Not Being Alone In Our Loneliness: Why We Need to Take the Conversation Outside the Jewish World

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / March 6, 2020


As the rabbi at GatherDC, I spend a lot of time talking with Jewish 20s and 30s about how hard it is to make actual friends in this city, how difficult it can be to find a Jewish community that feels like a good fit, and how much social circles can change from one year to the next given this area’s transient nature. 

At Gather, we prioritize building relationships between people to help combat this phenomenon of social loneliness, which is an increasing national trend among millennials and Gen Z’ers. 

Last weekend, I took this conversation outside of our usual space and brought it to a group of young adults from across different faith traditions at the 2020 DMV Interfaith Leadership Summit. What I found speaking with about 25 individuals who identified as Muslim, Morman, Christian, Baha’i, and Jewish was that the conversation was not all that different than the conversations I have with Gather community members.

One major part of the discussion focused on the need to redefine where and how we make community. In our very modern context, where people move away from the place they grew up in, where they may move around every few years, and where there are so many more options for how to belong, community is not something we just join, but something we have to proactively seek out. 

The obvious reason for how we think people get together is a shared piece of identity – be it a religion or culture, for example. Often, when we grow up in such a community, we expect to be able to replicate it wherever we go by virtue of sharing that piece of identity with others. But, what we find is that shared identity does not necessarily a true friend or community make, at least right off the bat. 

Several participants said that upon moving to DC, they realized that showing up at a religious institution or community event was not necessarily going to be the way they found sustaining friendship or community. I know this all too well from my own conversations and experiences in the Jewish world. 

We talked about how, although it may be easier and more organic to create smaller, more intimate communities of peers, we could wind up sacrificing broader social and intergenerational support networks. Some individuals said that they decided to look for pieces of connection with others that weren’t based on a shared religious or cultural backgrounds. They had to redefine the organizing principle of their relationships and what connected them to one another. This brought up a few questions:

  • How do we actually build these supportive communities?
  • How do we get to the point where people really know us and us, them?
  • How do we get a point where we are warmly welcomed when we show up and noticeably missed when we don’t?

In a city where networking happy hours abound, we are not always getting the right vehicle to connect with people in ways that move us beyond our exteriors. And this is especially true for people who don’t go to happy hours for religious, health, or social reasons. 

Instead, we discussed how we might venture into deeper conversations with people we meet at work, yoga class, or at synagogue or church events. What would it mean to ask people to share much more about themselves than what they do or study, like, “How do you prefer to spend your time?” “What brings you joy?” “What really matters to you in your life?” and modeling the vulnerability in our answers that we want to see come out in theirs. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote,

“A person insists not only on being satisfied, but also on being able to satisfy; on being a need and not only having needs. Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains: Am I needed? There is no person who has not been moved by that anxiety.” 

I brought this quote to the group, and one person mentioned that if we spend time proactively asking how we can be of help to others, we might be able to fill our sense of loneliness. Volunteering and supporting those around us can make us needed and in turn, have our own needs met.

Heschel’s sentiment deeply resonated and is something we often forget when think about how to fill our own social needs. 

What I’m taking away from this experience is a rather odd sense of comfort in knowing that young Jews are not alone in feeling lonely and frustrated in not finding a sense of home. At the same time, I’m realizing more than ever that we need to join with people outside of our own affiliations to combat social isolation. 

In testing the waters last week, I was heartened to see that complete strangers were able to open up so honestly and vulnerability. I believe this is exactly how we can begin to address loneliness, with a special mix of a proper intention and an invitation to the kinds of conversations that help us not feel so alone. 




About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.






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