On March 13, 2020, just a couple of days after Purim, the rabbis of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County informed the members of our local community that all the shuls would be closed that coming Shabbat and beyond due to the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus, which was causing area hospitals to be overwhelmed with critically ill patients. I remember the sadness, shock, and even anger that characterized our initial reaction. I also recall the tremendous gratitude we later felt for that very bold decision (ultimately adopted in many other communities) upon realizing that it saved precious lives. We were all saddened not to be able to spend Pesach and then Shavuot with our parents, children, extended family members and friends, but we understood that our personal sacrifices could prevent illness and yes, even save lives, including those of our family members and friends.
Over the last several months, we have seen that the human capacity to modify and adjust is remarkable. Most of us, even if we were never that comfortable on the computer, have become proficient at “Zooming” (note that this has become a verb!) and buying many if not all of our needed items online. While commuting was previously the norm for most working people, many of us set up offices in our basements, bedrooms and closets. Those with school-age children similarly set up classroom spaces at home so that the youngsters would continue to get an education while the physical school structure was closed. And we have all gotten used to wearing masks and seeing our children, even small children, with masks.
When the decision was made that it was safe for people to daven together with a minyan outside, we set up tents in shul parking lots and in people’s backyards. Shiurim, classes and lectures on a wide variety of topics from an array of speakers became available, perhaps more than ever before, to all who wanted them. Our school administrators, faculty and staff worked tirelessly over the summer to ensure that our children would be able to go back to school safely by installing plexiglass dividers, putting in new air conditioning and filtration systems, creating outdoor classroom facilities and lunch rooms, rearranging class schedules, plus so much more.
More recently, our shul and community leadership made sure that we had safe spaces both inside the shuls and outdoors for minyanim on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Remarkably, every person in the community who sought one had a place to daven! Thousands of people across our towns sat socially distanced, davened, heard the shofar, fasted and sang L’Shanah HaBa’ah B’Yerushalayim together. Simchat Torah was challenging, but once again, caring, creative people helped us all make the best of the situation and experience the joy of Yom Tov. And once again, many resources were made available online for those who remained unable to attend minyanim in person.
Recreationally, many of us have spent a great deal of time over these last few months outdoors, enjoying nature, going for walks or hanging out in our backyards and front yards. In every way, we have been trying now for months to adjust and adapt to our current situation, and to a great extent we have succeeded—we did not give up!
Unfortunately, the current news about an uptick in COVID cases in our area, the broader economic difficulties that the ongoing virus has caused and the negative political climate have led even the most optimistic of us to struggle with some uncertainty, sadness and anxiety. As the days get shorter with less hours of daylight and the weather turns colder—how much longer will we be able to maintain outdoor minyanim?—it is becoming more difficult to stay optimistic about our future.
What can or should we do to keep ourselves, our families and our community happy and healthy? I do not know! But here are a few suggestions, that, at least according to the followers of positive psychology, may help:
1. Count your blessings! This does not mean that you should not feel sadness when appropriate or properly react to the negative things that happen in your life. You should, however, spend even just a few minutes every day concentrating on the things that are good and bring you happiness. Write down what you feel grateful for.
2. Volunteer. Share some kindness with others, even if it’s just a friendly phone call. Research demonstrates that volunteering leads to better health—those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.
3. Exercise every day, inside or outside. You may need to push yourself to exercise if you are feeling down. Join a class (on Zoom!), get a partner to encourage you to move! The benefits of 30 minutes of daily exercise are amazing and include improved sleep, better endurance, stress relief, improvement in mood, increased mental alertness, weight reduction and improved cardiovascular fitness.
4. Pick a project (not 10 projects!) that will give you satisfaction when it is completed.
5. Limit your Netflix and binge television time. A study published by the American Health Association has shown a strong link to binge watching and increased depression and anxiety.
6. Start a book club or a learning group on Zoom with friends and friends of friends.
7. Try to stay social while practicing social distancing! Bundle up and meet a friend in the backyard for tea or on Zoom.
8. Buy warm clothing for the winter—long underwear, warm socks, winter boots, good gloves—be prepared to bundle up, so you can spend some time outdoors this winter.
9. Stay connected to your spiritual needs! Participate in an inspiring shiur, listen to Jewish music, read an inspirational story, daven regularly, read Tehillim, take a challenging class. So much is now accessible online.
10. Reach out for help if you need it! We have an amazing community, and plenty of people are available to help.
I look forward, in the very near future (I hope), to seeing my friends’ and family members’ faces unblocked by masks, to giving people a hug, to dancing at a simchah, to going out to a museum, play, or restaurant, to traveling to Israel … but until that happens, I, like the rest of you, will carry on. We will all be OK, especially if we are there for each other!
Beth S. (Bassie) Taubes, RN, CHC, CYT, is the owner of Wellness Motivations LLC. She motivates clients of all backgrounds, ages and health conditions to engage in improved self-care through nutritional counseling, personal fitness training, yoga practice, tai chi and stress reduction techniques. She is currently seeing clients in her outdoor studio or on Zoom. She is also the rebbetzin of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck.