The great outdoors

BaMidbar shifts away from residential wilderness therapy, focuses on short-term programs 

The organization’s CEO, Jory Hanselman Mayschak, said by 2026 the organization’s clinicians and fellows will train over 4,000 Jewish communal professionals to support more than 100,000 Jewish youth

The Torah portion BaMidbar begins with a census tally of Israelites. Counting each of the Jewish people is necessary, BaMidbar says, because if even one Jew is unaccounted for, the community is incomplete. 

An organization focused on mental health of Jewish teens and young adults through outdoor and adventure activity, also called BaMidbar, echoes this sentiment. 

BaMidbar, which translates to “in the wilderness,” spun off from Ramah in the Rockies in Colorado in September 2021 and has since gone national with programs in California and Massachusetts. 

In May, the group launched a new strategic plan aimed at shifting the organization away from long-term programming and toward shorter, more accessible sessions. Called Charting Our Path: A Strategic Compass for 2023-2026, CEO and co-founder Jory Hanselman Mayschak said the strategic plan maps out an “innovative, Jewishly-informed, and community-centered approach to confronting the youth mental health crisis.” BaMidbar plans to provide more than 18,000 individual, group and family therapy sessions by 2026. 

The strategic plan and move toward independence come as teen mental health has emerged as a communal focus in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Within the next three years, Hanselman Mayschak said BaMidbar’s clinicians and fellows will train over 4,000 Jewish communal professionals who will support more than 100,000 Jewish youth. Upon announcement of its new strategic plan, BaMidbar was picked as a “Top 10 to Watch” initiative by the Slingshot Fund. 

Hanselman Mayschak told eJewishPhilanthropy that a key component of the strategic plan is to move away from in-patient therapy programs.

“While we will continue to use an adventure-based approach, we will no longer provide long-term residential wilderness programs,” Hanselman Mayschak said. “In addition to therapy, BaMidbar also provides community education and professional development programs, and for the past few years has reached 2,000 Jewish professionals annually through mental health training. Therapy is just one component of our work.”

Hanselman Mayschak said BaMidbar was founded in 2018 with the notion that after around five years it would split from Ramah. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the separation. 

“By [early] 2020 we started a discussion about becoming independent,” Hanselman Mayschak recalled. “Then the pandemic hit and it became apparent Ramah needed to focus on its internal operations in crisis and BaMidbar’s work would look different and couldn’t be supported by Ramah.”  

Before the split, Ramah in the Rockies provided BaMidbar with administrative support and provided their ranch free of charge, but did not directly fund the program. Twenty-five percent of BaMidbar’s revenue comes from earned funds, Hanselman Mayschek said. 

About a dozen federations and philanthropic foundations provide funding.

The new strategic plan includes a fellowship to train mental health professionals in the intersection of Jewish learning and clinical framework. Brett Lubarsky, a Jewish professional who works with teenagers in Boston, approached BaMidbar with the idea for a fellowship focused on wellness. 

“We partnered with BaMidbar to move the needle on the [outreach] to teens speaking about mental health and created the wellness fellowship,” Lubarsky, director of Jewish Teen Initiative at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s federation, told eJP. 

“Teens are wrestling internally and externally with existential questions, and there’s a huge mental health component to that. This gives a safe space for them to block out noise from the outside and focus on the good stuff,” Lubarsky said. 

The plan launch comes amid a 440% expansion of BaMidbar services between 2020 to 2022. 

Levels of anxiety and depression, along with increasing suicide, self-harm and eating disorders, skyrocketed during the pandemic, especially among teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021, more than one-third (37%) of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic. Forty-four percent said they persistently felt sad or hopeless in the past year. More than half (55%) reported experiencing emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home. 

“This period dramatically highlighted how ill-equipped the North American Jewish community was, and is, to address the deteriorating rates of mental health and well-being among our young people,” Hanselman Mayschak said. 

Lubarsky said throughout the pandemic he heard “time and time again from teens there were not enough opportunities to talk about mental health, to identify resources for support in our community.”

“So I attended BaMidbar sessions on a variety of topics for Jewish professionals,” he said. 

BaMidbar’s roots in outdoor therapy have been proven to be beneficial for well-being, said Jill Goldstein Smith, senior program manager at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. 

“Given my role, being outside and connecting with nature is something good for all ages,” Goldstein Smith told eJP. “Jewish camping intersects with therapy and mental health. When kids or young adults go to camp, we used to refer to it as a bubble, the outside world doesn’t come in. But we know now that isn’t true. People bring their whole selves to camp, including their mental health.” 

Goldstein Smith said she has learned from training led by BaMidbar over the last few years to view mental health as a spectrum. “It’s not only about mental illness, but also about well-being,” she said.

“The pandemic removed for many a sense of routine, a sense of trust, a sense of consistency, support and community. I would say especially in the Jewish community. When what you expect a community to look like is pulled from under you, it takes a toll on mental health, and the teen years especially are a time when so much growth is happening,” Goldstein Smith continued. 

“For many teens, and people overall, there has been a lot of growth in these years, but also a lot of turbulence.”