Appel: How to maintain community during physical distancing

Pepole pray in enclosed areas allowing 10 people in a time, at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 15. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 photo)

These are unprecedented times. For the Jewish community, so much of how we maintain ourselves is through gathering in person – from Purim to Passover, from Kiddush to morning minyan, from shiva visits to classes. Our tradition teaches, “Al tifrosh min a tzibbur” – don’t separate yourself from the community. And yet it also teaches, “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” – all of Israel is responsible for one another.

How can we balance both a commitment to community and a commitment to doing our part to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19? How can we care for those in our community for whom “social distancing” might trigger mental health issues, isolation, and financial distress? A combination of new technology and ancient systems can help keep us together.

Here are some suggestions that we might use to remain connected even when physically distanced. Some will be a good fit, and some won’t, depending on your community institution and demographics.

  • Shift classes and discussion groups online. Most teleconference services like Zoom or Google Meet offer meetings in which participants can choose either video conference or phone to participate. This is especially important for the less technologically-adept or those without computers. Texts can be scanned and emailed to participants. You can also offer connection to online classes, like those of Hadar’s Project Zug, that your community can take together.
  • Online and phone office hours for checking in. For clergy, staff, lay leaders, and volunteers, set up and publicize office hours when community members can easily call or video conference to speak with someone for support. An online scheduling service like Calendly or Doodle can ease the scheduling burden, allowing people to select an available slot themselves.
  • Online lunch breaks or visiting time. For smaller, pre-established groups, like youth groups, university students, and clubs, schedule unstructured “hang-outs” on videoconference, when people who normally see each other casually can simply drop by and spend time together without any agenda.
  • Text groups and email lists. Many people, especially teens and young adults, are already part of “group chats” with family and friends – a text message chat by phone text, Facebook, WhatsApp, or other text services. It’s like an email list but for short messages, Internet links, pictures, and videos. Institutions can create and allow community members to sign up for new chat groups, by demographic (“parents of young kids at home”) or interest (“Jewish jokes”). Or create similar email lists, if people prefer that mode of communication. The idea is to keep people connected and getting human contact throughout the day.
  • Include video messages in your communications. Consider including voice and video messages instead of or in addition to letters to the community. It increases a sense of human interaction and personalizes the message. To reach younger community members, post video messages across social media platforms as well, especially Facebook and Instagram.
  • Create a phone tree for those needing check-ins. Without regular in-person interactions, vulnerable community members may not have a way to communicate distress. Offer a sign-up form for those who would like regular phone calls from a friendly staff or community member. Also offer a sign up for volunteers who can make wellness calls. Giving and receiving equalizes participation, and there are those who might sign up to receive calls only if they also could give them.
  • Livestream services or other events. You may wish to livestream Shabbat or holiday services or connect your community members to other livestreamed services For more traditional communities, you can livestream morning minyan, Kabbalat Shabbat Friday night before sundown, havdalah, or other ritual events.
  • Create funds and food distribution systems for those experiencing financial distress. UJA has announced they are taking up this issue city-wide to determine how to help those of us who are vulnerable at this time. In consultation with central resources, determine how you and your community can help raise funds and distribute food and supplies to those who need it. Additionally, grocery delivery and online ordering has made food delivery more available in the last few years.

I am sure we will all come up with more ideas in the coming days and weeks. As Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky wrote in the Forward this week, “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”

We must find ways to meet “social distancing” with emotional and communal closeness. May we all find comfort in the days ahead, knowing that the disruptions we undertake now help us care for one another.