When New Yorkers took to their balconies to celebrate health care workers during the first wave of the pandemic, Rabbi Janise Poticha joined them, blowing a shofar on her Upper West Side terrace every evening at 7 o’clock.
“I think all thinking compassionate people needed symbols of hope, needed to know that humankind and America had a future, that we would once again be spiritually, intellectually and financially viable again,” she said this week. “So for me, that symbol was the shofar.”
Five months into the daily ritual, it began to take on a new meaning: Her sister contracted COVID in August 2020. After a week and a half at home, her sister had to be hospitalized and later intubated.
“She spent a great amount of time closer to death than life,” Poticha said.
Unable to visit her in the hospital, Poticha continued to join those cheering, banging pots and playing instruments for the frontline workers. For Poticha, a rabbi at Temple Sinai of Massapequa on Long Island, the sound of her ram’s horn reminded her of the binding of Isaac. In the biblical story, Abraham slaughters a ram in place of Isaac, allowing his son to live.
“During that time, not being able to be near her or her immediate family, the blowing of the shofar to me became another symbol of life as it was a symbol of life for Isaac,” Poticha said.
Her sister would spend several months in the hospital before moving to a rehab facility and eventually going home. Even after that, Poticha continued to sound the shofar at 7 each evening, even after others abandoned the practice.
Not all of her neighbors approved, but Poticha said she couldn’t allow the rite to peter out without some kind of formal ending.
And then there were other milestones to consider.
The week after she got her first dose of the vaccine in the spring, she blew the shofar with a new sense of hope. “Wow, you know, maybe there will be a light if everyone does this,” she remembers thinking about the vaccine.
When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last month that New York would begin reopening, Poticha thought, “Well, maybe this is the time that we stop doing this,” she said. “I asked some of the people that were in the cheer and they were like, no we’re going to [keep doing it], this is still important.”
She added: “That was about three weeks ago. And the numbers [of cases] are coming back up.” The latest seven-day average of total cases in the city is 582, up from 200 a month ago.
So Poticha is still sounding the shofar and praying for the day when it makes sense to stop.
“I can’t predict an answer to your question,” Poticha said when asked when she might end the practice. “The numbers are continuing to go up, frontline workers continue to be very stressed with what is happening, and there are too many people not vaccinated.”