COVID-19 study shines light on struggles of young adults

Two girls being separated because of illness
Two girls being separated because of illness (sarra22 via Getty Images)

By Justin Regan and Eric Schucht

Researchers call it “surprising.”

Young people have had the hardest time coping, financially and emotionally, with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This conclusion comes from a recently published study by Brandeis University, which collected data from Greater Washington and nine other Jewish communities across the United States. Other findings show online Jewish activities are succeeding, in some respects, and interest in health care and social justice issues have slightly increased for Jews since the pandemic.

“When we were planning this study, much of the concern was on seniors,” said Janet Aronson, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and co-author of the study. “And so we were really surprised to see this finding about young adults.”

The study was conducted in May and June, and the data are not representative of the Jewish community as a whole. However, their research on young adults is in line with other studies.

Young people are more likely to have suffered a financial setback and have less confidence things will get “back to normal.” They struggle the most with emotional difficulties and loneliness, even as the data show they are the most likely to have an adequate support group.

“I think they’re more reliant on casual social encounters,” Aronson said. “And to have to go home and be in their parents’ house, they’re really socially isolated. So it’s not a question of talking to people or having people in an emergency. It’s sort of all of the casual socializing has ended.”

Rabbi Ilana Zietman echoes that sentiment. She’s the community rabbi at GatherDC, a nonprofit that offers programs for Jews in their 20s and 30s. She said that young people tend to have more uncertainty.

“A lot of people, especially in their 20s, have dreams and plans for their lives,” Zietman said. “Whether it’s thinking about their next job or going back to school or traveling. A lot of people have talked about their lives being put on hold in that way, and not really knowing what’s next. So it’s really hard to be stuck where you are at a point in time in your life where things tend to move fast and you’re ambitious and you want to go after your goals. And the world is your oyster and at this moment, it’s not.”

Thirty-six-year-old Washington resident Yossi May said he’s felt both the economic and physical impact of the pandemic.

In mid-March, what he initially he thought was an allergy flare up turned out to be COVID-19. He lost his senses of taste and smell, suffered mild fatigue and shortness of breath so that talking on the phone left him gasping for air. At one point, his fever spiked to 104 degrees.

A month later, May, a corporate events photographer, was furloughed from his job.
His health has since recovered, but his employment situation has not.

Across the board, people who were financially vulnerable before the pandemic were more likely to have their situation get worse. Aronson worries these numbers will continue to go up as more benefits from the CARES Act expire.

“Many of them are employed full time. Many of them have college or graduate degrees. And so you might think of these people as the working poor,” Aronson said. “And I think that one of the challenges there is that those who might not have needed financial services in the past and don’t know how to access them.”

Despite the challenges, the report shows that donations to Jewish causes and charities remains high, if not slightly increased. About 80 percent of respondents have participated in some form of online Jewish programming, with the largest bloc coming from young adults. While the new platforms did well in connecting people to programs, the data also show small amounts forming new people-to-people connections.

Aronson says while the programs didn’t do much to bring new people into the fold, it made participation easier for individuals who were already engaged in the community, especially because many of the events were free.

“Online Jewish life has managed to overcome some of the financial barriers to participation in Jewish life,” Aronson said. “That’s a good thing and that really points to some opportunities and policies.”

Data also show that the pandemic has caused a slight increase in Jews saying issues like health care, politics and social justice are their top causes of concern.

“Often with our studies of the Jewish community, we look at issues related to Jewish life kind of in a vacuum,” Aronson said. “We say, ‘How has your interest in Israel changed’ or ‘your concern of anti-Semitism and how has it changed,’ but we don’t look at it compared to other things. And I think that’s very interesting here. To say that all of these Jewish interests hasn’t changed, maybe slightly decreased, but all of these other interests have increased in the same amount of time.”

In general, the more involved with the Jewish community a respondent was, the bigger role Judaism played in helping them through the pandemic.

“Offering programs online is great, right? It keeps people busy and interested in all kinds of things. I think that we still need to find ways to have conversations with people and to check in and let them know we’re here for you,” Zietman said. “It’s really that personal touch that we just can’t forget. It really matters in this time when we’re all feeling more isolated.”

Eric Schucht is staff writer for WJW. Justin Regan is a freelance writer and producer of the American Rabbi Project podcast.

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