Planning our exit strategy – the opportunity to set and reset our habits

Sometimes, forming habits actually requires no conscious effort at all.

MEN PRAY outside the Ramot Polin Apartments in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood last month.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MEN PRAY outside the Ramot Polin Apartments in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood last month.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
With the holiday season behind us, many had the chance for introspection and to contemplate the unpredictable coming year. We have had the chance to think about the kind of people we want to become and the kinds of new habits we want to form.
Sometimes, forming habits actually requires no conscious effort at all. The implications of the novel coronavirus pandemic have caused us to adopt ways of life without question based on necessity. At the onset of the pandemic, many of our now normal behaviors such as wearing masks and social distancing, seemed strange. But we have adjusted in remarkable and awe-inspiring ways – sometimes quicker than we would have imagined possible. Look at how we have embraced technology to celebrate special occasions, study online and nurture a stronger sense of community spirit for example.
Without even realizing, we have normalized behaviors that were once seen as abnormal. According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, adopting a new way of conduct takes an average of 66 days, a time period we have well surpassed. And as time passes and these “strange” new behaviors become a “normal” part of our routine, it is crucial for us to pause and consider which are important to us as individuals and communities, consciously adopting that which we would like to keep.
We are trained to look forward, choosing the habits we would like to maintain amid our “new reality,” but sometimes it is even more important for us to consider habits from our former and current selves that we don’t want to lose. Working often required a commute and more face-to-face interactions, but now we know that this is not always necessary, and we may forgo human engagement. Similarly with education, can we not save time and money by continuing much of our learning online?
Even on a basic level, will less people tread outside their homes for groceries when they can order virtually by the click of a button? There will inevitably be good and, at the same time, we are at risk of some new habits replacing our crucial in person interactions. This is true universally but we can be sure it will have a unique impact on our particular communities as well.
From the Temple to the Synagogue, from the Diaspora to Israel, while evolving, Jewish ritual throughout the ages has always required physical community. With the adaptability learned through COVID-19, so many Jews around the world have managed to retain this sense of community even from afar, such as learning Torah through Zoom or praying in a small outdoor minyan with neighbors from within the safe distance.
I have been inspired through some of the wonderful initiatives, like singing “Ma Nishtana?” (What’s Different?) with our neighborhood on Passover, or pausing in unison to remember those that have departed in Yizkor wherever we are on Yom Kippur. At the same time many have faced terrible realities, such as not being able to attend the funerals of loved ones or experiencing countless Shabbat services and meals alone. This is far from the face-to-face interactions our tradition thrives upon.
If the physical community of Jewish ritual is important, we must consider how crucial this aspect is to our people for when COVID-19 finally passes. Are there any areas that we should, in the words of Lamentations, “renew our days as of old.”
While we often feel that our habits define us, at the start of this strange-now-normal New Year, we must choose to define our habits. Usually, maintaining old habits is easier than creating new ones, but in this case perhaps the roles are reversed. It may not be a challenge to hold onto some new habits that have been developed over the course of the pandemic, but making sure we leave room for the right longstanding ones that will have shaped us as individuals and societies. So as we transition out of the lockdowns, it is important that we take the time to focus on developing an exit strategy out of the COVID-19 era. For once in our lives, our focus does not need to be on forming new habits alone, but rather rediscovering and reclaiming the significant old ones.
The writer is the CEO of the Mosaic United organization, a partnership between the State of Israel and the global Jewish community dedicated to addressing wide-ranging approaches to Jewish engagement and raising the bar to ensure a stronger Jewish future. An oleh (new immigrant to Israel) from Australia, he previously served as the Dean of Moriah College, one of the largest Jewish schools in the world.