OPINION: How the NHS rainbows saved a new Jewish arrival to the UK
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OPINION: How the NHS rainbows saved a new Jewish arrival to the UK

'I could tell you I used my training to cope but I'd be lying. I broke down'. Yaela Orelowitz, a drama therapist from South Africa, reflects on adapting to London under lockdown

Yaela Orelowitz
NHS workers at Royal Liverpool University Hospital come outside to see the public clapping to salute local heroes during Thursday's nationwide Clap for Carers initiative to recognise and support NHS workers and carers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire)
NHS workers at Royal Liverpool University Hospital come outside to see the public clapping to salute local heroes during Thursday's nationwide Clap for Carers initiative to recognise and support NHS workers and carers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

I moved to the UK from South Africa for a job in the Jewish community exactly two weeks before the UK Government declared an official lockdown for Covid-19, AND thought it might be interesting to share my (very early) ‘first thoughts’.

I arrived with a longing to serve a role, to be a part of a community. My first two Shabbats in London were filled with warmth and hospitality. I went to shuls and was welcomed as the newcomer by everyone. Rebbetzins introduced themselves, and I had countless offers for Shabbat meals. I could not believe the kindness and genuine care of the community I had stepped into.

I was excited for my future here and ready for my new job, but that Tuesday London locked down. Shuls closed, invitations were cancelled, and I no longer had a job because it was reliant on working with schools and universities, all of which were now expected to be shuttered until September.

I could tell you that I used my therapeutic knowledge and training to transform bad into good, but that would be a lie, and an unhelpful one. In fact I broke down, freaked out, sat numb, bought too many sugary snacks and ate them all in one sitting. Then I cried, a lot.

Yaela Orelowitz

What would my future bring? When would this all end? Would I be alone for Pesach? The exchange rate made my South African Rands almost worthless – how would I survive financially on my pittance savings? The worries were real, and shared in different versions by billions worldwide. This fact gave me some degree of comfort, but it didn’t change anything.

In essence I was grieving. Grief is a complicated process; its stages are not linear. Grief is not something we do only when faced with the death of a loved one. Grief is about loss; the loss of a dream, of a life I was expecting to live, of a familiar world.

Our feelings do not arise in isolation. This grief that I was experiencing now brought with it grief from past experiences, memories which I thought had long since faded. So now, all at once, all of my life’s issues were manifesting simultaneously in a very extreme manner, all under lockdown.

I cannot be alone in this. Many must have not only been dealing with the practical, financial and tangible consequences of this pandemic, but also facing difficult emotions and memories, challenges to belief systems, and what I call “self-talk” that is so uncomfortable to sit with. The distractions of our busy, social, mainly extroverted lives have been removed and we have been made to feel like naughty children sent to our bedrooms as punishment.

In psychological terms the denial of feelings and experiences leads to avoidance and repression. In the long-term this can create an inauthentic and exhaustingly defended existence. Denying these feelings would do me no good, I knew, and nor would staying in this place forever.

I believe, as a Jew, that everything God puts us through has a real and important lesson for us, and is therefore ultimately good. Finding the good, after accepting the grief, was my obligation as a Jew, a therapist, and a young immigrant with any chances of survival.

Stuck in my head, I went for a walk, turned a corner and saw a picture of a rainbow, a message of hope. The timing of it was undeniable: God had placed it there to show me that there is proverbial glory after the storm, and that a time would come when colour would return to my life.

My chin lifted, and I felt less afraid. Then I saw another rainbow, then another. I felt like I was dancing in a plethora of rainbows, put there just for me. I later found out that they were a show of support for the NHS, but at that moment they were there for me, and reminded me of the significance of story-telling, which we practice in drama therapy for different reasons, one of which is to give people the tools to transform their own perspective.

We each have the power to narrate our own stories, and must decide if it will be from the perspective of the victim or the superhero, whether there is hope at the end, whether there is gold at the end of the rainbow. I thank all those rainbow-makers most sincerely. At a time when we are suffering from the poverty of disconnection, children found a way to keep us connected, through art and its message of hope.

Since that walk, I have met my elderly neighbour who entertains me with stories of her youth. We share poetry and listen to music. I have watched Chesed in the Jewish community, which has found new ways to support one another and learn together, while ensuring that the elderly and vulnerable are taken care of. I’ve got involved in two wonderful projects, one mentoring children in isolation through the outstanding work of Camp Simcha, the other offering drama sessions over Zoom, bringing children together and reminding them of their innate creativity and power of their imagination to think, see, and experience life differently.

What has changed? Everything, and nothing. The facts remain, the pandemic is real, the economy is in trouble and lives are in danger, but the human spirit and its will to create beauty even through times of suffering cannot be taken away. Let us use it and imagine our rainbows, until the time comes that we greet them again.

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