Coronavirus Lessons on Life and Leadership

One JDC staffer reflects on the lessons that are guiding her through the coronavirus crisis.

By Gila Ward Menda - Leadership Development and Education Manager, JDC | May 1, 2020

Gila's 96-year-old grandmother and 3-year-old son, before social distancing.

Like many, I unexpectedly entered the chaos of sheltering in place with a young family in New York City. Gradually, the winter days have turned brighter as new routines have taken hold, all within our exposed brick walls. Now, as spring finally blooms, two reflections have taken root. 

1. Words Create Worlds

One leadership development lesson continually resonates for me: “Words Create Worlds.” What we say and hear can profoundly shape our experience. My 96-year-old grandmother tells me she’s “marvelous” every time we speak. Based in New Rochelle, the center of one of New York’s initial Covid-19 outbreaks, she’s been quarantined twice as long as my family, living in near solitude — and yet her attitude lifts mine.  

Perspective is reality. When I take a step back from the sometimes-frustrating daily routine of navigating the convergence of work, family, and health under lockdown, I am inspired by the deep truth in my grandmother’s words. We are lonely, we are stuck at home, we are afraid; we are also healthy, we are together, we are grateful. We are, indeed, marvelous. Words create worlds.  

2. To Everything a Season 

I grew up in Israel, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and spring always signified the different —even conflicting — seasons of life: the juxtaposition of joy and pain. Within a few short weeks, the Passover holiday ends, sirens mark Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day in a country where nearly all experienced loss. The next day, seemingly without missing a beat, the entire country celebrates Independence Day. The whiplash contains a message: Life goes on, from despair to better days. 

Today, the eerie, desolate streets of New York City remind me of my childhood, when I would see traffic stop in Haifa during the observed moments of silence. But the sirens that pierce the stillness of Manhattan are not reminders of the past. The sounds of ambulances rushing by are reminders of both the urgent, life-threatening danger of COVID-19 and the immediate life-saving work happening in our city, right now. Work that saves lives and gives families hope. 

As a professional working for a global humanitarian organization that cares for the most vulnerable, I can’t help but look beyond my local community. My colleagues in Milan and in Mumbai are facing this same stillness under similar if not more stringent restrictions. And yet, as some of us may personally “refrain from embracing,” I’m so proud to be part of an organization that is continuing to mobilize and reshape our work so that we may safely “embrace” those who need our help the most. Though the means have changed, JDC is still delivering food packages to homebound elderly in Minsk and providing access to clean water and health care in Addis Ababa. 

Working from home more than I ever have, I’ve noticed that my young son-slash-Energizer-Bunny often says “I’m OK!” after he trips and falls, even if no one has asked. He’s found that getting up and moving forward helps him cope. Last week, on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, he turned three.

I can’t help but see the contrasts that abound during this difficult and unprecedented time. Many are in pain, but many feel fortunate to be alive. We don’t know what the future will bring, and yet we know we’ll get through it. By honoring the lessons from our past, we can be confident we’ll survive this crisis. I’m getting through these days knowing that this, too, is a season, and while we don’t always know the reasons or have the answers, we can still be marvelous. 

Gila Ward Menda is Leadership Development and Education Manager at JDC, where she’s served in various professional and volunteer roles since 2005.

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