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Our Children Need to Be Involved in Religious Institutions

Jewish Journal

June 15, 2023

Last weekend, I celebrated the wedding of a long-time friend in Baltimore. Nearly a half dozen couples who were instrumental in my life were in attendance but I didn’t appreciate their true impact on me until last week. The couples were all members of my childhood synagogue, Congregation Beth T’fillah of Overbrook Park, a house of worship that was once a booming center of Jewish life in the post-war era. Over the course of my childhood, I witnessed the synagogue’s decline and eventually close as the community in Overbrook Park dispersed. Yet, throughout the years, I attended services and community events with other families in the Philadelphia community. While these were not necessarily deep ties, they were meaningful to me then. Unknown at the time, I had a rich network of families of varied backgrounds from city employees and mechanics to doctors and engineers who helped and supported me; whether that was with Boy Scout merit badges or fixing my bike, or just someone who wished me a Shabbat Shalom, I had no idea how influential and helpful these connections were at the time.

Growing up, I rarely felt isolated and alone, which is in stark contrast to the many stories of loneliness that regularly make the news these days. In fact,research routinely demonstrates that even weak ties can significantly improve a host of outcomes for individuals as well as a sense of well-being. New findings show that “something as simple as saying ‘have a nice day’ or ‘take care’ to a stranger is linked with greater subjective well-being,” meaning that “minimal social interactions with strangers contribute to subjective well-being in everyday life.” If such basic engagements with strangers can be powerful, then it is easy to understand that slightly more regular relationships could be even more meaningful and have a profound effect on a sense of community and connectedness.

This is critical as a loneliness epidemic is hitting the nation, resulting in millions of Americans feeling “isolated, invisible, and insignificant,” which directly harms “individual and collective health and well-being.” This is a crisis impacting young people at far higher levels than older generations. In fact, 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds report feeling completely alone at least sometimes, compared to just 19 percent of 60- to 70-year-olds. And 50 percent of younger Americans said that they “sometimes” feel isolated from others, compared to an appreciably lower 30 percent of those 60 years and older.

Unsurprisingly, those cohorts who report being the loneliest happen to not have grown up participating in religion. The American Enterprise Institute’s 2019 American Perspectives Survey reveals some disturbing trends. The data show that younger generations of Americans have had less robust religious experiences during their childhood than previous generations. In addition to lower levels of religious schooling and prayer at home such as grace before or after meals, fewer than one in three (29 percent) young adults, aged 18 to 29, said they attended religious services with their family at least once a week when growing up. More than half (52 percent) of seniors said the same. Roughly one-third (32 percent) of young adults say they never attended religious services during their formative years. Just 42 percent of parents with children under 18said they regularly take their children to religious services. And this figure is appreciably lower than the 61 percent of parents 65 or older with adult children who reported regularly taking their children to religious services during their formative years.

While I had fond memories of my synagogue and the many members I would see regularly and chat with at services, it wasn’t until this recent wedding that I realized how influential the synagogue community members were in my childhood. I felt supported spiritually and communally and was made whole. I am in their debt. Regrettably, so many young Americans today grew up without attending religious services and were denied the chance to develop these crucial social networks. Compounding the problem, incidentally, are the younger generation parents that are now raising their children outside of religious networks, unlike older generations for whom incorporating religious communities into parenting was the norm. 

The good news is that we already have the tools and institutions up and running to combat this loneliness epidemic. There is little stopping younger Americans from participating in religious services and communal events. Religious and lay leaders must recognize that they have a tool in hand to combat the loneliness epidemic impacting their communities and that participation in religious services can do just that. The U.S. Surgeon General is right in noting that, “Each of us can start now, in our own lives, by strengthening our connections and relationships. Our individual relationships are … a source of healing hiding in plain sight. The keys to human connection are simple but extraordinarily powerful.” It is prudent to re-evaluate our relationship with religious institutions and appreciate the many benefits that they bring to society. I am truly grateful for what Beth T’fillah did for me and I can only imagine how much better off society and the Jewish community would be today if more Americans had the networks and support that I had as a child.