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Friday, January 28, 2022

Jewish scholars gather under the shadow of Omicron, heartening many and rankling others

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CHICAGO (JTA) – This year’s Jewish Studies Association conference was meant to be a successful post-pandemic gathering of Jewish studies scholars and enthusiasts.

But instead of receiving a carefree Jewish Super Bowl scholarship, the convention, which began Sunday in Chicago, was smaller than planned, with strict vaccinations and mask requirements.

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About 600 people who attended – down from about 1,200 on average before the pandemic – expressed gratitude for sharing their scholarship and reconnecting with their colleagues after two years of separation.

But as troubling news emerged about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, about 150 people — including some who were present — canceled their plans to attend, some late Sunday morning. The series of cancellations has renewed questions about why there is no option for virtual sharing, while some who have done so say they are concerned they may have inadvertently joined a super distribution event.

“I am very happy to see my colleagues and hear great presentations. I am also nervous about the possibility of capturing Omicron,” Yair Wallach, senior lecturer in Israel studies at SOAS University in London, who was vaccinated and received a booster dose, told the Jewish Telegraph. In a few days after the conference how did it go, from a COVID perspective.”

Last year’s all-virtual conference was the most-attended ever for AJS, according to CEO Warren Hoffman, who said the group has 1,800 members. Among those attending the conference for the first time, he said, were “people with disabilities, people who live too far abroad and cannot travel, and people with limited money and no money to travel.”

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Hoffman said that the feedback organizers have received about the virtual conference has been generally positive. But at the same time, “The vast majority of people, like most humans, were hungry for personal experience and [said they] I really want to get back to personal dealing this year.”

In early 2021, the group committed to holding this year’s conference in person. At the time, vaccines were circulating and optimism was high that the epidemic, now in its second year, would soon reach its swift end.

This fact faded throughout the year. But the conference continued with its personal plans, introducing strict rules designed to keep participants safe. All attendees were required to provide proof of vaccination to register for the conference and then provide a confirmation QR code to enter the conference space. Safety signs everywhere urged the use of a mask when not eating or drinking, and compliance was the rule rather than the exception on Sunday.

Signs at the 53rd Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, held at the Sheraton Grand Hotel Chicago, December 19-21, 2021, show rules requiring participants to wear masks. (Rachel Kohn)

Laura Levitt, a professor at Temple University and chair of the AJS Sexual Misconduct Committee, has attended the conference since 1991. She has been impressed by this year’s organizers.

“I think they’ve done an amazing job under really stressful circumstances, and I think most of us are really grateful to be here and to be with each other,” she said. “I mean, I write about things, the physical, the physical, the tactile — we need that and have been craving. These are all things that make me happy, and because my expectations are really low, these are all good.”

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However, at a time when people are becoming more adept at transacting online, the decision not to allow any virtual participation, particularly in light of new travel restrictions and lockdowns imposed in recent weeks, has alarmed some.

“Insisting on plans to pursue only personal choices and refusing to allow remote participation in a conference despite everything we see happening now and everything we know shows, once again, that profits matter more than people,” Oren Kroll-Zelden, assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, Tweet on Friday.

Hoffman said switching to an online-only conference or hybrid model wasn’t so simple, as many on social media made it seem obvious.

“It took us months and months to put all the technology together last year to make a web conference,” he said, adding that “it’s not just about creating 170 links and sending them” to viewers at home. (The conference has approximately 200 scheduled sessions, with up to 18 sessions running at a time.)

“It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, on top of what we’re already paying for the conference, to be a truly hybrid conference, and it wouldn’t be sustainable,” Hoffman said.

Regardless of whether they supported the AJS’s decision to hold the conference in person, those who chose to attend the conference and those who chose to cancel agreed that mixing in-person participation with online participation reduces the quality of the experience.

“A personal conference is more beneficial from a professional standpoint,” Wallach said. “The hybrid/virtual device is clearly more secure, but much less useful.”

AJS panel audience in masks

The audience listens to speakers during the session “Globalizing Jewish History, Removing Ashkenazim from the Curriculum of Jewish Studies” at the 53rd Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies at the Sheraton Grand Hotel Chicago, December 19, 2021. (Rachel Kohn)

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“Meetings where some people are face-to-face and some people zoom in – it’s very hard to hear anything if you’re zooming in and you can’t really see people, you can’t really hear people,” said Karen Skinazi of the University of Bristol in England. “I didn’t want to attend a virtual conference, but I am completely sympathetic that this is the only way they can come for some people.”

Hoffman said the AJS plans to incorporate feedback on online access by committing to holding at least some conferences, starting in 2024, entirely online.

“We hope the world is in a better place, but regardless, we recognize that there is value in going online every few years as a way to help give more access to people who may not always be able to come,” he said.

Currently, AJS offers refunds to anyone who cancels, and about 30% of those who have done so donate their registration fees to the association, according to Hoffman.

The cancellations eliminated some of the science panels at the heart of the programme.

Two participants withdrew from Levitt’s first panel at the conference. One had given notice the day before, while the other had made the call that morning. At least two other people will be missing from her plaque on Tuesday.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety and we’re tired as well and I think it’s tough,” Levitt said. “I am aiming to remain calm. That sounds like the best thing.”

Skenazy, who traveled across the Atlantic for her third AJS conference, said most of her colleagues have canceled plans to attend, including members of her panel on Monday on gender and Muslim-Jewish relations. She said two committee members from abroad pulled out some time ago when travel restrictions became stricter, while one alternative was unable to leave England after testing positive for COVID-19 and another committee member opted not to attend rather than have to be quarantined. on him. Return to Israel.

“I love the conversations, I think they’re great, but that’s not why I came,” said Skenazi. “It’s just about people, which is also why it’s so sad that so many people have had to drop out at the last minute.”

Roy Yaakov Goldschmidt, a lecturer in Kabbalah and Hasidic thought at the Open University in Israel, said he personally felt safe because of the conference’s clear rules on vaccination. However, he was worried that his trip home would be cancelled.

The possibility of being caught in the United States or quarantined prevents others from attending. As the conference date approaches, Sasha Goldstein-Sabah, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, faced mounting concerns, from the possibility of flights being canceled to uncertainty about getting a PCR test for international travel.

She decided to stay at home, avoiding the many scheduled meetings related to projects and consulting jobs as well as the opportunity to display her new book in the exhibition hall.

“Given the current public health concerns, I believe that canceling the conference may have been the responsible decision,” she said. But it also acknowledged that the latest news on the Omicron variant is likely too late for regulators to change course.

Wallach, who will be speaking about Ashkenazi acculturation in the Arab world, said he might have walked out of the conference if he hadn’t already been in New York last week.

“Travel seemed temporarily fine when I booked it, the first conference I’ve attended in person in a while and I’ve missed a lot,” he said. “At the same time, it is clearly not a good idea to hold such a gathering in person at the time of a major outbreak. This has become more and more apparent over the past few days. For me, it was too late to cancel, because I was already on my way here.”

revision: This originally said that the CEO of AJS resigned in 2021. It was the head of the group who resigned, and this reference has been removed from the story.

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