More than half of British Jews fear return to shul
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More than half of British Jews fear return to shul

Poll reveals majority felt uncomfortable about face-to face events even before new virus surge

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

More than half of British Jews felt “uncomfortable” about returning to shuls and other communal spaces, even before a sharp spike in cases saw restrictions tightened nationwide this week.

A new national survey of almost 7,000 Jews, aged between 16 and 85 plus, shows that community leaders may have to re-think how to engage people in Jewish communal life in the wake of the corona pandemic.

The new measures — expected to be in place for six months —allow shuls to remain open but have cut the numbers permitted to attend weddings and stonesettings and put further pressure on restaurants and kosher caterers. While urging its congregants to adhere to the government’s guidance, the United Synagogue this week warned it would make a “difficult situation even more difficult” and could place many jobs in the food sector at risk.

In the first of four reports, the “Coronavirus Papers”, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) has tried to assess levels of discomfort within the Jewish community about returning to full-scale participation in communal activities. The online research was carried out in July amid a continued drop off in cases

The results show “a clear leaning towards the uncomfortable end of the scale”, with 10 representing the most uncomfortable and 0 the most comfortable. Close to half of respondents — 46 per cent — answered 7-10 on the scale at the prospect of going back to face-to face events and activities that are so key to normal Jewish life. Just 24 percent responded between 0-3 – indicating “comfortable” about a return.

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But the report notes a clear disparity in the responses of the more religiously observant compared with those who had no communal affiliation. It says: “Findings for the Strictly Orthodox likely reflect a strong desire, even compulsion, to meet in-person: for the most Orthodox, convening for religious services is a halachic obligation, so any curbing of it is experienced as particularly problematic.

“Jewish communal activities and events are also completely central to the lives of Strictly Orthodox Jews, so the higher levels of comfort they feel probably reflect higher levels of desire or need to return.

“Conversely, non-members (of shuls) generally feel far less such obligation to return and, of all groups examined, tend to be the least engaged in Jewish life. Thus, the relatively high average levels of discomfort they feel about attending Jewish activities almost certainly reflect the notion that such activities simply matter less to them.” On a scale of 4 to 7, one graph shows, those who say they have a “very weak” level of religious adherence show that they feel nearly 6.5 on the discomfort scale, while the more observant score around 5.3 in their willingness to take part in communal activities.

Perhaps surprisingly, the JPR has found that it is people in the 85 + age bracket who feel slightly more comfortable about returning to activities and events, which the report attributes to a possible philosophical shrugging of the shoulders.

However, levels of discomfort are high among the youngest respondents — (age 16-24, and particularly those in education). “Young people are found to exhibit quite high levels of anxiety in general, and the discomfort they feel about returning to in-person Jewish activities and events is likely to be related to this”.

The report says that even though some people have begun to return to Jewish life, “it is important to consider that many will not, at least for the time being”.

Breaking the findings down, the research shows that women are more likely to feel uncomfortable than men, and those who have contracted the virus and recovered tend to feel rather more comfortable than those who have not had it, unless they are experiencing continuing secondary symptoms.

The JPR notes that “when asked about the extent to which respondents’ jobs increase the risk of them contracting coronavirus, it is those who say ‘not at all’ who are most uncomfortable about attending Jewish activities and events”.

“As well as those who are retired, people who have suffered job losses, have been furloughed, or are self-employed but not working feel rather more uncomfortable than those who are in employment.”

The paper also points to a “clear” link between feeling uncomfortable about returning to Jewish spaces and experiencing more general psychological distress. There are clear lessons to be drawn from the psychological stress particularly experienced by younger people in the community, the report says.

“This demographic is central to the running of our informal youth provision. A second compromised summer in 2021 could be very damaging, and community leaders ought to be urgently working out how to ensure that Jewish life continues for this demographic in a meaningful form, come what may”.

The report concludes: “In the final analysis, Jewish communal life has long depended upon in-person interaction – being together, physically, to celebrate, mourn, pray, learn, socialise and connect.

“The inability to do these things in person, over time, is potentially very damaging to Jewish communal life. While technological solutions have a very important role to play, the task of planning for an uncertain future ought to be a key focus.”

Dr Jonathan Boyd, the JPR director, said the research would help identify which demographic groups within the community might need extra attention over the coming months. “In so doing, it raises important questions about inclusion and exclusion, pushing community policy makers and practitioners to think harder and deeper about how to maximise inclusion levels in these extraordinary times,” he said.

He said it also shines a light on the “considerable anxiety out there. The pandemic is taking a toll on people’s mental health everywhere — and the Jewish community is no exception. These are challenging times and part of the way in which the Jewish community will be judged in the pandemic’s aftermath will relate to the extent to which which it offered people solace and support”.

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