Editor’s Note: Transliterations in this magazine are based on Sephardic pronunciation, unless an author is known to use Ashkenazic pronunciation. Thus, the inconsistencies in transliterations are due to authors’ preferences.
Week of March 15
By Viva Hammer
We live together in coronavirus isolation in Sydney, Australia—my parents, my daughter and I. We are exceedingly busy doing absolutely nothing. Washing our hands again and again, then washing the towel that washed the hands. On the phone checking on people who are also in isolation.
My mother, who is in a high-risk category for the coronavirus, is participating in her board meetings on Zoom. My father, in an even higher risk category, is attending shiurim on Zoom. No one comes into the house, and we don’t go out except to places where there are no people. My daughter is in quarantine in her bedroom because she had been taking classes at a university campus where someone tested positive. We talk to her on the phone. She has the best Wifi in the house, so she’s set till Seder night.
In between my mother’s Zoom sessions and my father’s, I’m bleaching the kitchen before making Shabbos. Is bleach more poisonous than the virus? It’s an exceedingly hot day for a Sydney autumn, not autumn at all, and we’ve heard that the sun burns the virus. Last month, the sun burned Australia down; this month, it’s burning the virus down. That’s what they tell us and although I don’t believe the virus rumors, I still follow them, just in case. Doesn’t hurt to have the windows open and blankets scorched by the sun.
We are exceedingly busy doing absolutely nothing. Washing our hands again and again then washing the towel that washed the hands.
Midday has passed in Sydney, and the calls to my son and sister in the US will soon cease as they go to sleep, and then we will begin calling Europe and Israel before we light candles. The Jewish schools in Sydney have been canceled, and I can hear children shrieking with joy. Another summer vacation has arrived! I am relieved; they are at low risk for the virus. The older we are, the more we are at risk for the virus. The young ones, in their second summer vacation that might last a year, are safe.
Viva Hammer has held positions at the US Congress and US Treasury Department and is now at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University.
By Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
In the pre-corona era, we often received invitations to as many as three or four weddings a week. Of course, our current corona crisis has reshaped the entire issue. At the moment I write these words, Yerushalayim, where I live, is not under total lockdown but contact with other people is restricted to essentials, which, of course, includes political demonstrations.
Weddings are permitted, provided that attendance is limited to a very small group and social distancing is observed—at this moment defined as two meters distancing, windows open, and wishing mazel tov with elbow bumping. I have been fortunate to participate in a few such small wedding gatherings, most of them last-minute changes from what was originally planned—let’s call them “corona weddings.”
Today I attended one. Last-minute changes for this wedding meant that the chuppah took place in the backyard of the kallah’s family. The area was beautifully decorated; floral arrangements were brought in. The smorgasbord was definitely sparse, but not too many guests were starving at 1:30 pm.
Social distancing was observed; the beaming chatan and kallah were clearly thrilled to get married sooner rather than wait for a more “practical” time. Our local rav was mesader kiddushin, since the chatan’s rosh yeshivah was unable to.
The wedding repast was held in a neighbor’s house, since their living room area is larger than that of the kallah’s family. The neighbor, who is regarded as high risk, stayed in a room in his house for the entire simchah, sharing his home although he himself he could not participate. The meal was “catered” by the kallah’s sisters, and neighborhood boys volunteered to be the waiters.
Everyone involved in the wedding, from the chefs to the waiters, and certainly all the participants, had a tremendous sense of simchah. They were participating in a wedding because they wanted to, not because they assumed that they would be invited and felt required to attend. Social distancing proves to be more bonding than social convention.
I suspect that the parents’ simchah was increased knowing that they have not accumulated huge debts or used up most of their life’s savings that could have been better used elsewhere.
Any suggestions on how we can continue having “corona weddings” after this crisis ends? Personally, I would forgo the elbow bumping for more traditional hugs, kisses and handshakes.
Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff, formerly a pulpit rav in Buffalo and Baltimore now lives in Neve Yaakov in Jerusalem, where he teaches, writes, and visits Jewish communities all over the world (when there is no threat of the coronavirus). He is a prolific author on rabbinic scholarship, both in English and Hebrew.
A Single Mom Reflects on Corona
We don’t know why Hashem brought the coronavirus to the world. We don’t know why Hashem wants schools shuttered and shuls shut down. We don’t know why Hashem wants people to stay home alone.
Maybe, just maybe, Hashem wants everyone to know what it feels like to be alone.
Maybe, just maybe, Hashem wants everyone to know how the divorced, widowed, and agunot feel hourly, daily, weekly.
And maybe, just maybe, Hashem wants everyone to know what it feels like on Shabbos morning when all the men are walking to shul with their sons and there are boys on the block who have no one to take them, no one to sit next to, and no one to show them the place in the siddur.
Maybe, just maybe, while we’re in quarantine, we can really put ourselves in another person’s shoes for the first time and figure out ways to help them.
Hashem is giving us this gift.
Let us use it wisely.
We Cannot Part
By Viva Hammer
The strongest human need is the need for each other. For some time, my parents, my daughter and I have lived in one house. But now, the infectiousness of the coronavirus means that I must choose between my parents’ safety and my daughter’s healthy social life. If my daughter wants to see her friends and ride on public transportation, she must leave us. “You’re throwing me out?” she cries in disbelief as she drives off to the third social engagement of the day, a day after we’ve gone into isolation. My daughter can’t believe what I am saying. Neither can I.
I explained the virus to her and why we must be cut off from contact with other people, that my parents are elderly and very much at risk. But my daughter can’t believe I would enforce the rule: if she wishes to be with us, she can be with no one but us. And this condition of our lives may last months or more. We do not know how long.
In the days before we began to isolate, we hosted my daughter’s birthday party and a Purim party, went to two Megillah readings, shopped, and wandered the malls. We will not do any of those things again for a long time.
And while we make plans to lock ourselves away, almost no one in Australia, where we live, is sick. Two weeks ago I asked: how can they shut down civilization for the sake of a few sick people? But one person turned into two, and two into four and four into eight, and it only takes twenty-seven days of doubling to go from one to a million. No country has recorded daily doubles yet, but that is the shape of the curve. So we tell our loved ones goodbye; we will see you again in another season, or another year or on the screen.
Week of March 22
By Larry Rothwachs, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld
The difficult challenge that has confronted me personally has been, on the one hand, to impress upon the community how serious this medical crisis is, while, on the other hand, not making people who are already quite anxious become more anxious, worried and scared. I want to convey a sense of calm and reassurance and tell people they’re going to be okay and that we’re going to get through this together. But if the message is too positive, and if it sounds like, “Don’t worry,” what I would essentially be doing is allowing people to let their guard down.
I shared the following recently with my community: There is a model in grieving that delineates five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It was interesting to see this play out on a communal level. When we canceled shul, on the “morning after,” there was denial and anger—not anger at the rabbis personally, but institutionally there was a feeling of, “How dare you shut down our houses of worship?” Bargaining followed, as we worked through decisions about public rituals and semachot, and now we’re sort of hovering between depression and acceptance. Pesach is now looming, and I’m having heartbreaking conversations with people who have elderly parents, and singles in the community who are terrified of being alone on Pesach. It’s painful.
Technology is playing a major role in this as well. I have preached frequently over the years about the very corrosive effects of technology and how it has really impacted our community in a negative way. So I found it incredibly ironic—and I’m still trying to make sense of it—how technology has enabled us to function and remain connected in a meaningful way; it’s been a lifeline for so many people. At the same time, social distancing has been a hard reset on the world and society, and I believe it has enabled us to realize how important human connection is.
Pesach is now looming, and I’m having heartbreaking conversations with people who have elderly parents, and singles in the community who are terrified of being alone on Pesach. It’s painful.
It’s hard to explain to people, especially young children, adolescents, and even people in their young twenties, who don’t remember life before smartphones or social media, what they are missing. But now, with all these physical barriers that have been put into place, there’s this genuine craving that people are having for connection. I hope this will continue long after corona is over.
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs has served as rabbi of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, New Jersey since August 2002.
Rachel Wizenfeld is a Los-Angeles-based writer, crisis counselor and school psychology graduate student. She is a longtime contributor to Jewish Action and to other publications.
In Our Isolation, We Are Together
By Viva Hammer
On the seventh day of our isolation from the coronavirus, I call a friend sitting shivah for his father. Three mourners sit alone, together. No visitor can come physically to comfort them.
The man who died was a legendary bookseller in his nineties whose funeral and shivah would have drawn thousands. The Brooklyn community where he sold sefarim, sacred books, was settled by Holocaust survivors. When they celebrate, and when they mourn, they do so in masses, to remind themselves that they have not been defeated. No! They grow and flourish.
My friend describes the surrealness of mourning in these times. The front door is locked; no one comes in and no one leaves. There is no minyan and no Kaddish.
“We are in isolation now with all the world,” my friend tells me. “And in our isolation,” he concludes, “we are together.”
Thoughts from an Agunah
A good friend asked me today how I’m doing. I said that of course I feel terrible for those stricken with the virus, and even more so for those who passed away and for their families, but that in terms of how I’m feeling day to day while living with the coronavirus, it’s really no different than my day-to-day life without the coronavirus.
The uncertainty, the hoping, the praying. . . . Not knowing if my husband will serve me with papers again to try to wrest custody of our three kids away from me, or if he will contact my neighbors again, spreading lies. The only certainty I live with is Hashem’s constant Presence—Him holding my hand through the pain and the uncertainty that is my life.
A Web of Care
By Viva Hammer
On a regular day, no one says hello on the street where I live. Even people I walk past on a daily basis don’t return my greeting; they look at me as if I must be deranged to greet a stranger.
I haven’t seen the adults in the homes next door to us, although I hear their children’s shrieks and laughter. “Do we have enough to do at home for half a year?” I ask my mother, after we have been in isolation for two-and-a-half days, gardening, reading, cooking. The weather is beautiful, the air is clearer every day. Maybe we are deranged, I think. How can the virus be among us on days like today?
And then these strangers, my neighbors, start delivering food parcels to the door, sending notes, calling, asking how they can help, what we need. The shul my father has davened in for thirty years, which is now shut, has gathered a corps of volunteers to help out the isolated. This neighborhood, which was once too self-involved to help or be helped, has become a web of care. We don’t even know the faces of our helping angels, or their names. But one day, when the virus is spent, we will meet and greet each other. Even shake hands. May that time come speedily. And may our care for one another survive what comes after.
By Mitch Karpp
The coronavirus outbreak seemed to kick into high gear within Jewish communities in the US during Parashat Ki Tisa. The very first verse in that Torah portion discusses the proper way in which to count Jews, to prevent the consequence of affliction by a plague. I was stunned to read this verse just as I received an e-mail from my local shul announcing the first set of restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the disease. Perhaps Covid-19 is a message to us that we are not “counting” each other in the right way? In our lives filled with busyness and distraction, do we really stop and notice the other people in our communities? Do we appreciate the value in others, or even in ourselves? Do we view each and every Jew as being a vital part of the community? Like the addict or the alcoholic who sometimes needs to hit rock bottom before he sees how bad his situation truly is, perhaps the concept of social distancing in such an extreme form is Hashem’s way of telling us that we have hit rock bottom in the way we perceive and value each other.
Yes, this time is very challenging, but I am also a more grateful person than I was two weeks ago.
This idea has really hit home for me; I find myself appreciating my wife more than ever. The same thing is true regarding my children, all three of whom are not even out of preschool yet. Parenthood is extremely challenging and demanding, but with this additional time home with them and my changed perspective, I have become calmer and happier than I was before the quarantining began. I see this with my neighbors as well; it is heartwarming to see people, who would normally be working or doing other activities, spending time outdoors with their children.
I’ve learned from my own personal hardships in life that the greatest challenges and tests that one passes through are also the biggest blessings. So yes, this time is very challenging, but I am also a more grateful person today than I was two weeks ago.
Mitch Karpp lives in Henderson, Nevada with his wife Megan and their three children. He is a special education teacher with the Clark County School District and has been teaching for twenty years.
By Zev Wiener
Both the Torah and contemporary mental health literature emphasize the importance of kevius and seder, regularity and routine, in our everyday lives. The Beis Hamikdash service followed a specific daily schedule; the periodicity of the Jewish holiday season punctuates the year with predictable energies; shuls, schools and professional sports leagues all operate on regular calendars. This consistency can affect our general sense of stability in deep ways that we often don’t appreciate until they are disrupted. The disruption we are experiencing can exert a profound effect on a person’s basic sense of calm and can call into question many of the basic assumptions one has always carried about life.
These are times when our mettle is being tested. The Ribbono Shel Olam is asking us to muster every ounce of inner strength, talent and wisdom that we collectively have, to take care of each other throughout this ordeal, and to rise to even greater heights than we ever thought possible for the sake of our families, our people and the world.
It’s beyond inspiring to see how people are doing this. The number of Zoom Torah classes, random check-in text messages, Tehillim WhatsApp groups, volunteer delivery services and chesed buddy systems that have sprung up is simply astounding. There were no classes in rabbinical school, yeshivah or seminary entitled “How to Lead When the World Seems to Be Falling Apart.” But every single Torah class was actually teaching us all along how to do this, because all of Torah is ultimately about developing our inner Divine compass. And when our compass is calibrated, it will guide us in any situation.
Rabbi Dr. Zev Wiener serves as attending psychiatrist at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, runs a private practice in psychiatry, and serves as resident maggid shiur at Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles.
Week of April 17
By Tammy Jacobowitz, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld
When it comes to distance learning, on one hand we are isolated and apart, but on the other hand it’s much more intimate. I have access to my students in ways I don’t usually have: I see their shared bedrooms, what they have on their walls, what’s in their basements, et cetera. I’ve been bringing this into the classroom rather than pretending it’s not there. I might ask a student, “Tell me what’s behind you,” or “I see you’re in a different place today—what’s going on in your house?”
I find myself spending the first five minutes of every class period creating a feeling of community. SAR is known as the school with no walls. I always knew that when I walk into my teaching space, I need to create the room for learning to happen; I can’t rely on the walls to do that for me. But the truth is that having a teaching space is always a fiction, no matter what the environment is. You have to create it and structure it and bring students in through the ideas you share. Teaching on Zoom, however, I realize this more clearly.
As a teacher, I have been very resistant to use technology with my students. In our class my students know that there are no iPads; we use pencil and paper. One of my teaching goals is to have people see and learn from each other’s faces. But now there’s no choice; we have to use screens. We are able to have eye contact, but it’s inevitably mediated through screens. I find myself getting a headache from staring into screens, while I draw my students’ attention away from even more screens. But these screens that I try to avoid are what’s allowing me to see my students, and allowing them to feel my love for them.
My students are each struggling in his or her own way. One student told me, “I miss all the small interactions, all those in-between class conversations when I can talk to a teacher or a classmate tells me she likes my skirt and then I have a nice two-minute conversation with her. Now all my interactions are purposeful and planned.” For teenagers especially, those impromptu moments are such an important part of socializing.
Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz is the Tanach department chair and director of Makom B’Siach at SAR High School in Riverdale, New York.
A Corona Wedding
By Bryna Nirenberg, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld
We got engaged in January and were planning to have our wedding in Baltimore, two Sundays before Pesach. Three weeks before the wedding, things started to snowball. The shul where our wedding was supposed to take place closed. We said to ourselves, “Okay, so it will be a little different than we imagined.” We began texting all of our friends, letting them know the wedding was canceled for now and that we weren’t sure what would be happening. So many people wrote back to us with supportive words; it made us appreciate how many people cared about us. Then, two weeks before our wedding date, we started hearing that a travel ban from New York would be imposed. How would Aryeh’s parents, who live in Monsey, attend the wedding in Baltimore? Suddenly, all our worries about what to wear, the menu, et cetera, seemed irrelevant! The numbers permitted for gatherings kept getting lower: first 250 people, then fifty; our rav advised that only immediate family and the eidim (witnesses) should attend.
Three weeks before the wedding, things started to snowball. The shul where our wedding was supposed to take place closed . . . we started hearing that a travel ban from New York would be imposed. How would Aryeh’s parents, who live in Monsey, attend the wedding in Baltimore?
We moved up our wedding by about a week. The location kept changing as well. Finally, we planned a small seudah at a hotel in West Virginia (weddings had been banned in Maryland) and got married outside at Harpers Ferry. The wedding was attended by our families, the caterer, the photographer, the mesader kiddushin and the eidim. We maintained social distancing; we did the best we could. It was small and intimate, different than what we expected. We tried to do a livestream for our friends and extended family but had forgotten to bring the connecting cable. Some in attendance took videos, which we shared.
We had no sheva berachos, and we’ve been making Shabbos for ourselves. The decision to make Pesach by ourselves felt daunting at first, but we supported each other and it ended up being wonderful. We cooked and cleaned together. No newlywed couple would have chosen this, but it was actually amazing just being home together.
Bryna Nirenberg is a Baltimore native and nursing student who lives with her new husband, Aryeh, in Baltimore, Maryland.
By Zahava Farbman, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld
If you asked me today what the hardest part is right now, I would say it’s the post-Pesach feeling. I think many people were thinking, “There’s no school until after Pesach. We’ll make it to Pesach.” People were really holding on to the belief that life would be restored to normal after Pesach. But that’s not the case. Now it seems there’s no end in sight. Additionally, we have suddenly been hit with the reality of how many we’ve lost over Pesach. We really need to find the chizuk to go on.
Hashem always provides the refuah (remedy) before the makkah (affliction). Here the obvious refuah is technology. There’s been a tremendous amount of chizuk being given to the community through shiurim and therapy via Zoom sessions, among other initiatives. In my community, several organizations got together and set up a suicide hotline before yom tov for people who felt really on the edge and for whom being alone over Pesach could lead to suicide ideation. Sadly, we received plenty of calls. This is an unprecedented situation, but we as a community are stepping up to the plate.
We’ve been spending our lives learning emunah, teaching emunah, and raising our children with emunah. Now is the time to be living emunah.
Self-care is extremely important for all of us right now. The days I get out for a walk are better days for me. There are art classes or exercise classes available on Zoom, and even taking a half hour to curl up with a book or to call a friend is so important.
There is an opportunity now to focus on oneself, to dig deep and be introspective. Each person needs to find chizuk, whether by listening to shiurim or learning an inspiring sefer. Most importantly, we need to take the time now to focus on our connection to Hashem. We’re not in shul with everyone else; we are home alone. Talk to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Finally, the only reassurance we have right now is our emunah. We’ve been spending our lives learning emunah, teaching emunah, and raising our children with emunah. Now is the time to be living emunah.
Zahava Farbman, MSW, PhD candidate, is associate director, Chai Lifelines Crisis Intervention, Trauma and Bereavment Department.
By Charles Traube, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld
Covid-19 has ravaged patients, and it has ravaged doctors, emotionally and physically as well. I’ve seen a lot of patients pass away. When you take care of patients for twenty-five or thirty years, you develop a relationship with them; you know their wives and children, their fears, the weddings that are coming up, their grandchildren. Then suddenly they contract this virus, and a week later they are gone.
One patient came to see me over twenty years ago. He had already been placed on a waiting list for a heart transplant because his heart function was so poor. We were able to help him, and his health improved dramatically; he was lower on the list because he was doing so well. He was able to attend his children’s weddings, and spend time with his grandkids, things I never thought he would do. Then he contracted Covid-19, and within three days he was gone. Emotionally, this experience just drains you. Each patient has a family—you’ve got to speak to the family members and have compassion for what they’re going through, while at the same time you have eight other phone calls waiting to be made—to patients who think they have Covid-19, who are having panic attacks and patients who actually do have Covid-19. You feel like you’re in a MASH unit.
My practice is affiliated with Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. Because of its location, the hospital is bearing the brunt of this crisis—it’s treating 600 patients with Covid-19. The hospital ICU can usually accommodate twenty beds. Now there’s an ICU on every floor, all full. Nurses and medical personnel are flying in from all over the country because there’s simply not enough staff. Additionally, medical staff members are getting sick as well. It’s a chaotic situation.
It feels like we’re in the middle of a war. I think we’re going to see a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder among the physicians who are in the hospital every day.
I’m spending a tremendous amount of time practicing “telemedicine,” calling patients to see if they’re safe or if they have symptoms. Coming into the office would be dangerous for patients, so we’re doing the best we can. Normally, if a patient calls complaining of chest pain, we advise him to be on the safe side and to go to the hospital to get an EKG. But now, going to the hospital would be putting him at risk, so we’re trying to avoid that. We make educated guesses based on our experience.
The emotional pressure is extraordinary. I’m used to losing a patient a month; at the peak of the pandemic in New York, I was losing three patients a day. It just shakes your foundation.
Our patients depend on us; we are their agents of health. And now there is nothing we can do as we watch this illness devastate them. It’s a terrible illness. It attacks the lungs, then the body attacks the infection and causes a horrific type of pneumonia, which then results in systemic problems, such as kidney and clotting issues. Once a corona patient is placed on a ventilator, his chance for survival is not very good.
We have to go on, and hopefully there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s been a very long tunnel.
It feels like we’re in the middle of a war. I think we’re going to see a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the physicians and health care professionals who are in the hospital every day. I’m starting to see it already. Once some semblance of normalcy returns, the medical professionals are going to have to process the enormity of what’s happened: bodies in the morgue waiting to be picked up by funeral homes; planeloads of bodies sent to Israel to be buried, the deaths in the hospital day in and day out. Despite everything the doctors and hospitals are doing, patients just keep on dying. It’s surreal.
To me, the saddest part of it is the loneliness. People go to the hospital alone, they die alone and are buried alone. I went into cardiology because I wanted to help people. Unfortunately, in my field, people do die, but not all that frequently. Over the years, I’ve developed close relationships with many of my patients. I’m not just losing a lot of patients; I’m also losing a lot of friends.
Dr. Charles Traube has a cardiology practice in Brooklyn, New York. He’s an assistant clinical professor at Downstate Medical Center.
Report from the Critical Care Unit
By Yehudis Brown, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld
When the virus first hit, it was incredibly stressful and frightening. Information about the virus kept changing and nurses were unsure how this would impact us. Every Friday night after lighting candles, I would cry, “Hashem, please send a yeshuah!” I was transferred from cardiology to the critical care unit to help manage the overload of vented patients. As I found my footing working in the critical care unit, I began to feel more helpful. Feeling useless doesn’t help your mental state.
I usually work ten-hour days, four days a week. The past few weeks I’ve been working twelve-hour days, five days a week. It wasn’t much of a decision; this was just what I was going to do. My husband is incredibly supportive. I have a six-year-old and two-year-old twins at home. The six-year-old understands that his Mommy has to work to help people feel better. He makes signs that he posts on the door for me to see when I get home: “Come see me when you’re home!” The twins have no understanding of what’s going on.
There is a lot of teamwork in my unit, which is incredibly uplifting and keeps our morale high. We have members of all disciplines—anesthesiologists, critical care specialists, physical therapists—coming to turn the intubated patients. No one talks down to the others, despite his or her credentials or experience.
At this point, the intensity has shifted. Last week we had no room in our unit; every space was filled. Now we have beds available, unfortunately due to deaths. For every corona patient who got off a ventilator, there were three to five patients on ventilators who passed away.
When a patient passes away, we have a moment of silence. Someone will say, “Let’s remember that this patient was a person; he was a husband, a father, a grandfather.” It provides the patient with dignity. He or she is not dying alone. These patients unfortunately are dying without their families, but they’re never dying alone. Medical professionals are always in the room. Because families cannot physically be with their loved ones, we do provide Facetime screens for patients, but in our units it’s difficult because the patients are sedated and are not alert.
I was present recently when an Orthodox Jew was passing away. As the doctors and nurses practiced a moment of silence, I was able to recite a few chapters of Tehillim. It’s incredibly sad. The decline is so fast; we can try and try, but we are often helpless. It’s very heartbreaking.
Most times I am able to compartmentalize, but I do break down sometimes. I try to release my emotions because that’s what you have to do in order to keep working with patients. While I understand the need to get to know each patient and his or her life story, it does make it more painful when they don’t make it.
Many professionals are saying this situation is similar to wartime medicine. My grandmother was a nurse during WWII in France; I wish I could talk to her to find out how she dealt with it. (She is no longer living.) All of us in the field are facing equipment shortages and dealing with so much death. Many of us feel that we are likely to have PTSD after this time period, just like after a war.
Yehudis Brown is a nurse practitioner at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, New York.
By Isaac Schechter, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld
There are so many people grieving right now. All the notices in the Jewish media about people who have passed away are assaulting our sense of normal. It’s important to limit exposure to the media, especially for people who are susceptible to depression, whether due to previous loss or because they are not occupied with work or a family. It’s easy for such individuals to get drawn in.
People are grieving for various things: lost hopes and expectations, job loss, the inability to go to school or do their usual activities due to isolation, et cetera. This is “lowercase grief,” but it, too, is grieving.
When someone loses a loved one, the rituals and practices of Jewish mourning, the levayah and the shivah, are important, even vital, as they provide a profound sense of comfort. But they’re not essential for the mourner’s ability to grieve. What is essential is the relationship, the connection and history with the person who passed away.
. . . the rituals of Jewish mourning are important . . . but they are not essential for the mourner’s ability to grieve. What is essential is the relationship, the connection and history with the person who passed away.
A man I know just lost his father. Thankfully, he was able to reach a doctor who placed the phone next to his father so he could say Vidui with him before he passed away. His father may not even have heard his son on the phone or known what was going on, but the son was able to share that moment with his father. What’s essential in such a situation is to come to terms with what you were able to do and what you weren’t able to do. Maybe you were able to pack some extra food, a little chicken soup, for your loved one as he was rushed off to the hospital, and maybe you weren’t. It seems like an insignificant act, but there are many fractals of pain, and at every level and every stage there is an element of grief for what you were and weren’t able to do.
The pain of knowing one’s loved one passed away alone without family by his or her bedside is profound. It’s important to realize that the grief one feels is not just for the loss, it’s for everything that surrounds the loss. The loved one being alone. The days or weeks of not being able to comfort one’s family member or medically advocate for him. These are very painful things and it takes time to process. One must go back to the essential parts of the relationship and think about the loved one’s entire life, not just the end but how one was able to be mechabed (honor) his loved one and give to him throughout his life.
Practically, even if one cannot sit a typical shivah, one can speak with family members and friends on the phone or via Zoom. The point of talking is not to make everything okay, but to acknowledge one’s sadness. It’s okay to be sad, and it’s also okay to be distracted and come back to the feelings. One doesn’t have to make the sadness and the pain go away. The more the relationship meant, the more pain will be present.
Dr. Isaac Schechter is a clinical psychologist and the chief clinical officer of Achieve Behavioral Health, the largest provider of behavioral health in Monsey and Monroe in upstate New York. He also founded the Institute for Applied Research and Community Collaboration (ARCC) to promote research on health, behavioral health and social issues in the frum community.
By Tzipora Zelmanowitz, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld
I am lucky that during this time I’m still able to see and spend time with my family members who live just a few blocks away from me, and that for Pesach I was able to be with them. But I have several friends who spent Pesach alone. I felt guilty about that. Why am I so fortunate that I could be with my family; why me and not them? I had to process those feelings.
Having said that, being in my apartment alone for most of the day is incredibly difficult. Seeing posts on social media from married friends struggling to homeschool their children or to maintain shalom bayis only reminds me and my fellow singles of everything we yearn for. Particularly when the world seems bleak and there is so much death and sickness around us, we want to be comforted by a life partner. So many of my friends have expressed the wish to just have someone at home with them to talk to and to cry with. It’s heartbreaking.
I go back and forth with regard to dating. There is some peace of mind in that dating is not on the agenda right now; I’m not going out to meet people or to attend singles’ events, so the pressure is off. But my younger brother was supposed to get married this week, and while it’s not happening as planned, there’s a lot of talk among my family members about alternative plans. That shifts my thoughts back to “my younger brother is getting married and I’m not even dating, and my birthday is next month,” and then I spiral down. I’m very grateful that my job is keeping me busy, but on the days that I’m less busy I find myself spiraling.
Seeing posts on social media from my married friends struggling to homeschool their children or to maintain shalom bayis only reminds me and my fellow singles of everything we yearn for.
This situation has forced me to strengthen my faith in God. I’m working on reevaluating the way I daven and relating to God without feeling anger or resentment.
During this time, if one is not careful, one can begin to feel bitter. We all have struggles at whatever stage of life we’re at, and I can’t imagine trying to do my work with kids running around the house. But at the same time, I find myself saying, “At least they’re married and at least they have children.” At the end of the day, if I take care of my mental health and keep happy and put things in perspective, the negative feelings tend to stay away. But particularly at this time, people should remember their single friends. When family members and friends call me, even if I can’t take the call, it makes me feel that I’m not alone.
Tzipora Zelmanowitz lives in Queens, New York and works as a trusts and estates litigator. She is also a singles and mental health advocate, using social media as a platform to coach singles and marrieds on empowering one another regardless of marital status.
By Tania Hammer
Shalom Aleichem is a poem we sing before Kiddush, heralding the festive Friday night meal. “Peace be upon you, heavenly angels on high, our Shabbat guardians from God.”
“Shalom aleichem,” peace be upon you, is also a warm greeting we extend to people we haven’t seen in a while, usually accompanied by a handshake or a hug. Albeit none of that these days . . .
It is erev Shabbat and I’ve been in complete isolation in a Jerusalem hotel since Tuesday, Chol Hamoed Pesach. Everyone on the flight was brought here directly from Ben Gurion Airport and was ordered to stay in our rooms. Cameras are everywhere. And with military precision, as the management of coronavirus is in the Israeli military’s hands, we are ordered to go back to our rooms if we are spotted anywhere outside.
Shabbat is my favorite day, whether it’s the Shabbat I welcome fifty guests or the Shabbat I spend alone. But never before has my Shabbat been challenged with quarantine isolation. In preparation for this quarantine Shabbat—there was not much to do—I invited the heavenly angels to be my guests. They have accompanied me every Shabbat, sent by our Maker. No, I couldn’t chat with the angels, but I could sing songs, I could pray, I could read . . . this would be a different type of Shabbat.
On March 1, I left Jerusalem for New York to celebrate a wedding. I had watched the bride grow up, and when I made aliyah three years ago, I made a pact with my dear friend, the bride’s mother, that I would not miss her daughter’s wedding. The virus was just gaining traction then. Israel had closed its borders to China in late January and we were given hand sanitizer at work. But there was not one person who advised against my two-week trip.
I arrived in New York on March 2. In the car on my way to where I was staying, the radio announced that 200 people had tested positive for the virus. By the time the wedding took place on March 4, 1,000 people had tested positive. At the wedding, no one thought they had the virus. And no one fell ill because of the wedding, we thought. The next week was Purim. And then my March 14 return date to Israel was canceled. I was going to be in New York for the duration. And in that duration, the Jewish community in New York, which had been my home for thirty years, was transformed.
Yosef, the guy in the hotel room next door knocks on my door. “Let’s make Kiddush together,” he says from his doorway. Great idea. It will lift our spirits. If we are told by the authorities over the loud intercom system to go back indoors, we will.
In his booming voice, Yosef announces: “Kiddush!”
Never before has my Shabbat been challenged with quarantine isolation. . . . In preparation for this quarantine Shabbat—there was not much to do— I invited the heavenly angels to be my guests. No, I couldn’t chat with the angels, but I could sing songs, I could pray, I could read . . . this would be a different type of Shabbat.
One by one, heads pop out of doors. Every Israeli knows what Friday night Kiddush is, and all of us in this quarantine are Israeli. A chance to see another human being is too good to pass up. Complete isolation is one of the hardest things a human being can do. Whether you are in prison or a five-star hotel, not being allowed to see other people is harrowing.
We start singing “Shalom Aleichem.” We are roused into the song, poetry from a bygone era welcoming our ethereal guests. And we welcomed each other as well. As if we were all guests of one another. Yosef then made Kiddush in his deep baritone voice. Never so poignant were the words from Bereishit: “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because He abstained from all His work which He had done.”
I thought about what I had done the previous six days. At a Seder in New York, I waited—with my belt tightened and my bag packed with unleavened dough—until the signal came that I could leave, which I did, on the wings of eagles. I also thought of the previous six weeks in New York and the devastation the virus had wreaked there. And now, how blessed I was to be in Jerusalem in the best of health, alone but with angels on my hotel floor. How much meaning the poem had now, in an antiseptic environment where we couldn’t eat together but could sing from our doors, heralding in another Shabbat which was not just another Shabbat. It was certainly different. Very peaceful. The angels—both ethereal and human—had done their job.
Tania Hammer lives in Jerusalem. She was placed in quarantine when she returned to Jerusalem after a trip to Long Island, New York that was supposed to be a week and ended up being six weeks. She hosts beautiful Shabbat meals, and at her table everyone is welcome.
More in this section:
How Covid-19 is Bring Out the Best in Us, as told to Rachel Wizenfeld