Recently, I read an amazing statistic that validated every decision I’ve ever made: Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Even if you’re a regular gym-goer, social isolation puts you at risk of significant health complications and premature death.
This means—I’m extrapolating—that it is far healthier to share giant fistfuls of challah and drink copious glasses of wine with good friends than it is to exercise (or, at least exercise alone). Who knew I was a health nut?
As a now-scientifically proven purveyor of healthy behaviors, allow me to offer some free wellness advice: To pursue a long, disease-free life, don’t join a health club. Join a synagogue instead.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the health benefits of group activities and about the protective power of feeling socially and emotionally connected. Every time I read something new, I can’t help but think of shul.
Sure, Soul Cycle and yoga classes put you in a room full of people going through ritual motions with intention and sincerity. But what happens after class? (Seriously, what happens after class? I’ve never been.) My guess is that other soulcyclists aren’t all up in each other’s business the way synagogue members are.
“Is your dad feeling better? Did you call that roof guy I gave you? Your husband’s out of town, right? – do you need me to drive carpool?” That’s the rat-a-tat-tat of synagogue chatter, not whatever smug small-talk passes for conversation at Equinox.
The very fact that Jews can’t begin prayer without a minyan, or the presence of 10 people, highlights just how much Judaism values the benefit of community connection.
By demanding a quorum, Judaism teaches us that we literally cannot do this alone. You can go for a run by your lonesome and mountain bike solo. You can dance like no one is watching. But you can’t conduct Judaism’s daily prayers without others around you.
We need one another. Science is bearing this out, but Judaism has always known this.
It turns out that I’m not the first person to realize that religious affiliation has some healthy side effects. More than 20 years of studies have found that faith affects everything from blood pressure to mental health.
A Harvard study last year found that people who attended religious services at least once a week as kids were 18% more likely to report being happier and 33% less likely to use drugs in their 20s than those who never attended services.
Other research has found that people who attend religious services are hospitalized less often, are less likely to suffer from depression and are more likely pursue healthier lifestyles.
One study I read even suggests that people who attend religious services once a week have stronger immune systems than the unaffiliated and live, on average, seven years longer.
People complain about the cost of synagogue membership. But I’ve joined a gym that costs more and gave me far less in return (probably because I only used the shower while my house was being painted). When I think about the potential health benefit of my synagogue community, the return on investment seems pretty sound.
So, if you want to really make an impact in your health, consider trading your Strava account for some primo High Holy Day seats and your “namaste” for “Shabbat Shalom.”
(Oh, and synagogue directors: in lieu of grateful emails, please send challah and wine. I have some friends I’d like to share them with).
MAYRAV SAAR IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.