Gila Hackenbroch
Couples & Family Psychotherapist & Rebbetzin at WPS

To be or not to be during Covid-19

It could be argued that the onslaught of Covid -19 has brought with it a systemic issue to be faced by every person on this planet.

This will be a first for most of us, it is for me, to experience a challenge simultaneously with everyone else that lives on earth, regardless of geography, race, colour, religion or social class.

It’s a time that we can choose to hide behind Covid-19 and need not explain our actions, whether we show up in a certain way or whether we fulfill or not fulfill the responsibilities and expectations we have, both of ourselves and in others. It is also a time where if one had underlying mental health and well being issues prior to this pandemic they may now be magnified and be more difficult to contain and manage. Yet the positive aspect of the pandemic is there being a shared reality, a systemic understanding that things are different, and that this new reality we find ourselves in allows some behavioural deviation from normal too.

Since Lockdown started a couple of months ago, here in Britain, I have been reflecting that whilst on a global and communal level we are all being challenged by the same issue, what is noticeable are the individual responses to what is happening around us and its impact on our lives. The most current example is the intense media scrutiny over the behaviour of an aide to the Prime Minister. There is heated debate in the country as to whether his individual actions and response to the pandemic even in the domain of his private life was right or wrong.  Similarly, this type of discourse as to individual’s behaviour in the face of the lockdown is the topic of conversation around many a dinner table, and Facetime call.

Let me share with you a different aspect of what can emerge from these challenging circumstances:

My family is involved in communal life. When I say involved, I mean we are part of a Rabbinical team. With both parents involved in communal life, inevitably means that our children will also be part of that team effort.

So, what happens when corona and communal life overlap?

In communal life, from the moment lockdown was even a possibility, being in a communal leadership role there was no time or space to sit back and assess the impact on our community and their emerging needs and concerns. With very little information and scarce time to process, immediate action and decisions needed to be made. Questions from worried members that required immediate answers ranged from:

Should we cancel our simcha or postpone? What do we tell the caterer, our family from abroad?

Do we bring our children back from yeshiva or do we wait?

What happens with our Pesach holiday plans – are we entitled to a refund?

What happens to our elderly parents on Shabbat and Yom Tov, we can still bring them over or go to them?

The list was endless, the uncertainty tangible and I have not even included the more tricky and sensitive situations which required specific medical interventions, elderly vulnerable people on their own and bereavements.

But what action do you take when those around you from whom you usually get direction, both rabbinic, medical and government level- don’t have clarity or certainty as to what lies ahead and how we, as a country, let alone a community, or an individual, are going to deal with it .

How do you create a strategy when you do not know what you are facing from day to day? This was uncharted territory, with no guidebook.

We had to improvise and improvise quickly.

Lock-down came quickly, and the questions changed from those on a larger scale, to survival mode. People on their own not able to access food or medications. Young families expecting new babies, families with ill children not being able to be together for long periods at a time, young people’s lives turned upside down as schools and universities were uncertain about exams and timetables.

The list was endless, the situation seemed never ending.

But now, somehow, we seem to be emerging out of panic mode and into a new and different reality, and I am beginning to reflect on those highly stressed initial weeks of lock-down.

I realise that what I encountered was human greatness, human greatness and strength. From very small acorns, great oak trees of volunteers grew and stood ready to assist.

At times it really did feel like we were coordinating a war effort – deep in the trenches and not sure where or what the enemy was, or how to beat it.  But we knew that each person had their own significant fear and we needed to identify it and conquer it. For some it was buying and delivering food parcels, for others, medication, yet for some it was a phone call to remind them that they were part of a community that cares. The list was endless, the jobs infinite, but the spirit of the army of helpers around was what kept us going.

Whilst some were enjoying the quiet and the opportunities that lock-down was providing both to them individually and their families, our lives as communal leaders and families had become louder, busier and scarier as we were right there on the front line and there was no denying that this was a real enemy that needed all the ammunition we had.

My focus in this article is not my family, not even Corona-virus itself but about a group of people that in King Solomon’s words saw an Et Laa’sot – a time to do, a time to create and a time to be.

I am blown away by those who instantly rose to the occasion and walked beside us, enabling us to help those that needed help. They were able to put their own fears and uncertainties aside and carry boxes, deliver medicine, and make that phone call, anonymously with no expectation or requirement for recognition or thanks.

The second group of people that by no choice of their own were asked to step in and step up were the children of communal leaders. Rather than have more time with their parents, they had to make do with less, making Pesach preparations in their own homes whilst their parents were making sure that Pesach happened for others.

When history will be written about this period of time and your grandchildren will ask where were you and what were you doing during Covid -19 I will bear testimony that you my wonderful children and incredible volunteers chose ‘To Be’.

About the Author
Gila grew up in Antwerp, and on moving to London studied at the Tavistock Institute and qualified as a Systemic couples and family psychotherapist. She heads up the Mental Health Pilot Project of Camp Simcha, works as a mental health consultant for various charities and has a private practice working with couples and families. She also holds a second masters degree in clinical sociology and trained as an Imago therapist. Together with her husband, she heads up the Senior Rabbinic team of Woodside Park Synagogue a large and vibrant modern orthodox community in London where they reside with their family.