Hillel launches Talmud-inspired mental health and well-being fellowship
After three semesters running the pilot at USC, Hillels at universities around the country will offer the Jewish Learning Fellowship’s 'Ancient Wisdom for Modern Wellbeing' seminar this fall
Who am I? How do I make friends? What communities am I a part of?
These are some of the questions students across the country will explore through the Jewish Learning Fellowship’s (JLF) program “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Wellbeing,” a 10-week seminar led by Hillel International starting this fall.
“Entering college in the midst of the pandemic was an obstacle for many,” Jessie Cooper, a senior at University of Southern California and student wellness vice president at Hillel USC, told eJewishPhilanthropy. Cooper participated in a pilot of the fellowship during her sophomore year.
“It was such a cool experience,” she said. “The wellness fellowship was one of my first involvements with Hillel. I was nervous. I didn’t know anyone. As soon as I saw everyone noshing and chatting, I knew Hillel was my place and have grown since then.”
“Even though I participated in the first iteration of the fellowship, it was really thought-out and led incredibly well,” Cooper continued. “It was a great introduction to what wellness is and how we can incorporate it into our everyday life.”
Mental health of students in higher education has been an increasing concern, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the issue. A study published by the National Institutes of Health in September 2020 found that 71% of college students reported stress and anxiety as a result of the pandemic.
Three USC students died by suicide during the 2019 school year.
Mental health and well-being have not traditionally been Hillel’s primary focus. But when Leenie Baker started in fall 2021 as wellness director at USC Hillel, she noticed that there was no way for students to engage with well-being skills as a community that meets together on a regular basis outside of a clinical setting. “There were so many cultural norms that needed to be rebuilt that year,” Baker said. “Students needed to navigate how their boundaries changed during lockdown.”
So Baker approached Hillel with the idea to pilot a wellness fellowship at USC. “It utilizes an intentional framework about relationship building and Jewish wisdom with practical hands-on wellness skill building and modern psychological practices,” she told eJP.
The first cohort ran in spring 2022 with 16 undergraduate students. Over the following two semesters, two more cohorts ran at USC. “There was a lot of editing to make sure it was as impactful as possible,” Baker recalled.
Baker realized at that point there was a need for the program on other campuses.
“I was talking with Hillel colleagues expressing a similar need. [They said] students wanted a space to discuss how wellness interacted with their Jewish practice or how they could learn to support wellness practices in their everyday lives,” she said.
Isolation and a lack of belonging are common themes addressed during the pilot cohorts, Baker said. “I’ve heard from many students that they don’t know what they are doing but everyone else seems to know what they’re doing and that makes them feel isolated and alone in that experience,” she said. “This isn’t just freshmen. All of them are thinking their peers have it all figured out. I get such positive responses when I tell students that so many others are feeling a similar way.”
The “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Wellbeing” seminar is based on models of similar cohort learning run by JLF, a flagship program of Hillel on 75% of college campuses that graduates more than 4,000 students annually.
The wellness seminar curriculum is structured around a foundational text from the Babylonian Talmud that quotes Micah 6:8, “It was told to you what is good and what God demands of you: only  to do justice,  to love kindness,  and to walk humbly with your God.”
Mollie Feldman, senior director of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience at Hillel International, told eJP “commentary on the text understands that the Micah verse reflects all 613 mitzvot through three categories: reflexive mitzvot between a person and themself (bein adam l’atzmo), mitzvot between people (bein adam l’chaveiro), and mitzvot between people and God (bein adam l’makom).”
“These categories are understood to be reflected by the concepts of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God, respectively,” Feldman continued. “With this framing, the curriculum explores each of these core categories, relationship to self, relationship to others, and relationship to God/the divine, through both Jewish texts and applied practices to support holistic wellness.”
Feldman said overlap between the new wellness seminar and previous JLF programs includes promoting meaningful peer relationships and connections with supportive mentors.
“As we have learned more about the mental health crisis and mental health realities students are experiencing, we started to see very clearly through mental health and well-being research that was coming out that a lot of the primary mental health protective factors are actually very embedded in what already existed as the JLF experience,” Feldman said.
Before the pandemic upended the typical college experience, Hillel already began addressing mental health among students.
In 2018, a wellness initiative was launched by social worker Leah Siskin Moz, the senior director of students and staff well-being at Hillel.
“I see the [JLF] fellowship as continued growth in this space,” Siskin Moz told eJP. “Ahead of the pandemic we were already training our staff about mental health warning signs and understanding resources on campus.”
“There are a lot of mental health protective factors built into Hillel and Jewish life, meaningful peer relationships, strong mentorship and being part of something bigger than oneself,” Siskin Moz continued.
“We were looking to expand the work and give students tools to strengthen their own ability to improve their well-being and this cohort experience, getting together weekly in a peer group, gives opportunity to build meaningful connections.”
The goal of “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Wellbeing,” as with all JLF programs, is that students will leave the experience with four things, Feldman said.
“Friends, community, a relationship to a mentor and role model who is the Jewish educator and that they will also experience Jewish learning that draws deeply from the well of Jewish tradition while speaking directly to the contemporary questions and big ideas they are grappling with during their college years.”