Life in Israel Under the Threat of Coronavirus

Yonit Rothchild  |  March 17, 2020

Storm brewing overhead an empty highway.

It is hard to believe that exactly one week ago we were getting ready to celebrate the holiday of Purim here in Israel. That holiday celebrates a total turnaround of events in the Book of Esther, and today it seems that our entire lives have been turned around, upside down. Nothing is the same.

I live just ten minutes south of Jerusalem, in the beautiful hills of Judea. Just a week ago my entire town was out and about on a gorgeous sunny day, celebrating the holiday and bringing gifts of food to each other as we do every Purim. Today, the order of the day is to be apart, separated from each other in our individual homes, as we try to slow, if not stop, the spread of the coronavirus that threatens us all.

Getting Used to the “New Normal”

The day after Purim, I sent my four kids to school as usual, but my husband and I already knew that our lives were most likely about to change drastically. My husband, who is a tour guide in Israel, guided what would be his last clients for a long time through an eerily empty Jerusalem. All of his scheduled tours over the coming months have been cancelled.

That night I attended a Bat Mitzvah celebration for a close friend’s daughter. The party was limited to 100 people in accordance with new directives from our health ministry. As party favors, my friend gave out hand sanitizers. When I arrived home, the news was out that school was cancelled all over Israel beginning that Friday. Like many in the world, Israel’s children will be learning remotely for the near future.

Friday morning, my husband and I went to the supermarket just as it opened. There was already a line to get in as the security guard was taking the temperatures (from a device that does not actually touch anyone) of every shopper wishing to enter the store. Usually, this time of year Jews are getting rid of unleavened products in preparation for Passover, which is just weeks away. This year, however, everything is backwards. Anticipating hungry kids home all day, we stocked up on pasta, flour, and other products I would never let into my home this close to the holiday.

On the Sabbath, our synagogue held many small, separate services in place of our usual large ones. Instead of our weekly dose of community and fellowship, everyone went straight home after services. We hosted a family who had just moved into our neighborhood for lunch and we realized that this would probably be the last time we hosted friends at our Shabbat table for a long time.

By Saturday night, Israel announced new regulations. Any gatherings of more than 10 people were no longer allowed, and businesses were encouraged to switch employees to working from home. Since then, more regulations have ordered the closure of all recreational spaces such as movie theaters, malls, and salons. Beaches, parks, and gyms were closed next. As of now, we have entered an almost complete lockdown.

Seeking the Good in Challenging Times

But here’s the thing: In spite of this gloomy picture, we are in very good spirits. On the surface, everything is a mess (including the weather!). Yet, beyond the surface, there is so much goodness, so much hope, and so much beauty that still remains – or, perhaps, is only coming out because of our situation.

In the midst of our fast-paced lives, we have been forced to stop everything, to go home, and focus on our loved ones. For the last few days, I have noticed an unusual amount of adults getting outside and taking walks, albeit in spaces that are not too crowded. Families have slowed down and are taking more time to just be together. People are coming together to help one another and strangers are reaching out to those who are most vulnerable.

In our home, my husband has been teaching my younger children their school lessons and they are actually enjoying it and understanding the information better than ever. At the supermarket, the Arab employee behind the cheese counter asked how I was doing with my children at home and shared that he was dealing with his kids at home too. We wished each other well during these hard times, and I could not help but feel more unified with our Arab neighbors.

When one of my teenagers was bored on Friday, he decided to bake a delicious rocky road brownie cake for the Sabbath. Another one of my teenagers had the time to spend hours playing his guitar even after completing his online schoolwork. My father conducted online music classes through Skype for my younger kids along with their cousins in America and Israel, practicing songs for the upcoming Passover holiday. We may be celebrating this year’s holiday apart, but we are still so very much together.

Don’t get me wrong; this situation is not ideal. Homeschooling is hard and my children miss their friends. I am concerned about my friends and family who are elderly or more at risk at contracting this virus than others. I am worried about the economy and the impact of this pandemic on our world. But, I can choose where I put my focus. We can all choose. And I am choosing to focus on the good even as I stay aware of all the news, good and bad.

An Outpouring of Kindness

I have seen so much kindness and generosity all around. One woman posted on social media that she was happy to run errands for anyone local who felt unsafe or unable to get out. Several exercise instructors that I know are streaming free online exercise classes daily. Others are offering online storytelling and Bible classes for children. Our community immediately banded together to raise funds for families who will not be able to pay their bills because of this crisis so that everyone can get through this ok.

One famous Israeli musician gave a concert in an empty concert hall to be viewed online by all of us stuck at home. Another group performed on the balcony of an apartment so that residents of the surrounding buildings could enjoy the entertainment from their balconies. There is an undeniable feeling of unity and the faith that we will get through this by sticking together – even if only in spirit as we stay separated in our homes.

Perhaps those of us living in Israel are a bit more used to going through times of uncertainty and living with an underlying threat of danger. If I have learned anything from more than 10 years living here, it is that this too shall pass, and this too is in God’s hands. In any crisis, we can choose to focus on the good and to do good for others. Based on my past experiences, I do believe that this is what will make all the difference.

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