Going to Beit Binah and/or Tichon Makes Kids Healthier and Live Longer
by Rabbi Paul Steinberg
As a rabbi and educator I make all kinds of arguments as to why kids should go to religious school. I have made the argument that a Jewish education offers a child a distinct lens with which to view the world, to think, and to ask questions. I have made the argument that religious school is where Jewish children will become inculcated with Jewish values and engage in character development through the study of Jewish texts and relationships with Jewish role models. I have made the argument that it is important for Jewish kids to be around other Jewish kids, attached to a synagogue and Jewish community on a regular basis. And I have even made the argument that Jewish kids need to go simply in order to prepare for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah (an argument I don’t like, but it can be useful). Today, I am making the argument that, if Jewish kids attend Beit Binah and Tichon, they are more likely to be physically healthy and live longer. Yes, that’s exactly right – healthier and live longer.
Dr. Harold Koenig, Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine at Duke University, one of the world’s leading experts on the relationship between religion and health, is the author of the updated Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2012). He explains, that the major difference between the 2012, second edition and the 2001, first edition is that there are now triple the number of cited research studies than just eleven years prior (I’m sure a new, third edition will be out soon enough). Researchers have simply paid more attention to the relationship between religion and health than in the past and, consequently, we now know much more. The studies cited are published in the best medical, peer-reviewed journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, which, by the way, are generally not sympathetic to religion.
When we sum up all of the research, however, we are left with two basic categories of data: 1) what religion does for you; and 2) what kind of person religion makes you. The areas researchers used to measure religious participation are essentially threefold: attending services, praying independently outside of services, and studying the bible. It is worth noting that it is impossible to empirically measure religious feelings beyond mapping neural substrates, therefore it is these religious behaviors that are the best medical indicators of religiosity.
Accordingly to these studies, if one goes to services, prays independently of services, and studies the bible, research shows the following:
Category 1 – What religion does for you:
- Lower incidents of heart disease;
- Lower incidents of cancer;
- Lower incidents of Alzheimers
- Recover more quickly and cope better from heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimers, if you get them
- Recover from AIDS more effectively and quickly
- Lower cholesterol
Category 2 – What kind of person religion makes you:
- More likely to volunteer
- More likely to give charity (including charities that are not religious)
- More likely to donate blood
- More likely to vote in elections
- More likely to participate in civic organizations
- More likely to have a stable home
- More likely to help a homeless person
- More likely to help someone find a job
- More likely to wear a seatbelt
- More likely to get screened for diseases
- More likely to follow your doctor’s instructions when screened
- More likely to be optimistic about the future
- Less likely to be depressed, have suicidal thoughts, or commit suicide
- Less likely to drink and do drugs
According to Dr. Hoenig and his coauthors, when we average out all of these results, a Caucasian American male (for example) will add approximately 7 years to his lifespan if he participates in religion; for African American males, religion adds 14 years.
I bring this up as we look to soon finish one academic year and begin to enroll for next not because I believe that if people pray and study Torah, God suddenly decides that they should be healthier and live longer. I bring it up because I know from my experience and now from empirical research, that being a part of a religious community increases both our well-being and goodness in this world. Religion (and I believe that Judaism has particularly wise and unique benefits) does good for each of us, as well as all of those we touch.
We know that religion – even Judaism – does not make us perfect. It does not always even make us good. Some religious people are actually bad people, and even the early Rabbinic sages noted that one can follow the laws of the Torah and still be a rotten person (naval b’reshut ha-Torah). But life is often about sensibly playing percentages and we are wise to leverage the greatest possibility of good for ourselves and our children when we can. We also know that nobody is good all the time, but if we hope for our life and the lives of our children to be longer, richer, more colorful, and more compassionate, then enrolling children in Beit Binah/Tichon and engaging at Kol Shofar is the just the right medicine.
Also see, Hoenig, Harold G. Religion, Spirituality, and Medicine: Research Findings and Implications for Clinical Practice. Southern Medical Journal 2004; vol. 97, num 12, pgs.1194-1200.