Creating Community in a Time of Social Distancing: A Message from Gil Preuss

Creating Community in a Time of Social Distancing: A Message from Gil Preuss

Historically, particularly in times of crisis, Jews turn to their synagogues and other spiritual gathering places to find solace and a sense of community. This is true for Americans of all faiths and traditions—our instinct is to gather in times of hardship, to shake each other’s hands and stand by each other’s side as we face what is going on around us. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, many thousands of people in Greater Washington and more across the country and around the world gathered to mourn those who were killed and stand in solidarity against hate. People flocked to synagogues and community centers and stood among overflow crowds because we wanted to be with each other. We wanted to feel a sense of connection and look to our prayers and our teachings for guidance in a turbulent time.

Today, however, coming together is off the table, at least in a physical sense. As we prepare to face the inevitable peak of the coronavirus pandemic, the most responsible thing we can do is stay away from each other. And so, as Jews, we face an unprecedented challenge: to create a strong and palpable sense of community from afar. Of course, this is not the first time we have had to innovate. From keeping our traditions in times of war to performing our rituals in times of scarcity, Jewish history is full of moments in which the Jewish people have overcome our circumstances with grace and ingenuity. The question is how will we rise to the occasion this time? What would the Jewish sages write about us and our efforts to be each other’s keeper in a time of quarantine and social distancing?

I do not have the answers, but I believe the first step must be about cultivating as many opportunities for human connection as possible. We must follow recommended and mandated guidelines, no question. We must keep an eye on the news and pay attention to local developments. But beyond that, I would argue that we have an extra obligation. Our teachings call on us to rise above the fear and uncertainty and reach out to one another to cultivate joy, positivity, and a sense of humanity. We have already seen heartwarming examples of this around the world—Italians are singing from their balconies, Spaniards are coordinating remote group fitness classes, and Israelis are applauding medical professionals. People are using the analog and digital tools at their disposal to create community and connection.

As this moment endures—and with Passover on the horizon—we can all do the same. Perhaps we can experiment with virtual Seders, in which we share in the joy and celebration of Passover simultaneously within our own homes. My former minyan in Boston is hosting a virtual storytelling hour, in which people join by video to share both funny and emotional reports from quarantine. Or maybe we lend a helping hand to our favorite organizations or small businesses and form virtual giving circles. Whatever your ideas, I encourage you to invite people to be a part of them. Even the smallest effort can make a big difference right now.

Faith traditions are prescient in this way. Coursing through the Torah and the Talmud is the inherent understanding that we must attend to our physical health. As a community, we are responsible for taking the necessary precautions to keep ourselves and our neighbors healthy. But just as importantly, our ancestors understood that we are sustained by our emotional and spiritual bonds as well. We are meant to be in relationship with one another, to share in this rollercoaster ride and create the joy we need in our lives. Responding to this challenge is about more than just getting through it. The Jewish response is, and has always been, about finding those opportunities for connection in a way that sustains us all.

As we prepare to welcome Shabbat, reach out to one person to whom you haven’t spoken in a while. Check in with them, see how they are doing, and wish them a Shabbat Shalom. For my part, I am looking forward to gathering with some of my family members on Zoom this evening to see and talk to one another. My daughter is in Denver, my nephew is in Boston, my niece is in Florida, my brother and sister-in-law are on a boat off the coast of Panama, my sister and brother-in-law are down the road in Takoma Park, and my father is in Rockville. Though we may be separated, we need not feel alone.

Shabbat Shalom,
Gil