What Are We Doing for Our Struggling Youth?

Photo courtesy BaMidbar

By Jory Hanselman and Rabbi Eliav Bock

Imagine a twenty-four year old. He graduated from a top tier university, but now can’t get out of bed. He is struggling to show up where he needs to be each day, is smoking marijuana, and is feeling depressed, scared and anxious. He knows he needs help, but where does he turn?

What about the nineteen year old, who is unsure of their gender identity, and feeling alone in a world that seems to rain down bigotry and hatred. They want to stand strong, but feel crushed by the weight of society’s pressures. They are lost and afraid, and wonder if life is worth living.

Photo courtesy BaMidbar

Now imagine a twenty-two year old living in her parents’ home. She can’t find steady employment and does not want to finish college. Emotionally shut down, she is angry at herself and the world for actions perpetrated against her. Her peers are moving on with their lives; she and her parents seem to be caught in an epic, multi-year battle about her future and what she should be doing.

What do these individuals have in common? They are struggling with a healthy transition from adolescence to adulthood. While they might have differing underlying mental health challenges, they are in the category often termed “Failure to Launch.”

And all of these individuals, and many more like them, enrolled in BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy (BaMidbar), the country’s only Jewish wilderness therapy program. BaMidbar launched just over a year ago as an oasis for young adults struggling with a variety of mental health challenges. Students spend spend 9-12 weeks in an intensive therapeutic environment in Pike National Forest as they develop tools not only to survive, but to thrive.

Wilderness therapy, also known Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare, uses the wilderness and adventure-based activities as a vehicle for therapeutic growth. Free from distractions and the constant stimulus that defines life in the digital age, participants have a chance to find healing and chart a path for a brighter future. Like our forefathers, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, who found God and spirituality in the wilderness, BaMidbar students spend time in nature rediscovering themselves and their spiritual core. They build skills to recover from adversity, are empowered to break free of the habits and patterns that limit their lives, and embark on a new journey of living well.

One year into this program, we have noticed a few trends and learning for the field in general.

  1. Over two dozen similar programs exist in North America, many of them with Native American, Eastern, or Christian inspired frameworks. Programs integrate ritual to mark and effect change, yet that ritual is often disconnected from each student’s individual heritage. By integrating Jewish storytelling, tradition, and ritual, BaMidbar is able to magnify impact of the wilderness therapy environment for a Jewish-identified population.
  2. While our program currently serves emerging adults 18-26, 40% of our inquiries are for adolescence; there is clearly a need for a similar program to serve high school aged youth. Many families, highly engaged in their Jewish communities, have nowhere to turn when their child starts to struggle in Day School or in Jewish Youth groups. Speaking with Day School educators, we constantly hear that they wish we could accept younger students. We are looking into licensure for an adolescent program, but due to Colorado licensing logistics, we are 18+ months away from opening any such program.
  3. Wilderness therapy is expensive. Pricing in the industry is oftentimes shrouded in secrecy; few programs list their prices, and almost all programs are for-profit. Some of BaMidbar’s students come from families with significant means, while others require considerable financial assistance. We are committed to helping any who we think would benefit from our program and work with families through our scholarship process and insurance reimbursement. Thus far, local and National Jewish funders have stood behind our commitment to work with all families, regardless their financial resources.
  4. The American Jewish community is only beginning to grapple with the mental health crisis facing our youth. We have yet to meet a community leader or funder who tells us that we are on the wrong track. Some have expressed surprise or admiration at the willingness of Camp Ramah, our parent organization, to associate with this cause. And most also admit that when Jewish families have issues with their children, Rabbis and community leaders are often the last people they tell. Only in the past few years have we begun to hear of leaders willing to speak openly about mental health challenges facing their own families. These brave individuals will help to change the discourse in the American Jewish community and bring families struggling with these issues into the light.

We know that BaMidbar is paving the way for many other organizations to open their doors to those suffering from a variety of mental health challenges. The need for Jewish mental health programming is vast, far beyond what can be served by a single organization. We hope BaMidbar will serve as a catalyst for communities, and that in the coming years we see increased numbers of Jewish mental health programs across the country.

Jory Hanselman is Director of BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy at Ramah in the Rockies and Rabbi Eliav Bock is Executive Director of Ramah in the Rockies.