When Ben Wacks’ grandfather died just before Thanksgiving 2013, Wacks traveled to south Florida, where he grew up, for the funeral. Back in Washington after the shiva, Wacks felt disoriented. Having left his family still in mourning, he found his adopted home indifferent to his loss.
“I was feeling confused, because I didn’t know exactly how to feel,” said Wacks, now 29. “It’s difficult to get back – to adjust from being with family to getting back to your routine. People at work don’t know anything [about what he was going through]. You have to keep telling them.”
Wacks has a friend, Talia Fein, whose grandfather’s health was failing. At a get-together one night soon after Wacks’ return to Washington, the conversation among the group of 20-somethings turned to their families, giving Wacks and Fein the chance to talk about their grandfathers.
The experience was so comforting that the group decided to meet again a couple of weeks later. This time they would bring family photos and videos to share.
“It seemed appropriate that after supporting our parents through shiva, we should create our own shiva or some sort of forum where we could share stories and our friends could support us,” said Fein, whose grandfather died around that time.
One member of that group of friends is Jordanna Snyder, a 28-year-old transplant to Washington. For her master’s thesis at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, she studied her peers’ Jewish relationships and how they affect the stresses they face.
“I wanted to look at the relationship between connectedness to Jewish communities and stressful things that happened and the outcomes,” she said.
For those in their 20s and 30s – a group Snyder called “emerging adults” – major life events include change in residence, leaving school and starting school. Everyday causes of stress include conflicts with significant others and at work, and changes in relationships.
The memorial was a spontaneous answer to Wacks’ need for a community in which he could mourn his grandfather. Snyder said that her study points to ways in which the Jewish community could answer these unmet needs – helping to relieve the stress faced by emerging adults and forging stronger connections among young Jews and with the Jewish community.
Snyder looked at five components of connectedness: rituals and observance, affiliation (formal involvement), social networks, informal attendance at Jewish events (engagement), and strength of
“My research suggests that connecting to the Jewish community through each of the five [components] is associated with lower stress outcomes,” said Snyder, a resident of Moishe House and former Jews United for Justice Jeremiah fellow.
“Thus, if we increase the levels of connection among people, from people to organizations and from people to the Jewish traditions, rituals and practices, we may be able to reduce the negative health outcomes of stress, symptoms of anxiety and symptoms of depression.”
For her research, Snyder distributed a questionnaire to 454 people, age 18-35, who identified as Jews. She received responses from 221. They represented a particular subsection of the population: they were friends and other contacts that Snyder had met through local Jewish young adult programs. But Snyder says that as active Jews, they help paint a picture of what involved young adults want from the Jewish community.
Among her findings:
Ritual and observance
• 65 percent said they participate in some Jewish rituals
• 46 percent said they observe Shabbat most weeks or more often. “This indicates Shabbat is a touch point for young Jews to interact with young Jews. Shabbat is an
opportunity to reach out and engage this population,” Snyder said.
• 25 percent reported being synagogue members; 8 percent said they are members of a JCC.
“Not surprisingly, 18-35 year olds have low levels of membership in organizations,” she said. But they are involved in nonmembership organizations such as Sixth and I and Moishe House, which have a low barrier to participation.
• Snyder found that while her peers report low levels of formal Jewish affiliation, their networks are predominantly Jewish. A full three-quarters of those in relationships have Jewish partners and 80 percent of those who intend to marry say they want a Jewish spouse.
• The top five types of events that those surveyed are likely to attend are: Only for those in their 20s or 30s; Shabbat related; Jewish-holiday related; recurring events with the same cohort; and happy hours or dining. At the bottom of the list: anything promoted as a “singles event.”
“Once a month, three quarters of our folks are attending Jewish events,” Snyder said. “We need to capitalize on these experiences.”
Strength of identification
• 96 percent said Judaism is important and their sense of Jewish identity is strong.
The responses she received suggested that the Jewish community should “increase the quality of the relationships” forged at Jewish events. It should increase the strength and quality of connectedness, she said.
The spontaneous memorial gathering and those that followed answered an unmet need, one that Jewish organizations should look for to serve the largely unaffiliated population, she said.
To take advantage of her findings, Snyder said the Jewish community should encourage small gatherings, make meeting opportunities “substantive” and allow “deep connections” to form.
“Build upon existing events such as Shabbat and holiday gatherings and happy hours by adding touch points for new community members and opportunities to strengthen existing connections,” she said. “Use these as opportunities to discuss real-life events, provide training and resources for coping and stress management.”
While not a representative sample, the study does point to what might attract young Jews who are looking for the Jewish community to be their home, Snyder said.
“I want organizations to use this study to come up with ideas of their own.”