Brandeis study measures COVID-19 impact on Jewish Pittsburgh
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Brandeis study measures COVID-19 impact on Jewish Pittsburgh

Study helps to identify needs caused by the pandemic

Photo by wildpixel/iStockphoto.com
Photo by wildpixel/iStockphoto.com

Stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is having a more significant impact on young Jewish adults in Pittsburgh, aged 18-34, than originally predicted, according to Raimy Rubin, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s manager of impact management.

A new study showed “troubling numbers when it came to their response about how they are coping with the pandemic and if they felt they required mental health services,” Rubin said.

The statistics are part of “Building Resilient Jewish Communities,” a new $10,000 study conducted by the Marilyn and Maurice Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Center and paid for through a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation.

Conducted May 19-June 15 of this year, the study documents the impacts of the pandemic to help Jewish communal organizations best meet the evolving needs of those they serve, Rubin explained.

“Federation knew we needed to do an assessment of the community,” he said. “We had been in touch with the individual agencies that we fund to understand what service providers are seeing on the ground but we but didn’t have a great way to connect with individual community members.”

The answers provided a snapshot of the needs of various demographics.

Responses showed that Jewish young adults, for example, were the most likely demographic to feel lonely. In fact, Rubin said, “red flags were raised” around all the mental health effects felt by that age group.

Rubin was quick to state that a statistic for a particular demographic should not be examined on its own, but rather should be compared to the corresponding data of other demographics. For instance, while 9% of 18- to 34-year-olds said they needed and did not get mental health services, 2% of 34- to 49-year-olds and only 1% of 50- to 74-year-olds responded similarly. That number drops to 0% in the 75+ demographic.

Through that comparison, Rubin explained, “we can definitely say with confidence that that’s the demographic [young adults] that we need to focus on in terms of mental health.”

Another key finding of the study, according to Rubin, is that the need in the community from an economic standpoint is greatest “for the people who were in need before the pandemic. Those that were in need before got hit the worst.”

Individuals and families that considered themselves well off still may have experienced a downturn in their financial fortunes, Rubin noted, but “those that said they didn’t have enough money beforehand were, by far, the highest number of people to say their financial situation got worse.”

“I was surprised to hear there wasn’t a lot of new need,” said Aviva Lubowsky, the director of marketing and development for Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh. “That may speak to the fact that the Jewish community as a whole has more resources available. I think that there are some protective elements in the Jewish community.”

On the other hand, Lubowsky was not surprised to learn that people “who already had need were hit doubly hard.” HFL has seen repeat borrowers during the pandemic, she noted, lending credence to the study’s numbers.

One positive finding in the study is that seniors seemed to be weathering the coronavirus outbreak relatively well. Social isolation, for instance, was not a major stressor for the demographic. Those numbers are in line with much of what is being found on the national level, Rubin explained, but he credits the Pittsburgh Jewish community with recognizing early on that “seniors were a high risk group” and “working to ensure they weren’t socially isolated.”

Nor were seniors experiencing a disproportionate amount of financial concern. “We did not find a tremendous amount of need in seniors,” Rubin said, in contrast to the 18- to 34-year-old group who did feel “a tremendous amount of concern for the future.”

“That makes sense,” Rubin said. Seniors “are going to be more financially secure. They are going to have their savings lined up. They’re not going to be as worried about their financial futures as young adults are right now with everything being so volatile.”

One of Federation’s roles is to coordinate care “across Jewish agencies to make sure that we’re getting rid of areas of overlap and, where there are beneficiary agencies, to make sure we’re taking advantage of them as a community,” explained Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing.

The Federation, he said, is working to ensure that families in crisis, “who often have a set of needs that are connected,” meet those needs through coordination across agencies.

“To give you an example, when someone loses a job, they don’t just necessarily need employment assistance,” Hertzman said. “They may need food assistance; they may be thrown into food insecurity. They may need mental counseling or have physical health needs. They may need support for kids in the house. There is a whole set of connected needs. It’s more important than ever that we’re connecting all the dots.”

Pittsburgh is one of 10 communities where the Brandeis group has conducted COVID-19 studies according to principal investigator Janet Krasner Aronson, associate director of CMJS. The other regions included Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Greater MetroWest New Jersey, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach County, St. Louis and Washington D.C.

The Pittsburgh survey was conducted in May, when the pandemic’s grip on the region seemed to be lessening, and captures a moment in time for the community – a time when other factors, too, began to affect people’s thoughts, including the upcoming presidential elections and the George Floyd protests, according to Aronson.

“The conversation about what people were worried about shifted,” she said. “It expanded. We can’t separate that from what was going on with the pandemic.”

Despite the conditions on the ground, Aronson said the survey “is valid. We can learn a lot from it.” She said that if the survey were conducted at a later date, first summer camp and then concerns about the start of school would be larger issues. The survey data, however, are valid and capture trends and patterns in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, she explained. The study was based on 1,293 people from lists provided by the Federation which were culled from local large Jewish organizations.

The value of the survey is to give a “direction about where to direct resources and attention,” Aronson said.

“We know everyone is affected by this in different ways,” Rubin offered. “We want to understand how this is going to affect the Jewish community in the next year.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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