Time to Reassess What is Essential

By Rabbi Sherre Hirsch

Five months into this pandemic, most churches, synagogues and mosques in California are not offering in-person services. At the same time, liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries remain wide open, as they have been labeled an “essential service.” Alcohol consumption seems to have risen considerably. This stark contrast raises the question: perhaps this is a moment in which we need less self-medication and more meaning?

According to Maslow, our most basic needs are food, drink, shelter, sleep and oxygen. After those physical requirements are met, our needs become more emotional and psychological. We need to feel safe, to feel loved and to feel a sense of belonging. Humans, at their most actualized, strive toward self-esteem, purpose and fulfillment. We need to feel that we matter in this world.

Research shows that self-medicating with external substances does the very opposite. Intoxicants numb the symptoms of discomfort and anxiety temporarily but do nothing to eradicate them. Once their acute effects wane, these substances only drive us to seek more, because they amplify the uncertainty that we are trying to mask. Thus, it makes perfect sense that during this pandemic the use of alcohol and drugs has skyrocketed. Rather than help us cope, substances eventually increase isolation, promote depression, and lead to loneliness.

For centuries theologians, scientists and thinkers have shown that religion and spirituality are not only good for physical health, but are also associated with higher quality of life, speedier healing, and less anxiety, depression and suicide. Members of faith communities have better mental health, resilience, optimism and hope. It is our churches, mosques, and synagogues – rooted in inner connectedness and tethered to a power greater than ourselves – that truly meet the needs of this moment.

But how do we meet the needs of this moment for our spiritual communities when it is not safe to come together physically?

Many have been skeptical that the digital space can be an adequate substitute for in-person gathering. At American Jewish University, we have seen over the past five months how digital gathering can be a powerful force for connection, community, and purpose – all of which are so desperately needed during this moment.

When the pandemic struck and shut downs came into effect, we immediately stood up a new digital platform called B’Yachad, which has now hosted hundreds of small group classes and more than 115 large public conversations on subjects from spirituality and theology, to Jewish cooking, to addressing the challenge of anti-Semitism with Bari Weiss and NFL star Geoff Schwartz.

For thousands of people, AJU has become a lifeline. We have many participants who tune in every single day. What’s most remarkable is that we are no longer limited to serving those within driving distance to AJU.

Our community now spans virtually all 50 states and 17 countries – from the South African librarian who says that Byachad “Has been a true silver lining of Covid” to a Christian from a small town in Arizona, “I don’t have adequate words to describe the power of this hour!

There is one note we received that I keep tacked to my wall: “Lying in my hospital bed fighting Covid, B’Yachad is the best vaccine for the moment.”

These past five months have been a powerful reminder for me that humans will go to great lengths – and try new things – to fulfill their most important needs. Despite the trauma, tragedy, and physical distance of these challenging months, I am certain that there is also an opening to build a new sense of connection and purpose for those we serve that will translate and sustain into the Post-COVID future.

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch is the Chief Innovation Officer of American Jewish University.