Photo Credit: Courtesy of the shul
An outdoor event at Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, N.J., in November 2020.

I recently went into Brooklyn for the first time in 15 months to visit my mother and to attend a family simcha. This was a big deal for me, my first foray into a large gathering where I knew for a fact that at least half of the crowd was unvaccinated. Now here’s the part where some of you roll your eyes and stop reading because you think this is a rant about unvaccinated people. It’s not. For those of you who have been unmasked for months, who have kissed, hugged and clasped hands at countless mega-sized simchas, I’d like to offer some insight into the psyche of those of us who live in communities that were, and still are, meticulously diligent about following the guidelines of the CDC.

At the beginning of the pandemic we were all equally terrified. People got sick, people died, all of us cried when Shomrei Hadas was overwhelmed with bodies. We did what we always do when faced with a crisis; we davened, we bargained with G-d, we wore hazmat suits, and we took long scalding showers after touching the mail.

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In my community the shuls reopened after Shavuos last year. Minyanim were outside, masked, and six feet apart. Eventually minyanim moved inside with the same strict protocols. Shul pews were marked with tape to ensure compliance with the seating. Anyone who sat too close to someone else was promptly redirected to sit elsewhere. We did this for a year. For a full, long, crazy year. Compliance was one hundred percent, and although some of our members caught Covid from outside sources, no one caught it from attending services and, b”H, no one in our shul died.

A few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon right before Shabbos, we received a shul email that said all vaccinated members did not have to wear a mask and could sit next to each other. Part of me was thrilled but the other part was terrified. As a healthcare provider who sees patients at a very close distance, I had no choice but to conquer the most irrational of my fears early on in the pandemic. Eventually I felt safe in my mask and even safer after I got vaccinated in January.

But this was different. This was not my office where we controlled who came in and out and everyone was masked. This was the wild West, uncharted territory. I walked to shul that first Shabbos without my mask on to test the waters. I felt exposed, vulnerable, and the light breeze on my face felt weird and unfamiliar. The first person I saw when I walked through the doors was my daughter’s friend. “Sarah.” I blurted out, “your face is naked.” Clearly my nerves had eroded a crucial connection between my brain and my mouth. Sarah laughed politely and my daughter gave me a side-eye.

I kept touching my face during davening, glancing around surreptitiously to see who was still wearing a mask. Three congregants who were physicians, and who I also knew were vaccinated, were still masked, and I wondered if they knew something that I didn’t. After shul I went over to greet someone who I hadn’t seen in over a year. As I reached out to hug her, she drew back with horror and told me she wasn’t comfortable with anyone touching her yet. Slowly, over the last few weeks, more people have been seeping back into shul. You can tell who the newbies are by the looks on their faces and I am careful not to unexpectedly invade anyone’s personal space. We still haven’t had a normal kiddush yet and we have a masked minyan outdoors for those who are still nervous. It’s a process; we’re all still adjusting, at different rates, but we’re getting there. Slowly.

I am aware that this has not been the experience in other communities. As a Flatbush native whose mom and four brothers still live within a square mile of where I grew up, I know firsthand that things have been more normal there for quite some time. Unlike here, where antibodies were nice but did not preclude anyone from getting vaccinated, many Covid survivors “in town” chose not to get vaccinated because they felt their natural antibodies conferred enough immunity to protect them. I can neither confirm nor deny this based on current scientific knowledge. Again, my intent is not to malign my hometown or any of the people in it, merely to point out that our communities as a whole did not share the same ideology regarding Covid.

So when I showed up at the family wedding in Brooklyn and visibly cringed when an unvaccinated relative accidentally spit into my eye, this is why I freaked out. Don’t judge me because we are left early after the chuppah. And when I tell you that I think my cousin in North Jersey is brave and awesome for making a vort whose invitation says “vaccinated people only,” don’t laugh and tell me that we’re all insane. In return, I will attempt to limit how vociferous I am about the importance of vaccination. But don’t be mad if I don’t want to hang out with you just yet.

We’ve all been on a journey. A long, scary trip into the abyss that has brought out both the best and the worst in us; a trip that has divided, not only the country, but our frum communities as well. Now not only do we define and differentiate ourselves by our petty external trappings, but we’ve added masks and vaccines to the mix as well. I was recently listening to a speech that the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, gave on the subject of antisemitism. The root of antisemitism, he says, is “dislike of the unlike,” a fear of people who are different from us. How deeply and unsettlingly ironic, then, that at a time of increasing antisemitism, we are experiencing our own struggles with divisiveness and intolerance of difference.

What’s the answer? How do we embrace our differences when the stakes can be the difference between life and death? I can’t even begin to fathom how to address this but, as I alluded above, I think a good place to start is with tolerance, respect, and dialogue. I’ve shared these short vignettes of my past year in order to offer a glimpse into some of my experiences and how these events subsequently fabricated the roadmap I used, and am still using,to navigate through this chaos. I have no other useful advice except for this: be kind.

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Dr. Chani Miller, the mother of two daughters, is the chief optometrist at Park Eye Center, a private optometric practice in Highland Park, NJ.