Coping in Chicago

Jewish organizations offer help to young adults in need

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Young adults attend a Base Hillel program of socially distant sukkah decorating and Torah study.

One of five young adults in the Chicago area feels lonely and is having a tough time coping during the pandemic, according to a survey conducted in 2020 by the Brandeis Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

The 1,569 overall responses--of which 346 were young adults age 21-40--painted a picture of pandemic life. The survey confirmed what Jewish communal leaders have been hearing from national conversations: The young adult population is not coping as well as other age groups, is lonelier, and is less likely to feel part of a community, whether virtual or local. That was a call to action for the community.

The light in the darkness for many young adults was feeling connected to the Jewish community, both locally and worldwide. When the results showed that 75% of people felt more connected by having access to a virtual community, local organizations sprang into action to help keep their spirits afloat.

JUF's Young Leadership Division started connecting people to resources, beginning with a JCFS Chicago support group for young adults who were furloughed. The group setting was helpful to the many people who expressed "concerns of loneliness, isolation, and not being able to be with family and friends," said Lauren Silverman, YLD Senior Young Adult Engagement Associate. YLD has connected those seeking help with mental health, career counseling, and financial resources to the correct places.

"We're trying to increase our community's awareness of opportunities that exist and fill in the gaps in terms of programming," Silverman said. "In the past, for young people who did need mental health support or career support, they weren't turning to JUF or the Jewish community. Now that we've seen such increased numbers, we want to remind people that JUF and the Jewish community are supports that they can turn to."

Other Jewish organizations like OneTable and Silverstein Base Hillel are stepping up to help young adults form social connections and take care of their mental health.

"Before COVID, we thought Shabbat dinner should include at least five people, and now we've lifted that restriction entirely," said Al Rosenberg, OneTable's Chief Strategy Officer. OneTable, which is designed to help young adults create a meaningful Shabbat practice, now offers options for hosting dinners with roommates, inviting people virtually, and attending socially distanced events. When asked, "How can I be part of the community while being alone?," Rosenberg and others created materials for a Solo Shabbat.

"A lot of people are using the Solo Shabbat time to remind themselves that many other Jews use Friday night for Shabbat and they're doing it in a community even when they're alone," Rosenberg said. In-between traditional prayers, participants are asked to brainstorm ideas for self-care, reflection, and plans to contact others. OneTable has also worked with the Blue Dove Foundation to create a broader mental health guide to "turn the Shabbat dinner table to a place of powerful conversation, cut the small talk, and create a community of mutual care."

Rabbi Megan GoldMarche of Silverstein Base Hillel is also fostering a community of care. She has created cohort classes for individuals and couples and peer-facilitated chavurot (social groups) to "make a space where people feel like they have a community," she said.

In addition to the social interaction and intellectual stimulation participants get from the meetings, GoldMarche checks in with people frequently, especially if they live alone. "I try to encourage people to be real and vulnerable if they're having a hard day, to take time to talk to each other and look each other in the eye, and build human connections," she said.

For these agencies and many more, YLD Director Elyse Saretsky offers a clear message: "The pandemic has taught us that we have a place in the mental health space. It's important for us to reach young Jewish adults in our community not just for fun programs and educational opportunities, but also to help them when they need support."

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