Jewish-Christian dialogue in a time of pandemic

Members of the ICCJ (International Council of Christians and Jews) Theology Committee have shared their personal reflections on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the ICCJ website. It’s a heartfelt, serious online dialogue that looks at both the present and the future from different perspectives, in the exploratory spirit of the ICCJ.

Sister Celia Deutsch, NDS, who joined the Committee this year, contextualizes her essay within the social realities of the USA, where the virus and racism are inextricably linked, and summons her faith to address the future.

Dialogue in the Time of Virus

By Sr. Celia Deutsch

I write, as one always does, from a particular place — geographic, religious, social. I write as a Roman Catholic Sister of Our Lady of Sion, engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue in a variety of contexts. I write from New York City, home to the world’s largest diaspora Jewish community (more than 1 million), a city that has so far lost more than 24 thousand people to Covid-19. I write from Flatbush in Brooklyn, one of the most severely affected neighborhoods in the city, and in the nation.

As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people in more than 700 cities and towns across the country, are engaged in protest against the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. The protests, however, cry out against the systemic racism that is the legacy of more than 400 years of our national history. The two realities – the U.S. experience of the pandemic, and racism – are inextricably linked in this context. People of color are poor in disproportionate numbers. This means that they often live in crowded conditions. They work in areas that place them at risk of infection (the meat-packing plants, supermarkets, public transportation, etc.) They often do not have access to adequate medical care. People of color of all social and economic classes, are also subject to disproportionate rates of pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, that make them vulnerable to Covid-19 and more likely to die of the virus than their white counterparts. I cannot reflect on the pandemic apart from the reality of racism. Similarly, I cannot reflect on the pandemic apart from the reality of the climate change crisis and the care for the earth.

Flatbush is also home to large Jewish and Muslim communities. All of us are experiencing the isolation and the pain of being unable to gather in our churches, synagogues, mosques. Sunday Mass live-streamed is certainly meaningful, but Catholic Christianity, like all our traditions, is intensely communal, intensely physical. How do I celebrate Eucharist without my fellow-congregants in the same physical space? Our neighborhood interfaith coalition (Jewish-Christian-Muslim) has had two events via Zoom. They have been moments of coming together in the joy of seeing one another and reflecting on the resources our traditions bring to our experience of the pandemic. Those moments make us long to be together once again in the same physical space, and give a promise of better times ahead.

The Christian and Muslim partners, in our little interfaith coalition, are predominantly immigrants and people of color. Some of the Jewish partners are also immigrants and/or people of color. All of us have lost congregants in these weeks; we are connected by sorrow and loss. Members of our communities serve on the “front line” as health care nurses, physicians, hospital support staff, postal workers, public transportation workers, gardeners, and more. All of us have a sense that the country, the world are changing in ways that we cannot yet see. We wait, disoriented, even as we try to provide for our sick, and support our care-givers, even as we march in the streets or support the marchers. Together we live the reality of a global pandemic, and walk the long road to a world of justice for all.

As a Christian, I believe in a G-d who goes before us as a “pillar of cloud by day” and a “pillar of fire by night” (Exod 13:22). I believe that this G-d will not leave us, the people, just as G-d did not leave the people of Israel. As a Christian, I believe that the present moment calls us to new courage in our journey, trusting in a G-d who walks with us to the extent of becoming one of us. I look to the coming Reign of G-d, and try to remember that that reality is already in our midst, calling us to build a social and environmental order that reflects that reality. I remember the words of the G-d of Israel, the G-d of Jesus, through the prophet Amos, addressed to us: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (Amos 5:24)