We asked, you answered: Here’s how JTA readers experienced a historic, tumultuous year

Shira Feder

(JTA) — So much has changed in the Jewish world since COVID-19 burst onto the scene. How could we at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sum it up?

We have marked the one-year anniversary of the pandemic in the United States with stories, memorials and live events. But even our best efforts could never capture the range of emotions, changes and experiences that ran through our community over the past year.

So we turned to you, our readers. Joining forces with our colleagues at 70 Faces Media’s other sites — My Jewish Learning, Alma, Kveller and The Nosher — we asked you about the good, the bad and the revelatory in your pandemic year.

Thousands responded, pouring their hearts out. Here is some of what you told us.

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If you could describe your pandemic experience in one word, what would it be?

(Shira Feder)

Here’s a word cloud we created from your answers. “Lonely” was the most common word used, followed by “isolated,” “bored,” “frustrated” and “quiet.” From “strange” to “stress” to “traumatic” to “tired,” the mood in the Jewish community appeared bleak. 

But others found opportunity to reevaluate their ways of living as they stayed at home, using words like “bliss,” “family,” “slower,” “educational” and “enlightening” to explain what their lives looked like.

If you look closer, you see less common words like “rollercoaster,” “bearable,” “unnerving” and “hermit,” providing a window into the collective moods of the Jewish community.

We asked what you missed most about your pre-pandemic life — in-person Jewish community living ranked at the top.

So many mentioned missing the ability to pop into synagogue, as well as in-person events like bar mitzvahs, funerals and weddings. Losing Friday night Shabbat services was a particular loss for many, as were minyans and holiday gatherings. You missed hugs, Hebrew school and singing in choirs. 

Here’s just a sampling of what some of you told us you missed.

Being able to gather with people in person, whether that be having people over for Shabbat, to celebrating holidays in the community, and being able to celebrate personal milestones Jewishly with family, friends, and my Jewish community. — Kat Romanow, 36, Montreal, Canada

Celebrating and engaging with other people! Even for the High Holy Days, I was in the same house with my family but we were in different services. I started becoming part of the community at the synagogue where I taught (luckily still do!) and attended services while I was at college, and I miss being there, or the synagogue where I grew up, in person! So much of my Jewish life is related to sharing experiences with other people, so that’s been hard. I’m looking forward to having a Hanukkah or Purim party in person again! — Erica Schoenberg, Houston, Texas

I was just starting to explore Judaism in 2019. I started going to a synagogue regularly and I miss hearing the Shabbat Shaloms and eating bagels during our Torah study every Saturday. I have joined another synagogue since then and it really is so hard to join a community virtually. — Emi Montenegro, 23, New York City

Community!! Seeing people fade to face, gathering together. And hugs!!! — Susan Barocas, 68, Washington, D.C.

Schmoozing, both as a Jewish person and as a Jewish professional. — Rebecca Gurvets, 23, Silver Spring, Maryland

I am not Jewish. I’d just started on the path of learning Judaism when the synagogue shifted to a virtual environment. I’m not sure what I’m missing except the enjoyment of a people to people, real time & space Jewish community. — Karen FitzGerald, 72, Santa Rosa, California

Celebrating with other people that I mostly see at holidays. Having Seder via Zoom was hard the first time and it is hard to grasp that we are approaching a second pandemic Passover. I love seeing my cousins at Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinner. The side conversations, or unusual groupings don’t happen over Zoom.  — Rachel Pergamit, 30, Jamaica Plain, Maryland

Buying fresh challahs every Friday. — Naomi Atlani, 72, Toronto, Canada

I miss going to temple physically. Although I only go a few times a year, there’s more to service than just the sermon. I love the music, and being able to zone in and out as I read spiritual/religious commentary. I use the time to reflect, and love the environment that allows me to do so. — Juliana Lamm-Perez, 18, San Francisco, California

Community! This year we had our son’s bar mitzvah (in the living room via Zoom) and he has watched his friends the same way but has missed out on the fun and experience of the best of the year; different synagogues, seeing friends, the whole thing. I have attended multiple Zoom funerals but cannot pay a shiva call, can’t wrap my arms around a grieving friend. And camp. So hard to describe the impact of the loss of camp. — Sara Nuland, 50, Fairfield, Connecticut

More than half of you reported starting a new Jewish practice during the pandemic. 

You signed up for Zoom Hebrew lessons and Yiddish classes. Lighting weekly Shabbat candles. Challah baking. Zoom services for Shabbat. New weekly chavruta learning groups over the phone. Zoom Purim spiels. Zoom Passover Seders. Zoom learning classes. A couple of you said hitbodedut, the Hasidic practice of talking to God. And of course, more Zoom.

Here are just some of the Jewish practices you started this pandemic year.

I started making challah every week. When the pandemic began and yeast and flour were hard to come by, I bought a 2 lb bag of Red Star yeast. I still have about 1/3 of the bag left, but I may have to get some more soon. Online challah-making has been a great way to stay connected with our community. I am very grateful for that. — Heidi Isenberg-Feig, 49, Potomac, Maryland

I am saying Kaddish for my father. We attend Central Synagogue online. I Facebook Live and Zoom call with rabbis and communities now. I started Daf Yomi through My Jewish Learning. — Sasha McLean, 42, Ottawa, Canada

I stepped in as a Friday evening substitute cantorial soloist for one of our congregants who became ill. — Tara Starr, 63, Iowa

As senior rabbi, we adapted everything to Zoom, designed safe in-person baby naming, B’nai Mitzvah, weddings and funerals outdoors, started Zooming family members into Shabbat and festival dinners and got creative with our holiday planning all year long. — Rabbi Beth Singer, Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco

I don’t feel as connected as I would have liked to feel to the Jewish community, especially as my daughter was born. But we had a chance to do a simchat bat (baby girl naming) virtually, which meant friends and family from all over the globe were able to zoom in! — Keren Fefer Adler, 29, New York City

I began to bake challah every week as a method to take my mind off of things and connect to my Shabbat rituals. — Halle Jaymes Shumate, 20, Washington, D.C.

I now thank God every morning for the safety of my friends and family. — Jill Maleson, 70, Fremont, California

When I was a tiny kid and couldn’t sleep, my mom taught me the Shema and said to go right to sleep. I say it nightly but this time adding in the names of those who need for someone to ask a divine intervention. It doesn’t always happen, but I do thank whoever is listening for my day. I am 73, and still every night I say the Shema, I relax and fall quickly asleep. I recommend it. — Joseph Toubes, 73, Des Moines, Iowa  

I gave to more charities than I had before, especially food banks. — Eliene Augenbraun, 59, New York

Zoom weekly for Shabbat services. Before, any excuse not to drive over to attend would be used: snow, ice, too tired. — Lois Jacobs, 70, Methuen, Maryland

My local girlfriends and I did a Hanukkah Harry secret gift exchange, which was great even though none of the people we exchanged with are Jews. Every night I taught them something about being Jewish or the holiday, and they helped me feel accepted in my non-Jewish community. — Sara Boilen, 41, Whitefish, Montana

We asked you what was most meaningful or surprising to you about your Jewish experiences this year and whether there was a specific moment, perhaps from a Jewish holiday or experience, that stood out. This was the question that drew some of our longest, most thoughtful responses. 

A lot of people mentioned being grateful to be alive, for the shift to virtual services and for specific holiday moments. Many people mentioned forming newfound connections to a much larger virtual community.

Here are some of your most memorable moments of the year.

I stared down death. I went into remission. I’m still on oral medication. I fear practically nothing anymore. — Cantor Jacqueline Marx, rabbinical student at Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary, Carrboro, North Carolina

We all knew someone who had gotten Covid-19, some did not recover, and when we realized we all were still here together we went outside and cried with candles in our hands. — Deanna E Fox, 60, Tampa, Florida

I noticed the vaccine was rolled out on Hanukkah, which was a miracle. I counted the Omer with my daughter, creating a new tradition. I wrote a Psalm during a class with Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt. — Ellen Charlop, 59, Great Neck, New York

I started a Zoom for Jewish singles age 55+. I did it every other night. It became a family and got a lot of us through the pandemic. We became a family. — Sharon Klein, 64, Long Island, New York

I was impressed by how all of the congregations adapted. Regardless of how rigid their customs, whether reformed, conservative, chabad, everyone adjusted with social distancing, digital platforms and outdoor services. It was nice to see that. — Jill Fox, 41, Parkland, Florida

Services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were unexpectedly moving, even though they happened on Zoom. And it seemed as though in all of our services and events, we came closer to each other, knew each other differently and more deeply than we had before. — Robbi Nester, 67, Lake Forest, California

Surviving to have a seder by myself. — Janice Figman, 53, Chicago, Illinois

I joined a pen pal prison writing program started by my rabbi. — Victoria Saenz Vogl, 66, Washington, D.C.

We have taken virtual tours of Israel, Lithuania, British Museum, Burma and India, all through Jewish lens. It has been a fabulous opportunity to see the Jewish world that I probably wouldn’t be able to see in real time. — Gail Geffon, 73, Yorba Linda, California

I didn’t grow up with mezuzot, so even though my husband diligently hung them when we got married, I rarely even noticed them. But the first day I came home from work after caring for a patient, I believed I had COVID and was feeling anxiety about needing to change clothes and wash well before touching my family, and my eyes fell on the mezuzah by the front door. Suddenly I saw this little box and the ability to safely touch it as a luxurious blessing. It brought home to me the precarious nature of faith and gave me a tiny glimpse at the sacrifices others have made to practice the Jewish faith throughout history. Now I observe our mitzvot in a new, deeper way. I won’t ever take them for granted the same way again. — Rebecca Faulkner Branum, 46, Edmond, Oklahoma

Judaism has been a huge source of comfort to me this year in many different ways — it has really helped me cope. — Anna Rabin, 46, Lannion, France

The holidays provided a structure. The religion is both comforting and remarkably strange. The culture is rich. And our people are not monolithic. — Don Goldberg, 73, Seattle, Washington

The civil unrest did, for some reason, make me want to study the Holocaust more and really reflect on what creates that kind of human animosity and what lessons could be learned on how to overcome such devastation and wickedness. I learned how much I didn’t know. — Marilyn Horahan, 50, Havana, Florida

I found a lot of online queer/trans Jewish community events. — Jess Lynch, 32, Brooklyn, New York

Watching my son continue his learning. He was supposed to celebrate his bar mitzvah last May. Obviously, it was canceled. He gave his d’var, read the entire double Torah portion and haftorah on a Thursday night over Zoom. While the bar mitzvah weekend ship has sailed, he continues twice weekly learning and has read Torah several times at the outside minyan, including in 16F weather. His teacher is a master and perhaps because of the situation, they’ve deepened their relationship and focused in greater depth than they might have otherwise. For this, I am so grateful. — Elizabeth Davis, 54, St. Paul, Minnesota

I had the bizarre feeling of chanting haftarah while in a near empty sanctuary to an anonymous livestream audience on the high holidays. — Diana Schutt, 52, Westchester County, New York

The incredible loss of my mother from COVID-19/Alzheimer’s early in the pandemic. It was an unprecedented time for a Jewish funeral. We were only allowed 10 people including our rabbi. We stood masked by the grave, spread out and 6 feet apart. My 81-year-old father stood alone. There was no shoveling of dirt on the grave. A camera was set up to Zoom the funeral to all of our friends and family, including my brother who lives in New York. We did not know how to navigate an online shiva. We did our own immediate family zoom call each night instead. We will honor my mother with a dedication when the timing is right to be together. — Sheila Jacobson, 57, Highland Park, Illinois

This year was all about cooking at home. We asked you about the Jewish food you cooked, and the answers varied from Yemenite lamb soup to gluten-free matzah. 

It was clear that being quarantined gave many of you plenty of time to futz around the kitchen, finding comfort in experimenting with the food trends that were sweeping across America. Sourdough, anyone? So from hamantaschen to brisket, here are the foods you made this year.

Making latkes with a housemate became an intimate and deliberate experience. — Felix Mastropasqua, 20, New York City

I made black and white cookies for the first time (one of my favorites), made challah more, and some nice kosher-for-Pesach blondies on Pesach. — Judah Maccabee Marcus, 14, Basking Ridge, New Jersey

I made my 91-year-old dad cherry blintzes like his grandmother used to make him. He was raised by her as his parents died young. He’s no longer with us but he truly enjoyed the ones I made from scratch, just like his Russian bubbe would make him as a child.—  Lisa Zarrow, 62, Needham, Massachusetts

I made tons of Jewish food that I hadn’t cooked in decades. My husband was very happy as Yiddish food is his favorite. — Deborah A. Green, 71, Boca Raton, Florida

This year I made bialys. I have been on a very low-sodium diet for over 10 years now and have been unable to eat bagels and bialys (besides you can’t get a good bialy outside of New York). I didn’t have the malt syrup to make the bagels so I thought I would try the bialys. They sure weren’t as good as New York bialys but they were quite tasty, especially toasted with cream cheese. I’ve made them quite often now and love that I can eat this treat whenever I want to. — Laura Cohen, 75, Palo Alto, California

My cousins and I got together over zoom to make my grandmother’s thumbprint cookies and share memories of our times with Grandma/Aunt Sophie. I’ve taught cooking classes and written food articles for many years so the kitchen is my friend. Sharing my love of food with others has been quite the challenge over the past year. — Beth Hillson, 72, Glastonbury, Connecticut

I began writing a kosher cookbook with recipes from the last 50 years. Filled it with some new recipes, intro to each section on Jewish law, and stories about many of the recipes. — Jeffrey Schwartz, 74, Portland, Oregon

Chocolate rugelach, potato kugel (so yummy!), some Yemenite Jewish dishes with granddaughter. Taking a kreplach class later today. — Karen Wagener, 75, Los Angeles, California

I did a Kubbeh Hamusta cook-along with Awafi Kitchen, and I’ve been making my way through Leah Koenig’s book. We tried Matzah Coffee with a friend on zoom. Interesting! — Rachel Mazor, 35+, Brooklyn

This year was also characterized by grief and loss. Did you lose anyone close to you in the pandemic? If so, please tell us about that experience.

This question got so many devastating responses, as well as many grateful ones, from people who hadn’t lost anyone. Here are some of your stories. 

For a longer look at the face of Jewish mourning, you can look at our JTA COVID-19 Memorial Wall, where we’ve made it our goal to commemorate every Jew who died during the pandemic. Please reach out to us if you have a name to add.

Sadly, at the beginning of the pandemic (April 28th) we lost our beloved mother at 102 years of age. Restricting attendance at her funeral was painful, and I still feel as though she was robbed of her last hurrah in this life. Our words of praise and gratitude for her life was something I wish more people could have experienced. Our mom was an incredible entertainer, and not being able to host a shiva worthy of the sumptuous spreads she put forth seemed to not live up to her standards. — Arlene Yaffe Weissman, 70, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania

Two aunties in London passed away … very difficult to have to watch the services online and not be able to comfort my remaining family with hugs and love. — Colin Swift, 68, Sinaloa, Mexico

My best friend’s dad. It was truly horrific as it was a day after lockdown began and felt so unreal. — Steph Stern, 36, Glasgow, Scotland

My father, who is still living, has lived with us for 20 years. He became sick on March 16 (not COVID), went to the hospital and is currently in long-term care. He is healthier now than when he went in, but I miss him. We have gone for months without seeing each other and it gets harder the older he gets. He is going to celebrate his 92nd birthday in April and I hope I will be with him. We have lost many temple members this past year and each one is very difficult. But there is a bright side to a Zoom shiva — being with family and friends who otherwise wouldn’t be able to be with you. — Susan Karon, 60, Maynard, Massachusetts

Around Thanksgiving, my 93-year-old grandmother caught COVID on the second wave to pass through her assisted living home. She was only mildly sick from it and then recovered. Then at the very end of December she died from it quite suddenly. It was really a shock. — Judith Freimark Gamboa, 39, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

My husband’s uncle passed away and this was very difficult for our family. We still feel like we haven’t fully finished grieving. — Annie Glickman, Overland Park, Kansas 

I lost a younger brother and two close friends. It has been overwhelming. I feel gutted. My synagogue and friend were completely supportive, but years of my life have peeled away from me. — Carole Wood, 69, Brentwood/Crestview, Florida

You want some changes to the Jewish world to outlive the pandemic.

We asked you what changes you hope the Jewish world sticks with after the pandemic ends. Across the board, many of you agreed on one thing: virtual classes made access to Jewish life easier and more affordable, and you wanted it to stay.

I am hoping that every Shabbat and Jewish holiday we will have our choice of attending in person or by Zoom. — Beth Sair, 72, Lincolnwood, Illinois

Speaking everyday to kids, grandkids no matter what and playing Scrabble online daily with grandkids. That’s Jewish, right? — Andrea Kale Marcus, 69, currently in Maui, from Toronto, Canada

I hope we continue to create accessible content. I’ve loved seeing how communities are really adapting and trying to meet people where they are. — Mady Frischer, 24, Chicago

I have two young children, and my husband used to travel five days a week, so I was largely on my own during the week. In the “before times,” I could never attend any events on weekday evenings. But when everything moved online during the pandemic – from Talmud study to Shabbat services to lectures by well-known Jewish authors – I could suddenly attend, and it was amazing. I had the opportunity to learn from real Torah scribes, learn Hebrew, “attend” services across the country, connect with Jewish groups in Germany, and so much more. I really hope that a lot of these classes and events stay online, or at least incorporate an online component. I often feel like the only Jew in my life, but in this sense, I realized there was a wide world of Jewish life out there, and I was part of it. — Julia Rymer Brucker, 42, Littleton, Colorado

I hope the proliferation of Zoom classes, webinars, and meetings will remain part of Jewish life even after, please G-d, the pandemic ends, especially in the colder months. I’ve always enjoyed programs like these in-person, but I have to admit, there’s something nice about not having to get dressed and go out in the cold after dark. — Susan L. Rosenbluth, 74, Englewood, New Jersey

I think that Zoom events will be here to stay, but I hope that we will resume attending meetings and services in the same room this year. The community has been kind and caring towards one another and look after the welfare of the more vulnerable during the pandemic. I hope that this trend remains and does not change. — David Cohen, 70, North West London, England

As always, we want to hear about you and your Jewish experiences. If you have a story you want us to write about, please reach out to [email protected] 

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