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For Our Children: Pandemic loss is real and raw, and we can learn from it

For Our Children: Pandemic loss is real and raw, and we can learn from it

• by Livia Bernstein

Cantor Vicky Glikin | Clergy Address | Dec. 2021

“Here’s the thing I think all of the older people don’t understand. When you were my age, you had an assured future. You knew that you would get to grow up and grow old. But I first lived in a generation of gun violence, and then there were climate change and fires in my neighborhood in California, and then there was a pandemic and all sorts of racial injustice. The list goes on and on. I don’t look at my own future and see that I’m in a strong place. I feel very vulnerable. The adults are teaching that my future is guaranteed, but I don’t think it is.”

These chilling words, uttered recently by a middle schooler in response to the question, “Where are we in this moment in time?” were recorded by Dr. Sivan Zakai, Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). These words have been haunting me ever since. I wish that I could write them off as a dramatic overexaggerating by a particularly sensitive child, or that I could provide solid counterarguments. However, doing so would deny the reality of the trauma that all of us, including our precious children, have lived through over the course of the pandemic.

As a member of the clergy, educator and parent, I am concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of our children. Let me be the first one to say that children are resilient and that they will recover. However, in the same way that each of us will never be able to forget the past 22 months, with their justifiable and irrational fears, naked vulnerability, incessant pivoting and ongoing uncertainty, so will our children be forever imprinted with this collective experience. Denying this is as effective as sticking our head in the sand. The real question is not whether trauma has taken place, but rather how we can best support our children in moving forward productively? What can parents, grandparents and adult community members do to create an environment in which our children can achieve what psychologists call posttraumatic growth?

While every child is different and requires an individual approach, below are some suggestions for how we can support our young people (and, one another), based on what I have learned from various psychologists, including Dr. Zakai and Dr. Betsy Stone, a former Temple Emanu-El congregant and professor at HUC-JIR, and on my own experience as a parent and a pastoral care provider:

  1.  Reflect with honesty on the past 22 months. Where are you now? Where do you want to be? Where do you want the children in your life to be? Where do you think they want to be? Every Passover, we retell the story of Exodus and imagine a better future. This type of reflection is not limited to Passover time.
  2. Engage the children in your life in honest conversations about the challenges and opportunities of this time. Avoid the temptation to fix whatever is challenging for them or to “rescue” them from feelings that might sound “negative” to you. Instead, simply be present for them, hold the space, listen and accept. When Moses meets God face to face, Moses asks what God’s name is. God’s response: “I am what I am.” Whatever is revealed to us has holiness within it and our job is to simply witness it.
  3. Acknowledge the loss of life, health, invincibility, experiences with loved ones, time and opportunity, safety and so much more. These losses are real and must be named before we can start moving on from the pandemic. The Jewish people know how to deal with loss. We mourn, we remember and, eventually, we praise. We say Kaddish, a prayer associated with death, but the text of which is a praise of God. We may not be ready to say Kaddish for this pandemic yet, but we will get there eventually.
  4. Examine aspects of our pandemic lives that have been fulfilling and which we may want to carry forward with us. Perhaps, we want to prioritize family time over social obligations, or leave more white space on our children’s calendars, have more staycations, celebrate Shabbat, bake challah as a family, or regularly participate in services from home or from Temple. How do we envision our future? How do our children envision their future? Let’s intentionally and proactively rebuild more authentic, values-based and sustainable versions of our families and our lives. We are commanded to say 100 blessings a day. The only way to get to this number is by being intentional and present throughout our days. There is nothing more Jewish than living with a greater sense of presence to the unfolding miracle that is our life.
  5. Acknowledge that we all experienced the pandemic differently and are in different places on this journey. Our children are also in different places. Let them emerge at a pace that is acceptable to them and do the best that they can. While we are at it, allow yourself to do the best that you can. Practice rachamim, compassion, one of God’s qualities, toward yourself and others. And, when you forget, be compassionate to yourself about that as well.

The impact of the pandemic, with its challenges and silver linings, will reverberate for years to come. What gives me hope is the acknowledgement that this is not the first or the last challenge that we will have faced as the Jewish people. Over the course of our history, we have experienced collective trauma and we have recovered and flourished. This time is no different. Let’s work together to create safe spaces to process the changes, to mourn the losses and to celebrate the successes. And let’s do it all within the safety and embrace of our tradition and of Temple, your spiritual community where you and your children are always welcome exactly as you are.

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