Self-Care Is Fine. Community Care Is Even Better.

Community has always been — and remains — how we Jews best care for one another.

“Self-care” has been a hot buzzword for so long, I’m not sure anyone knows what it means anymore. It blasts itself in bold letters across magazine titles; it permeates our social media feeds. Entire Instagram accounts are centered on the topic. Won’t you treat yourself to a skincare regimen of Korean snail serum you can’t afford this weekend? If you loved yourself, you would. Feeling frightened at the state of the world? Chin up! You are a strong, independent, Super Woman with no need for external support. Someone hurt you again? Let it go. Namaste. Self-care. Don’t dig deeper.

Yes, I know, I’m being facetious. Of course, there is merit in caring for ourselves — we live in an increasingly busy, fast-paced world, and taking the time to honor our own needs is crucial. But, does the infatuation with self-care neglect our very nature as social creatures? And does it go against everything that we value as Jews?

Now, in the wake of a global pandemic, we are more isolated and yet more interconnected than ever. Social distancing is now necessary (and difficult).  It may be the first worldwide crisis in our lifetimes and although it will pass, we won’t just be reading about it — we will remember it. We will remember who showed up for us — who wrote, called, sent over groceries. Small business owners will take note of who bought gift cards to help them stay afloat. Musicians will know who watched their live streams of newly cancelled concerts. We will all judge our governments for how they do or do not help us. We will remember who made us smile; whose actions made us feel less alone.

Community has always been, and is still, how we best care for one another. Especially within the Jewish community.

If you don’t take my word for it, look no further than the The 2019 World Happiness Report, a “landmark survey of the state of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.” The very first chapter is titled “Happiness and Community.” While self-care is about the individual, community care is about the collective well being of all. It is recognizing that as human beings, we do, in fact, need each other.

But, for many young people today, the concept of a tight-knit community is a pipe dream; maybe it’s yours. Maybe your family didn’t quite fit the mold. Maybe you didn’t look like the rest of your relatives. Maybe you moved around a lot. Maybe you came from a household without a synagogue membership. Maybe you’re not religious. Maybe you grew up in Bumpkin, USA, and simply did not know enough people to form a minyan. Or, maybe you had none of these problems, but now you’re grown and moved out and starting a life of your own without many of the necessary comforts of home.

How do you build community from here? In times of grief, loss, or loneliness, must we resign ourselves to bubble baths and memories in the name of self-care? I don’t think so.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the phrase “it takes a village” wasn’t always just a phrase, until I visited a college friend’s hometown in the south of Israel a couple summers ago. Not only was it an actual village, but also very beautiful. Her family had built a flourishing moshav (a sort of communal, agricultural town similar to a kibbutz), which was quite an impressive feat for a small Yemeni community in the middle of the desert. Lemon, carob, and pomegranate trees lined the streets. Even the unsettling presence of a bomb shelter in a way highlighted the otherwise tranquility of the place — it was as if to say, there is danger in living, but we continue to live, and we will do so with beauty.

Upon arrival, I was immediately recognized as The American and pulled into a dance circle — being uncoordinated, speaking very poor Hebrew, and jet-lagged, I had no choice but to sway and laugh and accept the many hugs. Later, I managed to string along a conversation with my friend’s grandfather in which he spoke Spanish, I replied in Italian, and somehow we each felt understood. A cousin joked I would have to marry her brother to stay there, and for a moment, I seriously considered it.

I loved the moshav. I’ve lived in a number of places — suburbs to cities, Asia to America, and I’ve never felt so quickly accepted as I did in that tiny town in the desert. Nothing about me was under scrutiny. I may not recall every slang word I was taught, I may not execute every Yemeni recipe perfectly (sorry, Chana), but I will always remember how well I was cared for.

Of course, these types of communities are comprised of time, commonality, and geography — they don’t pop up overnight. It makes sense that tradition is still strong in many Jewish spaces; all I ask is that they expand their membership details. Re-write some rules. Allow donations rather than fees. Build a longer table, and add some (virtual) chairs. Live stream a service. Especially now, it may be the time to exercise your tikkun olam, whatever that means for you.

To be clear, I am not calling for a ban on self-care — read some of the How I Keep Calm series while applying a facemask and stress baking and counting your Purell bottles, by all means. Sometimes, that is exactly what we need. But, sometimes we need more, and that doesn’t make us weak; it makes us human. We don’t know when this new normal will end or what the future holds, but maybe in the meanwhile, if we made a phone call instead of a text, if we chose our inner circles as if we were building a village together, we may all be a little happier at the end of the day.

Header Image illustration by Jennifer Kosig/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images.

Michelle Geffner

Michelle Geffner is a New York based classical singer, enthusiasm enthusiast, sometimes writer. She can be found photographing dogs and babies in her free time.

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