Find your own path to return to a new normal

'There is an important underlying relationship between our mental health and how we feel about going back'

September 23, 2020 11:19

I started going back to shul at the first opportunity after lockdown lifted. I’d missed being there. And whilst it’s not the same — precise entry/departure times and regimens, restricted numbers, socially distanced seating, abridged services (there are some positives), compulsory mask-wearing — it’s felt comforting to be there. Emotional even. Like a return, of sorts, to how things were.

I hesitated at first. I’m fortunate —I’m not in a category that is particularly vulnerable to the virus’ worst effects — but I am well aware that simply leaving the house brings a degree of risk, and that catching Covid-19 potentially puts others at harm. Yet the measures that have been put in place, in my synagogue at least, are both fully compliant with government guidelines and extremely well-considered: the probability of anyone catching anything seems to be highly unlikely.

But I know others disagree, particularly now, when cases are rising. So, am I in the minority or the majority?

The survey the Institute for Jewish Policy Research conducted over the summer gives us the first empirical insights. We asked Jews from across the UK to tell us how comfortable they feel about attending in-person Jewish community activities and events, and to situate themselves on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is very comfortable and 10 is very uncomfortable.

People place themselves at every point along the scale, but the mean score (the average for the entire community) is 5.8. A little above the mid-point, leaning towards uncomfortable, but not dramatically so. That said, over a third score 8-10. There is a lot of apprehension out there.

Who is most uncomfortable? In many respects, exactly who you would expect. Older people (the cut-off point is around age 60) and those with underlying health conditions that make them particularly susceptible.

But there are other interesting indicators. People who are currently in work feel a little more comfortable than those have been furloughed, made redundant, or are self-employed but not currently working. People who have had coronavirus feel marginally more comfortable than those who have not. Perhaps most strikingly, people with jobs that expose them to some degree of risk of contracting coronavirus feel more comfortable than those whose work involves no such risk.

I cannot tell you why with any certainty. But it’s clear to me that the positions we take on the question are driven by multiple complex factors. It seems likely, for example, that those who have been furloughed or made redundant may have had their confidence knocked to some extent, and that may translate for some into greater levels of discomfort about going out anywhere, including to Jewish community services or events. Those who have had coronavirus are perhaps more likely than others to feel that if they catch it again, they can overcome it, or to assume (perhaps incorrectly) that they have some degree of immunity. And maybe for those who have become used to exposing themselves to some degree of risk at work, going to shul feels comparatively harmless. But it’s not simply that the positions we take are complicated. It’s also that there is an important underlying relationship between our mental health and how we feel about going back.

The data indicate that those showing signs of psychological distress — anxiety, depression, loneliness or simple frustration — feel less comfortable about attending community events than those showing no such signs. What the causal relationship here is unclear — perhaps poor mental health deters people from returning to community events, or perhaps absence from community events leads to poor mental health. In all probability, it’s a bit of both.

Yet judging by the data, it looks to me as if going back may be really important for some of us. Returning, as I have found, can be rather therapeutic. But even if you cannot, or will not go back, physical return is only part of the picture. There’s metaphorical returning to be done at this time of year too. Indeed, the watchword of this season, teshuva, literally means ‘returning.’ And some of the most powerful parts of the liturgy capture this idea. Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva — “bring us back to You, God, and we shall return.” Chadesh yameinu k’kedem “renew our days as they used to be.”

In these unprecedented times, there is no single right answer that works for everyone. But we can all return, physically or metaphysically. So whichever path you take, I hope it leads you back.

Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR).

September 23, 2020 11:19

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