“Mental distress is notably higher amongst those who are not synagogue members than among those who are.” This is one of the conclusions of a report published a year ago by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research on the impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the mental health of the UK’s Jewish community.
The overall conclusions of the report largely mirror the picture found across British society, where we find a devastating impact of the pandemic on levels of mental health, but the findings relating to synagogue membership are both fascinating and significant.
Synagogue members receive inspiration from spiritually uplifting services and benefit from their interaction with the selfless warmth and compassion of religious and lay leaders. In addition, the authors of the report conclude that simply being a part of a synagogue community in and of itself can be significant. Community membership offers a degree of practical support, welcome contact, opportunities to volunteer and crucially, a general sense of purpose and belonging. For someone who is already experiencing common symptoms of loneliness and isolation, a sense of belonging can be critically important.
Communities, of course, are not only built around places of worship. Sports clubs, schools, close-knit neighbourhoods, places of work and the like can all constitute communities. Indeed, a community is any place where you invest your interest, time and energy into a shared endeavour from which you can draw companionship, meaning and fulfilment.
Above all, a community is a place where you know you are welcome and if you are absent, you will receive a call to find out if you are well. In a community, you are not a mere statistic. You are appreciated and respected for being yourself. This is of particular importance at a time when many of us have become amateur epidemiologists and statisticians, more prone than ever to measuring the problems of our society by their number rather than by their impact on real people’s lives.
Research by the UK Government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities reveals that “the proportion of adults aged 18 and over reporting a clinically significant level of psychological distress increased from 20.8% in 2019 to 29.5% in April 2020.” This is a staggering statistic. We can therefore count the number of people in the UK who have recently struggled with their mental health in some way in the tens of millions. However, the figures alone cannot convey the significant human cost of this crisis.
In the Bible, the Book of ‘Numbers’ is so-called in English because it records occasions on which a national census was taken. How were the Israelites counted? The Bible uses an unusual turn of phrase: “according to the number of their names”. This was not a simple head count. The Jewish Sages taught that the members of every Tribe were presented to the leaders of the nation individually. Each person shared their name and had a personal interaction with the leadership. In addition, great care was taken to ensure that the people were not counted directly. Rather, they each donated a coin of equal value and it was the coins that were counted. The Biblical Book of Numbers is in fact, nothing of the sort – it is a book of people. To this day, Jews have a custom not to count people directly.
Albert Einstein said: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” The range of mental health conditions now being experienced by so many millions of people is difficult to quantify. In any event, quantification itself does little justice to the unique experiences of all those suffering.
We have a collective responsibility to remove any stigma that is associated with mental illness, to reassure those affected by it that what they are enduring is not unusual, to encourage them to talk to others about it and to seek professional assistance. To help achieve these goals, on Saturday, many across the Jewish community observed a special Sabbath dedicated to raising awareness of mental health, organised by JAMI – the mental health service for the Jewish community.
Across the UK, there is a great need for us all to play a part by investing in our local communities. Doing so can help protect our own mental health and can also contribute to an essential network of belonging, support and reassurance for all those who might be suffering intolerable pain and distress in silence. Such bonds of friendship can quite literally become a lifeline.
For more information about JAMI, visit www.jamiuk.org
Ephraim Mirvis is the Chief Rabbi of the UK