As we approach this Rosh Hashanah, the shadow of COVID has receded substantially from our world. It seems to me that this is the perfect time for some introspection before we bring in this new year.
During COVID people frequently mentioned how awful the isolation was. How bored their children were. How much they missed their families. After more than two years of living like that, we’ve emerged from our cocoons and for the most part, have returned to our lives as we once knew them. Unfortunately, it would appear that an important lesson was missed. And by this I mean that there remain within our community select individuals for whom the isolation remains.
I happened upon the letter to the editor in The Jewish Link on September 8, 2022 titled “Let’s Make Some Room,” which was distressing to read. I then read Yosef Silfen’s article (referred to in the letter to the editor), “Make Some Room,” published in the “Reflections” section of the September 1, 2022 newspaper. Mr. Silfen’s article was insightful and powerful, as he talks of the long-term effects of excluding children and adults from the social network of our communities. While this problem appears to be gaining more recognition, the change that needs to happen is not happening fast enough, or in some instances, at all.
The most recent letter writer’s name was withheld upon request, likely to avoid embarrassing his or her child by pleading with the world to please encourage your children to invite others, including their little girl, to their Shabbat activities. Could you all feel the anguish of the parent who wrote the letter? The pain of watching his or her daughter struggle with the ongoing loneliness? In my view, there should be no embarrassment to parent or child. Rather, the embarrassment should be shared by the entire community. How are we still in this situation? After two years of forced distancing and solitude, how has every parent not insured their children understand how critical it is to reach out to others, making sure no one feels alone or isolated anymore? How can we sit by and allow children to dread the upcoming Shabbatot or Yom Tovim because they have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no peers to be with?
I would ask those parents whose children are always engaged every Shabbat from early morning until late in the evening, who never want for an invitation, and who are always in the thick of things: What is the message your children are sending by excluding others? What exactly is it about these other children that makes them unwelcome? Are they mean to your children? Are they bullies or do they say hurtful things? Do they make derogatory comments about your home or your family? Are your children intimidated by them? Because if the answer is no and if the reason is that the other child doesn’t go to the same school, isn’t as athletic or as smart, their parents don’t have as nice a home, they are “nerdy,” or “geeky,” or that their families just don’t fit the standard model within our community, then as a society, I believe we have failed, ourselves and all of our children.
Can you imagine the heartbreak in those excluded as they hear classmates in school making plans for Shabbat, knowing they are not included? Can you imagine the sadness in these children’s eyes as they watch other children their age meeting up in shul on Shabbat, seeing them go off to someone’s house after services, realizing their own Shabbat entails going home alone and counting the minutes until Shabbat is over? Or when the excluded call a classmate on erev Shabbat to invite them over, only to hear, “Sorry, I’ve got other plans,” and when the child asks if they can join in those plans, they are told “I’ll get back to you” and the response never comes?
Name Withheld, I hear you, and I empathize with you, as you watch your precious daughter confused and sad about her exclusion. I understand how you and she look forward to those Shabbatot when she is at camp, knowing that for those weeks, she is part of a group, not dependent on an individual invitation. Your suggestions are reasonable, and should be a handbook for all parents to repeatedly ingrain in their children.
For those of you who have never borne witness to what I am describing, you are fortunate indeed. I have seen this too many times to count. I have also seen the spark of joy in children who race into the room to announce that they have been invited to someone’s house for Shabbat, and instantly the day is all the brighter, and suddenly Shabbat is too short, and over way too fast.
In a world where we, as Jews, face a plethora of bias from the outside world just for being who we are, and where our children face challenges in their world every day—academic, athletic, emotional, and just generally trying to figure out who and what they want to be in the future—in the here and now, barring those extremely rare instances where a child could be harmful to others, all children should be accepted and welcome in our communities without a second thought. There should never be a child who sits alone in their room crying from loneliness, desperate for company. There should never be a child who feels unwanted, unappreciated or unwelcome. If this becomes our legacy, we should all be ashamed of ourselves; our society is lost.
As we approach the New Year, can we all please make a pact? Can we all say that we’ll do better? Do more? It costs us nothing to be better people—and better parents. It costs us nothing to remind our children to look for the child on the sidelines and include them. It raises us all up, in each other’s eyes, and certainly in Hashem’s eyes, to make our communities better places, happier places, welcoming places.
And while we’re at it, as we recognize that our children, the future, should be taught these important lessons, it is equally important that parents recognize the need to set the tone. There are adults for whom an extended hand and a Shabbat/Yom Tov invitation makes all the difference. The divorced, the widowed, the single parent struggling every day to provide everything to their children that their friends have. Can you understand the challenges of being a lone adult in a world of couples, watching from the outside as others meet for meals, outings, and even just an afternoon sitting in someone’s backyard? These people always give a smile and a hearty greeting, never revealing the sadness in their hearts. How can they be invisible when they are ever-present? They are among the precious few who show up to volunteer at children’s programs. They reach out to the shul to lend a hand where they can. They help out at schools to help make fundraisers more successful. How can we discount these people, when they are part of our very foundation, helping insure the success of our community? Can these people really be deemed disposable, when they do so much?
Everyone knows someone who has experienced hardship, uncertainty, and seemingly overwhelming challenges. Knowing that a welcoming hand is outstretched could be the difference between overcoming challenges and succeeding versus spiraling into despair and darkness, ultimately turning away from religion or even society as a whole. How will our children know how to be that helping hand if they don’t learn it now, if we don’t teach them the meaning of “V’ahavta L’Reacha Kamocha”?
Remind your children of Pesach 2020, when there were empty seats at their Seder table because their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins couldn’t be there. Remind them of the summer of 2020, when they were told they could play outside, just not with any other children. Remind them of their bar and bat mitzvahs in which only a handful of people could attend and even then, everyone had to stay far away from each other, wishing mazal tov from the other side of their 10-foot pole. Remind them of how they couldn’t go to the movies, grab a slice of pizza or go for ice cream with a friend because nothing was available, and even if everything was open, they weren’t allowed in the same car or in the same room with their friends. And then remind your children that those kinds of voids are still the reality for more children than they realize, in their schools, shuls, sports teams and so on. Remind them that not everyone has a large family they can spend time with, and that they count on their friends, classmates and peers to be there with them and for them. Ask them if they would want to go back to a world devoid of friends, and see what they say. Ask them how they think they can help others avoid that same situation.
At the end of the day, the lesson to our children should be simple: Invite. Welcome. Include. Parents must lead by example. This must be a community-wide effort. There will always be the handful of children and adults who invite everyone. There will always be a handful of children and adults who are always invited. We must get to the point where everyone who wants company has somewhere to go and something to do every single Shabbat and Yom Tov, and perhaps even an occasional Sunday or day off. Our religion is based on the performance of mitzvot. It bears remembering that leaving someone all alone is no mitzvah at all.
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova.
Name Withheld Upon Request