Photo Credit: Rabbi Shragie Bomzer
Rabbi Bomzer’s students proudly show their Gemaras as they made a siyum together over Zoom in the spring.

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 in the spring 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.

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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 a bow and 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. A father of one 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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Rabbi Shragie Bomzer, MS., has been teaching advanced Gemara and Jewish thought in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh in the Old City for the last 13 years. Having trained at Jerusalem's acclaimed Family Institute, Rabbi Bomzer is a psychotherapist in private practice who supervises and works with individuals and families in his clinic and via Skype. He can be reached by email for questions or consultations at SFBomzer@gmail.com.