“The world is a narrow bridge, the important thing is to not be afraid.” – Rav Nachman of Breslov

Today we learned of the first verified COVID-19 case in the State of Maine. After outbreaks in other parts of our country, it was inevitable that this virus would arrive in our backyard, and now we must respond in ways that are appropriate for our community. As the Rabbi and President of Beth Israel, we are committed to ensuring that the religious and pastoral needs of our community are filled, and that we also do everything in our power to protect the welfare and wellbeing of our community, especially those who are physically vulnerable.

Rabbi Akiva famously taught that we are commanded to live by our laws, not die by them. The greater message is that our ritual obligations take a backseat to the ultimate mitzvah: staying healthy and alive. In that spirit, our services and holiday celebrations — while normally joyous obligations — will be cancelled as need be, if they pose a risk to the physical safety of our community. In light of the recent outbreak and for the foreseeable future, all services, classes, and programs offered by Beth Israel Congregation and the Center for Small Town Jewish Life will be postponed until a later date when public gatherings are cleared by the Maine CDC. Hebrew school and Hebrew high will continue as scheduled as long as the Waterville schools remain open and on their regular schedule. We will continue to update you regularly, as our schedule evolves.

In the near future, the most pressing challenge we will confront is Passover. We will convene the board to discuss possible solutions that allow us to have a joyous and meaningful Passover without bringing the entire community together into a single location. Even though the use of technology is usually prohibited by our movement on Shabbat and holidays, during this extreme moment, leniencies are often allowed by our legal system. Rabbi Isaacs will explore ways to livestream teaching and services, and FaceTime for pastoral visits.

Additionally, as many of you may have heard, Colby College has decided to send all students home this weekend. However, it is likely that many international students and low-income and/or first generation students will remain on campus. If you are interested in providing support to those students (in ways that are appropriate and approved by the college), please let us know. Many students are devastated by the news they received this morning — many of them are students in our Hillel and are those who have supported the congregation throughout their time at the college. Moments like these are the ultimate tests of our values and our collective strength. Let us check in with one another by phone and social media over the next few weeks to offer spiritual and emotional support. In our misheberach prayer we ask God for healings of body and spirit, because a healthy soul is just as important to our survival as a functional body.

These moments also bring us to take stock of blessings — life, community, and for those who are lucky enough to enjoy it, safety. Our Purim celebration was joyous and incredible this past Monday. I am so grateful that we had a recent opportunity to sing, dance, and learn together. The mitzvah of manot l’evyonim — portions to the poor — are a feature not only of Purim, but a mitzvah for the entire month of Adar. For the next two weeks, I encourage all of us who are able to make a contribution to the Interfaith Resource Fund (send checks to Pleasant Street United Methodist Church) or the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter (you can donate online), and the rabbi’s discretionary fund at Beth Israel Congregation (send a check to our PO Box). COVID-19 will have the most extreme effect on those who are already vulnerable in our community — those without homes, paid sick-leave, health insurance, or a stable community. All three of these institutions provide direct assistance to those in need.

We will be in touch via email with further information in the days and weeks to come, and please continue to follow Rav Rachel Isaacs and Beth Israel Congregation on Facebook for resources.

B’vrachot (with blessings),

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs

Judy Hansen-Childers

[March 12]