In May, when I left Hagerstown, Md., and headed south to Florida to lead a synagogue there, it seemed as if the pandemic was also behind us. Vaccines were becoming available nationally, the number of confirmed cases and deaths had dropped dramatically since January, businesses and places of worship were beginning to reopen and health officials finally sounded optimistic.
I never anticipated that less than six months later, on the most holy day of the Jewish year, I wouldn't be able to worship in person with my new congregation. But when I blow the shofar, a traditional ram's horn, to mark the end of Yom Kippur on Thursday evening, my congregants will have to hear it virtually. We are not alone. Throughout Florida and the country, many Jewish congregations have gone either entirely virtual or imposed severe limitations on attendance, and those who can worship in person often must be masked and provide proof of vaccination.
Here in Florida, things are even worse than they are in many other places. Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization and many other reputable sources use a green-to-red color scale to represent how bad the pandemic is in any given area. Red indicates a rolling seven-day average of more than 10 positive cases per 100,000 people. Red means the pandemic is out of control. As of Tuesday, our number was 51 cases per 100,000 per day. For much of August, Broward County had more people hospitalized than any county in the country.
And the state's response has been a debacle. Maybe we would have had to hold our Yom Kippur services virtually either way, but Florida hasn't helped improve the situation.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued an executive order making masks in schools optional and tried to stop the school districts that do require them. More than 70 rabbis from across the state have written to DeSantis protesting the executive order, noting the skyrocketing covid-19 cases among school-aged children, and demanding that he reverse it.
On Monday, DeSantis said the state would start fining cities and counties $5,000 per infraction if they require their workers to be vaccinated against the virus. (State and local governments are exempt from the new federal rule requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enforce vaccine mandates on large employers nationwide.) This is particularly alarming given new data indicating that the unvaccinated are more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized than the vaccinated - and 11 times more likely to die.
Recently, Memorial Healthcare System, the largest hospital system in South Broward County, had over 700 covid patients, its highest number ever. Recently, area hospitals have doubled the size of their intensive care units, converted cafeterias into covid wards and set up tents in parking lots to accommodate all the patients requiring critical care. Child infections overall have increased 63 percent in August, with many more kids with covid in the hospitals than before.
Our synagogue decided to go virtual for the High Holy Days not only for ourselves, but to protect the greater community - even though almost all the members who would have attended services were vaccinated and typically wear masks in public places. Even so, we felt the risk was unacceptable that someone would get infected, then pass it on at a grocery store or restaurant. Maybe they'd pass the virus to a child, who would then go to school and infect unvaccinated children and their families.
It's no secret that the pandemic has become political. As religious people, does that mean we shouldn't get involved? Does it mean abandoning our consciences? Or should we instead try to find ways to help people come together? We may disagree with our neighbors over issues such as when life begins, but surely we can agree on life-or-death questions like this pandemic. Mask mandates are a place to start.
At this time of year, Jews are called to repent, which Jews call teshuvah, or "turning." When we do so, we symbolically turn away from our transgressions and return to the path God intended us to follow, even if it means making great changes in our lives. But before we turn, we must recognize the darker areas of our lives that we will be turning from to seek improvement for ourselves and for the greater world.
In the service for Rosh Hashanah every year, we read the scriptural story of how the patriarch Abraham takes his only son, Isaac, to a mountaintop, believing that God has called him to sacrifice the boy. At the last minute, he pulls back. He hears the voice of an angel, like the cry of the shofar, telling him to turn, to spare the child. Why does he listen? Because he realizes that God wants him to help the boy, not sacrifice him. As I reflected on the story this year, I thought about how those who resist the mask, resist the vaccine, and stop others from taking such measures are, in effect, willing to sacrifice our own children.
Scripture asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in the United States - and Florida - we need the will to take responsibility for one another, to overcome our divisions and do just that. In the Jewish tradition, as well as many others, all of us are created in the divine image. Factional political loyalty is not part of God's charge to us.
We blow the shofar during the High Holy Days to hear the call of repentance and to turn toward that which is good. I hope Florida hears our cry of the shofar as a wake-up call. For our greatest source of blessing is to rise above the politics and to love our neighbors as ourselves - especially, for God's sake, our kids.
Ari Plost is senior rabbi at Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla.