Fresh focus

Mental health, wellness and career opportunities: New paths in student engagement

In Short

A new survey of students prompts Hillel Ontario to adopt new priorities — mental health and jobs — on top of its 'unsurprising' attention to Jewish life

Over the past year, Hillel Ontario engaged in a strategic planning process to determine our organization’s priorities and course for the next three years. Integral to this process was a community consultation that incorporated nearly 500 students’ survey responses, over 120 one-to-one conversations, numerous focus groups and countless informal conversations. Listening to these diverse perspectives provided tremendous insight into what our constituents hope for, and what role Hillel Ontario can play in bringing that about, and ultimately led to a new set of mission, vision and values and four organizational priorities for strengthening Jewish campus life and supporting the 14,000 Jewish students across our nine campuses.

The first priority that has emerged: engaging Jewish students and addressing their most pressing needs. Four of the six areas under this priority are relatively unsurprising: Hillel has traditionally put an emphasis on Jewish learning, empowerment, inclusion and community, as well as Israel advocacy and combating antisemitism. The remaining two focuses, however, have garnered more attention – and a certain degree of apprehension – among some of our stakeholders: guiding students to career opportunities and training, and boosting emotional wellness and mental health.

We understand the uncertainty about why Hillel might prioritize students’ career paths and emotional well-being. After all, these have not traditionally been Hillel’s primary focus. Nevertheless, we have chosen to elevate these for a variety of reasons.

As an initial matter, clear illustrations of these terms and how they are reflected in Hillel’s work are essential. “Career support” is more straightforward and encompasses initiatives from networking to matched mentorships to speakers who share their own vocational decisions, as well as exposure to opportunities in the Jewish professional world. It provides students with entrees to job prospects, as well as Jewish perspectives on skills development and making choices around career possibilities.

“Mental health” and “well-being” are more complicated. While they may evoke images of one-on-one counseling and clinical therapy, we see them as far broader: through Hillel, Jewish students across the province have a connected and caring community on campus away from the familiarity and security of home. From celebrating holidays together to countering antisemitism, from weekly bagel brunches to yoga classes – Hillel offers Jewish students a community, a critical sense of belonging and openings for meaningful relationships. This not only staves off loneliness through peer support, social interaction and inclusion and enables students to be more resilient and confident as they make their way in the wider world; it also prevents downward spirals that require more serious intervention, especially in a COVID world where social networks and skills have been affected and community is more essential than ever before. As a result, a clinician who can provide counseling, make referrals for more intensive support, connect students to additional resources and train staff in basic competence is part of what mental health and well-being work may look like, but is far from everything, and everyday interactions play a critical role in ensuring Jewish students stay healthy and well.

In selecting organizational priorities, Hillel is first and foremost a student-centered organization, and we take our lead from what students articulate as most important to them. Students responding to our survey last fall identified mental health, well-being and career as being their top concerns, with antisemitism following closely behind. This mirrors broader trends around fraying social networks, loneliness epidemic and uncertainty about future personal possibilities; it also reflects the long waiting lists at campus career services and counseling centers, where delays for scheduling non-urgent appointments can be six months or longer.

On a practical level, we – as Hillel and as a Jewish community – are most relevant to and have the strongest impact on students when we act in the parts of their lives that are most important and relevant to them. If we choose to do so, we can have a tremendous and lasting impact, one that shows them that the Jewish community hears them and is there for them in ways that matter; if we ignore what they tell us, they will remember that as well. By including mental health and career development among our priorities in the strategic plan as a response to what students have told us, we send a message that students, their opinions and their experiences are important and that we take them seriously.

None of this is to say that we intend to duplicate existing services. There are numerous outstanding Jewish communal organizations – JF&CS, JACS and JVS, to name a few – and we both partner closely with them and will continue to do so. By responding to students’ basic needs in these areas, Hillel can educate about other organizations and refer as appropriate. Indeed, Hillel Ontario is uniquely positioned to serve as a connector and facilitator between campus and the rest of the community in this way. 

Moreover, Jewish tradition has plenty to teach about mental health, wellness and professional choices. Whether confronting anxiety or forging career paths, Jews have been considering and offering advice in these spheres for thousands of years, and emerging adults can benefit from the valuable gleanings of our people’s wisdom. Positioning Hillel as a space for these conversations – probably one of the few spaces for them – ensures an infusion of Jewish content and integration into students’ Jewish identities.

We saw all of this come into reality last year when we had a student from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University in New York as part of our staff at Hillel York. Over the course of the year, she held stress management and self-care sessions, ran exam success and antisemitism resilience programs, made referrals, oversaw a men’s support group and was a friendly and encouraging face for students. This, as much as any other single initiative, has enabled us to make the words of Proverbs 12:25 a reality for students: “If there is anxiety in a person’s mind, let them quash it and turn it into joy with a good word.”

In truth, then, little of this is as fundamentally revolutionary as it might at first appear, even if our articulation is more sophisticated. Accompanying students as they navigate professional possibilities and bolstering their emotional wellness and mental health ensures that they feel noticed, named, known and needed. This, in turn, welcomes them and provides a sense of self-investment in something bigger than themselves, two key aspects to fostering Jewish community on campus, and leading to new possibilities for exploration in more typical modes of Jewish identity development. In this way, Hillel Ontario can continue working towards our organizational vision: generations of empowered Jews who are joyful, passionate and resilient, have an enduring relationship with Jewish tradition and Israel and feel a sense of belonging in Jewish communities.

Rabbi Seth Goren is the CEO of Hillel Ontario.