The loneliness of social distancing


At the beginning of last week, Jews were celebrating the festive holiday of Purim — with only limited COVID-19 concerns. But by week’s end, things got a lot more serious. State and local governments and the CDC issued edicts restricting communal gatherings; schools and synagogues announced they were closing; facilities for the elderly locked their doors to visitors; businesses faced a significant drop in customers; the sports world came to a screeching halt; and just about everyone became hyper-focused on handwashing and the art of “social distancing.”

The fast spreading coronavirus impacted our daily lives — so much so that even in an age of suburban sprawl, reclusive social media use and increasing social isolation, the idea of virus-motivated social and business restrictions felt foreign. Yet it is our new reality.In greater Washington, 39 Orthodox rabbis issued a joint letter proclaiming that “every member of the … community has a sacred responsibility to safeguard one’s own health as well as that of his/her neighbors. … Chesed and compassion are of paramount importance.” In New Jersey, the Bergen County Rabbinical Council ordered the closure of synagogues and prayer groups, urged restaurants to restrict business to take-out and recommended against all non-essential travel. Their reasoning was clear and correct: “Slowing the spread of the disease will allow our hospitals to best manage this situation. The only way to do this is for us to socially distance ourselves from one another. Moreover, the doctors emphasized that the most significant community closure possible will make the greatest impact in potentially saving lives in our area.”

The interconnected nature of religious observance makes Judaism remarkably social. Now, within our busy, engaging and embracing Jewish community, it felt a bit like the welcome lights were being turned off. And many in our community felt alone, left to fend for themselves, in an increasingly threatening world environment.

The challenge going forward is to figure out how to keep connected in an isolated world. Moving school instruction, synagogue services and other communal gatherings online may be only part of the answer. According to Rabbi Joshua Ladon, the West Coast director of education for the Shalom Hartman Institute, other pathways for connection will have to come from carefully orchestrated volunteer activity, designed to address communal needs: ”It is counterintuitive but clear that if we are going to get through this social distancing, we are going to have to do it together … Social distancing does not mean quarantine. This is a time to make sure everyone in our communities has the food and supplies they need, and to mobilize those who can deliver goods.”

And, it is a time to approach religious rituals and community interactions with heightened creativity and a new sensitivity.

We are in uncharted territory. Even as we look to our medical, religious, political and social leaders to help develop approaches to address our new challenges, each of us must still fend for ourselves and our families, and pursue a course that helps ensure the physical and emotional safety of those around us. While that may mean more handwashing, social distancing and telecommuting for us, it should also mean looking to friends and neighbors to do what we can to help them. We can worry about everything else once the serious health threat passes.

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