Coronavirus: The rise of the micro-community in the time of COVID-19

From saving local coffee shops to buying eggs for elderly neighbors, heralding the new neighborhood vibes that have emerged from the coronavirus crisis.

‘DAILY YOGA on my tiny balcony was a sanity-saver during lockdown, connecting me with nature and the micro-community around me.’ (photo credit: MORAN SAPIR)
‘DAILY YOGA on my tiny balcony was a sanity-saver during lockdown, connecting me with nature and the micro-community around me.’
(photo credit: MORAN SAPIR)
It’s 10 a.m. on Sunday and there’s a pot of home-made vegan soup sitting on my doorstep. The Post-it Note stuck on top simply says “B’teavon.” It’s not an oddly timed Wolt delivery; rather, it’s the latest creation from my 70-something neighbor, Dalia, who’s been leaving soups outside my apartment door ever since lockdown started in March.
I’ve lived in my rented Tel Aviv home for two-and-a-half years, and prior to the coronavirus crisis, the most I said to Dalia was “Hi, how are you?” while simultaneously hoping she wouldn’t notice the ever-changing stream of Airbnb visitors who came to occupy my spare room. But since the skies closed, tourism ended and the government banned us from moving more than 100 meters from our homes, something shifted in my tiny patch of Tel Aviv.
We went from being a collection of disparate residents who share stairwells and parking spaces, to being a micro-community that was there for each other through the few highs and many lows the lockdown created. I’m not trying to idealize the past few months. As news of the pandemic gathered pace, I felt isolated, scared and extremely worried about relatives in the UK, which has experienced one of the highest death rates in Europe. But there was a glimmer of comfort in the form of my neighbors and my locality that provided hope and reassurance like never before.
When I popped to the local vegetable stand or pharmacy, I’d text Dalia to see if she needed anything. One day, she needed eggs, but the egg-supply crisis was in full flow. I lined up outside a Super Yuda on Allenby and victoriously returned to our building with a rare box of free-range eggs. I left them outside her door.
The next Shabbat she repaid me with soup and aubergine quiche, explaining that it made her feel better to know that we were eating together, albeit from separate apartments. This connection lessened our respective sense of social isolation.
On Seder night, Dalia invited me to join her family on Zoom. I declined because I was going to connect with my family in England instead. But even so, on the eve of the holiday, I opened the door to find a complete stay-at-home Seder kit outside. She’d given me one of everything, from Haggadah to red wine and haroset.
I didn’t dare tell her that I’d already had a Passover delivery from Eli and Sara, the Chabad family who live one building away. I’d gotten to know them because their kids had turned our car park into an alternative school playground (naturally), and I’d struck up a friendship with their nine-year-old daughter from the socially appropriate distance of my first-floor balcony.
I ALSO GOT to know Michael and Liron, the young married couple who live opposite me on Bernstein Cohen Street. Every lockdown evening, they’d turn their garden into a home gym, complete with heavyweight barbells, while I’d do sunset yoga on my balcony. We’d wave at each other in appreciation, and from time to time talk about how we were surviving.
On Remembrance Day, the three of us took a masked evening walk together around our neighborhood, and talked about what life would look like if lockdown ever ended. While it was clear that we all wanted to get back to the bars and beaches of Tel Aviv, we also swapped fervid details about the comings and goings of life in our area.
When I had a minor medical emergency of my own the week after the lockdown ended, I didn’t call my mum in London or longer-term friends in the Old North. Instead, I called Liron, knowing that she’d be there for me. She lives within 100 meters, making her the equivalent of my family while we live through this pandemic.
Now that restrictions have been scaled back, I can go anywhere I want in the city. Yet a strange thing is happening; I’m still sticking to my local area. I can jump on my bike and cycle to a long-time favorite coffee spot on Ben-Gurion Boulevard nearly two kilometers away, or I can walk 50 meters to the tiny kiosk on the corner of my road. On most days this is my preferred choice. But why?
Dr. Dina Wyshogrod, a Jerusalem-based clinical psychologist and mindfulness coach, attributes this new micro-neighborhood loyalty to a changing concept of what it means to be at home.
“During lockdown, you expanded the boundaries of home to include the neighborhood,” she explains. “Not just your four walls, but also the sense of community. The faces, the businesses – there was a sense of ‘this is home,’ my area. Everyone around you was united by a commonality. They were trying to figure out how to survive this thing.
“Now, we can go anywhere, but lockdown forced us off of autopilot. We began to notice a lot more of what was happening in our micro-locality, from the people around us to the jasmine flowers that are growing. We realized that within our 100 meters, we have enough. There are tremendous possibilities for moments of happiness, even without going on a trip.”
SITUATED AT the intersection of Pinsker and Zalman Schneour streets in Tel Aviv, the cafe is described by its owner (at bottom) as ‘a place where people, food and good atmosphere meet.’ (Photo Credit: Antony Hatchuel)SITUATED AT the intersection of Pinsker and Zalman Schneour streets in Tel Aviv, the cafe is described by its owner (at bottom) as ‘a place where people, food and good atmosphere meet.’ (Photo Credit: Antony Hatchuel)
When word spread that two of my area’s iconic cafés were struggling to find the necessary cash to reopen after lockdown, I was upset, and it seems I wasn’t the only one. Benjamin Buchwaic, the owner of Tel Aviv’s popular Café Shneor, says that day after day, locals would approach him with sadness and panic in their eyes.
“For two weeks I worked here alone, and one by one, people would stop and ask ‘What will happen? Can I come in? Can I have a look at the empty cafe?’ I saw how important this place is to people. They wanted life to get back to routine, but coming in for coffee or a light meal – that is normal for them. I tried to be optimistic, to be a host. But I went home every day destroyed, because I wasn’t sure I’d have the cash flow to reopen, and I knew how much it meant to people.”
EVENTUALLY, BUCHWAIC took to the Internet to ask for help. His aim was to raise 80,000 shekels via the crowd-funding platform Headstart. He was quickly amazed by the reaction of the local community, which saw 379 patrons pledge support.
“People told me they were scared we wouldn’t reach the target. They were actually afraid,” he says. “They’d call and say ‘I’m checking up. How are we doing?’”
I personally shared his fund-raising page on Facebook, urging friends to “Save Cafe Shneor,” and was thrilled when some of them, plus my mum and brother in the UK, pledged their support. But it was a nail-biting finish.
“With two hours to go, I still needed to raise 2,000 shekels,” Buchwaic recalls. “I refreshed the page, and suddenly it was done. Someone pledged the whole remaining amount. I don’t take it for granted at all. I felt the care of the people. My local customers took it on as their own project. And it’s more surprising to me that it happened in Tel Aviv, where there’s a lot of money to be spent and people can go anywhere.”
According to Dr Wyshogrod, this outpouring of affection for Cafe Shneor makes total sense.
“Every business represents someone’s dream and hopes,” she says. “By pledging support, you actually saved somebody’s dream. It’s a very significant thing. And humans are creatures of connection. When you send wishes of well-being to someone else, you feel better. That wash of happiness you get when you’ve given someone a gift? It’s also a gift to yourself. You feel something good in your body, and you calm the vibes around you.”
At a time when many of us were connecting daily with colleagues and family via Zoom and FaceTime, but not seeing anyone up close, a grassroots community project was exactly what we needed to feel better about life. Of course, nobody wants to experience lockdown or a global health crisis again. But as we continue to battle with the pandemic, it’s safe to say we can take comfort in the community spirit that this period of time has helped to create.
“Every little interaction counts,” says Dr Wyshogrod. “There’s so much pressure in our lives that we sometimes forget this. But really, we have all the conditions we need to be happy right now, right there, in our 100 meters. For as the gurus say, ‘If you can look at the sky and see the sky, what else do you need?’”


Tags Tel Aviv