Three days before succumbing to cancer my mother whispered in my ear, “Life’s hardest challenges will spring out of nowhere and many of your daily worries will never materialize.” My mom was conveying that no amount of planning and fretting can truly prepare you for everything life will send your way. Powerful words in her final days.
Those words echoed in my ears at the outbreak of COVID-19. At our February shul board meeting, I presided over an in-person gathering exclusively focused on shul security. In the aftermath of horrific incidents in Jersey City and Monsey, all the talk centered on armed guards, bullet-proof glass and lockdown drills. Not a word was uttered about this silent, invisible enemy we’d all soon face. Nobody envisioned an empty shul a few weeks later with nobody to protect.
The word “zoom” sure did pop into our everyday vernacular out of nowhere. Today it’s how work gets done, shiurs are delivered, school lessons get conveyed, shiva visits happen and my board meeting will be conducted this month. The board will undoubtedly “zoom in” on potential plans for re-opening the shul and social-distancing protocols. Ironically, our lives have slowed considerably while governed by a word that means to move or travel very quickly. We are literally “zooming” through life while simultaneously feeling at a standstill.
That got me thinking about what we can learn from this whole experience. What is the growth opportunity available while confined to our homes? Allow me to share four possible lessons we can all preserve after we emerge from isolation. For the purposes of these lessons, I’m going to steer clear of the many political, medical and societal points frequently debated. I’m not downplaying their significance, rather accepting entire articles could be and have been written on these topics.
Lesson #1: The Days Are
Long but the Years Are Short
This was one of my late mom’s favorite phrases. In her final days, she confided in me how raising a family had seemed like a blur. Yet, she recalled long, arduous days, particularly when my sister and I were young. Days do feel long right now and are running together. My wife and I sure do miss school lunch and the break from midday meal preparation! Still, this extra time with my kids has highlighted how fast they’re growing. I see baby pictures on the walls and pre-teens in front of me. I really am trying my best to appreciate and smile when my 6-year-old pops into a Zoom session with clients.
Lesson #2: Technology
Is a Double-Edged Sword
My family has never attempted or completed more puzzles, Lego projects, board games, art projects, bike rides and family walks. It’s a wonderful reminder of my own childhood before technology infiltrated our way of life. At the same time, for many parents, plopping kids in front of an iPad feels like the only conceivable way to get through an important Zoom meeting. I’m utterly torn between gratitude for apps like Waze that simplify navigation and a longing for my kids to experience a childhood without omnipresent technology. Finding that balance is always top of mind.
Lesson #3: How Important Is Personal Productivity?
We all have an “around the house” list with items like make photo albums, clean out the garage, repair a creaky door, re-organize a closet, learn to play an instrument etc. That list was easily excused away amongst the craziness of our lives. What about now? Is the day well spent if we check items off the list? Or are we missing the chance to be present with our families? My sense is we don’t need any more pressure and stress than we already feel in a world of uncertainty. It’s probably best to cut ourselves some slack right now and pop in a few more Lego pieces with our kids.
Lesson #4: Our Fates Are Intertwined
Family isolation has a way of instilling a feeling of “us against the world.” We can’t rely on a traditional infrastructure to navigate our lives. So we band together with our immediate families, and yet our future health will be collectively determined by our social interaction. It would pain me to see us turn into a society of self-appointed police, tattling on our neighbors standing 5 ½ instead of six feet apart. Instead, I’m hopeful we will focus on common sense and making wise health decisions for our families to protect the broader community. We are truly in this together.
These are four lessons I plan to tape to my fridge right next to my kids’ virtual homework assignments. What about you? What learning will you bring forth from isolation when we finally emerge from our quarantine?
Jeff Cohen is the president of Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and can be reached at [email protected].