Staying Socially Connected While Socially Distanced

I often wonder what historians living two or three centuries in the future will write about us and the times we live in. What challenges did we face, how did we respond, and what were the consequences of our choices? Just two short months ago, the world wondered if it might be facing a catastrophic threat to nations and societies. And although that risk remains a possibility, the spread of the pandemic has, for the time being, been curtailed (and in some places entirely contained). As a horrible wave of illness and death resolves, most of us feel safe in our day-to-day lives as we follow guidelines to avoid exposure.

We are a social species. We are highly interdependent, and most of the activities we need to do and love to do involve being in close proximity to other people. Learning in school, shopping for food, spending time with friends, playing games, work, recreation, travel — most domains of human life involve other people.

This is equally true of most aspects of our lives as Torah Jews. We eat, pray, celebrate, study Torah, dance and mourn — with each other. We cannot do any of these things in an ideal fashion alone. To serve Hashem fully, as a Jew, we need to interact with each other. When the social distancing orders were first issued, we assumed they might be issued for a maximum of four weeks. But now, it looks like things may not be back to normal for at least another year.

Certainly, the most severe impact suffered by people during this pandemic has been the life-threatening or life-ending illness of loved ones, Rachmana litzlan. But for those whose families were spared the worst, we are facing a far more subtle form of stress. It is not clear whether schools will hold in-person classes next year. Businesses and jobs are threatened. Health care providers will continue to face high-risk exposure and infection, and grandparents may not be able to visit in person with their grandchildren for many months. We may not see our dearest friends in person for the next year.

From a mental health perspective, there are helpful things we should do. We need to go out of our way to preserve our relationships with friends and family. We should be planning to restore as much social contact as we can within the parameters of what is safe and won’t cause the spread of disease. We should make regular phone calls to our friends and relatives. We should commit to chavrusos via telephone and attend virtual shiurim remotely. We need to help our children navigate relationships with their friends and cousins. And, finally, experts recommend the following: (1) physical exercise, (2) pursuing projects and hobbies, (3) helping others in need, and, (4) as already mentioned, using technology to preserve our important relationships. n

Dr. Nachum Klafter is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Cincinnati, Ohio. He serves on the teaching faculty of the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute and University of Cincinnati Department of Psychiatry, and is a Board Member of the NEFESH International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals.