Hope and coping: Rhode Islanders react to COVID-19


No one has been immune from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and in the wake of the new reality that we’ve all been living with, Jewish Rhode Island communicated via email with five area residents. Their experiences mirror much of what we’re dealing with, including canceling vacations and parties, trying to keep in touch with older loved ones in nursing homes or self-isolation, teaching students online, attempting to conduct business as usual and dealing with the effects of being housebound. Their edited responses follow.

Kevin Olson, 62, of Cranston, is a pretty busy person, especially when it comes to the theater: he not only teaches the subject at three Rhode Island colleges, but he’s also the founder and artistic director of FirstHand Theatrical in Rhode Island, where in January he produced one of his plays, “How Many Bushels Am I Worth?,” about the plight of Soviet Jewry.

Olson discussed the challenges of teaching students at Providence College, the University of Rhode Island and the Community College of Rhode Island during the pandemic.

“Converting acting courses to remote learning is certainly a unique challenge. Officially, as I write this, classes have not resumed yet, but I have been in touch with students in my classes.

“For acting, I am asking students to write about or share a story based on the theme of social distancing, and then send in a video of them performing the script of the story they wrote. I will then compile their monologues on social distancing into a single video and we will – voila – have an original play which we will all watch together.”

So far, so good, but how do you hold rehearsals and performances?

“A big challenge is how to have students rehearse and perform a scene with a partner. As I try to work out how to do that most effectively (it can be done), there has been a terrific online gathering of theater professors around the country sharing ideas and techniques.

“Finally, we will have a few times where the entire class will join together online to continue our work with physical, vocal and relaxation warm-ups. Actually, I’m looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.”

Stevan “Steve” Labush, 59, of Warwick, the president of the Greater Providence Hebrew Free Loan Association, said the nonprofit is doing the best it can under the circumstances, adding that its new office at 2845 Post Road, Suite 105, in Warwick, was still open as of late March, as the association was trying “to keep business as usual.” 

One effect of the virus, Labush said, has been that some members chose to participate in a recent meeting of the board of directors by phone instead of in person. Another effect of the worries over COVID-19, he said, has been that “we don’t have many people contacting us now.”

The only requirements to apply for a loan are to belong to the association and to be Jewish, Labush said. Members are charged either $18 annually or $180 lifetime. Loans are offered to residents of Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

For more information about loans, call Labush at 401-529-2810. He said the group’s website is under construction.

Charlotte Sheer, 69, of Plymouth, Massachusetts, a retired educator and founder of the Holocaust Stamps Project at the Foxboro Regional Charter School, compared how Americans are being affected by COVID-19 to what she experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“The last time I felt the surrealism of not knowing was after 9/11, when I was working with children at the Providence Jewish Community Center and the Jewish community felt as if it was being specifically targeted for a time,” she wrote. “But the current crisis is international in nature and every individual is a potential target of the unseen enemy.”

Life, nonetheless, continues, Sheer said, albeit with “social distancing,” which changed how she celebrated her 69th birthday on March 18.

“The sun shone all day on my March birthday. Since my sister’s birthday is the day before mine, [my] family would normally have gathered at the home of my 88- and 94-year-old parents for cake and ice cream, but not this year, with my folks’ advanced age and respective preexisting medical conditions. I pray we will have the opportunity to be together next year.”

She continued: “Restrictions, and common sense, prevent our weekly visits to a Rhode Island nursing home where my mother-in-law will turn 107 in just a few weeks. It’s unknown when we might see her again.”

Social distancing also means Sheer has had to scrub vacation plans.

“Though we were not contacted by campgrounds where we had reservations for a three-week April RV trip down South, we decided it was wise to cancel everything – and are left wondering if there will be any camping season at all in 2020.

“Ironically, my husband’s practice piece for this week from his guitar teacher is ‘Home on the Range.’ His lessons will continue, via the technological miracle of Zoom, as does a writing group to which I belong.”

And Sheer has managed to glean something positive from the crisis.

“I marvel at the thickening silver lining during this international crisis, with so many remarkable individuals doing whatever is necessary, going above and beyond, for the benefit of others.  A catering truck parks on the grounds of my residential complex each day, giving people a reason to take a walk and enjoy take-out food, while keeping the vendor’s business healthy.”

Lawrence Goodman, 49, of Providence, a playwright, wrote, “I sit in my kitchen, typing away, sun streaming into my kitchen, listening to the news on the radio warn of the end of the world as we know it. It’s eerily quiet outside. Now I know what Noah felt right before the flood. 

“My inclination is to flee, but to where? I would stick my head into the ground but then it would be, well, dark.

“I remember learning about the old Jewish folktale where the rabbi tells the man to bring a chicken into his house, followed by a goat, followed by a cow, so he realizes how relatively good he has it. I live in Providence. Anyone know where to find a chicken?”

Goodman offered this advice:

“If there’s one source of consolation Jews have, it’s the knowledge that things can always get a lot, lot worse. But there are experts this time devising scientific models of how the epidemic might unfold. A legion of doctors stands ready to treat the infected. Economists’ forecasts are driving the government to spend trillions of dollars to prevent suffering and hardship.

“So, take a deep breath. Exhale. The horror is still far from becoming unimaginable.”

Jeffrey Martin, 69, a theater professor at Roger Williams University, has been coping with the fallout from the coronavirus on and off stage as he’s seen a student production canceled and he's retooled his curriculum for online learning.

“Life has been interesting,” he wrote. “We are very lucky, healthy, a full larder, and paycheck still coming in. My school has gone to online teaching, so working from home is not a problem. Life inside the house isn’t too difficult. With computers, streaming media, and other tools, we have almost too many things to watch and listen to. One of our daughters came home from Brooklyn [New York] so the house is lively and full. The dog and cats have taken it all in stride and haven’t needed counseling as of yet.”  

There have, however, been a few challenges involved in making his theater courses Web-friendly.

“Traditional classroom courses are not too difficult, but theater courses such as acting, directing, or musical theater are a nightmare,” he said, as COVID-19 has stopped “all of our real hands-on teaching, building and mounting productions. I was in the middle of directing ‘Cabaret,’ which has been canceled along with all of our other on-campus performances, and activities, and field trips.”

The downside to going online, he said, is that none of the available electronic platforms are “really geared to the kind of hands-on teaching we do. So my colleagues are rethinking how they can deliver their courses, using online yoga classes or radio-acting as a model.”  

LARRY KESSLER (larrythek65@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.