Come September, it looks like at least some schooling and most High Holy Days services will be done virtually while most of us remain at home. That means that we will lose the live, large community interaction that has always been valued by Judaism and school learning.
As we make choices between live, online, or hybrid school and religious experiences, the decision making can be anguishing. Though in Judaism, we always try to choose life first, there can be adverse side effects. Lives are liable to be saved if children stay home while the pandemic is ongoing, because not only can they get sick, but they can be silent carriers and spreaders of infection. A clear example of that occurred in Israel where sending children back to live schooling too soon caused a massive national resurgence of the virus. But what is likely to be lost if our community physical isolation continues?
Though the pandemic crisis is unique in our lifetime, there is some prior research which should be taken into account. The elderly, my age, are most at risk both from being infected with the virus and the adverse repercussions of isolation on physical and mental health. Adults at particular risk are those in marriages that are threatened by conflicts about work, children rearing, and home adjustments. Adolescence is the time for feeling invincible and when socializing means the most for developing identities. For younger children, those at the most risk are those who are “different” in any way or are lacking the resources to learn virtually, such as Black, Latino, and Native American children, especially.
Overall, if social isolation lasts too long, long-term earning capabilities decrease.
Yet, most of this prior scientific research predates the internet and social media. Though it can’t replace live interactions, having that alternative resource can allow focusing on those who need the most help, support and therapy to succeed.
Although live synagogue attendance and Jewish learning tends to be much less time intensive, it is of major potential spiritual and religious significance. It is still to be seen whether, like secular schooling, creative online services and more reliance on responsibility at home can make up for what is missing.
Despite all the challenges, the history of the Jewish people provides ample reasons to be optimistic. We’ve been through much worse in terms of disruptions. The biggest challenge may be mental. Much depends on our psychological ability to mourn what is lost, accept reality, avoid scapegoating, and reframe adversity into new opportunities. Our economy will rise when our pandemic subsides.
Given that the continuing lasting symptoms and unnecessary deaths have occurred because our city and most of our country did not continue sufficient preventive measures, I think what we should do for now in terms of schooling and services is scientifically clear. Proper physical isolation is still necessary, but social and spiritual isolating is not.
Steven (Hillel) Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He is a regular contributor to the Chronicle.