With the recent advent of Jewish new year, my family were plunged into a dilemma. Eased restrictions are one thing, but relaxing back into normality is quite another. Although this annum the Jewish new year celebrations for ‘Rosh Hashanah’ can legally be carried out as in pre-pandemic years, there are many within the community who question if this is safe.
And Judaism is not the only religion who will suffer this quandary. Religion fulfills the role of community and collaboration, of tradition and culture. This makes their festivals and holidays of the utmost importance in uniting their members. Yet when these events bring together hundreds of people in enclosed spaces, the elderly and infirm included, then perhaps they are one of the final areas to remain under threat from the pandemic. If you are cautious enough to stay away from theatres and nightclubs, would you risk attending a packed temple?
The debate is, of course, personal, and each will have their own opinion. But its exploration asks us what we will risk to pursue normality, and how we will prioritise community and family when health is on the line. To what extent we are still worried about Covid-19, and how much do we each trust the efficacy of the vaccine.
The nature of tradition is the first thing to consider. Traditional values may prompt a member of a religious community to attend their congregation, yet it equally might deter them from trusting a newly invented vaccine. A study in the US discovered that white evangelists were the least likely to get the vaccine out of all religious groups, yet in the UK concerns are being raised over the Haredi and Jewish orthodox uptake of the vaccine. While we must remain aware that correlation does not always equal causation, it is clear that minority groups are less likely to have herd immunity than the majority of the population.
Next we might consider the demographic of these communities. As secularisation increases within the UK, it is notable that religious communities have an aging population. Last year, 53% of UK citizens described themselves as having ‘no religion’, yet among those asked between 18 and 25, the percentage was almost 20% higher. This makes religious communities more vulnerable to Covid-19, and thus their gatherings less safe for those involved. However, for many in the UK, religion remains a crucial source of comfort and identity, making it well worth the risk in the minds of those included, even for people with lowered immune systems.
This brings us to the final point for consideration: mental health versus physical health. Religious gatherings play a crucial role in maintaining the wellbeing of their community, in uplifting the spirits of those who attend them and in preventing isolation and loneliness. Sometimes, the risk to mental health can be greater than the risk to physical health, especially at this point in the pandemic with vaccines potent and infection rates lowered.
So what to prioritise? There is no one fit rule for all. But that does not mean compromises cannot be made. My family, for example, gathered at home instead of in a synagogue, relishing in our new-found ability to be with each other once more, albeit in a domestic setting. And so, whatever your choice, whatever your religion, I wish everyone happy holidays – to be celebrated in the best way you see fit!