Update on Slifka Center’s Response 3/13

Words of Torah for our Moment; Reading Recommendation + Book Club; Update on Slifka Center’s Response

Dear Slifka Community,

I hope my message finds each of you well. Right now connection means everything – so I want to thank those of you who have reached out to friends, and who have replied to the questionnaire we sent out.

What we have heard from you has raised up three central concerns, and I aim to address each of them in this message:

  1. Words of Torah – on Connection, Vulnerability, and Agency
  2. Reading/listening materials & a link for a Monday 1:30pm EST ‘book club’ on ‘Rupture and Reconstruction’
  3. An update on how Slifka is working to mitigate the effects of Yale’s shutdown on our hourly workers


  1. Torah – On Connection, Vulnerability, and Agency

Refreshing the news, it is so hard not to be drawn ever-deeper into intensifying isolation and fear. We can raise one another up with the outstretched arms of calls and of assistance. And we can find hope and solace in our Torah.

This Shabbat, Jewish communities read a special section of Numbers 19, the enigmatic red (actually, brown) heifer. This paradoxical ritual takes as its starting-place that every individual at some point enters a state of impurity, one that requires them to isolate themselves from their community – a state hauntingly reminiscent of today’s pervasive quarantines and social distancing. But the story does not end there: the Torah prescribes a weeks-long process of tests and treatment that ultimately restore the individual to her home, allowing her to presume her previous life.

The reception of this commandment focuses in particular on a paradoxical particular of the ritual that ends an individual’s quarantine. The ritual is performed by a priest and his assistant. And, despite their power to declare the afflicted individual well – the priest and assistant are themselves rendered impure in the course of the events. “How and why” commentators ancient and modern alike wonder, “are the people who have the power to assist themselves afflicted in the process? How can they help others if they cannot secure their own welfare?”

The existence of this ritual in general, and the focus on this paradox in particular, each speak to us with poignance and hope at this moment.


  1. Our interconnectedness is fundamental, even ultimate. It is simply not possible for a person to live for any period of time in isolation from her community; the psychological and financial strains are unbearable. Rather, connection is always and urgently our state of existence. This is why the isolation of an individual from the community is such a cause for concern to the Torah, and why the delineation of methods for rehabilitating and restoring a person’s social connections is so important in the Torah. In our present-day moments of quarantine and social distance, we are paradoxically experiencing the power of our interconnectedness, precisely in its disruption. The confusion and unease we feel is actually a sign of how strong the bonds we normally take for granted really are. So – just as the Torah cares deeply about restoring human connection in whatever way possible – we too should exercise the degree of agency we possess to establish real connections on the phone and online. 


  1. We are all vulnerable, and yet many of us have agency. The question I highlighted above, about the ways that the officiating priest and his attendants become isolated, echoes in a haunting register today. How can we not think of Daniele Macchini’s haunting description of the conditions in which Italian doctors and nurses caring are for victims of Coronavirus: “We no longer see our families for fear of infecting them. Some of us have already become infected despite the protocols. Some of our colleagues who are infected also have infected relatives, and some of their relatives are already struggling between life and death.” A deep, shared, vulnerability unites us – no one is immune, even those with the power to effect cures. And – some of us, like the priest and his attendant, also have a measure of agency to help others. Not all of us – but many of us. Let’s each find our agency. As my teacher Rabbi Shai Held wrote in 2013, first responders are ewish heroes. Here my inspiration comes not from the Torah, but from those like Dr. Macchini who are risking so much to help – and, closer to home, from a friend’s facebook message last night – a friend who has never visited Yale: “I have some money I set aside to help ppl who have financial issues brought about by the virus. How is best to send a small amount to u for this?” He doesn’t know any of you, but he wanted to help and found a way to. His $12 have already been disbursed to help a member of our community. So – if you are in need of help, of any type, you are not alone. And – even as we are scared, scared of sickness or of economic hardship or of just doing the wrong thing – that also doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Whether it’s a gift to the local foodbank or elsewhere, we are likely to be in the early stages of a .


  1. First Installment of Slifka’s Quarantine Book Club – Monday 1:30EST on ‘Rupture and Reconstruction’

Just behind words of inspiration (which I hope the foregoing are!) – the main need we’ve heard from y’all is for reading/listening recommendations, followed by opportunities to talk and connect with one another. Let’s do those both together, eh?

Here’s what we’ll be reading. It’s the lyrical essay “Rupture and Reconstruction” by Prof. Haym Soloveitchik. (Note – it’s long; if you want a shorter version, here’s my excerpts of the highlights). I’m choosing it for a few reasons:

  1. It’s just a beautiful use of social sciences and humanities to reflect on the experience of being Jewish nowadays
  2. It is a lot about the role of experts and science in shaping our lives – which feels timely because of all the SNAFUs with the US Coronavirus response
  3. It raises some really poignant questions of our (lack of) experience of God in our lives – including, at the end, of protection from illness – that I’m eager to consider with y’all.


So the idea is – enjoy the essay while you’re stuck at home. If you want, join the call at 1:30 EST on Monday. And the call will be a lot about (re)connecting to one another – so you’re welcome even if you haven’t done the “assigned” reading.


Here’s the info for the Zoom Call:


Topic: Slifka Book Club #1 – Rupture and Reconstruction

Time: Mar 16, 2020 01:30 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)


Join from PC, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android: https://yale.zoom.us/j/787304102

Or Telephone:203-432-9666 (2-ZOOM if on-campus) or 646 568 7788

Meeting ID: 787 304 102

International numbers available: https://yale.zoom.us/u/abcFQYm9NL


  1. An update on how Slifka is working to mitigate the effects of Yale’s shutdown on our hourly workers

Many of you have no doubt read about the economic pain that has already begun to be felt throughout America, and which is likely to intensify by orders of magnitude in the coming weeks and months. Yale’s shutdown is one small piece of that story – leaving thousands of hourly workers with fewer shifts, or none at all. Many of Slifka’s staff are hourly workers, and doing right by them over the coming weeks has been a top and consistent priority in literally every conversation and meeting we have had so far on responding to COVID-19. From my very first call with Uri and Evan Farber, the chair of Slifka’s board on Wednesday morning, through an email exchange this afternoon – and countless times in the intervening days – we are working to figure out what exactly the impact will be and what resources we and other organizations can marshal to support our beloved staff. I cannot share more specifics at present – though there is much promising news – but as a matter of transparency and leading with Jewish values, Uri and I both wanted to share our process at present, and hopefully outcomes soon as well.


With wishes for a Shabbat of peace, blessing, and health,



Rabbi Jason Rubenstein

Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale


Slifka Center/Yale Hillel

80 Wall St



(203) 432-2316