The Jewish community has an effective antidote to combat the loneliness epidemic 

When Hillel instructed “Do not separate yourself from the community” in a famous mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), the ancient sage was offering not just religious guidance but a formula for good, healthful living. His call to action is as relevant today as it was during his lifetime 2,000 years ago. 

These days, many Americans find themselves suffering from what U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” Personal isolation and poor social connections, Murthy has warned, can lead to anxiety, depression, dementia and even elevated risks for cancer and other diseases. As reported recently in The New York Times, studies show adults are loneliest in early adulthood and older adulthood. Elevated levels of social isolation and depression in young adults have been linked to everything from social media to the shuttering of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, while older adults are more likely to be isolated due to retirement from work, the loss of a spouse or loved one or their own health issues. 

Since Oct. 7, another group has found themselves lonelier than usual: Jews facing antisemitism, as well as Israelis, Zionists and others who care about Israel’s well-being.

Surgeon General Murthy offers six pillars for addressing social isolation and loneliness, and they recall many of the adages in Pirkei Avot. For instance, he recommends investing “in local institutions that bring people together,” and cultivating “values of kindness, respect, service and commitment to one another.” This echoes the maxim in Pirkei Avot: “The world stands on three things: on the Torah, service and kindness to one another.” 

We in the Jewish community are blessed with an institution that offers a perfect venue for addressing the problems of loneliness and social isolation: the Jewish community center.

Across North America, some 170 JCCs and camps spread over 400 sites are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of isolated adults and young people with meaningful activities and opportunities for peer connection — from one-off cultural events to summer camps to year-round programming. JCCs offer a trained workforce, the physical space to host programs and a humanistic approach undergirded by Jewish values that resonate for Jews and non-Jews alike. 

JCCs welcome everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Much JCC programming is low-cost or free, and scholarships are available for many other programs. 

The work that JCCs do across the continent manifests itself as one and a half million weekly human, healing touches — interactions with one million Jews and a half million non-Jewish people per week.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to the fourth-largest Jewish community in North America, our six JCCs collectively knit together people of all ages and backgrounds through our diverse programs: from “Shabbat L’Chaim” and challah pick-up on Friday afternoons to Hebrew-language classes and Talmud study groups; from Zionist Israel education opportunities to museum outings for seniors and Maccabi sports teams for teens. We’re a hub for those who meet regularly at our fitness centers, in our preschools and in our after-school programs.

Since Oct. 7, we have also become a gathering place for vigils, celebrations and educational and therapeutic offerings for families and individuals to counter the surge in antisemitism. “People feel a sense of belonging when they come to a JCC that is open to everyone but also doesn’t shy away from being proudly Jewish,” says Ronit Jacobs, senior director of the Israeli Cultural Connections Department at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Calif. “This year, when people came to our Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebration, they came up the stairs and sighed with relief — they entered a place where they could finally exhale.” 

Jewish values run through everything JCCs do. The Jewish idea of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, drives many of our social action programs helping community members in need. For example, Mitzvah Day at Palo Alto’s Oshman Family JCC, a Martin Luther King Jr. day of service event, has seen over 10,000 neighbors come together to work on projects addressing homelessness, hunger and more. 

“Doing good together bridges diverse communities,” says Luba Palant, OFJCC’s Senior Director of Community, Culture and Learning. The energy and enthusiasm that come from the intergenerational mix of so many different participants nurture social connections.

In today’s age of personal and social isolation, we must adapt to the times while adhering, like Hillel, to our core values and our belief that community is at the heart of a fulfilling life. Pirkei Avot acknowledges the inevitability of change but insists on the need to honor and preserve what is valuable and solid, both for each person and for the larger community. We may change as individuals, but we want our society to remain stable, supportive and creative. 

This is why JCCs exist. They already are addressing the loneliness epidemic, one person at a time, one day at a time, one program at a time. That’s our sacred responsibility, today and for the future.

Zack Bodner is the president and CEO of the Oshman Family JCC and serves on the board of JCC Association of North America. He is also the author of the book Why Do Jewish?

Shana Penn is the executive director of Taube Philanthropies and serves on the boards of the JCC of San Francisco and Jewish Silicon Valley.