Research shows there’s a serious epidemic affecting people’s physical and emotional well-being, and Jews are not exempt. The “disease” is loneliness, which may be more prevalent this time of year with the cold weather, long nights, and family-oriented holidays that, for some, can enhance their feelings of alienation, rather than diminish it.
Rabbi Marc Katz, the new spiritual leader at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, describes loneliness as the “absence of deep and meaningful connections with our fellow human beings.” Katz is the author of “The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort” (Jewish Lights, 2016).
In our conversation, he told me it occurs “when we are unable to be seen by others for our real selves and what we are experiencing.” For an example, Katz mentioned the feeling of loneliness he experienced in his previous pulpit when members of his congregation were unaware that he was going through a painful divorce. Only after he revealed the situation to his congregants, which drew empathetic responses, did the feeling of loneliness lift.
Loneliness can be detrimental to physical health. A study by Cigna, the global health services company, found that half of the 20,000 American adults surveyed feel lonely always or sometimes. Also startling is Cigna’s finding that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking more than 15 cigarettes a day and is more dangerous to one’s health than obesity.
Feelings of loneliness due to the weakening of family and social bonds also seems to be a contributing factor to suicide, the rate of which has increased alarmingly in recent years — more than 25 percent between 1999 and 2016, according to a study released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If there’s an issue that ought to arouse empathy in all of us, it’s this one. Who hasn’t felt loneliness? I have a wonderful marriage, a close-knit family, and good friends, and I don’t miss the physically-draining commute into New York City from central New Jersey. But since retiring over four years ago and doing part-time consulting (and column writing) from home, I’ve missed the fulfilling face-to-face interactions with colleagues.
This is often discussed, but social media use seems to be a systemic driver of loneliness. In the December 2018 edition of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published their finding of a causal link among undergraduate students between frequent use of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram and high levels of depression and loneliness. The researchers believe that since mostly positive stories and images get posted on social media, other people’s lives, as portrayed in these platforms, appear happier and more fulfilled than the user’s own, which can then lead to feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. I suspect this dynamic is also true for other age groups.
Perhaps the most vulnerable to chronic loneliness in our community are seniors living alone. We encourage aging in place, and there are many benefits to staying at home, but there is a downside, especially for those with limited mobility. Some have friends and family who visit on a regular basis, but many do not. Jewish Family Service (JFS) agencies throughout the country can be lifelines to this population.
I’ve been sensitized to this challenge in recent years by Maris Chavenson, my social worker wife, who spent five years at JFS of Central New Jersey in Elizabeth working exclusively with elderly Holocaust survivors, and, more recently, serving a diverse clientele at the JFS of Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties in Somerville.
One of the ways to counteract social isolation, she tells me, is to recruit volunteers to pay home visits. But there aren’t enough volunteers to go around. In the last few years, I volunteered to visit a Hebrew-speaking Holocaust survivor when Maris worked in Elizabeth; both the survivor and I delighted in our Hebrew conversations.
Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, shares this concern over the impact of social isolation, especially among seniors and the elderly. “We are thinking about this issue strategically,” he observed. “The whole idea of a federated community is to provide outlets or methods for individual and collective resilience.” Federation’s CARES (Committee Addressing Resources for Eldercare Services) department is the central address for all things senior-related, and it collaborates with 11 agencies in the community that serve that demographic.
People with disabilities, and their families, may be another population more prone to loneliness given the challenges to inclusion and access. ABLE (Access, Belonging, and Life Enrichment) is federation’s central address for this demographic, and it was the first federation in the country to staff such a department.
Britain recognizes the gravity of the problem for all age groups. Earlier this year, the government created a ministerial position for loneliness and appointed Tracey Crouch, a member of Parliament, as its leader.
In October 2018, the British government issued a comprehensive report, “A Connected Society: A Strategy for Tackling Loneliness,” with the goal of improving the understanding of what causes loneliness, embedding this issue in government policy, and stimulating a national conversation about it.
Months before, representatives from Reform and Conservative communities in Britain — where one in three Jewish adults over 60 live alone — gathered in London to discuss initiatives to combat loneliness and isolation, with a view toward building a comprehensive and coordinated community plan. Maybe we can learn something from our friends across the pond.
Katz has initiated what he calls “micro support communities” at Ner Tamid to foster the kind of meaningful connections that can fend off loneliness. Such communities are organized around specific challenges being faced by members of the congregation. For example, one of these micro communities, which is aimed at caregivers of aging parents, drew 30 participants. Katz had anticipated only about 10.
Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what clearly is a complex and widespread phenomenon. As Katz notes, everyone is susceptible to chronic loneliness. It is true that we are blessed with extraordinary professionals who toil tirelessly to meet the social, psychological, educational, spiritual, and material needs of our community, and our institutions are the envy of other religious and ethnic groups. Yet, if loneliness is a growing epidemic — and I believe it is — then our religious and secular institutions should give more urgent and focused attention to this issue. Beyond what is done in our own community, we also should urge federal, state, and local governments to follow Britain’s lead and examine their role in tackling this epidemic.
Let’s make this an interactive process. Readers, please reach out to NJJN and share your experiences with loneliness, and your suggestions on how we can fight it. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to NJJN, 1719 Route 10, Parsippany, N.J. 07054.
Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.