Let’s make mental health a priority in the Jewish community
Our goal is to train more than 8,000 Jewish professionals, parents and — perhaps most importantly – teens in camps, synagogues, schools, immersive travel experiences and youth groups in a variety of methods to build resilience and identify those who might need extra support, all through a Jewish lens.
This is a profoundly challenging time to be young. Even before the pandemic, levels of stress and anxiety were surging among teens and young adults growing up in complicated and uncertain times. The impact of the global pandemic tore at relationships and their already fragile sense of stability. Collectively, we have experienced loss, loneliness, grief and trauma. Millions are struggling with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and — in many cases — even thoughts of suicide. Last December, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy proclaimed a “youth mental health crisis” of staggering proportions.
These struggles are distressingly acute in the Jewish community. A Brandeis University study found that an alarming one-quarter of young adult Jewish respondents reported feeling lonely “often” or “all the time,” and that one-fifth felt that mental health difficulties impeded their day-to-day lives on an ongoing basis. Often overwhelmed themselves, parents, caregivers and Jewish professionals are unsure how to access help or support youth in role-appropriate ways.
Yet it is the Jewish community itself that can a most powerful tool for resilience.
BeWell: Building Resilience in the Jewish Community
Well-being is the defining issue for young people today. The Jewish community is making emotional, social and spiritual well-being a priority with BeWell, an ambitious partnership between Jewish Federations of North America and the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies (NJHSA). BeWell offers a comprehensive, system-wide response to today’s mental health crisis. We are equipping dozens of organizations and individuals with critical resources, evidence-based training and tools that draw on Jewish tradition. These efforts are grounded in the understanding that the relationships, role models, meaning and growth that Jewish life offers can help us withstand and recover from life’s inevitable challenges.
BeWell’s four-part strategy – field-building, training, grants and research – draws on years of effective collaboration and experimentation. In 2019 the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, now powered by JFNA, formed the Resiliency Roundtable, bringing together dozens of national organizations and clinicians in Jewish settings to learn together, share best practices, resources, data and Jewish wisdom. This collaborative endeavor helped to elevate and deepen an understanding of mental health challenges and diverse and emerging responses in the Jewish community; impactful projects such as “Collective Compassion,” a month-long series of workshops and wellness programs for teens, parents and professionals.
The Resiliency Roundtable: A National, Replicable Model
Anchored in a collaboration between two wide-reaching arms of the Jewish community, this groundbreaking approach unites the Jewish education / engagement and clinical worlds. This partnership ensures we are addressing young people’s spiritual, emotional, physical and social needs in a coordinated and comprehensive way, and one which amplifies and strengthens communal organizations’ responses.
This new paradigm echoes the prior success of the Resiliency Roundtable. By forging and reinforcing connections among diverse organizations addressing issues ranging from spiritual growth and embodied Jewish practice to addiction, stigma and suicide prevention, we are building a web of supportive relationships. This national model can and should be replicated in local communities across the country – a necessary foundation which will ensure there is common understanding of emerging issues and potential interventions – to create lasting impact.
Empowering the Landscape
We all have a role in promoting the wellbeing of young people.
We know that many Jewish professionals who work with youth are still in their early 20s themselves and, as “near peers,” often lack the skills to promote adolescent mental health.
Our goal is to train more than 8,000 Jewish professionals, parents and — perhaps most importantly – teens in camps, synagogues, schools, immersive travel experiences and youth groups in a variety of methods to build resilience and identify those who might need extra support, all through a Jewish lens. Over the next three years we aim to dramatically expand mental health first aid, a certificate course grounded in prevention, so that thousands will learn to identify the warning signs of mental health crises, offer empathetic support and feedback, and to encourage them to access a professional caregiver.
The peer-to-peer dimension of this work is equally crucial. Young people most often turn to their friends first when they need help or advice, and we are responding to this tremendous opportunity by training and empowering hundreds of young people with the skill and language they need to support their friends who may be struggling.
At the same time, there is a serious shortage of mental health professionals across the country, given the huge increase in need and with the high degree of burnout during the pandemic, leading to even longer waiting lists for those who do need professional support. To address this challenge, NJHSA is offering training to Jewish Family Service agencies’ clinicians on evidence-based modalities that do not rely on individual therapy as well as offering a clinical training program for early-career clinicians and others who want to learn best practices in working with youth and their families. Additionally, NJHSA is working to create a ‘clinical bench’ by partnering with programs in graduate social work, counseling and psychology to create a pipeline of clinicians motivated and trained to work with teens and young adults in the Jewish community.
By increasing awareness of the resources provided by Jewish social service agencies, we can ensure a continuum of mental health and wellness resources in local communities.
Spreading Innovative Interventions
The strategy is complemented by a Special Incentives Grant Fund, which aims to catalyze regional funders and scale innovative models, increase capacity and develop new grassroots programs.
These grants are intended to fund a wide range of ideas and approaches, including local landscape scans/needs assessments, establishing local Resiliency Roundtables, hosting regional conferences on youth wellbeing, creating peer-to-peer programs for student support, and develop new or adapt existing powerful digital resources and apps for teens and young adults.
Finally, we are spearheading a national research project to help identify pathways to wellbeing in the Jewish community. The data that is collected over the next three years will enhance our understanding of the intersection of Jewish tradition and wisdom, family dynamics, and societal influences in the lives of Jewish youth, and help inform future investments in this growing space.
BeWell: A Place of Hope and Action
Healing is a focus of much of contemporary Jewish life. BeWell is a center of both hope and action, providing tools to ensure our young people live full and meaningful lives – supported by the strength of the Jewish community and newly-empowered caregivers and role-models.
For more information on BeWell visit www.jewishtogether.org/bewell.
Sara Allen is associate vice president of community & Jewish life at Jewish Federations of North America.
Reuben D. Rotman is the president & CEO of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies.