Building Community While Six Feet Apart

(l-r) Lauren Sterling, Erika London Bocknek, Jen Lader, Lisa Klein. Photo credit: Lindsay Cox.
By Lauren Sterling, English teacher, Hillel Day School;
Erika London Bocknek, PhD, LMFT, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, Wayne State University;
Jen Lader, Rabbi, Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, MI; and
Lisa Klein, MD, FAAP, Pediatrician, Child Health Associates, PC, MI

We watch our children when they think they are alone – tossing a baseball into a well-oiled glove in the backyard, lying in a hammock with their book open to the same page for hours, playing video games until the sun goes down – while we, a family therapist, a pediatrician, a teacher, and a rabbi, take our Zoom calls from the kitchen table. We yearn for the playtime that was once worry-free and intimate: sweaty team huddles and joyous songs around a campfire, sticky arms draped around friends. Our hearts break for our children, who dream of jumping out of the minivan in the school dropoff line to high-five their “besties,” nervous and excited on their first day back to school. Like so many other parents, we hope that our children’s simple desires can somehow be fulfilled in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

We are mothers. We imagine our children at school, carefully entering their school buildings, their temperatures recorded, masks covering their sweet faces as they search for familiarity. They find their way to their classrooms, and their teachers reassure them, tempering their own personal anxiety for the benefit of their students. They can’t touch them. They can’t get too close. 

We wonder how long it will last. We wonder if our children will be resilient. 

We then imagine them sitting once again at our kitchen tables in front of their virtual learning centers, the strained internet connection exacerbating their sense of disconnection. They will be lonely. They will manage their frustration. We will watch, feeling proud and angry, grateful and disheartened all at the same time.

We wonder how long this will last. We wonder if our children will be resilient.

As we make countless decisions about our kids, their education, our work, and our households, trying to hold our families and community together, all four of us face the same overwhelming question: what is the best way to help our children? We encourage them to be safe, to wear their masks and wash their hands. We offer the adults in their lives tips to protect their mental health. We remind parents to keep their kids reading, keep them learning, keep them exploring. We help guard their souls and walk them through grief and loss and adaptation.

But know this. We cannot fully protect our own children from this pain, and we cannot offer easy answers for you to protect yours. What we can do – what we MUST do – is commit to using the full force of our collective power to try. To combine resources and ideas, working together with each other and our community organizations to provide support to all children and families in these uncertain times.  

We watch the debate rage about in-person versus remote learning, and we see a reckoning. This disaster has exposed existing cracks in our systems, the ones most at the center of our humanity: education, childcare, health, mental health. We face widening disparities, and Black Americans bear the highest burden of our failings. Child abuse and neglect rates are on the rise, and we have no systematic plan across communities to reach families and prevent increasing violence. For too long, we have relied on the underpaid educational workforce to teach, babysit, and nurse, expecting schools to provide food, refuge, and social work with thin, splintering funding. Together, we stand at a fork in the road: which path will we choose? What will the history books say when our kids are grown? Can we reframe the story of disaster into a story of community

Communities across the globe light the way. In the Netherlands, volunteer groups help people who cannot leave their homes. Dubliners play outdoor “balcony bingo” to find moments of joy with their neighbors. College students and recent college graduates in the U.S. founded Covaid, a mutual aid platform to make volunteer support connections. In our hometown, Detroit, the community organizations are hard at work. Brilliant Detroit, for instance, supports neighbor-to-neighbor sharing of food, books, and even tele-mental health services. Our Jewish Federation continues to offer monetary support from Hebrew Free Loan and Ruach, a volunteer-run initiative made up of therapists, social workers, rabbis, and chaplains, has been established to offer emotional and spiritual support. 

Our Jewish community has, time and again, faced disaster with a storied pattern of resilience. In the face of COVID-19, we will do it again – all the while remaining 6 feet apart. In our minds, we see our children on blankets in parking lots of temples, synagogues, and schools, solving math problems in pods with teachers and volunteers, rather than sitting alone in front of their computers. We envision reaching out to not only the parents of the children with whom we usually spend time, but broadening our networks so all families feel the support of the community, without the entrance fee of private tutors. Our teens could reach out to provide virtual academic support or social connection to their peers, especially only children without siblings, or those who live with working or single parents. Our younger children could connect with new friends with a range of abilities to play distanced games and discover mutual interests. We ask our beloved institutions to evaluate their outdoor spaces, put up shelters, and invite the community to physically distance. 

What the four of us know is that there is only a future to walk into, not a past to which to cling. We all must know who we can count on, because at the heart of our well-being is the power of relationships and human connection that make us healthy and strong. 

To hold up our children in this uncertain world, our communities must harness our strengths and push our thinking and creativity so that even as we make our way through this collective disaster, we will thrive and persevere. This is what is demanded of us. And we will answer the call.