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Does Going to Synagogue Make You Healthier?

A lesson in correlation and causation

Marjorie Ingall
January 14, 2015
(EKG image via Shutterstock; illustration Tablet Magazine)

(EKG image via Shutterstock; illustration Tablet Magazine)

Today JTA reported on a new study out of Baylor University, which found that Jewish Americans who attend synagogue experience better health than Jewish Americans who don’t.

“Adults who affiliate with a Jewish religious denomination and attend synagogue report significantly better health than secular or non-practicing Jews,” explained Jeff Levin, Ph.D., University Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Program on Religion and Population Health at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. The study, which was published in the Journal of Religion and Health, surveyed more than 5,000 Jewish adults in four of the largest Jewish population centers in the United States, and dovetails with similar findings about Christians and church. Affiliated Jews of every denomination—Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform—reported better health than non-affiliated Jews. And Jews who attended synagogue at all, even infrequently, reported better health than those who never went.

Levin says that more study is needed…but honestly, the findings aren’t surprising. Social support has long known to be correlated with better health. Remember Bowling Alone? Having a community is good for you.

And how are we to tease apart correlation and causation? Though there’s much more study on Christians than on Jews, attendance at religious services is clearly correlated with less drinking, smoking, and recreational drug use. Is that what makes shul-goers healthier…or is it the influence of the Almighty above? Is there, as some have suggested, a placebo effect to prayer—when you believe something works, it works, whether you call it Hashem, trust in the universe, The Force, The Secret, hypnosis, or the Wonder-Twin-Powers-Activate impact of concentrated goodwill? And finally, volunteering is also strongly associated with better health—could it be the role of the shul in helping others (bikur cholim, paying shiva calls, making sandwiches for the homeless, blood drives) that’s the difference that makes a difference?

Nu, who knows? The precise act of going to shul—as opposed to book club, CrossFit, PTA meetings, choral group, and/or meditation—may not make you healthier. But like chicken soup, it couldn’t hoit.

Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.