Don’t hunker down: Do good

Rabbi Hershey Novack. Photo: Evan Kominsky

I have been spending a large fraction of my time talking with students and alumni during this complicated period in our history. The coronavirus presents great challenges, yet with a bit of focus, we can rise to the occasion and identify new opportunities to serve and lead. 

Schools have been closed and parents of children have become adjunct school teachers. A huge fraction of this country is hurting economically. Those able to work from home find their attention divided and are often pulled in many directions with endless Zoom calls.

College students who are blessed to have a stable roof over their heads, by contrast, seem to have a lot of available time. Campuses are closed and in-person social life is shut down. Even while taking classes online, many colleges have made their courses pass/fail, so students’ course-loads are less burdensome.

Coronavirus has caused some college students to become incredibly anxious and wracked with worry. To those suffering: This will ultimately get better. Your highest priority is to practice self-care and manage your own mental health. Seek opportunities to focus on the glimmers of good that can be found: a positive outlook can actually influence outcomes for the better.

If you have it within yourself to help others, please know that even with social distancing, there is much that can be done. This is the time to ask ourselves, “What does coronavirus make possible?” Here are some ideas to spark your creativity and inspire you to help those around you: 

• Kindness begins at home. Help around your own house before helping others. This will also help maintain a semblance of normalcy. 

• Call your grandparents and other people who may be trapped and fearful.

• While on the phone, offer to give them technological assistance, for example, by talking them through setting up their WiFi to ensure it can reach all the rooms of their house, or by teaching them how to use their digital connections in new ways.

• Check on your neighbors — while being safely distant, of course. Offer to mow their lawns and bring out their garbage cans on the appointed days.

• Volunteer with a local service agency. In St. Louis we are blessed with a wonderful Jewish Family Service organization, and they are gladly accepting, and in search of, volunteers. (Full disclosure: This author serves as a board member of the Jewish Family Services of St. Louis, though the opinions expressed here are his own.) 

• Start your own service group! Organize your neighbors in a local mutual-aid group. If you seek insight on how to do this, I am glad to connect you with enterprising students who have gotten started, so they may share their expertise with you. One locally-based example is www.covaid.co, which is both a tool for local mutual-aid and a platform to help communities create their own mutual-aid services anywhere in the world.

• Donate blood. There are severe shortages as many scheduled blood drives have been canceled. Check with your local Red Cross to make sure you follow all procedures to keep yourself and those around you safe. 

• Start a family genealogy project and interview older family members about their memories. Many archives are online, and during this period, access often is being offered at no cost.

• Start a garden in your yard or on your window sill.

Here is something to not do: Do not share bad information on social media. In an interconnected world, it is vital to avoid spreading rumors and panic. Think twice before posting a link — especially if it is from a questionable source. And before you click on a link, ask yourself if it is worth your time or the stress it may induce. 

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos suggests that the world rests upon three central values: Torah, prayer, and acts of kindness. Thus far, I have mostly focused on acts of kindness, but I should note that at the moment, there is abundant time for personal prayer and the study of Torah.

Prayer is always precious. While organized in-person prayer is forbidden, there are opportunities for reflection and devotion that can be hard to achieve in a group setting. The Siddur (prayer book) calls for prayer three times a day, with more on Shabbat and holidays. Prayer may also have a positive impact in achieving a sense of calm in one’s own life. Additionally, reciting chapters ofTehilim (Psalms) has provided hope and comfort to our people for thousands of years. 

Studying Torah now is more accessible than ever. If you do not have a library of Judaic texts, there are incredible online resources including SefariaHebrewbooks.org, and chabad.org/library. Additionally, a subscription library called Otzar Hachochma is currently available without charge. There is no need to study alone as study partners can be found online.

Remember that while young people appear to be less susceptible to COVID-19, you can contract it and infect others. This makes it critical to follow instructions to protect your health and those of your families and community members. Make sure to check the CDC and local health department websites for instructions before participating in any of the endeavors mentioned above. When there is a lack of clarity on best behavior, I have been encouraging my family to follow the more stringent guidelines. Saving lives is a paramount value, and it is crucial to err on the side of caution. 

Here is what I have been sharing with college students and young alumni: It may be easy to loll around the house and binge-watch, but these times call for more from us. The choices we make today can affect the course of tomorrow. This is your chance to make a difference and help others.

With hard work, good cheer, and a bit of faith, we will get through this together.

Rabbi Hershey Novack is co-director of the Chabad on Campus Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University.