The headline was a first in Jewish history: “Senior Orthodox rabbis allow Zoom for Passover seder due to Coronavirus.” It’s a symbol of the strange moment we find ourselves in, with much to say about the devastating social effects Covid19 has unleashed on everyone, especially the old.
It speaks as well to evidence that ancient religious traditions, like Judaism’s Sabbath and holy day prohibition against the use of “fire” (interpreted to cover electricity) for creative purposes, have met their match in this pandemic and ceded the battle against modernity – or at least for this emergency.
Ritually observant Jews would normally never use their computers on the first two nights of Passover. Then again, normally, observant Jews would be together with their families at the seder table. Privileging the need for social connection over the rigidity of Jewish law at a time when social distancing can mean the difference between life and death is the right thing to do.
Other applications will follow. Zoom bar/bat mitzvahs (already happening), Zoom funerals, Zoom marriages, Zoom circumcisions. Will they suddenly stop when people are allowed to congregate again? I don’t think so. Families divided by distance may find Zoom a reasonable compromise between arduous, expensive travel for those members hampered by frailty or limited resources and being left out of the event.
Other religions can doubtless offer similar examples of how Zoom has changed their practices.
In fact, Zoom may turn out to be the single most influential cultural invention of our era. My own family will “enjoy” a Zoom Seder, and it’s not only better than nothing, we should thank our lucky stars that we have it, not to mention such other digital aids as Facetime and Whatsapp and all the other communication goodies we take for granted.
Zoom, though, and its competitors, is turning out to have the widest applications in an institutional way. My daughter has been working for the federal government for more than a decade as a teleworker. When she began, it was not easy to get teleworker status. My daughter had to convince her skeptical department head that for many reasons, including her husband’s Montreal-based career, there was no way she could move her family to Ottawa, but that her output would be the same or better than if she were in the office in person. And so it proved. Now that the crisis has forced everyone off site, she is training many of her co-workers in the craft of teleworking. Once they get the hang of all the Internet methodology, they like it.
After this is all over, and life returns to “normal,” will government teleworking become a norm for those who like it and have the discipline to structure their work time responsibly? I would imagine it will. Ditto for all kinds of businesses and professions.
In Montreal, doctors are turning to telemedicine to help their patients during the crisis. Telemedicine has been used routinely in the Far North in Quebec, but is now being stepped up in Montreal and elsewhere. Secure video apps are being used to help patients in up to 90% of cases in one health unit. Obviously, many patients must be dealt with in person, but if even 50% of patients could routinely be helped remotely, what sense would it make to abandon the practice later on?
But the biggest institution of them all being affected is education. From toddlers to university adults, Zoom and MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) are now the norm for countless students. My own grandchildren are enjoying it and apply themselves diligently during “class” hours. One teacher I know told me that she finds online learning is a boon to shy students who wouldn’t normally put their hands up in class, but have no problem participating in Zoom learning. I can imagine how wonderful it must be for disabled or hospitalized students who must be absent from school for long weeks at a time to keep up with their classmates and feel socially connected to them.
As for the universities, it’s great that students can continue with their studies. In fact, between online learning and the absence of a physical platform for social-justice activism, they may end putting so much more time into their actual curriculum demands than usual that their marks and knowledge level improve. That’s a win-win for both them and the public, because their absence from the campus means a welcome hiatus in the news cycle from tales of de-platformings and demonstrations against racism and transphobia, not to mention a blessed silence where BDS rants against Israel have routinely sent ripples of tension throughout our community.
Wouldn’t it be nice if a whole lot of these suddenly focused students’ parents started wondering why they are paying up to $75K a year to finance their kids “education” at university, when the actual education part of the package could be accessible for a few thousand dollars a year, and the only parts missing would be the drunken orgies and a steady drip of indoctrination in the dogmas of culturally self-loathing progressives. The universities, which long ago abandoned their mission to imparting knowledge and molding character, are long overdue for a comeuppance and some healthy competition. Maybe this is a pivotal moment, where real change is possible.
As for Zoom and elementary schools, maybe this too is a pivotal moment for parents who are fed up with the public school system’s fascination with too-early sexual themes and the transgender mania, which happens to involve a doctrine of disrespect and disregard for parents’ right to collaboration in building healthy approaches to gender identity at school. Up to now, the choices have been pretty stark. Those who dislike what is going on in the schools and can see that their children are becoming confused and unhappy, have had the option of private school, for those who can afford it, or home schooling.
Home schooling is virtually impossible for most parents without huge sacrifices of career opportunities and time. Generally speaking, home schooling is associated with firmly held religious beliefs. But nowadays there are plenty of parents for whom religion is not the issue. They just don’t want their children’s minds held hostage to theories and demonstrable activism they can see is unhealthy and arguably abusive.
Couldn’t Zoom bridge the stark-choice river? Home schooling’s drawback is that children can feel socially isolated. Zoom largely overcomes that deficit. It used to be that if you wanted to open a school, there had to be real estate. Why couldn’t interested parents and retired disaffected teachers– perhaps retired because they are disaffected – band together and create a hybrid of home schooling by remote learning? No bricks and mortars. The director would work from a small office somewhere or from home. The teachers would teach from home. The costs would be nothing like a private school’s if enough families signed on. Homeschoolers routinely make deals with real schools to have their kids take part in sports leagues or even to take discrete subjects at the schools. So could these families.
Maybe I’m dreaming in technicolor, as they say. Everyone always thinks that a huge disruption like this pandemic will change things forever. Everyone said 9/11 would. Only it didn’t. Americans were all united and misty-eyed for a year, and then they went back to being disunited and flinty-eyed.
But that doesn’t mean things have to go back to the status quo after a disaster. We’re all sitting at home with lots of time to watch talking-dog videos, but also to dream of the changes we’d like to see happen in our lives and the lives of our children. We owe it to our children to dream. In technicolor. Because who knows? As the writer Delmore Schwartz said, “In dreams begin responsibilities.”