How COVID-19 helped me settle into myself and my community

By Mindy Rubenstein

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There’s a Jewish saying: Meshane makom, meshane mazal. Which means, one who changes her location, changes her luck. After moving quite a few times — in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida — I have learned that this applies not just to our physical place, but also to where we find ourselves mentally, emotionally and spiritually. 

As a baalas teshuvah who grew up around the block from my future husband in the Tampa Bay area, I have always been a wanderer, a seeker. Raised in a place with no Jewish infrastructure and five hours from the closest frum community, as I got older I began seeking more authenticity in religious life. 

In our current Torah portion, Behaalotecha, G‑d instructs Moshe on the details of the Jewish people’s journeys and encampments in the desert. After we left Egypt, we had 42 stopovers during our 40 years in the wilderness on our way to the land of Israel. He wanted to make sure that we maintained a sense of order and dignity, and to ensure each person was fulfilling his or her unique mission. 

My own mission as a wife, mother and journalist has been interwoven with my ongoing spiritual quest, my wandering and encampments. 

Throughout our Jewish journey, my husband and I, along with our resilient children, have lived in and visited many communities and gotten to know people of all backgrounds, including Vizhnitz, Litvish, Chabad, Modern and unaffiliated. And there is one thing in common with those who inspire me to live a more Torah-focused life: they are warm, non-judgemental, and enthusiastic.

While keeping the details of Shabbat and kosher are important, our sages say that greeting people with a “happy face” is the greatest gift in the world. It took me going around the country and back to Florida again to understand that. It’s something I’m still learning. 

As my family and I wander through various places learning more about our Judaism, I have come to understand that the initial embrace — both physical and symbolic — of the people we meet is what it truly means to live a G-dly life. To take a few extra seconds to offer a smile and warm hello. 

And above all, along this journey,  I am learning that if I seek the good, the light, in any situation or person, I can reveal it.

Prior to our arrival in the Mandarin community of Jacksonville, I didn’t make much of a plan for a soft landing. And after being here just a couple years,  as with our previous encampments, we were ready to move on. We made pilot trips to visit communities and even listed our house for rent. But once the COVID-19 pandemic struck and we were forced into lockdown, moving was out of the question for a while. 

As it did for many people, quarantine changed my perspectives on life. Once I was forced to stay here, hunkered down in my house, I had no choice but to look within. To work on myself and my relationships, to begin to make peace with my difficult past, and to embrace my internal machom

As one childhood friend said so sagely:

“Wherever you go, you’ll still be there.” So I learned to love myself. And to love it here. 

That being said, while each community I have lived in has positive aspects, many of which I didn’t appreciate until after we left, these are some examples of the goodness I have seen here in the northeast corner of Florida. 

  • The homes are affordable and the Jewish community is safe and quiet.
  • There are breathtakingly beautiful mature trees that not only make for a peaceful walk but also provide shade on hot Shabboses. 
  • It’s near the beaches and the 3-mile-wide majestic St. Johns River, with parks and piers and lots of wildlife. I still get chills when I see the river! 
  • Kosher food is available at grocery stores, including Trader Joes, Publix and Winn Dixie. And bulk orders are delivered to the community. 
  • There’s a kosher restaurant called Gili’s Cafe downtown. And within the neighborhood, Tomato Crush offers take-out pizza, falafel pita, challah, etc. 

The community is diverse, with various shuls serving Jews of all backgrounds. There are lots of classes. In the short time we have been here, we have witnessed the Jewish community evolve and grow, including forming a Kollel. And while there have long been Jewish elementary and middle schools, there is now also a fledgling high school. The new principal of Torah Academy, Rabbi Horowitz, taught our older son when we lived in Atlanta and was one of the most caring and insightful educators we have experienced on our Jewish journey. 

loveourplanet-4851331_1920Whatever the circumstances, adjusting to a new place can take its toll on even the strongest among us. Things as seemingly simple as choosing a doctor or getting used to the grocery stores, the roads, the people, and the overall vibe of a community take time, effort and vulnerability. 

While most out-of-town communities provide meals and Shabbat invites early on, which is beautiful, never underestimate the power of a phone call, even if it’s just to check-in. One of my neighbors, Bonnie, brought me a purple orchid when we moved in (it’s still alive!), invited me walks and to programs, and continues to check on me. Looking back, her kindness was more of a blessing than I realized. And it inspires me to be more like her. 

In my experience, the warmth and connectedness of the women play a major role in the overall strength of any community. Pushing past my introversion and joining the women’s groups has really helped. And connecting with women through Nishei magazine has enhanced connections locally, as well as with women around the country and in Eretz Yisrael.

When things settle down, we would love to visit Israel for the first time. Maybe that should be the next makom for all of us. Next year in Jerusalem

For now, I’m grateful to be here in this place, physically, mentally and spiritually. May Hashem bless us all on our journeys, wherever He may lead us. 

Good Shabbos!

Mindy Rubenstein is a freelance journalist who lives in Florida with her husband and children. She is the founding editor of Nishei, the quarterly magazine for Jewish women.

 

One thought on “How COVID-19 helped me settle into myself and my community

  1. Mindy, this is such a deep, insightful article. As always, the writing is so beautiful it compels one to continue reading. Perhaps I don’t say it enough, bur we love having you in our community. You are always pushing forward, leading us to dig deeply inside ourselves and encouraging us to share our thoughts. Thank you for yet another sagacious perspective on Jewish life through the prism of your experiences.

    Like

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