Jewish Wisdom

From Loneliness to Belonging

We are living in a very lonely time. Many studies and books are telling us that people are increasingly lonely and that it is, indeed, an epidemic. We also know that the antidote is finding ways into meaningful connection and community.

As a rabbi who created an online, international Jewish community, I’ve long been interested in how Jewish communities — particularly emerging and creative groups and organizations — can foster belonging. This past year, I dedicated myself to learning even more about what works to help individuals feel more connected.

Along with other rabbis and thinkers dedicated to Jewish flourishing, I organized a gathering called Gathering in the spring of 2022. Our purpose for those two days was to learn from inspiring leaders and connectors, including Samia Mansour, program director at At The Well, who shared about how Well Circles are crucial to creating connections and meaningful community for many women and nonbinary people.

We know that loneliness is a factor that is detrimental to well-being, and that the inverse is  also true: social connection can be a booster for physical and mental health. Gathering was, for many of us, our first opportunity to gather with community since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. We shared food, laughter, and ideas, taking walks, exchanging contact information, and remembering how good it feels to build community, even for a short time.

Part of the offering of Gathering was hearing from intersectional leaders. These folks generously gave of their time, representing Jews creating community by and for Jews of Color, Queer/Trans Jews, those who are intermarried, those who are secular/atheist/culturally Jewish, those who feel they are “untraditional” in many ways.

We heard that often the assumptions of what makes a “successful” community are not what real folks find meaningful. For example, while many think a large event is a sign of success, often people feel isolated or alienated sitting alone in a crowd. It seems we need to remember how to measure success differently, that small can be mighty. An intimate gathering at a Well Circle can do much more to boost a sense of belonging and connection than a well-funded, well-attended extravaganza.

I have been to Well Circles and left feeling so energized, so in touch with my body, with tradition, with the women in the room. That kind of connection is crucial for overall well-being. Sadly, not everyone has those circles, those experiences, in their lives. But we can change that.

Whether through a Well Circle or other forms of enlivening community engagement, the true kind where we are seen and known, there are so many thrilling offerings that draw on Jewish tradition and wisdom.

After all, in Judaism we are so often taught that to do ritual, we need a team. Whether it be a minyan (10 people) to pray, a shiva (communal gathering after death) to mourn, a chevruta (study buddy) to learn with, a holiday dinner with family/community, or the many other gatherings that weave the fabric of Jewish life, togetherness is baked into our tradition.

The speakers at Gathering all wrote “promising practices papers” with their research and wisdom on how to create a less lonely, more connected world. Some of the key takeaways that we can all put into practice:

  • We need community, but our needs vary. Some prefer intimate, small gatherings and some seek a crowd.
  • Gathering can feel like effort but it’s almost always worth it. Send that text, inquire about that program, seek out your people.
  • Remember online as well as in-person options and find what feels right for you.
  • A key aspect of meaningful community is offering and receiving care. Let people help you when you need it. Help others as you can.
  • Keep encouraging community leaders to recognize styles of gathering that may be experimental, new, our “outside the box” from what traditional community looks like.

I am wishing all of us connectedness and wholeness, even in the knowing that all of us feel lonely and broken some of the time. Nevertheless, we are inextricably bound to each other through history, memory, compassion, energy, and experience. Even when it feels like we are alone, we are connected.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


Promising Practices, Jewish Response to Loneliness

Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors: The Power of Social Connection in Prevention,

The Loneliness Epidemic Persists: A Post-Pandemic Look at the State of Loneliness among U.S. Adults, Cigna Newsroom

Together (2020), Dr. Vivek Murthy

The loneliness pandemic, Harvard Magazine

You Belong (2020), Sebene Selassie

Well Circles, At The Well

From Loneliness to Belonging
Denise Handlarski
Denise Handlarski

Rabbi Denise is the leader of Secular Synagogue and a professor at Trent University.

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