I’d say the Jewish community did move fairly nimbly to make that transition and give people a way to be able to say, look, we’re doing the best we can for Pesach this year, and that’s going to be enough. I actually, my sermon yesterday, for the last day of Passover, which we have a memorial service as part of that, I focused on that theme of doing the best we can, that it’s OK. Sometimes that’s enough. No, we’re not perfect. And we’re all trying our best, everybody. And sometimes we’ve got to look at ourselves and say that that’s good enough and know that others will accept that of us. And whether that’s our friends or family or God.

How has your congregation been reacting to this pandemic and the differences they’re going to have to experience or get used to? It seems to me that they are—like we the clergy, or we all are—struggling with this this inability to be able to gather, right? That we are such social beings. Facebook is great. You know, social media in general is wonderful, but it’s still not in-person gathering. I can speak for me in a way that also I think speaks to some of my congregants’ experiences. You know, I’m a particularly warm and friendly person, so, first of all, I love seeing people face-to-face. Second of all, I love giving them a handshake or putting a hand on their shoulder or giving them a hug or, you know, I’m that kind of a person, right? So, for me, this is very difficult.

I had to do a funeral recently, just a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t even put a hand on the shoulder of the bereaved. I mean, it’s literally, I’m 6 feet away saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” And I said to him, I said, “You know, I so want to come give you a hug right now, but I can’t, and you’ll have to accept this virtually,” is basically what I said to him.

And, of course, he got it. But we have to find ways—and speaking not just now, of course, much bigger picture than me, but just use that story to illustrate—we have to find ways to express closeness and warmth and intimacy and caring about other people that aren’t physical. We’re trying to find ways to convey that and show concern and show love and just do it in different ways than we’re used to.

I mean, your natural inclination in times of struggle is to be with other people and to be close to them and to touch them and all those things, and it’s just such a hurdle to get across to show that you care but not to be with anybody. It’s difficult. I think one of the ways that we’ve tried to help people navigate that in addition to—as a congregation, we’ve done a lot of outreach to our congregants. We’ve done a couple of phone-calling campaigns to our folks who are ages 75 and over, just to check in on them, our most vulnerable population, and see if they need anything and what we can provide for them. But we’ve called our entire congregation.

Oh, wow. All of them? We have about 1,000 family units in our synagogue, and we’ve called all of them in the last few weeks, with some help of some really dedicated staff, staff and volunteers because that’s more important than ever right now. Trying to say, hey, even if there’s no reason we should assume that they are in trouble, we just want to check and make sure. And so that’s been one way we’ve tried to show that concern.

But in terms of giving people an outlet to be able to experience community together, we shifted early on to having Zoom daily prayer services as well as Friday evening Zoom. On Shabbat morning, on Saturday morning, we do it a one-directional, so we just do it Facebook Live, but the other services are interactive. And at the beginning of the service, before we even start, people are still un-muted and people have a chance to say hi to each other. And then at the end we give them a chance to do that as well and see each other’s face. We put the gallery view up there and you see all these faces on the screen.

And, of course, we’ve done classes online and things like that as well, and so we do try to give people opportunities—and even expressing condolences. We had a shiva minyan, a minyan of condolence, and have another one coming up this Sunday, and just to try and give people a chance to say, even if it’s looking at another person’s face through a computer screen, “I’m so sorry for your loss, and I wish I could be here with you right now.”

You said had to perform a funeral. What was that like? I mean, were there people there? Yeah, the bare minimum of folks, basically 10 or fewer, including everybody that’s working at the cemetery. And everybody was spread out.

That had to be so strange. It was a strange experience. That a good word for it. And also, you know, people brought gloves if they were going to put any earth to cover the casket and, and it really felt, yeah, strange. And, you know, physically distant, like all the other experiences we’re talking about. But we tried to have the warmth come through in other ways and I think, look, at least everybody realizes what we’re dealing with, right?

I mean, so they know—there’s nobody that I’ve come in contact with in our community who says, “How are you not doing this? You’re not handling this right.” Everybody understands that we’re trying to do the best we can to look out—not only for our own community members and keep them safe and healthy—but look out for everybody.

And, to that front, I would say that one of the themes I’ve been thinking about, especially with the Passover season and the Seder season, is a universality of our experience. So, you know, the Passover is, while it’s a particular story—it’s a story of the Jews’ or the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt—there’s a significant universal component to that, to the idea of oppression and suffering and struggle. And I found that thinking about that during Passover, like, we’re all going through that right now, facing a very real plague. And it reminds us that we are responsible for each other, not just within our own religious community, right? But outside of that religious community and for other folks around the world. We need to be stewards for each other’s safety and health. And that’s why we do what would appear to be a selfish act of keeping ourselves safe and healthy at home is very much also a selfless act of trying to say, hey, I’m going to stay home so I don’t put someone else at risk.

Right. Beyond that, is there a particular verse or passage that you’ve found yourself turning to, or that’s become especially relevant? A couple of things. I mean, for what I just shared with you there, the passage I was thinking about, was in the Haggadah, in the book that we use for the Seder liturgy. It says in every generation a person is obligated to see him or herself as if he exited from Egypt. And it literally uses the Hebrew word for adam, a-d-a-m, for person—which could have said every Jew or every Israelite, you know? But it is a universal word. It’s like Adam, the first human being. And so, to me, that is an incredibly powerful word choice there that says, this is something we can also all share and learn from.

And I’d say another piece of this experience, in terms of passages or themes, is the very concept of Seder, or order. Basically, we’re living right now—you could say that in general, we live in a world that is chaotic—but right now we’re living in a time that is particularly disordered and chaotic, beyond anything we might have ever experienced.

And the idea of Seder—or ritual in general, right, ritual is about finding spaces to create normalcy and put some kind of routine that helps us deal with disorder, deal with chaos around us. Because we know that if we keep doing these things, they’ll always be there. And that’s what grounds us and keeps us moving forward. I talked with a congregant who had young grandson, who said, “Don’t worry, Pop Pop. We’ll be able to have Seder together next year.” So even that little young child knows that Seder, that ritual, is going to continue to be there. Just like a daily prayer service, with people gathering at 6 p.m. on Zoom to see each other, that’s gonna be there. Even though we’re not in the building. We’re now on Zoom to do that.

It doesn’t have to be just Jewish rituals or even religious rituals in general, but that’s the choices that we make to have, to maintain some areas of order in our life. It helps to navigate through a time that is anything but ordered and it gives us strength and helps us feel confident that even amidst all the uncertainty, that we’re going to emerge from this and we’re going to be fine, because there’ll be a Seder next year, right? That, yes, there will be. And maybe, hopefully, we’ll even able to be together around the same table.

Is there anything you’re doing for yourself to help you through this? To relieve the pressure. It’s funny that, in terms of the pressure, I’ve talked about this a lot with some other colleagues and even with some congregants recently as we were really just starting to get into the thick of this a few weeks ago, that perhaps some of the pressure is self-imposed to start with. Perhaps it’s self-imposed by me and other clergy members, which is to say, oh, man, they’re looking to us, and they just need more and more and more, because they’re looking for us at all times, because they’re just at home. It’s not that I or—and I’m certainly speaking for some other colleagues—it’s not like we’re hearing from you, “Oh, man, you guys aren’t there for us right now.” No. We’re not hearing that at all. Part of it may be just a personal reflection of, gosh, they must be wanting more because what are they doing, but sitting at home?

But in answer to your question, in addition to trying to take walks regularly for exercise with them—my wife and you know, sometimes my kids, if we can get them out with us as well—trying to also be involved in as much as possible in regular prayer both daily and weekly which helps ground me, and family games. We’ve had a chance, that we haven’t been able to take advantage of until recently, to have more time to play games like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride. And you’ll appreciate this. We have another one that we haven’t played yet this time. We’ve played it before. It’s called Pandemic.

Oh my gosh. So that felt a little too close to home. Yeah, that feels a little close to home. So we’ve kind of steered clear of that one for now. It’s a great game. By the way, the way you win Pandemic is, is everybody wins or everybody loses.

That’s actually perfect. Right, yeah, so family games. And my son and I, we’re also big Lego fans, and we built the 7,500-piece Millennium Falcon, which is the biggest Lego retail set they’ve ever made. That took, I think, about 20 hours or so of building or something, maybe a little bit more than that even. We spread that out over the last few weeks, so now that’s occupying some space on one of our tables until we come up with a better solution.

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