Professor details impact of COVID on local Jews

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Ilana Horwitz (Courtesy Avery White)

About a month ago, Ilana Horwitz, professor of Jewish studies at Tulane University, joined a synagogue for the first time in eight years.

The professor, 40, who grew up in northeast Philadelphia and graduated from the Hebrew Academy of Akiba (now the Hebrew Academy Jack M. Barrack), decided to return to her faith after writing a article last fall on the impact of the pandemic on low-income Jews in the Philadelphia area.

In June, the article was accepted for publication in Contemporary Jewry, “the only scholarly journal that focuses on the social scientific study of Jewry,” according to its website.

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Horwitz’s article, titled “Ties in Tough Times: How Social Capital Helps Lower-Income Jewish Parents Weather the Economic Hardship of COVID-19,” has a simple conclusion.

Building Jewish relations is the best way for Jews to get through a difficult time. And to build a strong Jewish network, the best place to start is the synagogue.

“Partly, yes,” Horwitz said of whether her article had convinced her to join us. “Maybe in an unconscious way.”

Horwitz came to the research because, as she wrote, “most religion-based disaster recovery studies focus on churches.” She wanted to explore these dynamics in the community she had grown up in, and it had helped her during her own difficult time as a teenager.

After his family emigrated from the Soviet Union, his father died in a car accident. The driver behind him had a fit.

The family had no idea how to sit shiva. So every morning Akiba would take Horwitz’s eighth grade classmates to her home to tell the Kaddish about mourning. Then the school drove them back to Merion Station, about an hour’s drive away, for the first period.

“The way Akiba supported my family is what makes Jewish institutions vital sources of support,” Horwitz said.

For his article, Horwitz interviewed “36 parents who identified as Jewish, had at least one school-age child, and earned less than the median income of Jewish households in the Philadelphia area,” according to the introduction.

“About half (47%) of families were worse off financially from COVID-19,” Horwitz later wrote.

And of the parents interviewed, many received help from local Jewish organizations, but others did not. Later in the paper, Horwitz explained how Jewish institutions help low-income parents.

“Jewish organizations started delivering food to customers and sent gift cards to families at supermarkets,” she wrote.

“The rabbis were able to support community members using discretionary funds,” she added.

“Several people told us that they received phone calls from their rabbi asking if they needed help, then received an envelope with money,” Horwitz concluded.

But these people had existing relationships with local Jewish organizations, like the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia or a synagogue, often established by family members or friends who connected them to those organizations.

In the sociological language in which Horwitz speaks fluently, horizontal ties with family members and friends are “bonding” relationships. And these are more often than not the connections that lead to vertical connections with community leaders, called “tie” relationships.

It is this connection between “bonding” and “bonding” relationships that creates a strong inner circle for a family, a strong community for a region and a strong social fabric for society, Horwitz said. But as people who did not receive help during COVID testify, too few families are building those bonds.

The synagogue, however, may be an answer to the problem, she said. It offers bonding connections in the form of other devotees and bonding connections in the form of the rabbi, who often has access to money and links with other institutional leaders.

“This study suggests that involvement in some Jewish organizations, especially synagogues, can unexpectedly generate large dividends,” Horwitz wrote.

For low-income families, the synagogue is not an unnecessary expense, as many believe. It is in fact the opposite.

“Economic hardship may be the best time to maintain synagogue membership, as synagogues can function as a system of economic and social support,” Horwitz wrote.

Horwitz took her own advice, but she worries that other members of her generation are too anti-institutional.

“Most people don’t recognize the social benefit of joining a synagogue, even if the religious dimension doesn’t resonate with you,” she said.

The Greater Philadelphia Jewish Federation has similar concerns, according to Brian Gralnick, its director of social responsibility.

Gralnick said that to educate young Jews about Jewish Federation services, the organization is considering more advertising online.

“They don’t come through the doors of our synagogue,” he said.

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