Be Thankful Despite These Turbulent Times, Rabbis Advise

By Mary Klaus

Thanksgiving is a comfortable holiday for Jews, even during this unprecedented year of a pandemic that shows no signs of ending, racial tension, political divisions, and an economic downturn.

Jews are used to giving thanks in daily prayers after meals, at Shabbat and during numerous services. Three local rabbis shared reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving season, too.

Rabbi Ron Muroff of Chisuk Emuna Congregation reminds people that others have survived rough times.

“As we go through this challenging period in our lives, we can draw strength from the resilience of our ancestors who endured tremendous hardships throughout Jewish history,” Rabbi Muroff said.

He referred to Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, who in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

Rabbi Muroff said that even in the midst of a pandemic, “we can both acknowledge our sadness over the losses and also express gratitude for all of the blessings that are still in our midst.”

Rabbi Sam Yolen of Congregation Beth Israel in Lebanon suggested that people remember that things are not as bad as they could be.  “If you’re still in shape even though you can’t go to the gym, be grateful. If you still communicate with relatives with different political beliefs, be grateful. If you have a clean apartment or house to live in, be grateful.”

He said that he reminds himself of that amid the disappointments of cancelled events he planned to attend such as a conference in Berlin or a marathon he wanted to run with his brother.

“This is a slice of time where things are different,” Rabbi Yolen said. “We need the ability to be OK with inconsistencies. We should be gentle with ourselves.”

Rabbi Muroff said that on Thanksgiving, people should count their blessings from A to Z. “For instance, I really enjoy apples,” he said. “And I’m very thankful for Zoom which helps us to stay in touch. What blessings can you count? The difficulties of this time are teaching us not to take anything for granted.”

Rabbi Carl Choper of Temple Beth Shalom reminded people of things to be thankful for this year.

“If you have family who love you and friends who care for you, you have something to be thankful for,” he said. “If they come to see you or stay in touch, all the more so. If you have enough food to eat every day and a place you can call home, you have something to be thankful for.  If the food tastes good and your home has something of beauty in it, all the more so. If you have a bed to sleep in at night, heat in the winter, and a way to stay out of the heat in the summer, you have more than a lot of people.”

Rabbi Choper said that people also should be thankful for their health, eyesight, hearing, and jobs. He called this year of the pandemic a difficult time and said that people might fall into despair without gratitude.

“If you despair that there is no food, it gets harder for you to draw upon the strength needed to find it,” he said. “If you take a stance of gratitude that there is food in the community, your head and heart can be more clear so you can better see where and how to seek help.  Finding something to be grateful for can be a source of strength for those who have little, and a force for generosity from those who have much.”

The rabbis suggested that people find ways to cope with the stress of this year.

Rabbi Yolen said that he retreats into hot yoga, hiking, exercise, bike riding, puzzles, word games, and board games. He said members of his synagogue are having fun playing Dungeons and Dragons digitally. Other members participate in an open mic night via Zoom where they can read poetry, sing a song, or play an instrument.

“During these months, I’ve made time for small things I didn’t have time for before,” he said. “I even learned to cook.”

Rabbi Choper suggested that this year especially, the community should pull together substantively in gratitude. “May we have the clarity to see each other’s needs and the strength to meet them for each other.  Then we can be thankful for community as well.”

Rabbi Muroff said that when he feels stressed, he concentrates on his breathing.

“As I focus on the air entering my nose, filling up my lungs, and then exiting my mouth, I am not thinking about regrets or anxieties,” he said. “I am simply amazed at one breath and then another. Even with all the challenges, it is a gift to be alive in this complicated moment in human history. What a blessing to be in the company - albeit at a distance - of so many members of our community whose kindness offers such strength and hope.”