Coping with COVID
(it’s only week 2)

By Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D.

I’ve spent the past week leading webinars. I’ve taught about the psychological impact on families, about our anxiety, about the needs of Jewish professionals. I’ve met with a group of local Rabbis, who have been in a lunch and learn with me for months. I’ve taught 6th and 7th graders and their parents and co-led two Mussar groups, trying to access Middot to help us through this complicated time.

And I’ve watched zoom meetings and live-streamed services. I’ve seen empty sanctuaries and classrooms. And I’ve seen the insides of people’s homes all week, couches and beds and walls filled with artwork or books.

This is what I’ve learned so far. Your Rabbis are spent. They are overworked and worried. They’re worried about congregants and families and about the long-term survival of synagogues. They’re worried about isolated individuals and suicides and how to say viddui over the phone or lead a funeral. They’re scared for their families and sad for canceled B’nai Mitzvah and delayed weddings. They’re burned out – and it’s only week 2. The needs are endless.

And I’ve also learned that there’s an upside here. On Shabbat morning, I met – virtually of course – with my 6/7 grade class, – a group of students and parents who have been learning together all year. We talked about our being in the wilderness these days. I asked them, using the analogy of the Exodus, what slavery was and what they thought freedom would look like. I expected both kids and adults would reflect on school and work as slavery, and that freedom would be the freedom to leave home and be with others. That’s not what they said.

Slavery, according to this group of parents and kids, was the rat race of doing a lot to fill time without asking if we actually care about what we’re doing. Slavery is too much scheduled. Slavery is being busy for the sake of being busy. Slavery is trying to be friends with popular kids rather than the kids you like. Slavery is not listening to one’s own values.

“And freedom?” I asked them. What does the Promised Land look like? They spoke about wanting to stay slowed down, to continue to walk and play games and spend time together. To appreciate family and friends. To be together with the people that matter.

I’ve thought about virtual Pesach this week. My grandchildren are way too little for a virtual seder of any length. But what if we thought simply about these three stages: slavery, wilderness and freedom? What if we shared these experiences together? And, because Jews need 4 questions, an easy 4th question might be “What is hidden these days?” Think afikomen.

My congregation, Temple Sinai of Stamford, had almost 200 computers tuned in for Kabbalat Shabbat and another 50 for Havdalah services. We came together, as much for the community as for worship. Connection matters, especially now. Maybe we’re learning that in a deeper way. I only hope these lessons stick. And I know we can’t only rely on the clergy to strengthen the lessons. So call people, reach out, skype, facetime. Create rituals, like a roses and thorns jar (make this tangible – it’s an archive of this experience). Tell people you miss them. Play Mah Jong or bridge over the internet with your friends. We are not alone.

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D. is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis. She also teaches a parent-child class in her synagogue, Temple Sinai of Stamford, which is a monthly, text-based for 6th and 7th graders and their parents.

Betsy also teaches webinars and seminars on topics ranging from a series of national webinars on “13 Reasons Why” to adolescent spirituality to Gen-Xers as parents and teen brains and stress. She is an engaging speaker whose passion for the lives of teens and their parents has brought her invitations to teach all over the United States. She has worked with the Jewish Education Project on multiple webinars and live teaching opportunities, including trips to Broadways shows, Character Strengths and Bullying.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Betsy has led webinars for congregations, Rabbis, Hillels, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Education Project.