Stories of resilience


April 2022
Wendy Schneider

More than two years of pandemic life has passed. Since mid-March 2020, we’ve been through a whirlwind of changing information, flattened curves, worrying spikes, mask policies and virus variants. We’ve been isolated from our family and friends, deprived of opportunities to participate in community life, and many of us have experienced loneliness, anxiety, depression and financial hardship. 

Exactly one year ago, the Hamilton Jewish News published a cover story on mental health in the Jewish community. Since that time, the Hamilton Jewish News has thought deeply about resilience and we wondered about what inner resources our readers have drawn on to help them cope with, adapt to, and recover from personal and professional challenges. 

Much of the scientific research on resilience — which is our ability to bounce back from adversity — has shown that our mental and emotional well-being is enhanced by having a sense of purpose and giving support to others. From what we’ve heard from the individuals we interviewed for this story, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from within our own community to support that view. We hope you’ll be as inspired as we were by their stories.  

Small business, big heart

It’s 10 a.m. on a weekday morning in February when Mark Morgenstern graciously welcomes the HJN into his cozy eatery on James Street North. Charred Rotisserie House, which had reopened for in-person dining after yet another lockdown, doesn’t officially open for another hour, but Morgenstern appears relaxed as he offers his visitor a seat at the back of the restaurant. He knows that his staff, busily preparing for the anticipated lunchtime orders, has everything handled.

Morgenstern starts off the conversation by acknowledging his good luck. While so many other restaurant proprietors have lost their businesses over the last two years, Charred’s sales are about the same as they were before the pandemic, despite delivery services like Uber, Skip the Dishes and Door Dash taking a third of the profits. 

“If we didn’t own the building, if I had to pay rent, I’d be long gone,” he said.

The restaurant business is an incredibly high-cost, low-profit-margin business even in the best of times, and Morgenstern has great sympathy for restaurant owners who’ve either been forced to close their doors or are barely afloat.

 “I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “Today ... it’s very difficult to make a dollar.”

What motivates Morgenstern to persevere despite the challenges are, first and foremost, a sense of responsibility to the 20 people who work for him. 

“I’m at the age where I don’t want to be working and shlepping all day,” he said. “One of the reasons that I’m still around is because I have a really nice group of young people working for me, so I don’t have to be here (all the time.)”  

Morgenstern said it’s also nice to have a place to go to when he wakes up every morning. But the biggest rewards come from hearing from a satisfied Charred customer that its takeout meals are “the best.”  

“Nothing feels better than that,” he said. 

The community activist

Becky Katz was living alone when the pandemic began, which presented a signficant challenge for the self-described “extreme social butterfly.” But the artist and community art educator resolved to use that time as an opportunity for personal growth. 

“When COVID first hit, it was like hitting a brick wall, because I really couldn’t do anything,” Katz told the HJN. “It was a bit lonely but I learned to enjoy my own company more, which has been a fulfilling development that I’m grateful for. Instead of giving into those sad, lonely feelings, I’d sort of yank myself out of that and learn to enjoy the solitude ... I felt good about it.”

Since then, Katz has acquired a new partner and a new set of priorities. 

“I haven’t been going out nearly as much ... I’ve been drinking alcohol a lot less than I used to which has been a major blessing ... I don’t spend as much money. So that’s been good,” she said. But the most significant change has been in the way she’s stepped up to advocate for Hamilton’s homeless. 

Katz is what author Malcolm Gladwell calls a “connector” — someone who possesses an extraordinary knack for making friends, who always knows how to help, or if she can’t, can quickly put you in touch with someone who can. Over the last year, Katz started volunteering with the Hamilton Encampment Support Network, where she seeks out people living in encampments, brings them supplies, and connects them with community resources.  Her job description?  A connector. 

“Whereas before the pandemic, my community engagement was more around music and art, now it’s become more political,” she said. “It sucks because I don’t like politics. I just feel this obligation to do what I can.”

That’s what friends are for

In pre-pandemic times, Jan Hastie and Nick Kates’s social life revolved around nine other couples who found practically any occasion a good reason for celebratory get togethers, like significant birthdays, anniversaries, lifecycle events, weekend getaways and shared vacations. During the frightening early months of the pandemic, the friends stayed in close contact, but the women in the group took it one step further by organizing weekly Zoom calls — at first to accommodate their immunocompromised Toronto-based friend who was feeling isolated from the rest of the group — “and it just carried on from there,” said Hastie, adding, “This friendship is very special and it’s the basis of this.”  

During their weekly meetings, the women generally catch each other up on family news, what books they’re reading and what television series they’re watching, but the Zoom calls also served another purpose.  

“If someone looks upset, that would probably signal to someone in the group to make a call to that person after. Just to make sure they’re okay,” said Hastie.

It wasn’t long before the men started their own calls.

“We started in May, during the first lockdown, when it was a really scary time and we were still washing our oranges,” said Kates.  

 In those early days, the calls served several important purposes. They were “partly for the social contact and partly for the validation that everyone was going through exactly the same ...  but also just the enjoyment of being with people, sharing stories, keeping in touch.”

Kates, who chairs McMaster University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences, can’t help but see his own experience with a clinical eye. Having a support group during the pandemic period has been  “enormously important,” he said, “in building a sense of connectedness, belonging, and reducing the sense of isolation.”

Another thing their support group accomplished, Kates went on, was to  create a sense of continuity that would have been lost had the couples not stayed in regular contact.

“The continuity is really significant,” said Kates. “You don’t think that you’re separated from everybody else, ... whereas if you’re just on your own, you’re facing that in isolation, and it makes it much harder to reconnect again.”

Asked how the pandemic has affected his patients, Kates said the effects have been revealed over various stages. 

“Initially there was the loss of services, loss of support that people felt. There were a lot of people who didn’t mind the reduction in external pressures, or social situations they had to be in, particularly with people with anxiety disorders, depression. But I think what we’re seeing (now) are more people becoming depressed or anxiety.”

The pandemic made mental health issues worse, he said. “We’re just going to see an increasing demand for services to be able to keep up with it.”

Doctoring during a pandemic
When Bonnie Loewith shifted her family medical practice to virtual care in March 2020, she could hardly have imagined that two years later she’d still be working remotely. Loewith’s daughter (who shares the practice) is back to offering in-person care with the help of a nurse practitioner,  but Loewith, out of concern for her husband’s health, has chosen to work mostly from home.  And while working remotely has kept her Loewith and her husband COVID free, it’s also brought a new set of challenges.  

“I am literally busy from morning ’til night,” said Loewith, and she’s not alone.  Many of her colleagues have reported being busier than they’ve ever been. 

“A lot of that is mental health, anxiety and depression associated with the pandemic ... So A lot of what I’m doing is speaking to people who are in some kind of mental health crisis,” she said. In addition to seeing patients virtually during the day, Loewith is also putting in long hours on evenings and weekends, staying on top of test results, renewing medication, and generally managing her inbox.

“It’s more than I want to be doing,” she said.

As for her patients, while Loewith has been pleasantly surprised by her older patients’ resilience, she worries about the young children she sees who, she says,  are “afraid to be close to people because they’ve been told they can’t even hug their grandparents.” She’s also observed worrying trends in her school-aged patients who’ve had limited opportunities over the last two years to socialize. “Their social skills are lacking and their anxiety, depression and behaviour issues skyrocket.”

Asked how she’s managed her own self-care, Loewith, who is in the same group as Hastie and Kates, referred to her friends and the 25-minute daily walk she tries to squeeze into her busy days.

“I have a really good group of friends, and we’ve continued to do lots of outdoor get togethers over the last two years,” she said. Many of those gatherings have taken place at the Loewith family dairy farm, “for somewhere to go, something to do.”

Living on a farm during a pandemic has also meant more visits from the Loewith children and grandchildren, which has definitely been a silver lining during this period.  

Parenting through a pandemic

When the pandemic hit, Aviva Millstone and her husband, Dundas native, Darren Epstein had just moved in with his parents with their three-year-old and four-month-old twins, and both parents were working from home. With no programming or daycare available, however,  it wasn’t easy, Millstone told the HJN. Things improved slightly after they moved into their new house and enrolled their daughter in JK at Kehila, but months of remote learning were less than ideal.

“Our daughter is a good, easy kid, but, honestly,  everything is better when she’s in school.” 

Millstone said the lack of socialization opportunities in the winter months “has been really tricky. And our twins have no friends because they don’t go to daycare and don’t socialize period. But they have each other. I’ve never been so grateful for that”

The thing Millstone says she most misses since moving to Hamilton is taking her daughter to community-wide programs.

“I can’t wait just for people to be able to connect …  Anything just to be with the community,” she said.

Like Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye and Golde, David and Zohar Levy have five daughters, and while they don’t have to contend with the struggles of shtetl life under the Czar, the last two years have not been easy. Their family-owned chocolate business, forced to close in March of 2020, was almost entirely event based, and it took months of David’s putting in 20-hour work days, six days a week to make up for lost revenue. That left Zohar with the lion’s share of child raising.   

“Between the two of us, she definitely had it much harder,” he said.  

Zohar acknowledges that parenting during the pandemic has taken its toll.“It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure,” she said. “The winter months were definitely harsh especially with four kids on Zoom … and that was definitely challenging.”

On the other hand, raising five children — whose ages range from 4 to 14 — during a pandemic has had its advantages.

“We’re very lucky because we know families that have just one child and [having no contact with other children] was so hard on them,” said Zohar.

That’s not to say that the Levy children completely escaped the social anxiety that so many parents reported seeing in their children over this period. 

“It was hard for us to get the seven-year-old back to school after each lockdown ... She got used to staying at home,” said Zohar. Her teenagers, too, had “a very hard time” with school disruptions, “because, you know the teenager, you’re a lot in your head, and [you think] you’re being judged by everybody. When you have a period of time when you’re not around other people, then you go into that even more.”

On those mornings, their mom would tell them the same thing she told herself countless times over the last two years: “Take it a day at a time, you have to be brave ... you can’t live your life disconnected.”

If staying connected translated into too much screen time, then so be it. 

“You really have to learn how to let go. It’s temporary and ... and beating yourself up over these things just isn’t helpful for anybody. That’s my take on it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge and disruptive event for the Levys, but from the earliest days of the crisis, the couple demonstrated remarkable resilience when they resolved, in David’s words, “not to freak out ...  not just from the virus, but in general ... to just kind of carry on and do whatever we can.” 

Zohar did more than carry on. She modeled for her children that indulging in simple pleasures like “outdoor gardening, good music, keeping it light ... and ordering the kids new art supplies,” can unlock the inner resources for dealing with stress.

Isolated but resilient

Before the pandemic brought her daily outings to an abrupt end, Polina Gelman, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, had spent her days in the Hamilton Hebrew Academy library, a volunteer position that she held for more than 42 years. 

Gelman told the HJN that the pandemic has been very hard on her “because I’m not used to sitting home.” Things became progressively worse as the pandemic wore on when Gelman, after feeling unwell for several months, was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer that necessitated radiation treatments, and a heart condition that has made walking increasingly difficult. Gelman says she’s coped by taking “one minute at a time, not one day, one minute.”

Despite her deteriorating health, Gelman carries on. She participates  in Jewish Family Services phone-in activities, stays in regular phone contact with her friends,  retreats to her her balcony for exercise and fresh air, and is grateful for her son’s daily visits.  Most importantly, she refuses to indulge in negative thinking, taking comfort in memories of when “every day, a little kid taught me something.” 

Polina Gelman, and the other individuals who generously opened their hearts and shared their stories, embody many of the qualities that define resilience: the ability to adapt when things don’t go as planned, accept things as they are, and hope for better days ahead.  Adversity, they’ve shown us, can be the breeding ground for resilience, and resilience is the glue that holds us together in these trying times. 

Captions: Mark Morgenstern, Becky Katz, some of the male members of Jan Hastie and Nick Kates’s group of friends who’ve stayed in close contact throughout the pandemic, Zohar and David Levy and their daughters, Polina Gelman