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Responding to Coronavirus

Responding to Coronavirus

Finding Hope in Jewish History as We Respond to COVID-19

By Spertus President and CEO Dr. Dean P. Bell, author of Plague in the Early Modern World: A Documentary History.

The outbreak and spread of Coronavirus has infected millions and caused the death of more than 322,000 people globally (at the time of this writing), with the tally increasing daily. 

It has led to travel restrictions, quarantines, school closings, and limitations on large public gatherings. It has had a noticeable and negative impact on economies, led to a disparate range of governmental policy recommendations, and has stirred frenzied efforts to find medical treatments. The virus has led to accusations, political attacks, and conspiracy theories.

While troubling, these phenomena are not new. They have accompanied epidemics and disease outbreaks throughout history, even though the context of each prior event has been unique. In many ways, the observations above sound remarkably similar to the conditions and responses that emerged during the second pandemic of bubonic plague that struck much of the globe in cycles from the mid fourteenth well into the nineteenth century.

Diseases, of course, have medical impact, explanations, and contexts. But beyond the medical, these outbreaks bring to the forefront underlying political, social, and cultural contexts that shape individual, communal, and societal responses. They highlight areas of great strength and resilience, as well as extant fissures and underlying grievances.

What can we learn from the past, including from Jewish experiences during past pandemics, as we face today’s challenge?

1. Coordinate Efforts

Efforts to respond to disease must be coordinated, well-planned, effectively executed, and take a broad perspective. Simply addressing local or individual concerns isn’t enough. The work of local princes and cities during the second bubonic plague pandemic was not always coordinated or systematic, but we know that when it was the results were a great deal more successful and long-lasting. The same was true for Jewish communities of the time, which instituted restrictions on religious gatherings and celebrations, developed systems to take care of the most vulnerable populations, worked (not always easily or successfully) with non-Jewish authorities, and set up communal structures to address the most pressing needs. In the same way that we have seen Jewish communities cooperate with local and national authorities in response to Coronavirus, the rabbi and doctor Abraham Catalano (writing in the first half of the 17th century in Italy), for example, noted the importance of securing food and supplies, but also of appointing communal representatives to work with civic authorities. How can we find ways to coordinate our efforts for personal, communal, and societal benefit?

2. Leverage Networks and Cultivate Community

Our civic, communal, and religious institutions can be powerful forces for collective organization and for galvanizing action. The variety of early modern responses by civic and religious authorities frequently provided opportunities for communal action (even when such actions confirmed communal hierarchies) and useful narratives that helped people cope and maintain a sense of hope and connectivity. Jews participated in the broader societies in which they lived in many, if at times prescribed, ways, drawing from the knowledge and practices of those around them.

LA Mural by R Rojas

Just as we have had to shutter synagogues and avoid gatherings of people for religious rituals, early modern rabbis were known to deliver sermons from their windows or elevated porches to edify their congregants who could not assemble in the synagogue. Rabbi Catalano wrote down his experiences and advice for future generations. Various early modern writers, such as the famous German Jewess Glikl of Hameln, recorded their experiences during plague outbreaks for their families and later generations. How can we find ways to continue regular rituals and life in the midst of uncertainty? How can we memorialize these times for growth and for the benefit of future generations?

3. Build Complex Resilience

Normal life can, and does, continue during disease outbreaks. This doesn’t eliminate the need for concern, caution, and action. But getting swept up in paralyzing fear is not helpful. Serious disease outbreaks are regular and recurring phenomena. Early modern Jews, like their non-Jewish neighbors, were forced to develop a form of complex resilience—not just returning to a status quo, but developing adaptive capacities to think and behave differently.

Complex resilience is the ability to learn from external conditions and develop improved functioning that allows for greater responsiveness to future challenges. The emphasis here is on learning and growing—especially through challenges and vulnerabilities. Studies of disaster preparedness note that we need to understand our vulnerabilities—to better prepare ourselves and to assist others. We also need to cultivate resilience and agility.

Those who lived through bubonic plague pandemics learned improved measures to prevent and mitigate the spread of disease (some of which are being used today—quarantines, social distancing, deep cleaning, travel restrictions, etc.). This was true in Jewish communities as well as general populations, and we have, for example, 17th-century Hebrew medical treatises and chronicles that highlight the importance of quarantine hospitals, cleaning, and diligence in responding to the plague.

The 17th-century Italian Jewish physician Jacob ben Isaac Zahalon, for example, recorded the organization and management of quarantine hospitals as well as the restrictions that were imposed on Jews leaving the home, except for those who we would today term essential workers. How do we keep a long-term view and think about how to adjust, adapt, innovate, and do things differently, rather than cling to old behaviors that are not helpful in new conditions? Jews, like their Christian and Muslim neighbors, introduced fast days and special prayers for the liturgy in order to appeal to God for salvation from the plague and to mark the event in communal history. How will we remember the events unfolding around us and what lessons would we like to share with subsequent generations?

We must learn from the past—even when the context and challenges are quite different. History does not exactly repeat itself, but past experiences (our own and others) present ways to thrive even in the most challenging situations.

History teaches us that there is hope even in dire circumstances.

We will adapt and develop and use this crisis as an opportunity to learn new things and work in new ways, and we will learn to communicate more humanely and effectively. Despite real loss, there is also an overwhelming amount of good. We can focus and reflect on the many remarkable examples of virtue, caring, and effective and empathic leadership. In most cases, underlying social and communal structures will continue—or even grow—in significant and lasting ways. Historians sometimes note that the past, present, and future all exist together in important ways. As we face today’s bleak news and our own fears, how can we find hope for the future within the messages from the past?

Dean P. Bell, PhD is President and CEO at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where he holds a faculty appointment as Professor of Jewish History. A widely published historian, he is the author, most recently, of Plague in the Early Modern World: A Documentary History (Routledge, 2019). He has been serving as an expert on pandemic history for media during the current crisis.

Images from top: One of 24 signs installed around Chicago by artist Matthew Hoffman and the You Are Beautiful project, in partnership with John Supera, Supera Asset Management, and Love is standing six-feet apart mural by Ruban Rojas, Santa Monica, CA. Photo by Amy Ta.


Thursday, August 27, 2020