Identity, Peoplehood, Religion, Sex & Gender

Orthodox Women’s Experiences During COVID: Highlights from a Study

 

In the latest edition of the JOFA Journal (Fall 2021), Dr. Michelle Shain, director of the Center for Communal Research at the Orthodox Union, recapped the results of the COVID-19 Community Portrait Study, which surveyed 11 Orthodox synagogues in 4 communities: New Rochelle, Scarsdale, and West Hempstead, New York; Toco Hills in Atlanta, Georgia, and North Dallas, Texas. The study consisted of 937 individuals, 48% of whom were women. The populations were largely suburban, middle class, and college graduates with incomes between $100-400,000. Most were members of Modern Orthodox synagogues.  Researchers surveyed each community multiple times to ascertain how COVID and the ensuing safety practices impacted religion, mental health and well being, and finances. 

Here are some interesting findings related to gender, prayer, and learning:  

  • Between June 30-July 13, 2020, and August 3-24, 2020 72% of men and 23% of women prayed in person with others. 
  • Women were less likely to do Torah learning via app, online, and over the phone than men – 50 vs. 66%. 
  • 62 percent of women and 81 percent of men learned alone, or with someone who lived in their home. 
  • When it came to Shabbat, women  reported less positive feelings about Shabbat than men, especially women under age 40. 

When it comes to mental health: 

  • Younger women (under 40) reported feeling lonelier, as well as more depressed and anxious, experiencing higher levels of stress than older women. 
  • Over time, however, levels of depression and anxiety for women went down as the pandemic changed shape over the course of the study. For men, levels of anxiety and depression didn’t change. 

It seems, writes Shain in JOFA Journal, that the study’s sample of Orthodox women fared well during the initial stage of COVID. So what happened? 

  • Because there’s no baseline or pre-pandemic data for mental health in the Orthodox community, it can’t really be known what it means that women’s mental health improved during this point in COVID. 
  • HIgh levels of education and well-paying jobs might have protected women from experiencing what those in other communities did during the pandemic. 
  • Community life and religious faith might also have played a role in women’s mental health. 

There’s a lot to unpack in this study.  Did Orthodox Jews fare better in comparison to other Jews in the early months of COVID?  What about the factors that contributed to younger Orthodox women’s initial feelings of loneliness and depression? As the pandemic continues, have those feelings returned? Maybe they never actually left, but women merely adapted, as many have, regardless of the role of community and religion. Is it the comfort of having a prescribed role that seemingly protects the mental health of older Orthodox women, or does the stigma of mental health issues stop people from acknowledging difficulties? 

 

What has your own experience with Jewish communities been like over the course of COVID? Do you attribute the state of your mental health to faith and/or communal structure? Tell us in the comments.

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