Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

Loneliness in America: A Jewish Communal Response

Possibly no other social reality is more defining of the American condition than the issue of loneliness!

A recently completed Cigna study indicated “high levels of loneliness,” revealing that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Fully 54% said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. But this pattern is not unique to the United States, a BBC survey of British citizens reported that nearly one-half of Britons over 65 consider “television or a pet their main source of company”. There are today in Japan a half a million folks under the age of 40 “who haven’t left their house or interacted with anyone for at least six months”. In Canada, the share of solo households is now 28%, and across the European Union that number is 34%.

We are reminded that until the 1960s, single-person households were not a common phenomenon. But over the past 50 years, the share of U.S. households consisting of one person has more than doubled. Today it represents the second most common pattern, exceeding married couples with children. The study noted that living alone is a pattern associated with large cities. Nearly 40% of households in these communities represent single-persons. In some neighborhoods of Manhattan and Washington, D.C., nearly 2/3rds of the residents are in single-person households.

The recent Pew study on teen loneliness points to the high levels of anxiety and depression among this nation’s teens. Factors contributing to this state of despair include academics, finances, and the future, but other issues involve personal appearance and acceptance. As this study noted: “About three-in-ten say they feel a lot of pressure to look good (29%) and to fit in socially (28%).”

The recent Pew study on teen loneliness also points to the high levels of anxiety and depression among this nation’s teens. Factors contributing to this state of despair include academics, finances, and the future, but other issues involve personal appearance and acceptance. As this study noted: “About three-in-ten say they feel a lot of pressure to look good (29%) and to fit in socially (28%).”

In a second study published in the Journal of Early Adolescence suggests “ teens who post more “selfies” online tend to have an increased awareness of their own appearance — and that awareness is linked to an increased risk of negative body images. According to this report, over half a million 8th through 12th graders were suffering from depression; this represents a 33 percent increase.

“Adolescents who spent more time with the news media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on non screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely.”

The data is striking, if not scary:
Nearly half of the 20,000 adults surveyed last year reported sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). Generation Z (ages 18-22) and millennials (ages 23-37) rated themselves highest on feelings associated with loneliness.

Loneliness, with its well-documented ill effects on health, has been called an epidemic and a public health threat. As we now know social isolation can shorten lifespan. According to medical authorities, it can contribute to diabetes, obesity and other medical/psychological conditions. In the text, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, the data identifies that those experiencing isolation are “more stressed, less creative and feel less in control of their lives”. The study reveals, “Socially isolated people are more than twice as likely to die of heart disease.”In 2009 High school students “reported fewer friends with whom to interact, but less desire for more friends.” Meanwhile empathy decreased, and insecure attachments increased.

Challenging Loneliness: Framing the Jewish Response:

The Jewish response seems still to be determined. While one finds periodic discussions about loneliness, there hasn’t been a full-fledged Jewish communal conversation nor have we created a concerted action plan to intervene.

Speaking to the issue of loneliness and being Jewish, Rabbi Marc Katz addressed this issue on a recent ELI TALK:

Jewish communities focus too much energy on our majestic personalities and by creating big events and dynamic programming. Instead, we need to nourish our ‘covenantal personalities’ and our drive for deep and meaningful connection. In doing so, we create deeper, more meaningful communities, where members feel less lonely and where we can come to be nourished and supported.

Sarah Myers describes what it feels like in a university setting when one is facing anti-Semitism alone, as she writes in the Stanford Daily:

In the past year, I have found meaning and community in Judaism. But the danger posed by anti-Semitism seems more urgent now than ever, and I find myself feeling defenseless. Around me, student groups, political parties, and self-proclaimed allies ignore, excuse, and defend anti-Semitism.

In collaboration with other institutions of our society, the Jewish community will need to address this growing social phenomenon. Already in play are the following essential interventions:

• Senior adult social service organizations provide home visitations and regularized phone contacts with many isolated elderly clients.

• Some youth organizations have established phone trees in order to remain constantly in touch with their teen members.

• Various fraternal/membership groups have formed a regularized system of connecting with their base.

• Congregations, family and children services, and national membership organizations have sponsored educational seminars and background materials on the issue of loneliness.

• Some institutions have created hotline services, allowing individuals to reach trained professionals, especially in crisis situations, while others provide to their members cell numbers and access information, providing individuals with immediate assistance and intervention resources.

• Day schools, camps and JCC’s might want to consider engaging “wellness” counselors to provide intervention services.

Certainly more will be required if we are to be responsive to those facing the issues of isolation, separation and loneliness.

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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