When I asked Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale, how he was doing, he laughed.
It was a sharp contrast to the rest of his response — “I don’t know how to answer that question, which I think is probably part of why you’re writing this” — but characteristic of our conversation as a whole.
Before he described his daily routine before quarantine, he paused: “It feels like remembering back to a different life, like remembering before I had kids.” And then he laughed again, before launching into a dizzying description of getting dressed and brushing teeth and saying brachot and leaving the house at exactly 8:11 a.m. (his 5-year-old son, Raphael’s, rule) and answering emails and attending meetings and eating lunch (while conducting a meeting) and attending meetings again but this time with professors and then a brief respite for dinner at home before nighttime teaching.
Even when describing what worries him on a national scale at the current moment — rising authoritarianism, President Trump’s “liberate Michigan” tweets, the $1.5 trillion corporate tax cut (“we could use that money for something better now, I think”) — he began with a laugh. Granted, this one was shorter, more abrupt, tinged with sarcasm.
There were other times, however, when the laughter was absent. Like when he described the moments that, for him, made the coronavirus pandemic feel real. “Last week, my best friend called me, on Erev Yom Tov, to tell me that our old next door neighbor, who survived Auschwitz, died from coronavirus.” For his funeral, Rabbi Jason remembers being sent a Zoom link. “This is a new part of life.” He paused, and then added, “A new part of death.”
As chaplain, Rabbi Jason often meets with students after a loved one dies or they experience some other type of traumatic event. He describes the current state of affairs as a trauma as well. What the world is reckoning with, he said, is “a real, very profound loss.” And he sees his work as a mentor, a spiritual guide, as somewhat similar to how he would interact with students while on campus: “to provide space for people to gain back a sense of reality, and to mourn what’s being lost and destroyed.” Even so, the stories he is encountering now are hard to process.
On March 19, he first spoke with a student whose grandfather was diagnosed with coronavirus and whose father was an ICU doctor. A week after that initial correspondence, they talked again. The student’s grandfather had passed away the night before. His father was now a patient. “That was really quite devastating,” Rabbi Jason said.
Being that their au pair, Ilana, went home to Israel once the virus started picking up speed, Rabbi Jason and his wife, Arielle, decided to evenly divide the childcare. However, Arielle is currently in the “mad sprint” to finish her dissertation on religious conversions as a psychological process, so that arrangement proved infeasible. Ultimately, Rabbi Jason took vacation time from work so that she could give her thesis more attention. “Which means I really need to get it done,” she laughed.
“I’m not the biggest fan of Sheryl Sandberg for many reasons, but one of the things she’s said is that, if you want to be a woman and work and have kids, you need a supportive partner,” Arielle said. “One of the things that’s critical for us is that I have Jason, that he’s a feminist, that he’s willing to take a back seat while I finish this, and that he has a supportive workplace.”
At the moment, the arrangement seems to be working well for their two young kids who, Rabbi Jason said, “are having a great time.” Which, he added, “is perplexing to us.” Raphael, for example, is practicing multiplication by multiplying numbers in his head to deduce how many calories are in the Costco-sized containers of food they bought (with a bit of help, he found the answer: 41,000). For gym “class,” they go through exercises given by his kindergarten and also, when the weather permits, go to East Rock.
But, even with these semblances of routine, the days bleed together, which is why Rabbi Jason said he’s “never felt more grateful for Shabbat” and for the weekly emails that he sends right before the day of rest begins, with titles such as “what Zoom can’t replace (or, a window into Moses’s life)” and “Passover in a time of Pandemic.”
“[The weekly emails] have been so important for me, to be connected to the outside world, to find my voice,” he said. “Most of the text and ideas have been floating around my head for years. There’s a certain way where all of that learning was preparing for this moment. That’s kind of an amazing feeling: Now is when all this matters.”
For Rabbi Jason, the lessons of Judaism and the current moment are inextricable. When I asked him if he had any worries pertaining to the pandemic that were more personal, he responded with a Talmud quote: “He who has enough to eat today but wonders, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ is lacking in faith.” And when I asked him if there was anything else describing his current state of mind, he mentioned a recent email from Peter Salovey, in which the University president discussed the tradition of celebrating Passover.
“If you’re an institution like Yale or Judaism that has been around for centuries, the question is not if but when you’ll come across something like this,” said Rabbi Jason. “I would have never wished this on myself or anyone or a generation, but now we are standing as the generation of Jewish people and people and humanity and Americans who are going to get us through this really hard time. It feels very profound that there’s a part of the tradition that I didn’t have access to before.”
On that note, our call ended. And, when I wished him a relaxing and stress-free night, the laugh, conspicuously absent from this part of the conversation, came back — this time, the most prolonged of them all.
Madison Hahamy | firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.
Correction, April 24: A previous version of this article stated that Arielle Rubenstein’s dissertation is about religious conversations. In fact, it is about religious conversions.