The recent outbreak and spread of Covid-19 has sparked a lot of challenging emotions for teens and adults: anxiety, worry, fear, empathy, and a deep sense of responsibility for the community. Many of us are asking: how can I keep myself healthy? What are my responsibilities for keeping the people around me healthy? What personal boundaries do I need to set in order to protect myself? How do I deal with all the fear and uncertainty?
In our teen programs we aim to equip teens with strategies for how to take care of themselves—mentally and physically. We also emphasize the importance of being part of a community: the small community within their Rosh Hodesh, Shevet or Tzelem group, the larger Jewish community, and the world’s community. Taking care of one’s self is essential to taking care of the community and taking care of the community is essential to taking care of one’s self.
So how do Jewish values—specifically the values that we at Moving Traditions embrace—apply in the context of the coronavirus? And how can group leaders address the coronavirus with their teens—both in terms of making decisions about whether to lead a group in person, and how to talk about the virus with their teens?
Logistical & scheduling tips for how to respond to coronavirus
Right now, there is a varied level of health threat and schedule disruption in communities around the country. You might be leading your group in an area where schools are currently closed and classes are being held online or you might be in a community where there are no schedule disruptions at all—with business as usual.
If you are in an area that is not on lockdown, what’s most important when deciding whether to lead your teen group in person is to first assess your personal comfort level and risk tolerance. Do you feel comfortable traveling to your group and leading it in person? If your answer is yes, reach out to the teens and their parents to assess their comfort level and risk tolerance. Do they feel comfortable with their teens gathering in person?
If everyone has agreed to meet in person, take precautions such as refraining from handshakes or hugs and instructing everyone to wash their hands before eating. The full list of recommended health guidelines from the CDC can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/prevention.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fabout%2Fprevention-treatment.html
If you and the majority of the group is uncomfortable with meeting in person, we recommend meeting online instead, using an app like Zoom.
Tips for meeting online:
- Do your usual ritual to open the group, whether that’s lighting a candle, singing the prayer for the new month, sharing a rose and thorns (one exciting and one challenging thing that happened over the past month), sharing a meme, and/or something else. Rituals are grounding and reassuring at a time of potential anxiety, stress, and uncertainty.
- If your practice is to light a candle and say the prayer for the new month, do so in view of your camera or invite each member of the group to light an individual candle in their own space.
- You might also consider asking each participant to give a virtual tour of their room, or to share a favorite object from their room in order to share physical space in a new way.
- Use the Zoom breakout group feature to invite participants to share stories or discuss texts in hevruta or small groups. Breakout groups on Zoom give participants an even greater level of privacy than they would get in person. If you decide to join one of the groups, make sure to do so only after you’ve confirmed that all participants have joined their groups. Here’s a tutorial for creating breakout groups in Zoom: https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/206476313-Managing-Video-Breakout-Rooms
- The Zoom whiteboard feature is a great way to collect anonymous responses to a prompt, like you might do with paper bag activity (where you ask participants to write a response to a prompt, fold it, and put it in a paper bag). With the whiteboard, everyone can see what is written, but no one can see who wrote it. It’s also a great way to invite more soft-spoken individuals to add to the conversation. Here’s a tutorial for using the Zoom whiteboard: https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/205677665-Share-a-Whiteboard
- Similar to the whiteboard, the Zoom polls feature allows you to take the temperature of the group in a visual way. It can be used in lieu of a barometer activity (where you ask people to stand on a line between agree or disagree).
- Other features you might consider using are screen-sharing to share texts, images, or videos (participants can screen share too as a way of taking on leadership), and the chat feature for writing to individual participants.
- Two other great online tools for collecting anonymous feedback, taking the temperature of the group, and responding to texts are Answer Garden: https://answergarden.ch/ and Padlet https://padlet.com/.
- The benefit of each of these is that you can prepare content ahead of time.
- If you would like to do an art project with your group, consider using the free, graphic design site, Canva https://www.canva.com/
- Or you might consider mailing materials to participants ahead of time, or asking participants to make sure they have specific materials on hand.
How to talk about the coronavirus with your group
The following are activities and discussion prompts to help your teens explore how the coronavirus affects their lives. There are opportunities in this discussion guide to explore issues of self-care, consent, our responsibility to our community, and the importance of seeking out joy. You are welcome to use the whole guide or select pieces of it to use in your groups. And most importantly, let us know how it works for you!
1. Opening Ritual/Taking the Temperature
Prior to leading your group, check in with yourself about how you’re feeling in response to the coronavirus. As Lisa Damour writes, “Young people look to adults for cues about how nervous or relaxed they should be when encountering something new…Teenagers can tell when adults are saying one thing and feeling another…Before trying to support a fretful teenager, tense adults should take steps to calm their own nerves. Modeling a level-headed response is the best way to keep anxiety from getting the better of our teenagers as we all find our way through this new and uncertain challenge.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/well/family/coronavirus-teenagers-anxiety.html?fbclid=IwAR1JLWmFk3MyjaxfL37ScFh8bodNh2ki81b9IAY_E75FPFbNiEMZEqYKPq8)
After leading your opening ritual (candle-lighting/prayer for the new month, roses and thorns, etc.)…
How is everyone feeling in response to the coronavirus?
Consider inviting participants to share with a poll (with fingers or on Zoom polls) how anxious and worried they are feeling, from 1-10 with 1 totally calm and 10 totally freaking out.
If most people are closer to the freaking out end of the scale, share that some anxiety is normal in reaction to the new and unsettling news. The CDC says that healthy teenagers are generally at low risk for the disease, and if they take health precautions (like washing their hands and maintaining physical distance from others), they lower their risk even further. (Note: the CDC has been continuously updating information about the coronavirus and the best ways to address it. See their website for up-to-date information.)
The following are some additional questions to ask teens about how the coronavirus is affecting their lives:
What is changing in your life because of the coronavirus?
- How are the people around you handling the changes?
- With all the things that are cancelled, what will you miss most?
- If there is a plus side to refraining from your usual activities, what is it? What do you like about being at home?
- What things do you look forward to returning to?
- What are your fears about the pandemic?
- Who are you worried about?
- Who can we help support right now?
Life Lesson: For some of us, stress and uncertainty can be more difficult than it is for others. Around two-thirds of Americans say that when it comes to health issues, uncertainty about the future is a source of stress. This is a situation unlike what any of us have experienced before. Practice self-compassion: However you are feeling is valid. Seek support from the people in your life. Share how you’re feeling and listen to how others are feeling. Consider: How do you usually respond to stress and uncertainty? What makes you more stressed out and what lowers your stress level?
2. Handwashing – Netilat Yadayim (5 minutes)
Share the history of handwashing in Judaism in your own words
Handwashing is a Jewish ritual called netilat yadayim. Traditionally, Jews are required to wash their hands and say a blessing before meals that include bread or matzah. This ritual originated during the time of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The priests washed their hands in order to purify themselves before consuming gifts of oil, wine, and wheat. The traditional handwashing ritual requires Jews to pour water over their hands three times and then recite a blessing.
Jewish tradition also includes ideas about evil spirits and impurity that are also connected to handwashing. Such ideas, which may strike some today as strange and irrational, remind us that within our own tradition and other traditions there have always been a range of ideas and folk practices that develop to help people deal with things like uncertainty, fear, and things that are hard to explain and understand.
- What’s your reaction to this ritual and its history, particularly its connection to ideas about evil spirits?
- What rituals, if any, do you have in your house related to handwashing?
- What are some other reasons why handwashing might have been an important ritual in ancient Israel?
3) Handwashing – Shimrat Haguf (5-10 minutes)
It’s likely that handwashing as a ritual also came about as a means to promote good hygiene and self-care, which connect to the Jewish concept, “shimrat haguf,” literally “guarding the body.” A verse in Deuteronomy says, “Guard yourself and guard your soul very carefully.” (Deut 4:9). This has been interpreted by scholars and rabbis as a command to take care of our bodies and souls. For example, Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria wrote, “The body is the soul’s house. Therefore, shouldn’t we take care of our house so it does not fall into ruin?” Also, Maimonides wrote a whole chapter about shimrat haguf in his book on Jewish law. He wrote, “It is a person’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.”
- What do you think about the phrasing of “guarding the body?”
- How, if at all, might this be different from taking care of your body?
- What are things you might guard your body from?
Share Isabella Rotman’s illustration below:
- What stands out to you in this comic?
- What do you think about the comparison of our body to a house?
- What are your current self-care practices? What do you currently do to care for or guard your body?
- What are additional practices you’d like to put into place to “guard your body” during the spread of coronavirus?
3. Handwashing as a personal and collective ritual (10-15 minutes)
Choose one or more of the following to do before, during, or after participants wash their hands.
Option 1: Practice Mindfulness while handwashing
Washing our hands with soap and water for 20 seconds can be an opportunity for mindfulness. Mindfulness—the moment to moment awareness of our experience, without judgement—has been shown to reduce stress and increase calm and clarity. It is a worthwhile practice for all individuals, especially at a time of fear, stress, and uncertainty.
Invite participants to wash their hands. While they do so, invite them to take a few deep breaths and tune into their senses. Ask them to notice: how does the soap and water feel against your hands? What does the soap smell like? What sounds do you hear? What feelings do you notice in your body?
Option 2: Create a Playlist for Handwashing
Work together to create a playlist on Spotify or another app that the group can listen to while they wash their hands in the coming weeks. Consider choosing a theme for the songs in the playlist (e.g. self-care, celebration, friendship, etc.). Make sure to share the playlist with everyone before the end of the meeting. If you have time, choose a 20 second part of each song to listen to while you each wash your hands.
Option 3: Say a Jewish healing prayer while handwashing
Teach participants the Jewish healing prayer, “El Nah Refana Na” and invite them to sing the refrain from this prayer while washing their hands.
“El Nah Refana Na” translates to “Oh God, pray heal her” and comes from the passage in the Torah when Miriam was ill and her brother Moses prayed for her. This is the most ancient Jewish prayer for healing. It is a way to use the opportunity of washing our own hands to also direct our thoughts toward the many people in our world in need of healing. This can help us connect caring for our own health with caring for the health of others.
Option 4: Raise your hands after washing them
The blessing for washing hands uses the words “netilat yadayim” which means “raising the hands.” Another practice is to raise one’s hands after washing them for a moment and use the physical action of holding up one’s hand and looking at them to recognize the power of our hands to do good and to help us keep ourselves and others healthy.
Option 5: Reflect on a poem about handwashing
Here is an excerpt from a poem written by Dori Midnight you might also want to recite or discuss in hevruta?
We are humans relearning to wash our hands.
Washing our hands is an act of love
Washing our hands is an act of care
Washing our hands is an act that puts the hypervigilant body at ease
Washing our hands helps us return to ourselves by washing away what does not serve.
Wash your hands
like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, Beyonce…your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver- you get the picture.
Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach.
Like water is a precious resource made from time and miracle
- What lines stands out to you in this poem?
- How do you feel while reading it?
- How might you make handwashing a sacred act for you, personally?
4. Setting Personal Boundaries related to touch (10-15 minutes)
Since the coronavirus is transmitted through close contact with people, one of the ways we can practice “shimrat haguf” and help protect others is to limit the times we come into physical contact with others.
Facilitator’s Tip: Consider having participants talk about this with a hevruta partner.
- When, if ever, have you told someone you weren’t comfortable with doing something? What was the situation? What did you say? How did the person respond?
- When, if ever, have you been in a situation when you weren’t comfortable with something but didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about it?
It can be difficult for many of us to set a boundary, or to communicate that we are uncomfortable doing something like hugging or shaking hands.
Facilitator’s Tip: This is something to keep in the back of your mind and share if it feels appropriate or helpful: Setting a boundary may be especially difficult for people raised as girls who are socialized to be accommodating. It may be difficult for those socialized as boys to admit that they care about following rules, or to forego rituals of connections among boys.
- What are the current guidelines in your school and other communities about hugging or shaking hands?
- How if at all are these guidelines different from a few weeks ago?
- How do you feel about the new guidelines?
Facilitator’s Tip: Consider inviting participants to respond to the next few questions on their own through a writing exercise or use the whiteboard function on Zoom to collect responses.
- How do you personally feel about hugs and handshakes? How if at all does context matter?
- Who do you miss having the opportunity to hug?
- Who are you grateful not to have to hug/shake hands with?
- When the current health threat is over, do you think you’ll change your practice of greeting other people? Why/why not? (For example, maybe you’d like the elbow bump to remain the expected form of greeting?)
Invite people to share their responses.
If you know you’ll be going somewhere where there are not define guidelines for how to greet each other, decide for yourself what level of physical touch you are comfortable with and with whom. For example, do you feel comfortable hugging someone? Shaking someone’s hand? How might that vary depending on the context?
Become very clear on the boundaries you are setting. Then, practice telling people around you about your physical touch boundaries in a respectful way.
Also, ask what they are comfortable with. For example, you might say, “Considering the coronavirus, I would rather we didn’t shake hands. Could we bump elbows instead?” or “Could I give you a hug?” This skill of asking and giving consent, and assertively communicating your needs is useful in many areas of our lives.
5. Our Responsibility to the Community (15 minutes)
Share the following texts and invite participants to discuss in hevruta:
The Torah commands farmers: “You shall not reap all the way to the corners of your field” (Leviticus 19:9–10). This is traditionally interpreted by rabbinic scholars to mean that it is a mitzvah (commandment) for farmers to leave the crops at the corners of their field to the poor.
- What stands out to you in this text? What does it mean to you?
- If farmers in this text were a metaphor for young and non-immuno-compromised people and the poor were a general term that could include lots of people more vulnerable to the virus—because of lack of health insurance, lack of resources or poor health, what might this text tell us about our responsibility during the current situation? What might the field and its corners symbolize?
- What are ways you can help more vulnerable populations?
You must not deny justice to the alien nor the orphan, as they are defenseless; nor may you take away the garment of the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:17)
- What do you notice in this text? What does it mean to you?
- If the alien, orphan, and widow in this text were examples of folks more vulnerable in ancient Israelite society, what might this text tell us about our responsibility (and the responsibility of our leaders) to all those more vulnerable to the coronavirus during this time?
“You are not obligated to complete the work [of repairing the world], but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).
- What does this text make you think of? How does it make you feel?
- If we applied this message to our individual work of helping to prevent the spread of coronavirus, what does it communicate to us?
- What is your reaction to this message?
As the coronavirus spreads, it is the responsibility of young and non-immuno-compromised people to help prevent the virus from spreading to people with weaker immune systems in their families, Jewish communities, and the wider world. Even if you are not at risk for dying from the disease, it’s your responsibility to do what you can to protect the people in your life who are more vulnerable.
This might mean cancelling community events or moving them to an online setting, avoiding large gatherings like games, dances, or parades. It also might mean volunteering, giving tzedakah, and/or being there as a support for the physical and emotional needs of your loved ones.
Facilitator’s Tip: You might do this as a full group conversation, or as a writing activity.
- How does it feel to have to give up some of your freedom, and change your behaviors for the sake of others? (If you are meeting on Zoom, consider using Answer Garden to collect responses to this question.)
- When have you done this before, or is this a new experience for you?
- Who in your life have you seen do this in the past, for you or for others?
Facilitator’s Tip: Repair the World released a very helpful resource about how we can take responsibility for caring for each other: https://werepair.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Resource-on-Caring-for-the-Sick-in-Times-of-Crisis.pdf
“You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humanity shall live: I am YHWH.” Leviticus 18:5). Rabbi Akiva explains “by pursuit of which humanity shall live, not shall die.
In Jewish tradition this verse is interpreted to mean that the purpose of all mitzvot is to live and not to die through their observance. This verse is the source for the essential Jewish concept pikuach nefesh which means that saving someone’s life is the highest of values.
- How might pikuach nefesh apply during the coronavirus pandemic?
- What are decisions that you might make in order to practice pikuach nefesh?
6. Racism & Xenophobia (15 minutes)
Share the following two excerpts from articles about anti-Chinese & Asian racism.
Excerpt #1:from the Teen Vogue article, “As Coronavirus Spreads, So Does Anti-Chinese Racism” by Sara Li:
Growing up as a Chinese immigrant in the Midwest, I had a difficult relationship with the word American. On one hand, America was my home: It’s where I went to school, fell in (and out) of love, and found my calling as a writer. But on the other hand, I never felt American enough. From my surname to my features, I was always haunted by this underlying sentiment that my heritage was shameful, spurred on by racist remarks from classmates, neighbors, and strangers alike.
Among the range of insults (from “Does your family eat dogs?” to “I bet you can’t even see out of those eyes”), there was always one that stood out more than the rest: Chinese people are dirty.
In the last few months, hateful rhetoric against Chinese people has spiked. It doesn’t take a genius to pinpoint why. When an outbreak of Coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, was first reported in December in China’s Wuhan province, fearmongers immediately took to social media to point fingers at the entire Chinese community. A (now debunked) viral tweet accusing Chinese citizens of eating “bat soup” added fire to the hellscape, and calls for deportation and quarantine of Chinese folks have trended on and off ever since. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson has called the virus proof that “diversity is not our strength.”
The racist reception of COVID-19 isn’t surprising, or even unprecedented. It feeds into long-held stereotypes about Asian Americans and other ethnic groups. As far back as the late 19th century, public health officials in the U.S. were describing Chinese Americans as disease-ridden and dirty. Other viral outbreaks have been met with xenophobia—the dislike of and prejudice against other countries. During the Ebola crisis in 2014, similar anti-Black sentiments comparing West Africans to animals proliferated.
Excerpt #2: From “Sensationalist media is exacerbating racist coronavirus fears by Jing Zeng
“Epidemics bring out the best and worst of social media. In the past two months, I have seen pseudo-scientific ‘cures’ for the Covid-19 proliferating on WeChat, conspiracy theorists on Gab propagating various ‘truths’ about the source of the outbreak, and young Tik Tokers video-sharing ‘funny’ memes about the virus.
“On the flipside, I have witnessed the development of numerous campaigns fighting back against a parallel epidemic of #coronaracism. Since knowledge of the outbreak first occurred, disheartening incidents have been reported in Australia, Europe, and the US of people of east Asian appearance being verbally abused, kicked off public transport, denied entrance to shops, spat on and even violently attacked.
“Even as I write this (Feb 27, 2020), there are reports of attendees at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s hospital refusing to allow Asian doctors to treat their kids.
“’Less than 0.001% of Chinese people have coronavirus, yet more than 99.999% have already experienced coronaracism.’ This quote from British-born Chinese comedian Ken Cheng underlines pervasive and indiscriminate nature of the racism stemming from this outbreak.”
- What stands out to you in these articles? What is surprising, interesting, or troubling?
- How, if at all, have you witnessed anti-Chinese or Asian discrimination in your community or online? What other discrimination have you seen or heard about recently in response to the coronavirus?
- What are some ways that you think teens can respond to discrimination against Asian- Americans and others?
Invite participants to use Canva (https://www.canva.com/) to design an Instagram post, or a post for another social media platform responding to #coronaracism. Make sure to also tag Moving Traditions with the handle, @movingtraditions.
Facilitator’s Tip: If you use Canva in your group, take some time to play around with it yourself beforehand. They have helpful video tutorials here:
https://www.canva.com/learn/getting-started-with-canva-video-tutorials/?source=post_page—–85a21ce7cbc And you can search templates for “Instagram Post.”
Note: You May also want to spend some time focusing on the ways that Coronavirus is making it more clear than ever that everyone in the world is connected. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/coronavirus-usa-03-12?smid=nytcore-ios-share
This short video from the New York Times is one way to open that conversation. It does include several references to death and mourning so preview it and decide if it’s right for your group (even as your discussion proceeds).
Optional: Share any or all of the following three excerpts about the Jewish response to crises-like epidemics in the past and present:
Excerpt #1: Jewish response to cholera in the 19th century
“Jewish medical personnel and the Jewish community displayed a disproportionately active response to these crises [cholera epidemics and famines]…. Jews as a community, with a long tradition of charitable societies and collective action, were therefore better equipped to respond to crises effectively.” This could be seen in the 1860s cholera epidemic in Odessa, as well as in the 1890s.
“The famine and cholera epidemic of the nineties yet more sharply focused the attention of the well-off on the plight of the Jewish poor. Humanitarian concerns were wedded with self-interested fears, for recent advances in scientific knowledge established that diseases might spread from the poor to the wealthy. Aiding the poor sick, then, was a means of self-protection.” (Epstein, Lisa. “Caring for the Soul’s House: The Jews of Russia and Health Care, 1860-1914,” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1995, p. 199) –
Excerpt #2: More challenging Jewish response to cholera in the 19th century
“Some Hasidim sought to root out ‘sinners’ whom they perceived as the cause of the [cholera] affliction. In 1866 in Uman, Ukraine, for example, Hasidim reportedly lay in ambush for women wearing crinolines, a fashion the Hasidim labeled ‘non-Jewish’ and blamed for the epidemic.” (From Epstein, Lisa. “Health and Healing.” In The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, edited by Gershon Hundert. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 696)
Excerpt #3: from “Israeli rabbi: Coronavirus outbreak is divine punishment for gay pride parades
“An Orthodox Israeli rabbi has claimed the spread of the deadly coronavirus in Israel and around the world is divine retribution for gay pride parades.
“The remarks by Rabbi Meir Mazuz, reported by the Israel Hayom daily on Sunday, drew condemnation from rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, which urged him to apologize.
“An influential Sephardic rabbi, Mazuz is the former spiritual leader of the defunct ultra-nationalist and homophobic Yachad party, and is head of the Kiseh Rahamim yeshiva in Bnei Brak.
“On Saturday night he gave a talk at the yeshiva, during which, according to the report, he said a pride parade is “a parade against nature, and when someone goes against nature, the one who created nature takes revenge on him.
“It is regrettable that in times like these when the whole world comes together to eradicate coronavirus, Rabbi Mazuz finds it appropriate to blame the virus’s outbreak on the LGBTQ community. We harshly condemn his statements and urge him to apologize,” the ADL’s Israel branch said in a statement.
“The modern Orthodox Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah group also condemned Mazuz’s remarks.
“Using this time of need to incite against the LGBT community is unacceptable. Trying to get people to return to religion cannot come at the price of harming others,” it said in a statement.”
- What do you find surprising, interesting, or troubling about these excerpts?
- Why do you think illnesses have been blamed on those within the Jewish community who are challenging tradition?
7. Seeking Joy
It is really disappointing that many community celebrations have been cancelled or postponed. And not knowing what the future will bring is also very unsettling!
However, it is important to seek out opportunities to do things that bring you pleasure. Jewish wisdom teaches that a person has an essential, natural, internal need to be joyous at regular intervals—in the same way that they need food, rest, and sleep.
Things that bring you joy might include your favorite hobbies, connecting with your friends and community even if it’s over the internet, eating your favorite foods, moving your body in ways that feel good.
To end your session, decide as a group on something you would like to do together that is joyous. Here are some ideas:
- Turn on the playlist that you made for handwashing and have a dance party—either in person or online.
- Sing a song together.
- Watch a clip from a funny YouTube video or from another streaming platform.
- Have some unstructured time to talk to each other.
- If you’re meeting online, invite everyone to share something from their space that brings them joy.