In 2018, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, appointed Tracey Couch as Minister for Loneliness. Ms. Couch’s job? She was tasked to direct a national response to combat loneliness in the British population, among young and old. Shortly afterwards, Ms. May also enacted the first initiative in support of this effort, which included allowing medical doctors to “refer people to take part in social activities such as cookery classes, walking clubs and art groups.” As over a decade of psychological and medical research has demonstrated, loneliness is associated with a wide array of medical, cognitive, and psychological ailments; experts recognized that simply increasing social connection would likely improve the patients’ quality of life, as well as reduce the financial burden of health care over time.
As Passover approaches, among the most consequential damage caused by the social distancing policies is the sense of loneliness felt by so many in our communities. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, singles, friends, rabbis, congregants, teachers, students—each one feels the looming sense of being alone for this holiday when togetherness, under normal circumstances, is an essential feature of our celebration. Passover, at its core, is a public holiday, as emphasized by a wide array of traditional sources, from verses in the Torah (Exodus 12:4)—“But if the household will be too small for a lamb or kid, then he and his neighbor who is near his house shall take according to the number of people”; to passages in the Haggadah–“let all who are hungry come and eat”; to Talmudic laws related to communal activities being sourced to verses related to the Pascal sacrifice (Kiddushin 41b-42a)“; to leniencies regarding ritual impurity in public spaces being sourced to the Pascal sacrifice (Tosefta Taharot 6:17). The promise of Pesach as the holiday of communal cohesion will not be realized this year, to the great pain of millions of Jews across the globe, and we will be left to make the most of it without the support of our families and friends that we may be accustomed to.
But the challenge of Passover will not end with Passover. When the holiday has passed, we are still looking at weeks-to-months of social disconnection—even in a best case scenario—and helping people reduce their experience of loneliness becomes a social, psychological, and medical imperative. How can we best support older adults who can no longer have direct interaction with their grandchildren? What about single parents, or parents who are devoted to caring for children who require increased attention? Or what about singles who may live alone, and whose social interactions have come to a screeching halt? Or what about people who rely on social connections for self-care?
As a psychologist, one of the troubling aspects is that given the scale of isolation and limitations presented by this contagious pandemic, we simply do not have any pre-existing models from which to reliably suggest interventions. Of course, calling or video-chatting with friends and relatives can be helpful. And all of the meaningful community activities, performances, and other cultural experiences that are shared over Zoom are wonderful, but will this be sufficient over the long-haul? Spiritual guides are also struggling to figure out how to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of their congregations while also keeping them safe; in the Orthodox community, some rabbis have been exploring the limits of normative halacha in an attempt to alleviate a degree of loneliness in their communities.
Maybe this calls for a larger scale intervention. Instead of relying on individual communities to address the issue of loneliness in smaller, piecemeal ways, perhaps this challenge needs to be confronted through more systematic interventions, supported by national and local governments. As Israel is setting up its new coronavirus-focused government, they can also address this unprecedented challenge in a comprehensive way with a task-force led by a “Loneliness Czar” who is committed to developing interventions that can work under the current conditions. Such a group would include mental health professionals to help evaluate potential interventions, medical economists who can determine the cost-effectiveness of these suggestions, religious leaders who will be attuned to the needs and cultures of their populations, and politicians who can lobby their colleagues to appropriate funding to execute the best ideas.
Just as England did a few years ago, we need to recognize that loneliness is a significant problem, and will remain one for the foreseeable future. We should also recognize that it is a challenge that we, as a country, can do something about given sufficient attention and resources.