The Yamim Noraim, the days of awe bracketed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are a call to reflection about the past year and our fate in the coming year. The past year has been unlike any other. Whether or not we suffered illness, loss of a family member, or financial and emotional distress, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all.
Among the 200,000 Americans who have died because of the COVID-19 virus, we estimate that there are at least 5,000 members of the US Jewish community. And for every individual who has succumbed, more than 40 others are likely to have been infected. The enormity of the still unfolding tragedy is difficult to comprehend.
Our research team at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies has spent the last few months trying to understand how the pandemic has affected the Jewish community. By focusing on the social, economic, emotional, and spiritual challenges posed by COVID-19, we hoped to gather information that Jewish communal organizations and philanthropies could use to strategically deploy communal resources. When we launched the study, we were unsure what effects of the pandemic on the community would be most important, but knew it was critical to capture changes as they were occurring.
In collaboration with 10 Jewish federations across the United States, we conducted a survey of over 15,000 respondents. Although not fully representative of all segments of the community, our sample included Jews from a diverse range of backgrounds, economic circumstances, and relationships to the Jewish community. Their responses enabled us to capture a snapshot of the pandemic’s toll.
One picture that emerged was of the financial impact of the crisis. Not surprisingly, the pandemic differentially affected Jews who, pre-COVID, had different levels of financial security. Wealth buffered the economic impact of the crisis. Those who were struggling to make ends meet prior to the pandemic suffered far more hardship than those who were well-off.
Opinion | Among Jews, the young and highly educated bear COVID’s emotional and economic toll
Nearly half of those who were struggling before the crisis saw their financial situations worsen; almost one quarter lost jobs, were furloughed, or closed a business; and more than 60% were worried about having enough resources to meet basic living expenses. Because our surveys were conducted while the CARES Act provided some salary protection and unemployment benefits, we likely saw an attenuated version of what will be COVID’s eventual financial impact.
More surprising was the profile of those who were struggling financially. These individuals are not the traditional focus of Jewish anti-poverty programs. Over 80% of respondents struggling financially had college or graduate degrees and, among those who were not retired, nearly all were employed before the crisis. Most were under age 50.
As with economic stress, COVID’s emotional toll was extensive but experienced unequally. While a feeling of isolation was widespread, its effects were particularly concentrated among younger respondents, who were more likely to report emotional difficulties, not coping well, and needing help accessing mental health services. This finding was especially stark for those who were struggling financially.
For younger Jews in particular, the feeling of loneliness appeared to reflect a deeper psychological reality more than a lack of social contact. Nearly all of our respondents, young and old, were in contact with others frequently and felt that they had a sufficient number of people they could rely on. Nevertheless, younger adults, with stronger social networks than others, still reported more difficulty coping. Our finding is confirmed by other national surveys of young adults and our studies of Birthright Israel applicants.
The awareness that COVID-19 has widened the financial gap between the well-off and the financially struggling should help communal organizations rethink how they provide services. Organizations operating during financial crises or natural disasters typically focus on emergency relief for those most vulnerable.
Undoubtedly, there are individuals in the community who relied on resources such as food and housing assistance before the crisis and whose needs are now more acute. But COVID has also worsened the circumstances for a wider group of individuals who are not poor but on the edge financially — those who are one paycheck loss away from not making ends meet and who need employment or financial assistance.
Similarly, the data suggest that the community must rethink issues related to loneliness and social isolation.
In this pandemic, where so much of our social connections have been maintained through technology, many were concerned that seniors would find it even more difficult to socialize, and their isolation would grow. The health and emotional vulnerability of seniors, especially those residing in senior living facilities, continue to be of great concern.
Nonetheless, young adults are disproportionately suffering from the emotional consequences of the pandemic. Despite assumptions that young adults are the most flexible, resilient, and socially connected, for many, the disruptions to their lives have been dramatic. This understanding of the young adult experience should provoke new thinking about needed services and ways to maintain or increase personal connections among young adults despite the restrictions of the pandemic.
Finally, we must consider the connections between the Jewish community and the society of which we are an integral part. Given the value that Jews place on tzedek (justice), it is not surprising that when asked about the causes they are most concerned about, nearly half of our respondents rated politics and social justice as one of their three top issues.
The Yamim Noraim are a time for individual introspection, and yet, we engage in personal reflection within the context of a community. The notion of community seems especially poignant this year. To protect ourselves from the coronavirus we had to separate ourselves physically from others; but to thrive, we need one another.
Looking forward to 5781, the collective challenge will be to strengthen the social fabric and resiliency of our communities while protecting the vulnerable among us.
Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Janet Aronson is a Research Scientist and Associate Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.
Leonard Saxe is an American social psychologist whose work focuses on sociology of religion, American Jews and the American Jewish Community. He is currently the director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.