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Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews 'least stressed' by Covid-19, says study

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have been happier and less stressed during the Covid-19 pandemic than others, including secular Jews, according to new research.

A study of the Israeli Jewish population by Tel Aviv University found levels of resilience were higher in ultra-Orthodox communities than other groups, despite this group being disproportionately affected by the disease in terms of both health and economic factors.

“The results showed that the more religious you are, the more resilience you have,” said Dr Nechumi Yaffe. who led the research team. “Religious people tend to have a stronger sense of community, cohesiveness, meaning, ritual and family connection.”

Yaffe’s team surveyed 664 people from five groups – secular, traditional, religious Zionist, ultra-Orthodox, and people who have left ultra-Orthodox communities.

About 45% of Israel’s 6.8m Jewish population identifies as secular, compared with 14% who are ultra-Orthodox. But this sector is growing fast as a result of its reproductive rate, with women giving birth to an average of seven children.

The survey found that ultra-Orthodox respondents scored highest on emotional wellbeing and lowest for depression, stress and anxiety.

The lowest scoring groups for emotional wellbeing were ex-ultra-Orthdox and secular. Ex-ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist scored highest on depression, stress and anxiety.

The religious factor overrode the negative economic consequences of the pandemic, Yaffe said. The ultra-Orthodox community had been “substantially more impacted” both in terms of infection rates and loss of income. Many live in very high-density accommodation “and there’s no Netflix to distract them”.

Yaffe added: “You’d expect them to be devastated, but in fact people in tight religious communities are happier.”

Last year the US-based Pew Research Center found that “actively religious people are more likely than their less religious peers to describe themselves as ‘very happy’” in about half of 26 countries surveyed. In the US, 36% of the actively religious described themselves as “very happy,” compared to 25% of the inactively religious and 25% of the religiously unaffiliated.

Yaffe, who will present her findings at the Boris Mints Institute 2020 Conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday, is the first woman raised in a Hasidic community in Israel to achieve a PhD.

After training as a teacher, she began visiting a university library to research material for a new history curriculum for ultra-Orthodox high schools. “Suddenly I was exposed to this new experience, and I wanted it to be my life,” she said.

She enrolled as a university student without telling her community. “I was scared I’d be kicked out. But when people found out, some were critical but a lot were curious – and, to be honest, some were jealous,” she said.

Now a faculty member at Tel Aviv University, she helps other women from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds to pursue their academic ambitions. “There have been some hard adjustments, and at times I’ve felt lonely and misunderstood, but on the whole it’s been a positive experience.”

Last week the Israeli government reimposed some restrictions as the country recorded sharp increases in Covid-19 infections.

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