We live in an amazing community. In a previous article, I mentioned all the heroes on my block in Kew Gardens Hills; now, I would like to single out another special group of people who shine, bringing positivity and sparkle to many people during all times and especially during this difficult time. I interviewed several local psychotherapists and psychologists to find out how this virus has affected their work and their thoughts about it. I found their positive outlook and thoughts so inspiring.
Dr. Shloimie Zimmerman, PsyD, founder/director of a multidisciplinary group practice serving children and adults in Queens, Borough Park, and Flatbush, shared his experiences. He also volunteers as Chair, Clinical Advisory Board, Magen New York safety and prevention organization, and as Vice Chair of the Amudim Advisory Board. He imparted that during the outbreak of the crisis, Amudim started a hotline, and he trained volunteers and manned and supervised the hotline. The Amudim anonymous support line is 888-726-8346.
When Pesach time came, he was hit with a wave. It was just he and Dr. Shmuel Mandelman, a practicing psychotherapist in Brooklyn, manning the hotline. Dr. Zimmerman describes how, during the Seder, he was mostly outside manning the hotline involved in so many intense phone calls over Yom Tov. He literally saved lives, as people called who were in dire straits psychologically and emotionally during that time. “We received 184 calls just the first days of Yom Tov. At this point we have fielded over 1,700 calls and opened an additional dedicated support line in Israel. We saw quickly that there was a need because of the pandemic, and we tried to intervene and deal with the mental health issues. It was the most surreal time of my life. Nonstop crisis around the globe.” He shared that the hotline was trial by fire, and it thankfully met the needs of many people, saving lives and helping to calm many people. He noted that the intensity dropped off after Yom Tov, as sickness and death began declining.
Chaya Feuerman, LCSW-R, Trauma Specialist, EMDR-certified, and IFS-certified with a private practice in Queens and Brooklyn, shared the impact of COVID-19 on her practice. “First, I was sick with COVID myself for a few weeks. Now, ten weeks later and mostly recovered, I am working but with significantly reduced hours. Ironically, clients who are first responders are in arguably the most need of support, but they are in the trenches day and night and don’t have time for the luxury of therapy. Some are slowly resuming sessions.”
She Zooms with her clients these days, and texts clients who are suffering with COVID and are too short of breath to talk. She also produced an hour-long video demonstrating various trauma treatment techniques on YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=mONQuXz4x_c&t=420s
Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LSCW-R, Psychotherapist specializing in high conflict couples and families, and male sexual health with a private practice in Queens and Brooklyn, has had more time to focus on family as well as spiritual and scholarly projects. Since the city closed down, he started offering a daily video shiur on various mental health and Torah topics: youtube.com/channel/UC0l_fqDHwfxWIliEPulZbUA
Rabbi Feuerman shared that he had a mild case of the virus early on. Many clients are not able to focus on therapy right now, and others have an increased need for support. He shared that on a case by case basis some clients are being seen in person.
Caroline Schumsky, LCSW, MS, Psychotherapist (individuals, couples, and families), with a practice in Kew Gardens Hills, shared her experience with her clients and dealing with COVID-19. “All of a sudden, we feel acutely psychologically vulnerable. After all, we’ve all suffered the total disruption of our daily routine.” When clients ask her if she thinks they are crazy, she responds “Relax. We’re all crazy. It’s not a competition.” Seriously, many of us have developed hypochondria and we literally panic every time we cough. Others of us have begun to have anxiety attacks, find difficulty concentrating, and have lost our motivation. Many of us have strong feelings of anger, depression, and suffer from insomnia, and utter emotional exhaustion. She shared that some of her patients have not stepped out of their front door in weeks and feel as though they are in prison. It has also had a huge impact on family dynamics as many aren’t used to having husbands, wives, and children home all day. “Everyone is on edge.”
Dr. Sara Barris, PsyD, clinical psychologist, shared her thoughts on the pandemic: “During this COVID-19 pandemic, many have spoken about the need for increased spiritual practice, including a deepening sense of gratitude and appreciation for what we have. In order to hold that, the permission to be human seems crucial, allowing space for the entirety of our experience. In these times of uncertainty, making room for anxiety, fears, and blessings is an act of loving kindness and self-care.”
Dr. Zimmerman still has his full-time practice going. He conducts 45 face-to-face sessions a week these days. He usually starts at 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. and goes until 5 p.m., and then he also has a late-night session. After that, he’s working on his volunteer hotline, etc. He shared the challenges of working at home with the children on Zoom school and knowing he is there. In the past, he rarely had to carry a phone on Shabbos or Yom tov, but that changed with this virus and it is very intense. Tele-therapy and Zoom have changed the dynamic of psychotherapy. Dr. Zimmerman explained that “in virtual therapy it is harder to notice subtleties in non-verbal body language. It’s hard to stare at a screen. You don’t get the same connection or bond that you get in person.” On the other hand, some clients are doing better virtually. Those who find it harder to open up in person, open up better virtually. He shared that people with underlying vulnerabilities like OCD, poor coping habits, depression, anxiety, trauma history, etc. are more anxious. For some people, anxiety skyrocketed, and some had panic attacks with heart palpitations and physical symptoms. Many worry that they have the virus. Those who are typically isolated, due to their psychological issues, felt better because they felt kinship with the world. “Now people are tasting what my world is like,” they said.
Dr. Zimmerman shared that in his regular practice overall, he hasn’t seen an increase of issues from COVID. Many have been doing well and exhibited great resilience.
Chaya Feuerman shared that issues for her clients remain largely the same. “What is different is the discovery of each client’s own resiliency. While the effects of people’s trauma may have become even more challenging due to their individual circumstances during COVID, paradoxically, positive coping skills are emerging, which is helping them deal with the original issues they came in with.” She noticed how clients who were very ill from COVID made significant changes and had breakthroughs. “It is inspiring to watch how terrible physical illness can be used as a catalyst for major change.”
Rabbi Feuerman shared that he agrees with his wife on the above statement, and he added that those who have weaker more problematic relationships are becoming more reactive and quarrelsome during shutdown. However, many are enjoying the so-called “corona-cation.”
Caroline Schumsky pointed out that “some patients are thrilled to stay in their flannels and sip their coffee in their own kitchen without traveling to an office. However, many truly miss the presence of another person. They feel the loss of being in what may have felt like a warm, welcoming, relaxing, safe space for them.” Others claim they feel as though she is there with them in a video chat or call. “Nonverbal communication is harder; but facial expressions and some body language can be conveyed. Clearly, the energy is not nearly as powerful when you are physically with someone. However, I would hope that those with whom I speak feel deeply supported, encouraged, and cared for even from a distance.”
When asked about the impact of the virus on their clients, Chaya Feuerman stated, “There are a lot of silver linings. Some seminary girls who lost so much of their anticipated Israel experience now watch shiurim on Zoom given by a rosh yeshivah in another state, and they are enjoying being “in yeshivah” along with many other seminary friends.”
Simcha Feuerman shared that loss for business owners – job loss or under-employment – have been catastrophic. “Frankly, I am amazed at the optimism and bitachon that some of my clients show in the face of these challenges.”
Chaya Feuerman shared that sessions via phone, FaceTime, WhatsApp video, or Zoom are helpful when in-person sessions are not possible, but it certainly does not take its place. “I find that some of these sessions can only be stopgap measures, as serious trauma is difficult to process on a computer screen. Body language, which is also so important in therapy, is missing from the virtual therapy experience, and some clients do not feel safe talking without the personal presence of the therapist. Others do not have privacy to talk on their phones or laptops, so they are choosing to wait until they can resume in-person therapy. From the therapist’s perspective, I know that my clients likely do not get the full benefit of my skills on the screen, and I do not pressure anyone to do therapy this way.”
Simcha Feuerman shared that he has a different experience from his wife, as before the virus, 15 percent of his sessions were by Zoom, as people from Australia, Israel, London, and other countries consult with him. He added, “It may seem odd, but one can do family therapy or couples counseling even when each member is in a different location. Sometimes, it even helps people maintain decorum and respect as I lead the dialogue and whose turn it is to speak.”
Dr. Zimmerman shared his thoughts about this challenge. “Globally, I saw klal Yisrael responses that were unbelievable.” Organizations to help people sprang up; Hatzalah was off the charts. We see chesed, camaraderie, achdus, cohesion, and growth. He noted how, particularly in Queens, we have homegrown chesed. Rabbi Zvi Gluck began Amudim, Dr. Ellie Bennett’s email messages, Hatzolah of Queens, Vaad Harabonim of Queens sending consistent messages, and so many more amazing organizations and individuals. “It’s beautiful to see klal Yisrael holding each other’s hands across the globe.”
When asked for his message to help encourage everyone at this time, Dr. Zimmerman stressed that the key is self-acceptance and compassion. We have to understand that we’re in a very challenging time, and we have to cut ourselves and those around us some slack. We can’t do our jobs 100 percent. We have to accept that bedtime for our children is off and Zoom school is not regular yeshivah. “We’re finite, and self-acceptance is the key to pragmatics and internal and emotional health. You will feel increased frustration and less tolerance. Appreciate the challenge but do not knock yourself. Embrace that we are doing a great job under the circumstances.” He also advised to filter negative messages from the media. Don’t listen to anything that makes you feel inadequate. “Everything can be put into a more positive framework.”
Always put mental well-being and shalom bayis as priorities. “Right now,” he quoted Rabbi Dovid Cohen, who quoted Rav Chaim Brisker, “I’m not meikil on Shabbos; I’m machmir on pikuach nefesh.”
Caroline Schumsky stated, “First and foremost: Every survival kit should include a sense of humor. I remind everyone that we are truly facing an invisible enemy. Despite the temptation, spending all day in pajamas, eating junk food, while binging on Netflix or Hulu out of sheer boredom and monotony will not prevent us from emotionally drowning. “She acknowledged that quarantine exacerbates underlying issues. “Relationships don’t last because of the good times. They last because the hard times were handled with love and care.”
She shared sage advice: “I encourage everyone to reflect on one’s own feelings – to try not to judge them or be ashamed of them. It’s okay to feel anger, confusion, sadness, frustration, even guilt. Please have realistic expectations of yourself and those around you, as well.” She then taught some valuable practical advice: “Don’t personalize what others say or do at this volatile time. Don’t allow yourself to obsess about what will happen next. When will this end? Will I wake up from this nightmare anytime soon? Develop that daily routine.” She encourages everyone to do what works for you to keep your spirits up. “Most importantly, I ask that you: Don’t give up. You know it’s always the last key on the ring that opens the door. The best thing to hold on to in life – is each other. And most of all, keep up the HOPE – Hold On Pain Ends.” Mrs. Schumsky offers a free hotline: 917-717-1775.
Chaya Feuerman and Rabbi Simcha Feuerman offered their thoughts and encouragement. Chaya Feuerman said that what helps her stay positive are her own silver linings. These include opportunities to strengthen family bonds, more time to get to know each other, and even new relationships forged between siblings who are normally not at home.
Rabbi Feuerman shared that their family watched a video of Rabbi Shmuel Silber rav of the Suburban Orthodox Synagogue of Baltimore. The rav was conducting his last Daf Yomi shiur in person before closing the shul. “His tearful, heartfelt words about missing the shul and the mispal’lim won us over,” Rabbi Feuerman shared. “We became virtual members, listening to several of his Zoom shiurim a week since then. In one of his recent shiurim, the rav said, “I am not afraid of when quarantine will end. I am afraid that it will end and I will not have learned or put into practice the lessons from COVID-19.” Rabbi Feuerman stated, “I think that says it all.”
Dr. Zimmerman expressed a beautiful and apt analogy that fits the wonderful psychotherapists we have in Queens. “Psychotherapists are human ventilators, infusing their clients with empathy and hope. Their words help their clients literally to breathe and, in some cases, save lives.”
Our Queens community is grateful to have such wonderful, professional, positive psychotherapists in our midst. Hashem should continue to bless them and klal Yisrael and take away this mageifah because He loves us so much!