While many young people were stuck at home, Tiziana Friedman, 24, spent the first half of the COVID-19 pandemic working in an emergency room in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As a Jewish woman, she found the work fulfilling from a religious perspective, but, as a person of color, she was troubled by the way Black and brown people were treated at the hospital.

“I didn’t have a crisis of faith but a crisis of faith in humanity,” she said.

When a medical condition prevented her from returning to the emergency room, Friedman took it as an opportunity to pivot. She turned toward work with faith-based organizations.

Friedman, who describes herself as Jewish “by choice,” found jobs at Dimensions, a Jewish nonprofit that provides training in diversity, equality and inclusion, and the Jewish Federation, an organization that aims to help the global Jewish community. Both positions have deepened her connection to the Jewish community, she said, affirming her place in it.

“In some strange ways my concept of God has become even more abstract (during the pandemic), but my spirituality has been strengthened through it — with the people I’ve surrounded myself with and the meaningful work I’ve been doing,” she said.

New data from Springtide Research Institute shows that Friedman was not the only member of Generation Z — defined as those currently between the ages of 13 and 25 — looking for spiritual connection in the past year. But she was one of only a small share who found it.

The study showed that while 44% of Generation Z tuned into virtual religious or spiritual services in the past year, only a small minority found hope or joy in them. Almost half of Gen Zers reported feeling isolated and alone during the pandemic, even when they had roommates.

Additionally, just 10% of young people said that a faith leader has reached out to them personally since the pandemic began, Springtide reported.

These findings suggest that in this moment of crisis lies an opportunity for religious leaders to reach out to Gen Zers. It’s an opportunity that few pastors have taken advantage of so far.

“So many organizations have no idea what they’re doing with young adults. No idea at all,” Friedman said.

She and other Gen Zers, as well as religion researchers, argue that the way faith groups connect with young people needs to change.

“Our spirituality looks very different than the generations before us,” Friedman said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re becoming less spiritual — perhaps less religious but definitely not less spiritual — and I think that’s something that’s hard for older generations to understand.” 

The empathy gap

Building understanding is exactly why Springtide Research Institute embarked on its new study, said Josh Packard, a sociologist and the institute’s executive director, explaining that there is sometimes a “empathy gap” in the way that older adults — including faith leaders — relate to those 25 and under. He hopes research will help older adults get a sense of how Gen Z is experiencing the pandemic.

“Adults want to go back to normal because it’s possible to do so,” he said. “But for young people, these aren’t things that they get back to. … These are things they just missed. You’re not going back to a graduation. Your graduation is just over.” 

It’s also important to remember that today’s young people are wildly diverse in their backgrounds and experiences, Packard said. You have to go beyond the research and get to know them on an individual level.

“The path to understanding any 13 to 25 year old is not to understand them by their demographic slice but by who they are as a person, through their relationships,” he said. “In contrast to previous generations, who relied on an institution or authority figure to understand the world, they’re really relying on the relationships they have with other people.” 

Relationships can help religious institutions overcome the mistrust of institutions that’s been building since the 1970s, he adds.

When Springtide Research Institute has asked young people to rank how much they trust different institutions, on a scale of 1 to 10, “nothing gets a higher rank than 5.2. Religious institutions are middle of the pack,” Packard said.  

He added that “mistrust doesn’t necessarily extend to the people in that institution.” While young people may never grow to love churches, they could eventually “put their faith in individuals who are affiliated with one.”

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‘Institutions have to adapt’

Friedman said she’s seen the power of relationships in her own life, as well as the value of opportunities to do faith-based volunteer work. One of the ways she’s strengthened her spiritual life is by connecting with Moishe House, which offers communal living for young Jews as well as social and educational activities that aren’t overtly religious.

Moishe House “pretty much exists for young adults, younger millennials, and Gen Zers who want to be involved but aren’t flocking to synagogue,” Friedman said. Pointing to the fact that there are rabbis on staff at Moishe Houses, she adds that even the placement of faith leaders needs to be rethought if religious institutions want to connect with more youth.

“Maybe rabbis need to think about not being synagogue rabbis but a different kind of rabbi,” she said.

Research suggests that religious leaders should, indeed, think about doing something far beyond the walls of their institutions, Packard said, noting that, amid the pandemic, many Gen Zers found joy and hope in the outdoors.

In order to enhance their outreach to young people, religious institutions need to provide opportunities so young Americans, as well as members of older generations, can “live out their values,” said Richard Flory, a research director at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture and the author of “Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults.”

Faith groups should also be aware of Gen Zers desire to look inward “to develop themselves,” he said.

“Institutions have to adapt to that hyperindividualism,” Flory said.

Most young Americans are not on spiritual quests, he adds. For those “that are still spiritually active and searching ... it isn’t a spiritual quest. It’s a self-quest.”

Matthew Blasio, 22, embodies that sort of Gen Z individualism. Raised Catholic, he spent part of his childhood thinking he’d become a priest. But he broke with the church late in high school after deciding that his identity as a member of the LGBTQ community was incompatible with a faith that opposes same-sex marriage.

“I was struggling with the fact that my spiritual basis said I couldn’t love who I wanted to love and I couldn’t get married if I wanted to,” Blasio said.

Though Blasio still believes in a higher power, the experience left him with a mistrust of institutions, including organized religion. When he initially broke with the church, he got into the self-care movement. “More recently,” he said, “my beliefs have been more rooted in spirituality and a mixture of Eastern philosophies and that has been a guiding thing for me.”

While Friedman is currently affiliated with a synagogue — but only because she was recently married there, she said with a laugh — she doesn’t regularly attend services. Her Judaism manifests in other ways.

“We are not living Jewishly in the same way that our parents and grandparents are living Jewishly,” she said. “And I think that’s something that’s hard for older generations to understand.”

She said that older generations are too concerned about external markers, like institutional affiliation, that young people are unlikely to embrace. “It doesn’t mean we don’t love being Jewish and living Jewishly,” Friedman said. “We just have a different definition.”

While Friedman sees the pandemic as a golden opportunity for faith leaders to try new ways of reaching out to the youth, Blasio is more skeptical. “I wouldn’t trust many adults to really have a grasp on what it means to be me,” he said.