Rabbi: ‘Something beautiful’ can be born from a pandemic, history teaches

Rabbi Bailey Romano has studied the history of American rabbis during times of epidemics and natural disasters. (photo provided by Rabbi Bailey Romano)

Though tempting to compare Passover during the coronavirus to the plagues God sent down to Egypt, Rabbi Bailey Romano thinks we need not go back so far.
In fact, Romano, director of education at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, said lessons can be learned from Jewish leaders who lived through more modern plagues, like the yellow fever epidemics of the 1800s.
Those lessons are being acted upon today, she said, at this Passover season.
“The plagues of Passover do not feel so close to us normally,” Romano said, “except, for now, they do.”
Romano researched the history of American Jews during disasters for her rabbinic thesis, Who By Fire and Who By Water: Rabbinical Responses to Select Epidemics and Natural Disasters in American Jewish History.
She studied Jewish responses to yellow fever in Memphis and New Orleans during the 19th century, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005.
Romano concluded from her research that the responses of Jewish leaders to epidemics likely tamped down hatred or distrust of Jews during those times.
“They actually lessened the amount of anti-Semitism,” she said. “When you think about it, you are interacting with each other; you are being forced to interact. You can no longer be siloed into Jewish or Christian; you have to interact with each other in order to survive.”
For example, in Memphis during the yellow fever epidemic of 1873, which claimed some 2,000 lives, Rabbi Max Samfield stayed in the city when others fled, ministering to the sick, helping orphans, burying the dead regardless of race. Later, in the 1878 epidemic, he and his wife adopted two orphans whose parents succumbed to yellow fever, replacing two of their own children who had died.
Yellow fever laid bare the need for “infrastructure” in the Jewish communities to respond to emergencies, Romano said.

Rabbi Max Samfield remained in Memphis during the yellow fever epidemic of 1873, ministering to the ill and helping to bury the dead. (Historicmemphis.com)

Samfield became one of the founders of Hebrew Hospital and Relief Association in Memphis.
And in New Orleans, following the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, Rabbi James Gutheim, who also remained in his city during the outbreak, became a founder of the Touro Infirmary and the Hebrew Widows and Orphans Home.
All these institutions were designed to respond to crises and communal needs where none previously existed.
“Out of these historic epidemics came both interfaith relationships, but also new infrastructure for the Jewish communities,” Romano said.
(Gutheim also reached out to other Jewish communities for assistance during the epidemic. According to Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport of The Temple, records of Jewish Louisville’s fledgling Benevolent Society mention a $154 contribution – about $4,000 in today’s currency – to help yellow fever victims in New Orleans.)
Romano thinks today’s rabbis are poised to develop new forms of infrastructure to serve their communities. Many are already taking to the internet to do so, starting pages where they share their coronavirus experiences and ways to respond.
In a piece of Passover-specific infrastructure, rabbis from around the world have created a virtual hagadah that speaks to the coronavirus experience. The Middle Matzah Haggadah: A Digital Telling for time of Brokenness is a patchwork of videos by rabbis, lay leaders and their families, taking the viewers through the Passover seder, infusing humorous and creativity in ways not possible with the printed word. Some of the videos are sadly serious, such as Rabbi Ari Plost’s equation of The Four Questions with his father, who had been hospitalized for more than 60 days, tethered to a ventilator.
Everywhere, Romano said, rabbis are using portals and digital resources to create a “spiritual and emotional connection.”
“Instead of visiting a bedside, we are having a FaceTime call and a Zoom call,” she said.
Her interest in “disaster history“ comes from personal experience. Romano was 15 in 2005, growing up near New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
“I have vivid memories of evacuation, sideways rain, and the unbelievable images of my city in shambles,” she wrote in her thesis. For one week, she didn’t even know if her mother was still alive.
She believes rabbis are responding to the coronavirus the same way as their predecessors, responded to the crises of their days.
Despite the rising death toll, the economic pain and the social distancing, Romano believes that “something beautiful” and lasting can come out of this experience.
“Rabbis in their communities will rally just as they have in the past,” she said. “They will find new ways to create institutions and collaboration. We’re already seeing it.”







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