Global Jewish Reflections | Processing Trauma and Staying Connected to Global Jewry — Even During a Pandemic

This week's Torah portions, Tazria-Metzora, speak of collective healing from trauma. For rabbinical student Aaron Blasband, virtual experiences with JDC Entwine provided a toolkit for processing the pandemic.

By Aaron Blasband - Weitzman-JDC Fellow | March 31, 2021

Aaron Blasband, a rabbinic education student at HUC-JIR, poses for a photo while hiking in Mitzpe Ramon, Israel.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

I sat in my apartment in Brooklyn on Friday night, looking at three screens.

On one was the livestream of Kabbalat Shabbat from Comunidad Amijai in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On the next screen was the Zoom service my cantorial-student girlfriend was leading in Sag Harbor, N.Y. On the last screen were the materials for the Kabbalat Shabbat I was going to lead in one hour for the synagogue I work for in Rockland County, N.Y.

Aaron, far right and pictured here with classmates in Jerusalem, is a Weitzman-JDC Fellow in Global Jewish Leadership at HUC-JIR.

I thought to myself, “This has to be the most 2021 experience for a rabbinical student possible.” I was completely Zoom-fatigued, but emotionally and spiritually invigorated. I had just spent the day on a virtual trip to Argentina with JDC Entwine: meeting with Jews young and old who live and work in the country; meeting with clergy to discuss the current state of Judaism in Argentina and the U.S.; learning about the amazing work JDC does across Latin America; and, of course, cooking and eating delicious empanadas.

As a Jew with Argentine heritage, that day brought me back to making empanadas with my grandmother and her attempts to get me to drink mate … even though I hate it. The experience was special, not only because it was an embrace of my Argentine Jewish heritage, but because it enabled me to bond with Argentina’s Jewish community in ways I previously hadn’t.

Sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, I thought I wouldn’t be able to be present for the services I was watching and leading, my mind still racing after such a long and fulfilling day. After all, I have struggled mightily to connect to prayer during the pandemic. However, in that moment, I felt more linked to those communities and prayer than I had at any time since Jewish life went virtual.

I will concede that this week’s double parshiot (Torah portions) of Tazria-Metzora are not the most pleasant to read. They speak of disease and affliction, and the words can be very isolating to those who are dealing with such issues. Still, we see important themes throughout the parshiot. One key teaching is that our bodies and souls need time to process and recover after dealing with trauma.

We need time to recover from and process trauma, both physically and spiritually, to fully engage with both the ordinary and the profane.

We see two recurring Hebrew roots throughout the text: טמע (unclean or impure) and טהר (clean or pure). The text describes certain afflictions, the impurities attached to each, and the process of regaining purity afterwards — not a notion of judgment but a logistical reality required to participate in holy activities. Through all this, the Torah shows us we need time to recover from and process trauma, both physically and spiritually, to fully engage with both the ordinary and the profane.

Judaism has a deep understanding of the importance of time when it comes to grief — everything from when a funeral can be scheduled to how long mourners should recite the Kaddish prayer. In this year of isolation, we’ve dealt with all sorts of trauma — missing birthdays, weddings, and other milestones, and losing people both physically and emotionally. This parshah shows us it isn’t just OK to take time to recover before you return to both the ordinary and the profane — it’s necessary. Though it’s not an instant process, we must do it together.

The parshiot also teach us the role we each must play in helping those in need. In the text, we see the priest play a key part in helping the afflicted deal with their ailments and go through the purification process. A mentor once told me that this is the text that teaches us how to be rabbis. But I know you don’t have to be a priest or a rabbi to help the most vulnerable.

Aaron leads a traditional Ethiopian Jewish bread, tea, and coffee ceremony at a model Ethiopian village in Israel.

I saw the work JDC does in Latin America and across the world during my Weitzman-JDC-HUC Fellowship, meeting with amazing community leaders helping to lead their communities through these unimaginably hard times. I also saw the work yet to be done. The Talmud teaches us “Kol yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh.” All of Israel is responsible for one another. Called to action by these words, many have taken up the role of the priest from this week’s Torah portion — and all of us have the possibility and responsibility of joining them.

My virtual trip to Argentina was part of my purification process, offering me a pathway to prayer I hadn’t found since the pandemic started. Now, months later, it still inspires me to learn from this text and help others in their process of recovery.

This Torah portion teaches us how to be rabbis, but it also teaches us how to be Jews. We must all learn to help each other heal as a global Jewish community. By this time next year, may we all be eating empanadas, this time together and in person.

Aaron Blasband is a rabbinic education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the Class of 2025. He was born and raised in San Diego, Calif., but his family moved to Dallas, Texas in 2012.

Aaron received a BS from Texas A&M University in 2018, where he majored in computer science with minors in physics and astrophysics. Upon graduating, Aaron lived in Israel for two years where he participated in Masa Israel Teaching Fellows and the HUC-JIR Year in Israel programs.

Aaron currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and has spent the last year as a religious school teacher at B’nai Jeshurun and the youth programming director at the Reform Temple of Rockland while completing his second year of rabbinical school.

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