Discussion Room

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From Afar 

~Long Distance Teaching and Counseling during Corona~

August 16th, 2020

Rabbi Shragie Bomzer MS

The yeshiva academic year, commencing in September of 2019, got off to a fantastic start. There is something truly miraculous that occurs when young people leave their homes and come to Israel to engage in a committed process of spiritual growth. However, what was an incalculably successful period of growth was quite suddenly aborted when the yeshivos catering to American students decided to send their students home to the care of their families. I felt that this decision– based on the best information available at the time– was both wise and responsible. Cognizant as I was as to how this hiatus could stunt the growth and in many cases the trajectory of the students, there was also a measure of relief in the decision. Relief, because the responsibilities of keeping young people physically and psychologically healthy during an epidemic would be daunting, especially with so much still unknown about the developing worldwide health crisis.

I am a Rebbi and guidance counselor in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh, in the Old City of Jerusalem, as well as a Mental Health clinician, specializing in working with post-High-School young adults. I saw before me what was gearing up to become perhaps the most debilitating emotional crisis to plague American yeshiva students studying in Israel. My job demands that I keep my finger on the emotional and spiritual pulse of my students and clients, and I was predicting acute, if not chronic, distress on the horizon. Fresh and revolutionary thinking was warranted to cope with the challenges as the pandemic was obviating our time-tested and successful formulae, which we had relied on so heavily thus far.


Besides for the devastating effect on life and health, the Covid-19 onslaught created a number of seemingly insurmountable challenges. How could I continue providing spiritual and emotional guidance from afar? How could we continue to give over Torah wisdom without the hallowed halls of yeshiva? How could we help stabilize the lives of those who had been so demoralized by the upheaval? How could I help my students and clients maintain connectedness at a time when we were forcibly isolated? How could we make certain that the anxiety-provoking messages from the world and the media would not undermine our equilibrium? 

Thus began the solution phase. Netiv Aryeh presciently and expeditiously shifted shiurim to Zoom. My colleagues and I altered our schedules, by seven hours,  matching the American workday, to be available when our abroad students were ready, providing much needed stability and structure. We offered opportunities for mornings, afternoons and evenings; mirroring the schedules from Yeshiva. Research shows that not having a routine can markedly increase stress, anxiety and depression. The emotional system that manages negative emotions is closely correlated with properly organized circadian rhythms. 


Proverbially, however, we could only bring the horse to water. It was astounding to witness those who engaged with discipline (were timely and consistent) gaining significantly more in every measurable way. They had increased participation, deeper engagement with the material and ideas, and felt good about their learning and overall circumstances. Causality was clear. The more disciplined, the more emotionally healthy. I saw it as my fundamental mission to encourage this behavior, so with regularly interspersed inspirational messages and a bit of innocent jousting (humor was a major factor) the students rallied around their schedules. It was also essential to create goal and task based learning. Weekly agendas reflected short-term goals within the context of an umbrella mission. Each day was integral in the process of finishing the week’s task and the semester’s group goal. Encouraging students to strive for an unidentified bullseye is akin to tasking someone with hitting the mark with bow-n-arrow, while not letting them identify the target. We nailed our targets by working as a team in achieving very practical and calculable results. 


Our online learning was also focused on the groups of students maintaining their connections with each other. We had “breakout rooms” where small groups could learn together, and maintain their friendships, even from afar. Some educators would have wanted to keep this time dedicated to working on the material, but it was clear to me the immeasurable value of fraternizing and maintaining connections with the other students and friends. In today’s day, with the ubiquity of Netflix and internet gaming, there is a dearth of social opportunities when young men are sequestered. I wanted to encourage healthy face-to-face social experiences within our time together. This camaraderie provided much needed connection when so many were feeling lonely and despondent. It was helpful that our Torah learning was tightly focused on our group learning and that we set generalized goals and even completed tractates in unison. 


Many of these challenges also arose with clients as I continued working with individuals and families via secure online mediums. The epidemic had given rise to issues surrounding stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, feeling of loss relating to unmet expectations, unremitting fears, relationship difficulties, fraught family dynamics and countless other concerns. Finding private, suitable space and scheduling were some of the hurdles that we overcame. Clients were hyper-focused on developing coping skills in managing their negative emotions during these tumultuous times, even as social media exacerbated the pervasive anxieties. Some of the interventions I would normally use were more difficult, especially relating to mindfulness practices, but we learned to adjust and find other ways to develop the skills to maneuver. My students also benefited from our candid conversations relating to the situation at large. We discussed how to avoid catastrophizing, while also accepting and even appreciating our negative emotions as they “try to help us” along our journey.  We focused on skills like “reframing” by putting our life-circumstances into perspective without losing a tight grip on reality, nor marginalizing the very real challenges.  


It became impactfully clear through our shared conversations that there were many ways to react and experience the mayhem of Covid-19. StuA father of a student was able to join our Shiur and share his personal harrowing account of hospitalization and recovery. He shared tearfully his fear and gratitude as his story of personal suffering and growth emerged from our screens. We were each touched and awed at his strength and earnestness as he referenced his family’s reliance on Hashem at a time of great difficulty. Other parents described adulation at their first-hand account of watching their sons excel and thrive in learning and character even under quarantined conditions. My own grandmother, Rebbetzin Leona Bomzer, of blessed memory, passed away from this devastating disease; and, although deeply grieving, we were able to build from the loss and in her memory learn and finish a mesechta together. 


Teaching and counseling students from afar has raised many difficulties which have forced me to refine my skills and adjust to the times. The online medium lacks the facial cues and instinctual real-time feedback. There is a superficial and slightly distracted aspect to the interactions coupled with somewhat delayed response-times. These factors demand more attentiveness to the nuanced needs and reactions of students and clients alike. Can these chasms be bridged? I have seen incontrovertible results from those I am blessed to work with as we trudge successfully through unchartered territory of online learning and self-development. 

We have had to change ourselves and our methods to overcome the multitudinous challenges strewn before us. Somehow, some way, this newfound format of guiding and matriculating young minds will certainly be a part of our future teaching and counseling setup. And yet, as successful as this novel process has been, I resonate with the sentiment of my colleagues, students and clients who are ecstatic to be resuming in-person learning next week; when thousands of students will once again traverse the oceans to come attend Yeshiva in Israel. We are back to our time-tested formulae; albeit with slight variations. I look forward to letting you know how that unfolds and how in-person Corona-time-learning differs from afar-learning. Until then, I am wishing you and your families a sweet and healthy year, from afar…  


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Comparing Our Lives – Visually Triggering Loss by Rabbi Shragie Bomzer

I was recently scrolling through photographs a highschool classmate had sent me from the “good-ol-days” when I was suddenly struck. It seemed that he, and some mutual friends, had gone on a number of excursions that I was not a part of. One was to Miami Florida and another was to Italy. I was trying to recall what I had been busy with, almost 20 years prior, that would have stopped me from joining their experience. It wasn’t a prior engagement that had excluded me from their fun, but rather a lack of means. I had consciously decided not to join these events because it was beyond what I could afford. I realized in retrospect that I was blessed to have been blissfully ignorant of my friends’ wonderful fun they were having traversing the world! I was blissfully ignorant for years, but now confronted with the boardshorts, smiles and good-times that I had missed all those years ago. 


My parents had raised me with a very practical set of financial possibilities. “Earn it if you want to spend it”. I  arrived for post High School education with spending money that I had earned over the course of High School and summer jobs. When it came to large expenditures, for example vacationing and traveling the world, there was a clear limitation emanating from the purse. When isolating the difficulty that I experienced with these limits, I could pinpoint specific moments of disappointment. When a friend came over to me and announced that there was a cohort intending to go on some trip, or another, (that would be beyond my finances) I would politely (and sadly) decline and then begin the next phase. From that moment on, I would “move on”. The disappointment had passed, and I focused on the next items on my personal agenda. The pain and discomfort was isolated pain to the moment of saying “no”. Why was the pain so confined then, but so vivid today? 


When thinking about loss, I find it beneficial to discuss the sadness-feeling by appreciating this powerful negative emotion for what it offers us. Sadness can be defined as an emotion that comes with feelings of disadvantage, disappointment of helplessness. Perhaps simplified, this is a feeling that tells us that what we have lost was something important to us. If something holds no value, or nothing is valuable, then its loss does not invoke sadness. We generally think of a loss as the pain created by the void of something that we “had”. For example a loss of life means the death and absence of someone that we had (in actuality) in our life. However, there is also a powerful feeling that is experienced with loss of opportunity/potential. When someone dies, their death represents a very actual loss of life in the present; along with the loss of potential or future possibilities. Why cry for future pain?


Perhaps the loss isn’t a future loss, but rather a loss in the present of a very real picture that we hold in our minds. The picture of what can be and what ought to be. We cherish these pictures, and then experience acute pain when those pictures are ruptured or destroyed. We have pictures of the future vividly displayed in our minds to create order out of the future. When we awake, we have a sense of the day to follow and when we go to sleep we have a semblance of stability knowing what is in store tomorrow. Without this stabilizing imagery, we would fear the dangerous possibilities of the unknown. Having a stable (and often comforting) image of what is to come allows us to ignore the future and focus on the here-and-now. But when we are dissauged of that picture, especially if we had held onto it tightly, we experience the loss directly. We have lost something that was very “real” for us. 


There is another picture that we hold onto for its stabilizing effects. We develop a sense of equilibrium based on other people and what we believe we ought to have. How do we measure up to those around us? This social comparison is a non-conscious adjudicator of whether we have or don’t have the things we think we need. If I have less, then that undermines my sense of stability. Do I have what I need?  Am I stable in my current circumstance considering that I have less than those around me? 


I was imagining how much more difficult childhood would have been for me had I known, in real-time, about all of the things I was missing out on. Our sense of wholesomeness is based on our comparison of our lives to others. Do I have enough or too little is determined by my perceived sense of normal. When a person notes that which he does not have, this produces the absence of the picture of perfection; and then a powerful feeling of loss ensues.  


That brings us to today. When going through these photographs that my friend had so kindly “shared” with me, I was struck with the vivid pain of what I had lost. I had “lost” the opportunity that my friends had experienced. I had lost the picture in my mind that my life was sufficient and entertaining without their fun. I had lost my innocent ignorance. Are we better off today in a world where every smile (posed or otherwise) is displayed on our phones and social media feeds continuously? Or perhaps we are creating deep lackings within our lives and molding our realities to a constant sense of having less than we ought to have; thus producing feelings of disadvantage and hopelessness? I am certainly happy that my friends had enjoyed their freedom and vacations, but I am also glad that I was blissfully unaware of what I did not have, so that I could truly appreciate only what I was blessed to have.