So many parts of our daily lives, both professionally and personally, were transformed by the pandemic. As individuals and institutions struggled to establish rules and protocols in the face of mass tragedy and ever-changing evidence, there were subtle shifts in professional hierarchies and hints of lasting changes to how “business as usual” is done in all spheres. Focusing on scientific research and synagogues specifically, scientists started sharing significantly more data with one another, rather than protecting their findings. Synagogues starting using Zoom for services and even permitted a minyan to be constituted virtually. In this panel, three experts discuss how they weathered these changes, and how they might provide a silver lining for the future.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. “Did COVID Change the Rules?” was a panel held at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, MD on April 16, 2023).Read Transcript
Mitchell Berkowitz: Thank you all for being here tonight. We are going to begin. I’m sure others will make their way in. We’re very happy to be gathering here for, officially, our second program of Scientists in Synagogues, part of a series that will continue our next – I’ll say more about that at the end, which will be just next month, at the end of May. And then we’ll have another program, at least one more program, in the fall, and perhaps a couple of things spread out in between as well.
So I want to introduce everyone who’s up here with me tonight before I officially turn it over to our moderator. So first, I would like to introduce the person sitting immediately to my left, Dr. Alan Leshner, who is Chief Executive Officer Emeritus – it’s an important title, right, Emeritus – of the American Association of Unemployed (laughs) – he told me “unemployed” but that’s not true – Emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former executive publisher of the journal Science.
Previously, he was a director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, and Deputy Director and Acting Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. He also served in a variety of positions at the National Science Foundation. Before joining the government, Dr. Leshner was Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University. He’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, and served two terms on the National Science Board. Dr. Leshner received MS and PhD degrees in physiological psychology from Rutgers University and an AB in Psychology from Franklin and Marshall College, and he has been awarded seven honorary degrees – he’ll tell us from where at some point maybe. (laughs)
Dr. Marni Hall, our moderator for tonight, is Vice President of Global Regulatory Science and Strategy at IQVIA. In this role Dr Hall provides scientific oversight and strategic direction of novel evidence generation approaches to address health equity, and to advance patient centricity. She works closely with policy makers and scientific thought leaders on the expanded use of real-world evidence.
Prior to IQVIA, she held leadership positions at PatientsLikeMe and the Food and Drug Administration. Dr Hall is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, and a Trustee of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Dr Hall holds Bachelor of Science degrees in chemistry and in society, technology, and policy from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She also holds a master’s degree in public health and a master’s degree in biochemistry and a PhD in toxicology from Columbia University.
Yes, I’m the least educated person up here. Very humbling. Both Dr. Hall and Dr. Leshner are members of our congregation of B’nai Israel. Alan was, as you heard, part of AAAS, and was actually involved in the earliest iterations of Scientists in Synagogues, and Marni is our project leader at B’nai Israel, and someone with whom I’ve worked very closely on this project now for more than a year.
The project is part of an international program called Scientists in Synagogues, a grassroots initiative run by Sinai and Synapses in consultation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, along with other individual donors. And tonight I want to especially welcome Curtis Baxter, who is here with us tonight from AAAS and DoSER. Pleasure to have you with us this evening.
So I want to thank you all for being here. To begin – oh yes. And I’m Rabbi Mitchell Berkowitz, the associate rabbi here at B’nai Israel, and I’ll be just one of the panelists tonight. So I’m going to turn it over to Marni, who is going to frame the conversation for us this evening, then there’ll be a series of questions addressed to myself and to Alan, and then we will have time to open it up to all of you for questions as well. Thank you.
Marni Hall: Thank you. Good evening, thanks everyone for coming. We’re excited about this discussion tonight. The program that we’ve been focused on has been looking at how the pandemic has changed the way that we think about our individual relationship with faith and with science, and our relationship to community through our religion and through a scientific lens. So that’s the frame that all of our programs are focused around. And tonight, what we’re focused on is: what about the pandemic has changed the rules? Has anything changed? And we’re going to spend some time exploring what were some of the decisions that we needed to make. How did we make them? What happened? And what might we keep?
So we have a series of questions which I don’t expect that we’ll get through. We’re really looking forward to engagement from all of you. And so please ask questions, and stop us as we go along. So I guess, to get started, I’ll just think about – bring us all back to the beginning of the pandemic, when things were starting and they were shutting down and people had a different level of awareness of maybe how serious this was, how long this would go on. And all of a sudden, everything changed. And very quickly, synagogue life needed to change. And science, the world of science, was changing, and we needed to figure out what was happening in the world.
So maybe to kick off this discussion, what I’d like to ask both of the panelists is to comment a little bit on – in those early days, in that crisis management mode, how did we go about thinking about – just, what were those initial questions, the existential questions, as we were facing a pandemic and everything shut down around you needed to protect yourself, you need to protect your family, but as a scientist and as a leader in a synagogue, needed to keep things going when nothing was as we know it. Would you like to start?
Alan Leshner: So scientists, like other people, have lived with a set of actually rather rigid norms and values that have persisted over the course of the last century or more. And as COVID came, it became very clear, very quickly, that scientists were going to have to give up some of those almost religious beliefs that determined how you did science. So scientists, being people, unfortunately, have large egos, if you haven’t met many, they’ve been rather possessive, for example, of their data. One of the very big changes that we recognized immediately was that they were going to have to start sharing data very quickly. So I spent many years at NIH, and I can tell you that there have been discussions over the last 30 years about how to get scientists more willing to share their data. So Science magazine, at one point before COVID, declared if you were going to publish in science, you had to make your data freely available. Accessible was a different issue, but freely available.
So “accessible” came along immediately. A lot of government agencies decided that they were going to invest substantially more in helping to solve the COVID problem, and people came from all kinds of disciplines and moved immediately from what they had been doing traditionally to start working on the COVID problem from different aspects. One that I thought about on the way over that’s interesting is: forever the social and behavioral sciences have been sort of at the bottom of the hierarchy in science. But people quickly realized that we couldn’t get people to take vaccines, we couldn’t get people to do sort of simple public health measures to try to contain this. All of a sudden social and behavioral scientists became critically important in the process.
So I have a long list of things that changed, but the one that has been most interesting to me is that historically, even though every major problem facing humankind is sort of multi-disciplinary in character, scientists have been rigidly locked into their own disciplines. There are some areas where there’s been more collaboration. But it’s been a tough slog. COVID came all of a sudden. It required chemists and biologists and sociologists and psychologists, and they all sort of mobilized and developed an array of relationships.
An important question is: how long will that persist? How long will that last, before people go back to their old behavior? I can tell you, interestingly, that NIH still doesn’t have a very clear data sharing policy. And they’ve been talking about it since I was there at the turn of this century. And it just came out sort of with a statement that says “You’d really better do it,” but it doesn’t say “We’re going to take your grant away,” right. Science magazine, we said, “You can’t publish if you’re not going to share your data.” And it was met with hysteria. That has persisted. But it’ll be interesting to see.
Marni Hall: Okay so – we’ll come back to the “What are we going to – can’t put the genie back in the bottle, or un-ring the bell. What are we going to keep?” But if we could talk about those early days and those critical questions, how were they made?
So I’d say that for us, first and foremost, probably, was our conversation about services themselves. I mean the deal between the daily minyan and our shabbat services had B’nai Israel, despite the fact that we have so many programs going on and so much else, those really are sort of the heartbeat of what we do as a congregation. And so for us to not be able to gather in person was a significant shift for us. And so we had to figure out immediately what would we do about the daily minyan, and what would we do about Shabbat. So of course, then, that was the question that the movement ultimately addressed with “Can you constitute a minyan halachically over Zoom?”. We didn’t wait for them to come out with the decision. We as the rabbis – Rabbi Safra as mara-d’atra and myself – mara d’atra being the one who’s in charge of making the decisions for the congregation halachichally, from a religious law perspective, and with some collaboration amongst the entire clergy team – we decided that in this moment, we were not going to wait for the movement to give us guidance. We would call the moment a sha’at hora’at. It’s an unprecedented circumstance, and under such circumstances you can bend the rules a little bit in order to accommodate the present situation. And so that worked very easily for our weekday services. We moved everything immediately onto Zoom for the weekday, and we would say that as long as there were 10 people whose faces were visible on the screen – that was an important piece of it for us, because part of what it means to constitute a minyan is to be present such that you can actually see and hear one another. So to the degree that that was possible, we asked for that to be the case. So we always had it such that we could at least see the faces of 10 people on Zoom.
And during the times that we did things as a congregation, you might remember, for those who came to the daily minyan at that time, you would unmute. And it was in the early days of Zoom where they didn’t actually do this very well. If one person was talking, everybody else got muted. And it kept jumbling all the sounds, so it was actually kind of like this cacophony of “amens” at the right time. But that’s what we did.
Marni Hall: What was, roughly, the lag time between the decision to go ahead and do that, before the movement had made that decision? And in the circumstance of when you make an exception, is it – I’m thinking about, say, “emergency use authorization” as a parallel? Is it time limited? It was unprecedented to do it forever.
Mitchell Berkowitz: I don’t remember what the lag was between when we did it and when the movement finally sort of put a stamp of approval, but I will, just as a background before that, even we had Zoom before COVID. That’s what some people don’t even realize, is not for the daily minyan, but we had it on Shabbat, because sometimes there would be an out of town guest who couldn’t make it in, or had grandparents who were sick and couldn’t attend a bar or bat mitzvah. So Zoom, we had a very rudimentary camera that’s the one that’s currently in Hayman Chapel. We upgraded everything, obviously, during all of this.
How long does the sha’ah horat last? How long can you say we’re under unprecedented circumstances? That’s left undefined by Jewish law. And so we had to figure out how long was that going to be the case. And so for constituting the minyan in person, we said, or constituting the minyan virtually, we permitted that to be on Zoom until July of 2021, so for almost a year and a half, we permitted daily minyans to exist online only, but on Shabbat we came back as soon as the county gave us permission to return in person to services in June of 2020. We were back. When I tell people that outside of B’nai Israel, they think we’re crazy, but then I tell them, “Okay, but we have a sanctuary that seats 1800 when it’s fully open. We only had 25 people in the room when we first opened up. Everybody was way more than six feet apart, and everybody was masked. And we took all of the precautions that we needed to take.”
But that was the most pressing question, and we did have to reschedule b’nei mitzvot for those first few months. And we did have to figure out how to make those kinds of accommodations. But we decided that it would be permissible to constitute the minyan over Zoom, and that on Shabbat we would gather in person, mostly to accommodate our sort of vibrant schedule of b’nei mitzvah. How do you tell b’nei mitzvot, ultimately, that you’re not able to gather? And so we made accommodations so that they could participate. And things were strange for a while – I could talk more about that a little bit later, of what are the things that we’ve gotten away from that we’ve now sort of returned to normal in terms of our services – but that was the big pressing question in the beginning, I’d say number one.
Number two was because of the moment when all of this happened, we were just a few weeks away from Pesach. And so suddenly people started asking a question that I, as a conservative Rabbi, sort of never thought I’d get, which was a question of “Well, what are we supposed to do on Pesach Sheni? Maybe we can have our seder then.” He said, “How do people even know what Pesach Sheni is?” It’s one day on the calendar that’s exactly one month after Pesach. So Pesach is the night of the 14th going into the 15th of Nisan, and then one month later, the night of the 14th going into the 15th of Iyar, there’s a day called Pesach Sheni. You don’t observe it in the modern world in any way. Some people like eat a piece of matzah sort of as a nod to the day.
But it was really a Biblically instituted holiday. It was one of four times in the Torah that Moses was approached where he doesn’t know what to do given a certain circumstance. And the circumstance was that there were people who were considered tumah, who were ritually impure, when the time of the first Passover came around, and because of being tumah, being ritually impure, they would be ineligible to eat of the Korban Pesach, of the Passover sacrifice. And being unable to eat of it meant that you were really excluded from a significant celebration in the community.
And so they went to Moses and said, “What about us? We were engaged in a Mitzvah.” They were tumah, they were impure, because they were involved in the burial of the dead, which is a mitzvah in and of itself, but does mean that you contract impurity. None of these things are relevant in our world today – we don’t worry so much about purity and impurity. You can be impure instead of seder. All of us are technically in some sort of doubtful case of impurity. It doesn’t make a difference in our world. But in their world, it was critical. And so for them, they instituted that one month later, you would have an opportunity to make it up.
So suddenly everybody was talking about Pesach Sheni. “Can we gather one month later with our family and friends?” Because we thought we were just flattening the curve for two weeks. Nobody thought that six weeks later, we still wouldn’t be able to be together. And so that we did a lot of learning and we did a lot of understanding about sort of delving into Jewish texts and Jewish ideas, and, I think, bringing out a lot of creative questions that otherwise would never have come forward.
Marni Hall: Thank you. So that’s the perfect segue to the next topic, which I wanted to talk a little bit about. So as these changes were made and the pandemic stretched on into, you know, months and years and things that decisions that were made about these changes, sharing data, bringing, you know, tests and vaccines to market in unusual ways much faster, or having services remotely, we had many more people who were previously not as engaged in scientific thinking, not thinking about what “flattening the curve” was, not really thinking a lot about what epidemiology might be all about, or what this month-after-Passover observance may be. And I’m curious, in the thinking around as leaders engaged in these fields with these changes, in the change in engagement from the community. Are many more people who are thinking who are not scientists or are not as actively engaged? And there’s a number of, you know – a quick look online, you can see that there’s – I think they said it in 2021, three out of 10 people said that they’re more engaged with their spiritual life, and that they expected that that would continue when the pandemic changed. And there was another study that said that the sharing of data will forever change how we do science. Like, there’s no way to go back. So there are a lot of people studying this, but could you speak about your experience with that?
Alan Leshner: So I should have mentioned this earlier. Anyway – whoa, I won’t sing, I promise. So an immense change in science that I should have mentioned initially is that scientists came to understand quickly that in order to have the impact on the pandemic that we all wanted to have, we had to engage with the rest of the public.
And it was one of the most traumatic events for the scientific community ever. First of all, you may have noticed, occasionally some scientists are slightly arrogant, and therefore what they’re accustomed to is talking at people. That did not work. And that was sort of shocking.
Secondly, they believe in the truth of what they do, in scientific truth, and the way you get people to do what you want is you tell them “this is the truth.” Well, the truth turned out to be not quite as static as we thought it was, and evolved over time. And a big lesson that the scientific community learned – and I’ve had a good number of conversations with some of our major spokespersons about this – is they were way too definitive in the beginning in saying, “This is what it is. You must wear a mask. You will be okay if you wear a mask. You’ll be okay if you get one vaccination.” And so a lot of credibility actually went down.
Many studies have been done about trust in science. Scientists who want people to do what they say are worried about how much the community trusts scientists, which they translate as in “do what I say.” And it’s been steady since the studies were begun, actually, in 1979, by the National Science Foundation. Over the course of the pandemic, for the first time in all that time, trust levels started to go down. And they have still. They’ve stayed down. And some of it is attributable to a failure to understand how to talk to the public about science. It’s a learned skill, it’s not an innate skill, no matter how articulate we think we are. And what people learned is that they actually have to engage with the rest of the public. And for scientists, horrifyingly, they had to listen to the public, which is something that, I promise you, scientists don’t have a lot of history doing.
Marni Hall: So in that particular example, the greater engagement with the non-scientific community has resulted in a decrease in trust. And it’s not necessarily – I mean, not great, right. I mean, not just science, but our institutions. And hopefully we’ll be able to restore that. Can you think of any ways? Maybe that the greater engagement from communities that were, and individuals that were not, scientifically oriented, has been positive?
Alan Leshner: Well, so in a way, one of the things that we have sort of converging pandemics. So we have the COVID pandemic, we have the pandemic of information. That is to say, there’s a gazillion greater an amount of information accessible to everybody than there was 10 years ago, and a lot of it can be false, a lot of it can be accurate. I would say at the moment the biggest sort of public science interface issue is “How can the scientists deal with all the misinformation and the disinformation out there?” – that, how does the public know who knows, right? And our historic approach of “trust me, I’m a scientist” doesn’t quite work, and gets worse when you actually modify. But science progresses incrementally. You know, it sort of goes forward – well, maybe not, well, maybe this – and it’s an incremental process, not a definitive process.
And so yeah, to answer your question, what we’ve tried to do actually is, in an organized way, help educate scientists in how to engage with the rest of the public, because most of the historic views have turned out to be wrong. That is forever – a big town meeting you get some fancy speakers to stand up there and tell everybody what science has shown, and then they’ll do it. And that actually never works.
When I was running the National Institute on Drug Abuse, I thought that we should educate the public about the real nature of drug abuse and addiction. And we had 14 town meetings around the country. And they were fabulous, big attendance, you know. What would happen is that the extremists on either end of the issue would grab the microphone, yell at each other for the whole question period, and nobody got very much out of it, in fact. But it was a very difficult lesson, because what do we do? We’re teachers, right. So we think you get up in front of the classroom, you tell people. And we’ve come to learn that small-group discussions are really the only way to do it.
Marni Hall: And Rabbi, I may ask you to comment on the differences in engagement with communities? I know we’ve heard lots of stories that somehow people found being at home in their pajamas services more accessible?
Mitchell Berkowitz: Nobody in this room. But no, yeah, I mean I think in the beginning, both for the daily minyan but for, also, many of our programs that we had, whether they were lectures or other activities, we did see a huge spike in engagement. Part of that was, I think, by necessity. We were all so isolated, and there was a sense of “If I can be a part of my community, even if it’s only through a screen, and even if I’m not normally such an engaged member of everything,” people became significantly more active. People started signing on to daily minyan who didn’t always go to daily minyan, or people started watching shabbat services who didn’t typically sign on or didn’t typically show up in person for shabbat services.
So we, especially in the beginning, I think saw a lot of engagement. And based on sort of anecdotal evidence from what I heard from my conversations with people, it was because “What else am I going to do? I was stuck at home,” but there really was, when people were able to think about it, there was the sense of so much uncertainty in the world, and if I knew that I could wake up every morning and the minyan was there, like that was a way of sort of keeping some regularity to people’s routines, into people’s day, and to put something into their life that they knew would be constant and sort of affirming, that “No matter what, when I wake up in the morning I can join the B’nei Israel minyan at 7:15,” or something like that. So we certainly saw that in the beginning.
What’s been interesting for us, as time goes on, is to see sort of how many people came back in person, how many people didn’t come back and but did stay online, and not necessarily because they’re concerned about getting COVID, but because people’s routines over time have significantly shifted. I mean, we thought this was going to be weeks, and then we thought months, and then once it turned into years. I think at that point so many people’s routines changed to such a degree that it made it such that people just operated differently on a daily basis. So people who used to come all the time may not show up anymore on Shabbat morning, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not watching. I’m always surprised to hear – in the beginning we had a monitor right in front of the bimah so I could see the 10 faces, because we needed to have a minyan. And then we kept it there for quite some time. We even had a big-screen TV, so that once families came back they could see all of their guests who weren’t able to be in person, because we still limited capacity significantly. So their guests would be signing on from all over the country, and they would be able to see them.
Once we took that away, and once we also instituted the livestream, where there is no way for us to know that you’re watching – all I get is an IP address, and I don’t track everybody’s IP address – there’s no way for me to know who’s actually signing on. So after a while, I sort of – “I don’t know who’s still signing on who’s not unless people tell us.” And I’m always surprised to hear from so many people who, you know, heard the sermon last week, or they noticed that somebody celebrated a milestone birthday.
So there’s a level of engagement with the community that I don’t think would have happened for some people had it not been for COVID to prompt that. Because there were so many people who were, in many ways, disconnected and finding that initial point of connection simply because they wanted to be grounded in community, that eventually I think made a real difference in their life, even if we, gathering in the room, don’t always see that play out.
Marni Hall: So that’s the upside. Has it gone back to the same number of people in the building and engagement? And I mean, the world is different, and people are used to doing things differently? So–
Mitchell Berkowitz: I’m proud to say our daily minyan, we’re back to having – we’ve occasionally had to call someone, but normally, we don’t have a problem getting our 10 people again. We really are back to sort of full-speed operation for daily minyan, and that’s a real gift for this congregation, because many communities waited significantly later than we did. There are some Conservative shuls out there that still haven’t returned fully to in-person, or have been unable to sustain the minyan they had before. So I’m very proud of this. That’s not anything on us as the leaders, it’s that because it doesn’t – you know, we can show up, it doesn’t make a difference. We need the members to show up, we need the community to be here. So that’s a testament to the community and what everyone was willing to to do: to come up and show back up in person.
Shabbat’s a little bit of a different story. Our Shabbat numbers on a normal week that doesn’t have anything else going on, we’re not quite back to where we were in our in-person engagement. Some of that is, as I said, before the routines have changed. And that’s okay. And there are still people signing on online. We know that. But we also see engagement in other places.
We’re seeing – I made a joke to you guys before we even started that I’ve been checking my phone for the past hour, because before any event, I inevitably get one or two emails, sometimes a text message – “I never got the Zoom link, can you send me the Zoom link?” I’ll say, “That event was advertised as in-person only, right. Like, there isn’t a Zoom link, I’m sorry.” And for some people there really is a – I don’t know, it presents as anger often, or frustration, and sometimes disappointment. And sometimes it’s just, “Oh, I didn’t know,” it’s no big deal. But there are certainly still people who I think sort of carry an expectation that everything the synagogue does must be also on Zoom. And that’s a very hard thing for us, because part of community building is the face-to-face interaction, and being side-by-side with people, and sitting in a room with people, even for something like this, where, you know, we’re primarily the one speaking, and you’re primarily the ones listening.
But there’s a level of engagement that happens even by just being physically present in the room that doesn’t happen when we’re staring at our Zoom screens. And so we have to balance how much, you know. And there’s still plenty – you know, the class that my adult-ed classes are almost always hybrid, so we pick and choose strategically as a leadership what are the things that we’re going to do that are hybrid that everybody can engage in wherever they’re comfortable, what are some things that we’re going to do exclusively on Zoom, and what are some things we’re going to do only in-person.
Marni Hall: What are some of the lasting implications for the scientific community from some of the changes, would you say?
Alan Leshner: So an interesting one that’s sort of ongoing is for the last hundred years, there’s been this argument about whether science should progress because it’s interesting and provocative, or it should just progress because it’s good for you. And basic scientists have always said, you know, “You can’t predict what [in] basic science will in fact pay off, but trust us, it’s gonna go great, because actually this is a positive outcome.”
Because COVID was so successful from a scientific perspective – and I know that people sort of don’t love science as much as they used to, but if you think about it, this was pretty miraculous, what actually went on over the course of this terrible virus, that could have in fact killed billions of people instead of millions – which is still terrible – and that is that people have in a subtle way come to realize, you know, what science can really help with a lot of these big problems. And policy makers, probably not intentionally that is not following that logic, I just lay down have started to say more and more, “We want payoff. We don’t want to wait 30 years to find out if that set of studies is going to pay off. We don’t want to have the same broad base.”
So if you look at the budget this year, the big money increases are going to things with practical implications, or to create institutions that will in fact pay off. so there’s a new thing called ARPA-H which is the advanced research projects agency. It started out in defense, we got one in energy, we have one in homeland security. Now we’re going to have one in health. And its job is, in fact, to accelerate the development of treatments, and the development of, they say, “cures.” So that’s a big winner. The cancer moonshot is a big winner. And the National Science Foundation, long the supporter of open-ended basic research, its biggest increases goes to a new unit – and we’re talking billions of dollars – a new unit that will do applied research for the first time. And it’s a movement where people have realized science is good for you. They do understand that overall, science is good for you. But I want to tell you what I wanted to do, that shift, I think, is subtle. I’ve tried to mobilize parts of the scientific community to pay attention to this, and I have failed miserably, but take my word – trust me, all right.
Marni Hall: I’m just going to repeat the question since this is being recorded. So the question is: was it an unmitigated good?
Alan Leshner: Oh, it’s risky as hell. It’s really if you – so I’m a basic scientist, you know, forever and I believe we need a large, broad, strong base of basic science, because that’s where all the major progress has actually come from. But we’ve got to shift a little bit, because there are pressing challenges facing society that have got to be addressed. And now that we know that science can contribute as significantly as it has, and as rapidly as it has, it’s not unreasonable for society to say, “Give me a little more.”
Marni Hall: As a moderator, could I answer? I would say I think that for the public health and balance, it’s good. You know the discussion earlier about the trust in science – I hope we can get that back, and with a greater understanding that science is not static, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. So there’s risk, but with that risk, we’ve been able to do things like with emergency-use authorization, which used to be simply for compassionate use in very limited cases. We’ve been doing it population-level. And we’re learning more, and we are focusing on ways to mitigate the risks that might come with that. And the upside of that is to get treatments to people faster, and you know, things like – you know, using new technologies that were still going through a very slow process. There was an incentive to work together to accelerate it. So as an applied scientist, I would say there’s a risk mitigation to happen, but that in balance, I think that that’s good, yes. Seriously.
Marni Hall: Yeah, so the comment was that often scientific breakthroughs are serendipity, and basic research has – we don’t know where it’s going to lead, whether that’s penicillin or Teflon or, say, the first vaccine.
Alan Leshner: So the argument we’re getting back from the policy makers is “We’ll maintain your level of support,” which is never enough, right, but “we’ll maintain your level of support in any increment that you’re going to get is going to go to this other stuff.” As a citizen, I get it, I understand it, as a scientist. I think it’s short-sighted, as you do.
Audience member: So yeah, I’m wondering about the lack of secrecy – that you’re, in fact, I was in the NIH many years ago, and I’ve been a science writer and health information specialist. And my understanding is that Lab B at this university – there’s legacy of that university, and Lab A over there, may all be working on the same project, and it’s very secretive because the first one to get it into the public to get it published, they’re going to reap the benefits in contracts and grants and so forth, right. So how do you persuade scientists to share their data?
Marni Hall: So the question was “How do you persuade scientists to share the data?”, which is a move from, traditionally, the incentive was to be secret so that you can publish first before the next person. And I would say this falls into the category which we’re leading into, anyway, is “How has COVID changed the rules?” So during COVID, people were sharing, because we wanted to move fast and get to a vaccine. There was something called the Evidence Accelerator at the FDA, where everybody was sharing data. They were doing the same thing, they were doing the same experiments, but they were sharing the information as they were going along, so that they could figure out if you could reproduce it, but in parallel instead of in sequence.
Alan Leshner: It’s a fabulous question, because it’s been an incremental process, it really has. Forever, we told people they ought to share their data more rapidly, and they reacted just as you said – “My data, I’m not giving it to you.” And what happened is that agency heads, policy makers, and people like journalists, we all said, “You’re going to share. You don’t want to share, you can’t publish. You don’t want to share it, you’re not going to get whatever.” Now it’s less rigid; it has not held up as well. But most major journals require data to be available as soon as the paper is published, so you get the fame and glory.
Now, during COVID, publication accelerated, so that things were published much faster than they had than before. Science magazine can take 9-12 months to find out if your paper is going to get published. All of a sudden we were publishing papers in weeks. And that was persistent too. But you’re telling me “you have to do it, they have to do it.”
Marni Hall: The question is: is the data accessible? But just to clarify, the walls of the data are literally accessible – are they able to reach it? But then there’s also a question, if it’s lay-audience accessible – who is it accessible to?
Alan Leshner: So what the public wants is the results. They don’t actually want the raw data. What we’re making people share are raw data. And please don’t be insulted by this, but if we gave you the raw data, what would you do with it? So it’s another domain of question, you know, how do you get the results out fast enough? And that led to a whole movement around what’s called Open Access, right. We can talk about that.
Alan Leshner: I agree with that, but I understand at the same time why they did it. They said, “go to the extreme of prevention. Go to the extreme, and maybe we’ll have been right.” but they did not think about it that way, because I know the people.
(Audience comment about fundamental versus applied research)
Alan Leshner: I think what we’ve learned is you need both. The base is fundamental research. There is no question – you’re right, everything that has happened has come from the base of fundamental research. Having said that, it’s a very, very slow, incremental process. And agencies like these applied research places, like DARPA, have yielded unbelievable, fabulous results.
Audience Member: They didn’t take people off the streets in DARPA. They’d take them out of the fundamental programs and focus them on their projects…
Marni Hall: It’s a tough balance.
Alan Leshner: We need a balance.
Marni Hall: So the comment is on the importance of health literacy, the challenges in the lack of health literacy, and the response from the pandemic, which really made clear that the lack of health literacy made it more challenging for the public to be able to discern fact from fiction, as well as that science is not static. And that there aren’t as many clear answers. There’s also been, for what it’s worth, much more funding that’s gone into health literacy, as well as very specific, targeted health education in socially and medically vulnerable populations to be able to address what we’ve discussed, health disparities which should come up there.
Marni Hall: So just for the recording, so everybody heard, the question is: with the pandemic, will the virus hunting continue? Are we prepared to deal with that? And right, what happens next?
Alan Leshner: I don’t know. I hope so. I, like the rest of you, don’t want to get nailed, but a problem with a lot of science is that it’s what we would call dual-use, right – it can be used for benefit, it can be used for harm. And so we have to try to build in protections, and build in better protections. But if we stop looking, we’re really in trouble. So I hope we keep looking.
Marni Hall: I think also on when we’ve talked about what are some of the non-pandemic applications, non-COVID things, that will stay with us, that can apply to other viruses and pandemics. So I think some of that work is still going on.
Marni Hall: Well – so we started out by saying “Did COVID change the rules?”
Mitchell Berkowitz: Yeah. So if we were to return, right, to taking some of the pieces of what – this was all fascinating and great for me to just sort of be a listener for a few minutes, that was nice. I mean, there are certain things that I think, as a synagogue, we did that nobody taught me in rabbinical school, right. Like, somebody asked me in the beginning of COVID – I was on the phone with someone, and they said, “Did you take a class at JTS that maybe sort of helped you think about that?” I said, “What, are you kidding me? You think, you thought, I was in Pandemic 101 during my” – yeah, that’s the second year of rabbinical school? I was like, “No!” But, you know, we are trained to respond in a crisis. We are trained to be present when people are going through moments that are of significant vulnerability, where things are very uncertain, where people are afraid of what’s going on around the world.
And so it gave, I think, us as clergy and as a Jewish community, and as the leadership, an opportunity to really draw upon some places that we don’t necessarily think about all the time.
Marni Hall: So can I ask you to build on that, and in the sense of – you’ve been trained and you’re experienced in doing that one-on-one, maybe with a family or in a situation, but that the scale of “this is enormous,” how –
Mitchell Berkowitz: – how do you do it as a congregation, right? Well, I think one of the things that I like when colleagues ask, when it was all starting in the beginning, it was one of the only times – I guess, that it was already about three years out of rabbinical school, if I’m counting right, and it was the first time that my class got all back together. We all did a Zoom reunion to talk to each other, and you could hear the difference between those who were rabbis on their own, in solo pulpits or in institutions where they were sort of the only rabbi or the only community leader – such a huge difference for me to hear, in a congregation where we have, you know, at the time, before, now, five clergy serving the congregation – an executive director, lay leaders, a president – I mean, the institutional support that we had here to make those kinds of decisions was so much different than, I think, what many of my colleagues went through. I mean, in the beginning, we were reading the same things that everybody else was reading, and we were making our decisions based on what was guidelines from the county, what were the guidelines from CDC.
Then we managed to put together our Roadmap to Reopening Task Force, which was comprised of the medical health experts and architecture and building experts, to help us think about when we came back in the building, what would it look like in terms of where people would be situated – lawyers and doctors and other people from various fields, but all who could lend some sort of expertise to having these kinds of conversations, and thinking about, “What are the things that we need to do in order to keep the congregation moving?” I mean, our tagline was that “the building is closed, but our community is open,” right.
Marni Hall: Which was a great tagline.
Mitchell Berkowitz: – I didn’t come up with it.
But we all were on board with that mission. And having a collaborative group of people who all had different fields of expertise work together on something like that – similar, I guess, to what was going on in the sciences, but for us, drawing on multiple fields.
Marni Hall: Except I had emergency-preparedness training. I don’t think that was part of your
Mitchell Berkowitz: – not exactly what we did, right. But having those kinds of conversations and having that many people.
The other reality for us is, I think, that we really – everyone said “I’m sort of preaching to the choir,” in a very literal way, that you were the stakeholders. I mean, the longevity and the survivability of this congregation during a time like that was dependent upon the congregation partnering with the leadership, whether that was the lay leaders or staff or clergy, in order to keep things moving in the right direction and to make sure that we were engaged in a sustainable project. And so we have to thank everybody who we worked with for making all of that possible.
Marni Hall: I’d like to ask you both to comment on “What would you like to keep?” What do you think, if anything, from the changes?
Alan Leshner: So I actually loved the fact that science became so much more collaborative. I loved the fact that scientists came to realize that they had to engage with the rest of the public in order for their work to have real impact. Engagement is a two-way process, just to be clear. It involves listening as well as talking. Very hard for scientists. And many – someone asked a question before. Well, scientists stink at it, and the answer is it’s true. I mean, an awful lot of scientists shouldn’t be allowed to go out in public. But in fact, there are a lot of training programs now through most organized scientific societies to train people how to engage on issues like this. So I’d like to keep that going.
The one other thing that has recently happened is somehow, mostly the biomedical community, has come to understand that bringing people much more closely into the scientific process and the scientific decision-making really helps, in the same way that you mentioned that having the congregation leaders as a part of the decision process. So for example, the National Academy of Sciences does all of these fancy studies to give the government advice on what to do. More and more, in the health and medicine domain, people with lived experience – patients – are being brought into the committees to have the discussions. And I can tell you that the scientists are shocked at how useful it is. It’s really interesting to watch, and humbling, frankly. But it’s a part of the process, and that had better stay.
Mitchell Berkowitz: I mean for us, but whenever people say something to me about the live streaming services or Zoom, like, that’s never getting turned off, right. Like, that pretty much is the switch has been flipped, you know, it’s there – this is what it is, people can join our services. I mean, and the rules changed and they sort of, like the science, sort of evolved over time. Our short-term and long-term accommodations have also evolved over time, in the sense that we ultimately decided we would keep the live stream and the Zoom running for our minyanim, but we would no longer constitute the minyan virtually, right. So we, at a certain point, we made the decision that the sh’ah hora’at, that unprecedented circumstance that allowed us to gather 10 people on Zoom and count that as a valid minyan, that ended. And now we’re back to “You have to have 10 people in the room.” But people can join virtually, which was actually already Conservative-movement halacha prior to the pandemic and prior to anything that happened there. So things did evolve over time in that sense.
But one of the other things that I think happened too, across the entirety of the Jewish community, but we’ve also, I think seen here, sort of the explosion of Jewish learning and how accessible it was meant to be, especially for adults. And people found multiple ways to connect to different synagogues to different Jewish communal institutions that offered adult education classes. I mean locally, our Haberman Institute now, whenever I talk to them, there’s always – we have this sort of debate all the time, as I mentioned earlier, about “Is it hybrid, is it in person, is it Zoom only?”, only they’re having that conversation on a much broader level, because they had people and they continue to have people who engage with their community from all over the country, if not around the world. I mean, we had a couple people who started coming to our minyan online that weren’t from the Washington metro area, but I think across the board a lot of Jewish institutions and synagogues have seen so much more engagement in learning because people – maybe out of necessity, they didn’t have anything else to do, and so it was “What else am I going to do? I’ll sign up for an adult ed class.”
But I do think that there really has been a transformation in the desire for people to connect Jewishly and to learn things. Because it’s so accessible, they can learn it on their own terms whenever they want. It means signing up for a class that you take virtually or you actually just watch. I don’t ever do this, I never watch recordings, but other people apparently watch recordings, because they email me and they say “Can I get the recording?” And I send it. And apparently they watch, because it tells me that they did! But that, I think, is a really positive benefit of what happened.
Marni Hall: And so is there an effort to proactively keep that going?
Mitchell Berkowitz: That’s part of that, I mean, that’s part of the conversation of, “So when we’re deciding are we going to do a class in person, what’s the cost?” The cost is, you know, “Right now, that camera is running to record this lecture, not because anybody is watching it live, but because I thought it would be something good for us to have,” right. But so there’s always this conversation of “if we’re going to have something that’s in person only, what’s the cost?” And that cost is, right, those people who would otherwise engage with us be – either because they’re stuck at home and they’re unable to be here, I mean, that’s the other piece of it that I haven’t directly mentioned, is the incredible accessibility of engaging in Jewish life has also expanded significantly for, I think, all streams of Judaism, that people are able to engage in ways they weren’t necessarily able to before, whether, you know, because they were stuck at home, they were just physically unable to go out, and nothing to do necessarily with COVID, or being just distant from a Jewish community – so being able to open up and be significantly more accessible for the Jewish world, I think, is a net gain for all of us.
Marni Hall: I would agree, I think there was a question or comment.
Alan Leshner: So I love your point, and you’re exactly right, and I agree with you totally. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to say something more, but the truth is it’s a big dilemma. And what the lesson was – and I’m sorry if I misstated it before – what the lesson was was, “When you say something, don’t be much more definitive than you have a right to be, based on the data.” That is to say – so both Fauci and Francis Collins have said on numerous occasions, “We wish we had done more to explain that things change as we accrue more and more data.” And a way to do that is to say, “Based on what we now know, our best advice to you is” – instead of saying “wash all your groceries, that’s what the science says,” the science is “Maybe you should wash your groceries,” and later it said, “Man, don’t wash your groceries, it was pointless.”
So it’s the way it’s said, and the way is science. But you know, we’re all learning as a part of the community. We haven’t had since the flu in 1918 or whenever it was. We don’t have so many occasions where it’s this urgent. That’s the excuse. But we’ve learned a lot over the course of this about communicating and how to communicate.
Mitchell Berkowitz: Some of this even made its way inside some of our conversations about – if you remember way back when people started coming back in person on Shabbat morning, we had aliyots where you could not actually go up to the bimah, but you stood at a podium that was marked on the floor at least six probably, ten feet away, from where Cantor Bolts was reading the Torah. Nobody touched the Torah except for the Cantor, because she was going to read from it. So only she would remove it from the ark. Rabbi Safra and I were the only ones who opened the ark, because God forbid you went up to open it and then somebody else would close it. And the same thing even early on with siddiurim and chumashim.
You know, we have plenty – and especially when only having 25 people there in the beginning, we would actually collect that week’s siddurim and chumashim and put them at the back of a line, and then take the next 25. And they wouldn’t be used for, sometimes, months because of all of this – now we can say “mishegas,” but then we couldn’t, about washing the stuff, because we thought that literally a full week later when somebody touched it – but those were the kind of things, that was the science that we were listening to. And that others were, you know, sort of bringing to the table to us, that we had to think about. Okay, if there was a concern about touching things that somebody touched, whether it was 24 hours ago or a full seven days ago, we actually changed our ritual policies for a period of time in order to – those took up real amounts of time to have those kinds of conversations.
And yes, ultimately, when the science evolved (I like that better than “changed,” right, “the science evolved”), and then we were able to hear that. We said, “It’s okay, fine, so we no longer need to, you know, cycle our chumashim. Leave them in the seats, it’s going to be fine one week later. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Marni Hall: I think you also made a good point earlier, is that even if we didn’t know, people wanted to err on the side of caution, because it was so frightening what was happening, and we didn’t have treatments, and the burden on the health system. So if it meant maybe we were doing things that weren’t entirely necessary, people were willing to, for a period of time to prevent things from getting worse.
Mitchell Berkowitz: Our goal as a community was to be as open as possible and to be as accessible as, you know, so that taking away as many barriers as we could was the goal without putting anybody at risk. And not everybody can agree on where, exactly, do you draw that line.
Alan Leshner: Yes, why didn’t you tell me?
Marni Hall:So there’s another example of that conversion. There were a group of female scientists, epidemiologists, who called themselves “Those Nerdy Girls.” And they had a blog, and they started answering pandemic questions and became Dear Pandemic. And they had very, I think, excellent infographics on social media. But then you could click and they would have a layperson-language paragraph, but with all the references to the original literature. And I pointed people to it all the time, and I think it was four or five people then, and now there’s dozens of people in this organization. I think it’s been great to do.
So this speaks to the general science education comment earlier, perhaps.
Alan Leshner: Actually, you’ve got to go look for it, because they’re not until the firm decision is made that you need a booster every year, what are they going to say? We don’t know yet. But there are COVID resources in 8 billion places. The problem is figuring out where the accurate ones are. But you can go nih.gov, you can easily find stuff. You can go to the National Academy of Sciences, you can go to AAAS. I mean, everybody’s overloaded all of the scientific organizations – or American Public Health Association. There are a billion places. The thing to avoid is, you know, Fox News. I didn’t say that.
Mitchell Berkowitz: You’re not liable. (laughs)
Alan Leshner: Thank you.
Mitchell Berkowitz: The question was about the spiritual or pastoral issues that have encountered as a result of everything that went on. Rabbi Safra is here too, so you can jump in. I’m not putting you on the spot, but if you want to. One of the things I was going to say as a counterexample to some of the other things that we have pretty much entirely done away with, not in the sense that we’ve gotten rid of it, but the requests are so few and far between, is the Zoom shiva. Every once in a while somebody will still ask for a Zoom call or a number so that they can gather their family and friends over Zoom. But that really has fallen away, and I think precisely because – yeah, I appreciate the question, Rabbi Michaels, because it gets to the point of what is the purpose of some of our rituals and what we do.
Shiva is comforting, generally speaking, to people, because you’re surrounded in person by other people, and you can just do the daily things of life that you don’t get to do when you’re staring at a computer screen, right. You’re not going to sit at a screen all day and be surrounded by people who pop in and pop out of the Zoom room. That’s not exactly going to bring you comfort and probably going to be quite obnoxious to have to sit there. But the kind of comfort that is brought to people when you can actually gather together in a physical space, that can’t be replicated in the virtual space, at least, I don’t think yet. And the evidence of that is that so few people do it anymore, even though at the beginning, everybody was saying things like “Oh, it’s so nice because so and so, my cousin who lives in California, would never have been able to come for the funeral and for Shiva.” And that’s true, but you’re still – so that’s a gain, okay, fine I’m connecting with a distant family member who I may not have otherwise seen. But you are what’s the cost?
Again, right, so the cost spiritually, if you want to use that sort of language, was very high during the pandemic, of people not being able to observe the traditional rituals of mourning. Even funerals became very strange. And there’s still a degree of this, I think. I feel it sometimes even when we do baby namings. How close do you get to the person who you’re standing next to? Do they want you to wear a mask around their eight-day-old child who’s having a circumcision there, or do they not care as much? And you sort of take your cues from them. You can ask them openly. But there was there is a little bit of sort of these lingering questions of as much as we want to be present with one another and we want to be physically at each other’s side, there is also a degree that we’ve now been trained of thinking about the things based on what we were told to do. “Keep a certain distance,” “Don’t Touch Too Much,” don’t be until don’t be in physical contact.” And so some of these things are still lingering. And I think we’re figuring out how to manage them on a case-by-case basis, because everybody’s in a slightly different place on what their level of comfort is.
Mitchell Berkowitz: All right. Just to repeat, if anybody didn’t hear, and Nancy was mentioning the fact that there are significantly more people involved in reaching out to members of the congregation who were sort of marginalized or vulnerable or living entirely on their own. It was not just their caring committee, but others as well, joined in. A lot of the Wise Aging folks also became a significant part of an effort to reach every member of the congregation, just to say hello and make sure that things were okay. And we did get reports back that there were some people who needed a few extra phone calls and a little bit more contact. And that was great, because otherwise we wouldn’t have known that, because we don’t have the capacity just on our own, you know, either for clergy to call all of them would have been impossible, right – not impossible, it would have been very difficult. We were also managing to try to do so many other things at the same time. And part of this, as I mentioned earlier, part of the strength of being able to stay so vibrant as a community is because everybody was willing to pitch in. So people who had the ability to say, “I can take an hour out of my day, two hours out of my day, to make phone calls to the congregation, I can do that,” and that made a huge – we’re still hearing those stories even today, of those relationships that started as a result of that phone call and are sustained up and through today. So I appreciate the work that everybody did for them.
Alan Leshner: Yes, so my colleagues at Science say they’ve gotten it down to much shorter time intervals, but the existence of what are called pre-prints — that is, they have not been fully peer-reviewed, that’s staying. That is not going away. And we –magazines, journals like Science, changed because COVID forced the issue of whether you could put something into public view before it was fully peer-reviewed. But then if you want it published in Science, you’ve got to get it peer reviewed. And luckily for us, it’s a business, you know, you need the peer review, and people want to publish. So, preprints that was on my list too.
Marni Hall: Okay, well, thank you everyone. This has been a wonderful discussion.
Photo by Anna Watts for the New York Times (under Creative Commons license)