Reflections on 2020

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12 mins read
Broken American flag. Vector illustration

2020. I hardly know where to begin. 

My beloved mom died this year, in September. 

She did not die of COVID, but since she lived in a different state than me, pandemic restrictions impacted us greatly. As my mom declined and went into hospice, like so many others, I was unable to fly to see her. Luckily, we have family close by so she wasn’t alone, but many of their visits took place from opposite sides of her window. I was only able to visit with her via video. When she died, her funeral had ten people at her graveside, and we zoomed in to participate as best we could. 

Almost everyone has their own experience of loss and grief from 2020. Our country, as well, tells its story.

Racial Justice. Although racial injustice has been a reality for hundreds of years in this country, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black Americans at the hands of police pushed this issue to a national conversation in a new way. What was different in 2020 was the massive demonstrations by people of all colors, in the midst of a pandemic, who took to the streets to protest for equal justice and against police brutality. The book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, which looks at the way the U.S. is organized into castes with minorities at the bottom, was the most important book I read this year. The time has come for us to look this national disgrace squarely in the eye and make changes.

We learned how connected we are and how disconnected. The fact that an invisible virus could spread throughout the entire world in a matter of months shows that the very idea we’d be able to isolate ourselves from danger is foolish. We breathe the same air. We need each other’s scientific solutions. At the same time, the division around mask-wearing has been profoundly disheartening. The only way we could have controlled this virus was to come together as a people to figure out the answers. This is not what happened. Even videos of crying, exhausted first responders did not convince anti-maskers to cover their faces. 

Before I went to rabbinic school, my career was in organizational development. One important lesson I taught was that leadership sets the tone. If the leader is kind and honest, the group will also be. If the leader is distrusting and cruel, the people will follow that lead. A good leader brings out the best in people. 

Last year in the United States, we saw the worst leadership of any organization or government I have ever experienced. The fact that our leaders never even acknowledged the tremendous loss and grief among us was not simply the wrong message. It gave rise to systemic denial, blame, lack of compassion, and an environment where personal freedom was divorced from communal responsibility. Under this government, cruelty became a policy.

The failure of the U.S. government led to deep fractures. Our leaders messed up everything possible, from simple solutions like promoting mask-wearing to more complicated vaccine distribution. They operated with an “us vs them” mentality, which has torn the country apart.

The message a competent, compassionate leader needs to give is: We are in this together. We are responsible for each other. We will do whatever is needed — business, government, nonprofits and individuals will join together for the good of all.

Instead, in my California county, people are opening restaurants for inside dining and calling such action “peaceful protest.” This is the behavior of two-year olds who refuse to be told what to do. To experience this in the middle of zero ICU capacity in the same county is soul-crushing. We must turn this around.

The corruption, abuse of power and lack of accountability were stunning. At the impeachment hearings, the Senate wouldn’t even put on valid witnesses. Trump’s most recent pardons of criminals, for absolutely no societal benefit, are corrupt and show a moral debasement that I pray we can come back from. Bullying also became acceptable at the highest level in the nation without criticism from anyone of consequence. This must never happen again. I’m afraid that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg of the destruction of our institutions, the self-dealing and the loss of morality that will be revealed in years to come.

We saw this year that certain people are deemed expendable: old people, prisoners, meatpackers, essential workers who pick our food and stock our grocery shelves, health care workers, people of color, asylum-seekers, homeless people. The list goes on.

If we truly cared about these people we would have had a massive plan to obtain the PPE that would have protected them in their places of work. We would have created a way for nursing home residents to get the best care. We would have figured out how to keep the prison population and the immigrants who are still languishing in detention centers safe from COVID.

But 2020 wasn’t all bad. There was joy in expected and unexpected places — comedy that made us laugh, music collaborations made possible by the pandemic, and the chance to study with teachers around the world. Some of us got to know our neighbors better or reconnected with people we hadn’t seen in a long time. We took up new hobbies and walked and gardened more. We baked, did puzzles, wrote poetry and found ways to mourn differently and celebrate in new ways despite the restrictions.

Cautiously Optimistic

We begin 2021 with the most shocking assault on our Capitol that we have ever experienced. The scenes of rioters looting the People’s House were surreal and heartbreaking. When the dust settles, we must investigate why law enforcement took so long to get control. The peaceful transfer of power was disrupted and violence was fueled by Donald Trump and his enablers. It was a dark day that compels us to search our collective soul.

My biggest hope for 2021 is that we begin a path toward healing. Every person deserves food, shelter and safety. We are far from that right now, but we must make a start. This path must be grounded in the values of equality and justice for all. We must find common ground and create ways to heal the deep divisions that fuel so much anger and denial. We must make it unacceptable to continue partisan divisions rather than find common ground.

My hope is that we will begin to live what was beautifully expressed in the Talmud so long ago: We are all responsible for each other. What each one of us does matters far beyond our own home or city.  Kindness would be the rule, not the exception.

My hope is that the new government will do whatever it takes to produce and distribute the necessary PPE for everyone who needs it. I also hope that there will be a plan to support small businesses — the restaurants, salons, musicians — that have been devastated by the pandemic. They should not be forced into bankruptcy through no fault of their own.

Our government should function in a way that we don’t have to pay attention to it 24/7 or be outraged by its actions and non-actions. I will never, ever take our democracy for granted again — but I would like to wake up in the morning and not have to think “What now? What norm has crumbled, what institution has caved?” Too many of us operate on “high alert” these days and I hope that we can find ways to calm our nervous systems. Let’s put decent, intelligent, qualified people in their jobs and let them work because we trust them.

Accountability. In Jewish tradition, when you have done a wrong, saying “I am sorry” is only the first step. Justice requires that restitution be paid and a commitment made to not do the wrong again in the same circumstances. I hope that 2021 sees investigations into all the corruption that has taken place and that wrongdoers will be held accountable.

I’m of the opinion that we are not going back to the way things were. The “new normal” will take time and patience to establish. I’m most interested in what will be created from the ashes of 2020. What will be rebuilt and what will be totally rethought? Will our institutions go back to the way they operated before the pandemic or will new technological capabilities create opportunities for configurations that include people beyond our physical locations? Will we ever go back to shopping in malls?

Senator-elect Rev. Raphael Warnock, the first Black senator from Georgia, spoke about this verse from Psalms: “Weeping occurs in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps. 30:6) My colleague, Rabbi Sharon Brous, taught that we cannot get to the joy in the morning unless we do the hard work of the night. We need to be brave and determined.

Many changes will be birthed in the wreckage that was 2020 and we do not know what they will be. Just like a baby is born after nine months in the darkness of the womb, 2021 will unfold as a new and marvelous creation.


DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.


Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman leads Path With Heart and Hineni, a spiritual mindfulness community that meets online. She is committed to justice and sharing wisdom that makes a difference in people’s lives. She can be found at ravjill.com.

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