By Rabbi Renée Bauer
Jews are a communal people. Revelation came when we all stood at Mt. Sinai together, and our tradition teaches, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” (Pirke Avot 2:5). We only say certain prayers when a minyan is present. We are commanded to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved. We come together to celebrate joyous moments and life transitions.
At a time when COVID-19 is quickly spreading, how do we maintain community and connection when public health demands social distancing? As a community chaplain, much of my work centers on being present for others. I hold the hand of a woman on her deathbed, sing a holiday song to a memory care patient who is barely able to speak, and sit quietly while a man cries after the death of his father. It is most often not the words I say but the human presence I provide that brings comfort and healing to those I serve.
I am grateful that technology is enabling us to stay connected during this public health crisis. Synagogues are live streaming services, agencies are utilizing video conferencing software, and staff is working from home.
We must remember, however, that not all members of our community can stay connected in this way. Many of our elders suffer from hearing impairment or cognitive decline. They are already lonely and too often forgotten. They cannot access community with Zoom or even with the telephone. As assisted living facilities limit the access of outside visitors, they are at risk of becoming even more isolated.
When we are struggling with life’s challenges, the simple tasks of getting out of bed, driving to an appointment, or attending a social event can play a significant role on our path of healing. While a kind phone call might provide some connection, getting out and engaging in simple interactions with others can be an antidote to loneliness.
At this time of crisis, we have no choice but to practice social distancing, but we must remember that it comes with a cost. While an internet connection can lessen the distance between each other, ultimately it is insufficient. Sitting in the presence of another person or holding their hand cannot be replaced. We cannot allow the necessary adaptations of this exceptional time to become the new normal.
Before this crisis, Americans already suffered from an epidemic of loneliness. Instead of becoming content with physical distance, we must use this as an opportunity to reflect on the gift of presence and empathize with those who live in social isolation. Many of us will miss not sitting next to a friend in synagogue, shaking hands, or patting each other on the back. I hope this motivates us to create a more communal and connected future so that we can live up to the command, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” (Pirke Avot 2:5)
Rabbi Renée Bauer is the director of chaplaincy and outreach at Jewish Social Services of Madison in Madison, WI. She was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and earned her B.A. from Brown University.