The introduction of COVID-19 into our world has dealt a significant blow to our daily lives, routines and rituals. Nearly 140,000 loved ones have died, 40 million have lost jobs, and anxiety and depression is through the roof. Many of us are rethinking where we live, what gives us meaning and purpose, how we care for our children and parents, and what life is going to look like once the pandemic is under control. We are in what is termed by psychologists as a period of “life transition.”

The longer the COVID-19 pandemic endures, the more it impacts our mental health and wellness. Health concerns, financial concerns, endless zoom calls, isolation, makeshift teacher roles, therapist role to friends and family, comfort eating, political uncertainty—these are just some of what we are all dealing with everyday. It’s important to remember that Jewish law commands us to take time to heal our souls and to focus on reducing our anxieties by finding moments of joy and purpose amidst the chaos.

The Jewish prayer for healing (Mi Sheberach) asks G-d for “R-fuah Shleima,” (complete healing) and “R’fuat haguf,” (healing of the body) and “R’fuat hanefesh,” (healing of the soul). As reflected in this prayer, the Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of both physical and spiritual health—a complete healing.

In creating the Blue Dove Foundation, (a national foundation addressing the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction within the Jewish community), we sought to bring peace to Jewish families struggling with mental health and addiction. We chose a Blue Dove as our symbol as an homage to the story of Noah from the book of Genesis. After the great flood, Noah sends a dove to determine whether the water has subsided. The dove returns with an olive leaf, a sign that the destruction has ended. In Judaism, the dove has come to represent a great peace. After the flood, life resumed and flourished.

As COVID-19 distances us physically from our community, there is no better time to focus on our mental health as a community. We have adopted many practices in our daily routines that have helped us better our own mental health, as well as that of those around us. While you may already know many of the traditional self-care routines such as meditation, exercise, eating healthy and avoiding destructive behaviors, below are some that are Jewishly inspired and things that we learned as a result of participating in the Wexner Heritage Program.

Methods of Self-care

  • Giving (Tzedakah) 

The Torah commands us to perform the mitzvah “tzedakah.” Aside from being a moral obligation, research has shown that helping others can be just as beneficial for our own mental health as focusing on ourselves. Even though we may feel socially isolated during these difficult times, focusing on what we can do for our community can relieve anxiety and provide a sense of meaning and purpose. Give your time, talent and/or treasure.

Connect with Jewish outreach organizations to find ways to volunteer. Finding a cause and method of contributing that you are passionate about will not only bring you increased satisfaction, but will also ensure that you stay involved and active. Not only will others thank you for your work, but you will thank yourself.

  • Reach Out (Gemilut Chasadim)

We have found that one of the greatest mitzvahs you can do is become an ally and friend to others. Try and make it a point to make yourself available to your community in this time of need by calling or texting your rabbis frequently to check in on their well-being. While rabbis offer our community unlimited loving-care and wisdom, they are also human and need our support.

Everyday life creates organic, enjoyable social interaction. Quarantine and social isolation has robbed us of these connections. Sitting at home, we may feel disconnected from our friends and family. Moreover, we may conclude that since no one is calling us, people are busy and do not want to be bothered. The truth is, many individuals in our community are lonely.

Checking in on others is a form of giving that improves our own well-being, as well as that of those around us. Technology is a wonderful enabler whether making a phone call or setting up a zoom session.

Engage with others. Take a walk together, mail a letter, send a text or drop off a dessert. Letting people know you care and they matter is important.

If you’re in need, reach out to family and friends who can offer you support. One of the most important skills we have learned in life is how to cultivate happiness. Happiness comes to those who actively seek out moments of joy. Sometimes it just comes to you and other times you have to reach out to the people who make you happy and bring you joy. You have direct influence over how you feel.

  • Ritual

After a stressful week, the routine of attending Shabbat services or maybe just socializing afterward can provide solace and a much-needed feeling of camaraderie. Stuck inside, it is easy to neglect our routines, losing the comfort that they bring us.

Shabbat can also serve as a timestamp, signaling the passage of one week, and the beginning of another. Quarantine and social isolation has changed our understanding of time. How can we differentiate between the weekdays and weekends, when we do the same exact thing every single day?

Celebrating Shabbat, even when it is altered to adhere to the guidelines of social distancing, can provide comfort in ritual and mark the passage of time, helping you feel more grounded. There are multiple online Shabbat services locally and nationally. Virtually attend these observances across the country for a varied experience and to see how other synagogues conduct their services.

Lighting the candles on a Friday night to “honor Shabbat” and create shalom bayit (domestic peace) is yet another way to disconnect, reconnect and forget about COVID-19—even if just for a moment of time. Baking a challah and enjoying a meal with your family or friends creates wonderful memories.

  • Focus on Family (Shalom Bayit)

After having no other G-d, treating your parents with respect is the second most important commandment we were given on Mt. Sinai. Judaism clearly emphasizes the importance of the family unit. Yet in today’s fast-paced world, it is easy to neglect our families when we’re running from one meeting to another and returning home at the end of the day too exhausted to engage in heartfelt conversation.

While living in quarantine and social isolation has been difficult, focusing on the time we have been gifted to get to know our families better can be an unforeseen positive consequence. We now have time to listen, a gift that is unprecedented and may never happen again in our lifetime. Turn off the technology and the news and spend time with your family. Take this time to get to know one another.

  • Torah Study and Wexner

Justin has found great calm and wisdom in Torah study—now more than ever. Since COVID-19 started, he has been studying privately with two different rabbis. With one of the rabbis he studies with, they discuss and interpret text, something he really enjoys doing to disconnect from the “now” and reconnect directly with his Judaism. The other rabbi he studies with serves as more of a therapist. They talk about many different aspects of life, both the challenges and opportunities. These rabbis help Justin find moments of joy and clarity in a somewhat foggy world and serve as an example of what can happen when you take the time to reconnect with your rabbis, spiritual leaders, mentors—whoever gives you hope and strength.

In addition to the studying he has been doing with the rabbis, Justin has really enjoyed connecting with the Wexner Heritage Groups—especially his Atlanta ‘18 group where a What’s App thread holds an ongoing conversation.  Many of the Members call one another just to check in, strengthening a bond that will last a lifetime as their Wexner cohort are just a wonderful extension of family. He has also attended several of the Adaptive Leading in Radical Uncertainty Zoom sessions to stay connected to the larger group.

In times of great stress, we need to focus on our well-being and the well-being of our families, friends, and community. Giving of yourself, reaching out to others, engaging in Jewish rituals, and taking time for your family has been proven to improve sleep, sex drive, endurance, fitness and even rewire and improve our brain’s response to serotonin and dopamine, both neurotransmitters that are negatively associated with depression and anxiety. Start small. Pick one item from the list. When you have it down, try adding another. I promise you will thank yourself.

Like the great floods, COVID-19 too shall end, and life will resume. Now is a period of rebirth, reflection, and growth.

Click here for more information on The Blue Dove Foundation and view Healers of Faith: Be a Mensch” from The Blue Dove Foundation here.

WHP Alum Justin Milrad (Atlanta 18) is the President of The Blue Dove Foundation and CEO of The Berman Center, an Intensive Outpatient Program developed through a Jewish Lens. He can be reached here.

Kyra Bronfman is a rising senior majoring in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and contributed to the article.

Photo by Vivek Doshi on Unsplash.