COVID-19: How Did People Fare

The COVID-19 crisis in Israel has had a direct and probably lasting impact on every person living here.  We will not know for quite some time what the longer lasting physical and psychological effects on the population will be.  But we do know that dozens of agencies throughout the country worked diligently to make sure that the needs of the population were met.

Clearly, in spite of the always present naysayers, the government and its agencies have done an admirable job of keeping our numbers at reasonable levels (although clearly, every death and serious illness is one too many), the social service agencies have reached out to the people they service, the first responders/nurses/doctors were amazing and synagogues have attempted to do what they could to keep their membership informed, provide services and keep everyone together in the true spirit of a kehilla …a community.

In our congregation, Ohel Nehama, a 180 family Jerusalem synagogue just around the corner from Beit HaNassi, we organized regular Zoom lectures by our rabbi, had a calling committee contact our members weekly, issued timely updates and did our best to stay in touch and convey our concern for our member’s welfare

But we did one other thing that I believe is unique in synagogue operations during this difficult period and demonstrated a model of going the extra mile for our community..

Towards the middle of the crisis, three people took it upon themselves, with the permission of the leadership, to survey the congregants to determine not only how they were faring during the lockdown but how they felt they were being serviced by the congregation to which they belonged.  I would venture a guess that ours was probably one of the few, if not the only, congregation that did this in such an organized way.

The effort was spearheaded by two members of the congregation, Dr. Livia Levine of the Jerusalem College of Technology and Dr. Ephraim Shapiro of Ariel University along with Dr. Avi Kay, also of the Jerusalem College of Technology.  We are grateful for their initiative and expertise.

And what did we find out?  With a statistically significant 35% response to the general mailing people indicated that in general, they have been benefitting from online programming and agreed that this has a positive impact.  Most were in good health and seemed to be dealing with the stresses of the coronavirus well. However, there was a small minority who indicated that they have been experiencing stress, anxiety and are at risk for depression.  People could respond in either English or Hebrew and those answering in English seemed to be worse off in this regard.

As well, a small number of people had identifiable needs that were not being met.  For example, about a quarter of the respondents said that, yes, regular phone visits and/or check-ins were important to them, at least to some extent; However, a number of them would have liked more of these visits/checks-ins than they received.  This is especially true among Olim of all ages, as those in the Hebrew speaking group typically said that they have family members serving in this role.

The survey used a standard screening tool called the PHQ2 to test if people were at risk for depression. The tool does not reveal who actually is depressed but indicates who should see their family doctor and/or a mental health professional for more extensive testing and diagnosis.  Of the group sampled, there were just two people, one English speaker and one Hebrew speaker, whose results showed they were at risk for major depression. There were another seven people, five English speakers and two Hebrew speakers whose results showed them being of borderline risk.

Despite the anxiety, stresses and risk for depression described, almost no one sought professional mental health care because they did not think they needed it, although the person who had the highest risk of depression was unable to get care because they could not find a virtual option.

For the record, the respondents  were very well educated with over 70% having a master’s degree or doctorate, 63% were retired, 20% self-employed, and the rest salaried workers

What was clear to everyone is that during these crisis periods (and there will no doubt be others) it is critically important to remember that our individual means of coping are not, prima facie, the same for everyone else.   While this survey was a basic one, it is obvious that each community needs to regularly take the pulse of its members during such a period to gauge how they are coping, if their needs are getting met and what needs they have that can be addressed by others.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the best seller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” said:  “Caring about others, running the risk of feeling, and leaving an impact on people, brings happiness.”  Perhaps as we face future crises, perhaps this should be our guiding principle.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 33 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, Ontario and Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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