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Caring For Our Kids’ Mental Health, Jewishly

The following is a transcript of Episode 120 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Tuesday, December 20th, 2022. 

We’re gonna talk today about mental health, including suicidal ideation. Please use your discretion in deciding whether to listen to this episode.

So the statistics on mental health in America today are truly alarming. According to some studies, the reported rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation have more than doubled among college students in the past 10 years. Eating disorders and acts of self-harm go up and the feeling of flourishing has gone way down.

The pandemic didn’t help to say the least. Depression, binge eating, and alcohol use all went up among college students during the past couple of years, and unsurprisingly, some of the worst findings were intersectional. So for instance, alcohol use higher among women than men. Depression worse among black students than white students.

It’s tempting when you see a social problem to look for root causes and then to pin our work on uprooting those root causes. There are societies, therefore, that trace a lot of this growth in mental health problems to smartphones, although kids all over the world have smartphones and the rates of depression are higher here in America. You could blame social media and clearly some apps are worse than others like Instagram, even according to the research done by Meta, its parent company.

Although a lot of the worst consequences seem to relate more to how people use social media than social media itself. So for instance, when people seek status online or compare themselves to others. Maybe part of the problem, some argue, is in cultural shifts in parenting towards hyper-protectiveness. Maybe part of it is the culture of doom that’s widespread in our media culture about the state of our politics, the future of the climate, shifts in future economic security. It’s reasonable for young people today to fear the future.

Whatever those reasons, it seems incredibly hard to be a teenager right now, harder than it was for people of earlier generations, and maybe that’s ironic given all of our advancements in overall economic health or technological advancements and the relative piece and security that we enjoy, and I see this in my own house.

And I’m not sure how much all of this theorizing helps, not only because those are root causes that are hard to uproot, but because of fixation and root causes feels like a spiral towards blame, whether it’s some of us towards other of us, whether it’s towards parents who then have to feel guilty about what they’re doing with their children or even towards children themselves for things that are bigger than them.

The other alternative then, which could come with far greater empathy, is to focus less on root causes and focus more on treatment, on love. I know that when it comes to issues like poverty, we’re supposed to talk about structural change. You know, like teach people to fish and eradicate the injustice in our midst, but it’s also a little bit monstrous if you don’t feed the actual poor at the same time.

I think it’s probably the same with the mental health crisis. What should we be doing as a Jewish community to take better care of our kids? Sometimes I wonder what the organized Jewish community actually is. There’s all these institutions in a complex web. Sometimes it’s quote, an establishment, a closed social and political web, interested in power and its own perpetuation.

Sometimes it’s the inheritor of control over what gets defined as Judaism or who gets defined as Jews. But in the end, I believe that the network of Jewish communal institutions are, or at least should be a fabric of human beings trying to care for the fundamental human needs of others who, in this case, happen to be Jewish.

Some of those needs are spiritual, and some are political, and some are material, and some are also very basic, like our health and our wellbeing. In other words, to be a great Jewish organization is not necessarily about some exceptional mission connected to our Jewishness. We’re just a bunch of humans who are Jewish and we have institutions meant to care for us. It feels important to remember that once in a while. 

And therefore young Jews, like other young Americans need a lot of help right now. Are we and our institutions prepared for this? I see it up close and personal with our own gap year program at Hartman called Hevruta. We started Hevruta as an experiment in Israel diaspora relationships. It’s an intensive educational and social experience in Israel that combines study, volunteering, internships, and community building. And we started it because we work in Jewish education and Jewish leadership, and it’s such an incredible ripe age to seed ideas, to get to know young people, and to try to shape the Jewish.

And I think it’s a great program, but it’s also an immense responsibility to work with young people right now, given these realities about teen mental health. We found out as many other organizations have as well, that you can set out to be in Jewish education, but if you’re working with young people, especially in intensive and immersive context, you are or very quickly will become frontline health and wellness care professionals. In the midst of the pandemic, Tilly Shames, Hillel director at the University of Michigan said exactly this on our podcast. 

So today I’m talking with one of the Jewish professionals on the literal front lines of this work. Yael Kornfeld is the campus social worker at Hunter College Hillel. I’m gonna parse that for a second because it’s significant. Yael is one of the first full-time social workers hired to work at a Hillel, with an emphasis not on religious or spiritual life, although we could talk about the extent to which these things overlap, or to work specifically in education or with clubs and groups, but to support students with their fundamental human needs.

There are now several such professionals in these jobs, and I imagine this role will grow quite quickly at Hillels around the country. Yael has worked as a social worker for over a decade with older adults through Dorot in New York City, and has also experience in community building for young Jewish adults.

Yael, thanks for coming on the show today, and I’ll just start off by asking you, uh, what I missed in terms of the driving forces of either the larger causes that you think are breeding this moment, or what else we need to know about this mental health crisis that I think a lot of us kind of know about or hear about, but maybe haven’t placed at the center of our attention the way you have. 

Yael: Thank you Yehuda, and thank you for having me on today. It’s an honor to be here and I mean, I think, that was extensive and you got most of the things. I think we all have an urge to solve the problem. We see it, it, it exists. What can we do? How can we fix it?

And I think, like you’re talking about on the gap year program, just being there, putting supports in place is the best that we can do at this moment. But otherwise, I think that you covered kind of many of the main factors.

Yehuda: Mm-hmm. Social media, the internet, the pandemic.

Let me ask you a kind of a devil’s advocate question. It might be a little bit of an unfair one, which is, there are other two other forces at work here that might inform this story. One is that maybe there’s higher reporting of mental health and reduced stigma around mental health. So maybe it’s not that there’s worse problems today than there were 30 years ago, it’s just that people are actually talking about it and therefore getting treatment for it. 

And the second force that seems kind of strange is, is there a phenomenon of over-diagnosing? Right so, skeptics of this will say, not every breakup requires of you to go see a therapist, but I, I don’t know how, if that’s a ruthless thing to say, or it’s actually useful in understanding the severity of this problem.

Yael: I think the first point about, it’s just more known today, is not true. I think that there’s still a stigma around getting mental help. There’s a study that says even though Gen Z has like more vocabulary than anyone has in the past around mental health, 45% of students still felt that there would be a stigma around getting that support. So I don’t think it’s just that they have a platform to share it or that they’re more open about it. I think it’s, of course it’s getting worse right now. But I think not because they have the platform to share it. 

To your second point, 

Yehuda: On overdiagnosing.

Yael: I don’t know if I can speak to that directly. Speaking of having the language, you hear things like anxiety thrown around, OCD, like, I think that, I don’t know if I can really speak to the diagnosing aspect. But I think we have seen, like with kids with ADD, that there’s more diagnosing going around. There’s probably more medication for things. Yeah. 

Yehuda: Yeah. So the terminology is definitely more common and it’s definitely further out there, but it’s hard to, it would be hard to point a straight line from the existence of that terminology, either to the reduction of stigma or to say, therefore this thing is in any way overblown.

So how does this materialize for you? Like, what are you seeing among the students who you’re working with on campus? And then, we’ll, we’ll talk a little later on how it emerges that a Hillel hires somebody like you for this. Maybe it can help paint a picture for folks who hear this language but don’t know what it actually means in terms of how college students are presenting. 

Yael: Well I actually, I realized I skipped some information, some important information, which is a little bit about our Hillel at Hunter Hillel and the students that we serve. So we have students that are coming from all five boroughs that are coming from New Jersey, Long Island.

We’re a commuter school and we’re an extremely diverse Hillel. We have, 25% of our students are Mizrachi and Sephardi. 25% are Russian speaking Jews. 25% are secular Ashkenazi. And the final 25 is modern Orthodox. So we have all kinds of students coming through our doors, and we see the issues presenting in many different ways.

I had a student this semester that came in and said I don’t know how to talk to other people in this room. Which to me is, I think the pandemic had to have an impact, our students’ most really formative years in their lives, and now they’re coming in like unsure how to interact with one another.

And there’s studies that show that even though we’re back in person, like 68% of our students still feel depressed, isolated, lonely. So I think we’re really still relearning how to be in a space together. Sometimes when I’m in the lounge, I’ll also, I’ll see two students and they’re sitting next to each other. At the beginning, I would assume they knew each other, but now I know better. So I’ll say, oh, you guys, you know each other? And they’ll say, no. And that’s the end of the conversation. So I give them another little push, like, oh, well introduce yourselves. 

So there’s just this like delay in how to communicate with their peers. Ocourse we have students that are coming and looking for mental health counseling. What we’ve done here, and I think you, you mentioned it a bit, but what’s different about this model, which we piloted last year is that I’m more of a case management social worker, meaning like when I first got to Hunter, I met with all these different departments within Hunter, I met with the counseling, with accessibility, with the financial aid, all these different departments, so I would know who the players are within Hunter. So when I can, I can make that referral. 

And then we also pulled together affordable resources around the area. So that’s what we’ve been building on and working on here.

Yehuda: I guess the novice question here is why does Hillel have to create this type of service for students around these type of needs? Isn’t, and it’s gonna be a dumb question, isn’t that the responsibility of the university, Student Services, Student Affairs department? What’s going on for why a Hillel specifically needs to do it, even for Jewish students who ostensibly should be able to access those resources at the larger university?

Yael: Mm-hmm. I love that question because I feel so strongly that we should be in every Hillel. Right now in this format, we’re in five Hillels, but I know that Hillel International is seeing the importance and I’m very hopeful that we grow. But a very basic social work concept is meeting the client where they are.

So if students are coming into Hillel, let’s be there. Let’s be ready to support them in the place that they’re already comfortable coming. Same with a shul. People often go to their rabbis. People often come to their Hillel professionals. It goes beyond the scope of how they’re trained to support students.

Having this position in place also provides direct support for staff who are dealing with students who are dealing with all these issues. In that way, it’s like a double win. The Hillel staff is getting support and the Hillel students are getting direct support as well. 

Yehuda: I guess I’m, I’m gonna, but I’m gonna nudge on this a little bit more, but just to say, okay, so let’s say I buy the concept, which is, you know, in order to do effective social work, you have to be in the places where people show up. So in theory, the university’s model of support for students should be that the university should have a network of social workers who hang out at Hillel, or who hang out at the Black Students Association, or who hang out in dining halls.

But what’s gonna wind up happening is already happening is that Hillel as a system, and all of these individual Hillels, which are all self-governed, are gonna kind of be on the hook to raise the money, to have their own social workers, to serve their objectives. And there’s so many other objectives that have to happen there.

Do you have a sense of why, like what’s going on with universities about their sphere of responsibility about this work? And whether or not they’re stepping up in the right ways?

Yael: So certainly like here at Hunter, there’s a counseling department, they’ll meet with a student for 10 sessions for free. And then they will either, either the issue is resolved, which is never like a hundred percent, not happens. Um, and they help to make referrals to outside organizations. 

But the thing is that we’re offering different things. You can go to counseling here, but getting there is very hard. First of all, it’s, it’s Hunter and it’s a huge bureaucracy. So everything’s a little harder here. And I think the other piece is having somebody at the Hillel with a certain amount of like cultural competency. Knowing where our students are coming from. 

You know, our students, many of whom are either first-generation immigrants or their parents are. They’re going home every night to their families. As opposed to residential campuses where you go, you’re there, you’re having this like, incredible experience. You’re learning new things, you’re learning who you are, here at Hunter, you might come and have that experience during the day. You might be exploring yourself, you might be learning more about your sexuality. 

And then at the end of the day, you’re going home to your Orthodox family who’s not okay with it. So they’re really kind of treading these two places in their lives. And Hillel is really a place where they feel at home. We have so many students that this is where they’re comfortable. We also have two social work interns. One of them was working with a student who clearly needs some mental health support. She actually in the end, after he canceled some appointments, walked him to the counseling department.

It’s like we’re holding hands to help students get the supports we know they need. So yes, Hunter has the clinical support, but I don’t think that a university could provide this kind of specific, culturally competent support to every single club, and I believe that Hillel International is seeing its benefits and will make this the same as like raising funds to have the executive directors and the rabbis, and there’s a social worker.

Yehuda: Yeah. By the way, there’s a whole interesting subtext to this, which is that in a previous era of the Hillel system, like in the seventies and eighties, the dominant degree, I would say that was required to go into work into the Jewish community with a social work degree. So something shifted, and this is a little bit of like a rebound effect of what got dropped out of that system.

I actually saw one of the senior leaders of Hillel International last night. And when I mentioned that we were talking about this, he said, well, there’s mental health, there’s food insecurity, and there housing insecurity. And those are not obviously the same, but they are the web of issues. So maybe, I don’t know, give us a window into your day, because I assume you’re dealing with all three of these things.

What is a day in the life of a social worker at Hillel look like? What are the types of things that students come to you to see? And what are the things that you see? Because I assume that in a lot of these interactions, it’s, you see things that require intervention. Sometimes it’s as simple as, hey, you two students should talk to each other. But I suspect in most cases it’s far less simple.

Yael: Mm-hmm. I wanna, before I answer that, just jump back to like, when the idea for this position was created. It was 2019, right after HIGA, the Hill International General Assembly, where someone shared a statistic that 80% of our students were experiencing food insecurity or food scarcity. And it was after that, uh, conference that my executive director, Merav Fein Braun, realized like this was something she was on a mission to bring somebody in to help with this. 

We feel really strongly at Hillel that we need to feed our students, we need to make their bellies full so that they can then, you know, do everything else that they need to do. If you’re hungry, you can’t do anything. We actually started a lunch program this year that we call ein kemach, ein Torah, which is, food we bring in that you can either pay a certain fee or it’s a sliding scale, you know, up to not paying.

We just wanna make sure our students are getting healthy, nutritious food so that they can do all the things that they want and need to do. There’s a reason that our students come to Hunter College and not another college. They’re seeking access to excellent education. They have limited financial exposure. And they’re looking for the New York City experience. Uh, we wanna help them as much as we can.

A day in my life, so some of what I do is along with what all the other staff is doing. I’m in the lounge, I’m meeting students. This is important so that when and if there is a situation, they’re aware that there’s a social work team and they’ll feel comfortable coming to us.

We meet with students one-on-one, we’re talking with them, we’re learning about very challenging family dynamics, housing dynamics, students that are going between different family members, every week going between four different homes, trying to secure permanent housing, but struggling with it.

Um, this is not an average day, but something that did come up with a student having a dissociative episode. And so the other staff who was there called me in. It’s not my expertise either, but I have more understanding of how to support a student in that moment. Knowing, you know, the questions to ask to make sure he’s safe, similarly, again, like you mentioned at the beginning, suicidal ideation. It hasn’t come up too much here, but it did come up one time. And again, that’s why we want the staff and since then we’ve, I’ve worked to put together like a suicide ideation protocol document and make sure that the staff knows what needs to happen.

If I’m around, it’s directly to me and I will then get in touch with, actually, as you were saying before, with the counseling department. Because this is their specialty. So if I have a student on campus who is suicidal, I’m gonna walk them to the counseling department who is going to do the full assessment. Um, if it’s a little less, you know, it seems not like something where they need to be taken to the counseling department, we’re there and can ask again the right questions to understand the need. 

Yeah, so our regular day also, so we provide monthly grocery assistance. So we have students that are registering online. We do this in partnership with Met Council, which is under a larger umbrella of this CUNY Hillel hub program that’s funded by UJA and a number of other funders, for the social workers in the CUNY settings. But students go online once a month. They shop, it gets delivered to our lounge, and they come and pick it up.

We’re constantly trying to think about how we can support our students to make sure that they feel the love and support that you also mentioned before. So there’s programming, there’s things that are like easy low-hanging, like we can provide yoga, we don’t need specialists for that, but we at least can make sure that those things are being offered.

Yehuda: You know, one of the things that’s so striking to me, and I think will be striking to a lot of our listeners is that, you know, I think the construct of the American Jewish relationship to university is that university has been historically for Jews, a site of social and economic mobility, and the fact that Jewish community has, a very high percentage of kids go to college is largely connected to the fact that the Jewish community also has a sizable percentage of people who are in the upper middle class and above, and therefore, university is a site actually of tremendous privilege.

You’re describing a totally different picture, which is to say a student body, where it sounds like a lot of the kids are trying to achieve social and economic mobility from homes that don’t have that yet. I’m wondering if you have any insight from other campuses, as you look across the Hillel system, not just from Hunter of like, what this set of challenges looks like in other campuses that may look privileged and elite on the outside, but obviously have students on the inside who simply aren’t participating in kind of shaping that public image of what the experience is.

Yael: Mm-hmm. Well that’s exactly like the first thing I was gonna say is that there’s this perception that there’s no financial need among, you know, middle-class Jews or whatever. We’re just like everybody else. We have many people struggling. I can’t speak to like numbers or things at other campuses, but I know that it’s been a growing concern.

I know that Hillel International has trained hundreds of staff members in basic mental health support. So it’s while, yes, at Hunter, we’re certainly dealing with a different population and different needs and struggles. But I think it’s, it’s coming up everywhere. 

Yehuda: One of the things you said earlier was that Merav’s idea to do this originates pre-pandemic. And at the same time you talked about the kind of inflationary ways in which the pandemic has accelerated a lot of these issues. But it is striking that this conversation took place beforehand. And I wonder if you could share any obstacles that you’ve seen in the process of trying to persuade, the system, Hillel donors, other staff about like, why this has to be part of the work. 

I’m, it’s not surprising to me given the fact that if everybody in the system is experiencing some amount of pressure around this, that a lot of people are probably very grateful that you’ve shown up. But I’m curious where there have been some resistances or pushback against this type of work.

Yael: I’m not sure that I’m aware of resistance or pushback. Likely it existed. But I did wanna comment on what you were saying about Merav thinking about this pre-pandemic. There were so many studies pre-pandemic showing the effects of, like you mentioned before, technology and all these things. In preparation for today, I looked up some very basic statistics, but I found something that just blew my mind.

Our college students today, maybe you know this, spend on average eight to 10 hours a day on their cell phones. That doesn’t include their iPad, their computer, listening to podcasts, anything else. So we’ve seen, yes, over the last decade plus, that with the increase of technology, which is wonderful, we have all this information at our fingertips, depression is increasing and people’s sense of selves and their anxiety is all going up. 

So yes, this has been a need for a long time. I know that during the pandemic, a lot of things were coming up for the Hillel staff that were really beyond their scope. They were helping students who were, you know, having Shiva for family members, losing, so I think. I really don’t know where there might have been anybody saying, I don’t know, is this really necessary? I think it was just a matter of securing the funding and making it happen. 

Yehuda: Have you ever seen it go, go the other way? I mean, I know I’m addicted to my smartphone too, and I have now carpal tunnel in my thumb because of it. And it’s like driving me crazy and I watch myself, I’m like, great, I’m gonna not use it so much. And then I’m like, of course it doesn’t work. And I justify it by saying, well, I have to, it’s my job. I have to keep up on things. 

Um, have you ever seen it go in the other direction of like, helping students to wean themselves off of Instagram addiction or the particularly performative types of things that actually make people think that they’re, make themselves look good, but make themselves feel bad?

Have you ever seen it work? Right, where you can get somebody to like stop using their phone or stop using social media and suddenly their mood changes, their self-worth changes over a period of time?

Like, does it work?

Yael: Okay. I haven’t seen it directly, but there was just an article in the New York Times, “Luddite Teens Don’t Want Your Likes: When the only thing better than a flip phone is no phone at all.” This was a whole article about teenagers who are understanding what’s happening with technology.

I mean, we’re now expected to be available 24/7. How that impacts, like you can’t do anything. I was sitting next to somebody today working and every second the phone buzzed and you know, and looking, it’s impossible. But these teens have a club, they meet and they put away their phones and I think that they all expressed like their lives being better.

So I have not seen it up close and personal. I have the same problem. I think it’s kind of a funny situation where we all know it, we all see it. I mean, and it’s an addiction. It’s like, we don’t know how to stop it.

Yehuda: Hmm. Well also there is a difference if you grew up came of age, made a number of formative key life decisions, learned how to conduct a conversation, and then became addicted to your smartphone, then when those things interrupt your developmental abilities, I actually had, I heard this from a Hillel director, I wanna say 10 years ago, who said to me they know almost instantly, which of their kids are shomer Shabbat, like actually shomer Shabbat at home because they’re capable of conducting a 10-minute conversation with them face to face without checking their phones.

And that was like proof cause that kid probably sat at Shabbat meals. So there is a difference between, you know, whether you’re older and younger and have come of age with respect to this. I’m curious whether those Luddite teens, like what’s gonna be different in terms of their social lives on campus, you can’t actually function really as a college student, you don’t go to the registrar anymore and fill out forms every, your whole life is gonna be online. So what space are we making available for students to live nononline lives, whether it’s at Hillel or elsewhere? 

Yael: Mm-hm. I think in the article, students were mentioning that they lost friends over this. There were people that if they couldn’t text with them, they weren’t keeping up that friendship and they were okay with that cause this was important enough to them. 

I don’t think we’re creating any kind of space where somebody can function without their, in an easy way, sure, you can do everything over your computer, and there’s ways to do it, but I don’t think we’re helping anybody figure out how to do it.

Yehuda: Let’s talk as parents for a second. Both you and I are parents of young children. Our kids go to the same fantastic school. I got in trouble a few years ago cause I made a comment about camp on social media, not surprisingly. And what I said was, of course I look through the pictures that my camp, my kids’ camp sends literally every single day, at every moment, there’s somebody there taking pictures and a lot of Jewish summer camps now there are professional paid staff members who all they do is photograph things and send them home.

And I said, I think this is probably bad. First of all, our kids can’t be who they are in the world without somebody documenting and chronicling them at all times. And they also can’t make mistakes anymore cause they’re being documented and chronicled at all times. But it seems to be bad for us also. Like, what would it really take to say, for eight weeks, I don’t actually know what’s going on at camp and then my kid’s gonna tell me or not tell me what happens on the other end. And the answer obviously is the reason that camps do this is because it’s the expectation of parents. So what should actually change on the parent side? What should we be doing as parents to reduce our own dependency on a system that obviously isn’t serving our kids all that well? 

Yael: Mm-hmm. I am really proud to say that I am one of those parents, whether it’s because I’m a little negligent or for whatever reason, I can’t sit and look through 300 photos and look for my child and I, I also, I do value them being there and that I’ll hear what’s happened.

Not, this doesn’t only happen by the way, at sleepaway camp. This happens at day camp, where my kid is going in the morning, coming back at night, and still during the day there’s like hundreds of pictures to sift through. I won’t say like, I waste many hours on social media and on my phone, but for some reason, I’m completely with you, and that sometimes I would get frustrated when I would get pictures from teachers in school because I don’t want them taking pictures in the classroom. Like, because to me that means they’re on a phone and then if they’re on the phone, I don’t think it’s a camera anymore. I don’t think that exists.

So I would love for there to be a change. But again, like you said, there’s an expectation now from parents. And so much so that I think I’ve heard from people who work at camps that when their children are not in a picture or they don’t see them enough, they call and complain. So, we’ve got work to do. 

Yehuda: Yeah. This is so, the reason this feels tricky to me is because, there is some good spot between the, like when I talked before about how there’s over-diagnosing or over-reporting or overseeing right of these challenges, there is some place between the benign neglect that I feel I grew up with, right, 

Yael: Me too.

Yehuda: And, and being able to see and spot these things with our children that actually need intervention and I’m not suggesting that what’s happening now is an over-correction, but I’m concerned about it because the more we’re in people’s space and business, the more we are perpetuating a dynamic of, I don’t know, a kind of dependency, the challenges that I, I’m not gonna be able to wing it on my own.

Can you help me with this, and tell me where I’m putting it wrong. 

Yael: I mean, like you’re saying, how can we change this dynamic that we need so badly even though we know it’s not healthy?

Yehuda: Meaning, I wonder what would happen with teens and college students if they were left alone more, and at the same time leaving them alone more when they’re vulnerable is gonna be catastrophic. There’s some space in between there that I just feel that the dynamic feels off. 

Yael: I think I was just talking about this earlier today, in that, similarly, my perspective on parenting, which is like, if my kid is trying to do something and you know, just last night and he’s whining cause like he couldn’t figure it out and I kind of, I hear it, but I ignored it, and then 30 seconds later he’s figured it out. But I’m there and he knows I’m there. 

It’s similar with like our older children and our college students. Sometimes our initial response is like, again, to fix it, to run in and solve the problem and see what we can do. And sometimes, obviously this varies on what kind of thing we’re talking about, but sometimes it’s like giving a little bit and then stepping back.

And I think that there’s some commonalities there between like parenting and how we need to support our, our students and that like, right, we cannot leave them alone. Actually, just last week at the HIGA conference, we had a student from, I think it was Baruch who was there, and she spoke and she’s a commuter student, and she said, she talked about just how challenging it is to bwhere she is. Like I mentioned the struggle before, when her mom is texting her all the time, asking about her whereabouts and when she’s gonna be home. 

So to me that this is like a exact example of, if I could give that mom some tips, I would say like, you’re gonna see her when she gets home. Give her her space, let her adult a little. 

Yehuda: Mm-hmm. So one of the things you said earlier is that you think that this is gonna be widespread in the Hillel system, but you also said something else has to change in terms of the general Jewish communal landscape around, you know, so what would you wanna see happen?

You know, you could snap your fingers, um, let’s assume that like, wish number one is all mental health challenges would be solved. That’s, we’re not doing that. Or food insecurity. Or housing insecurity, we can’t do that, but what would you wanna see as kind of institutional change, uh, in the Jewish community around the kind of work that you’re doing? What would it look like in schools and JCCs and camps and Hillels, et cetera?

Yael: Mm-hmm. Um, what, I heard this the other day, and I loved it, somebody said, every major organization and institution has a legal counselor, but why don’t they all have in-house counseling?

So I think aside from obviously my snapping fingers and all the problems going away, I do just think that being embedded in these spaces, this is not a Jewish issue. I think in exactly the same way there should be social workers embedded in, in churches and in YMCAs and wherever else. We understand that this need is growing. Let’s lift the importance of having social workers there to help guide this challenging time. 

Yehuda: Second policy question, which is, you said that you don’t think that the stigma around mental health is going away in any sort of real way. I wanna raise up my friends, Carrie and Jamie Bernstein, who have been writing and speaking extensively about this, both of them work in the Jewish community and both have been trying to use those platforms to raise awareness around mental health as one of the things that’s oftentimes in people’s homes that they can’t talk about. So the, oh, I had to take my kid to the doctor, but actually, that’s not really what it is. It’s something far more consuming, than what might be something routine, but people don’t feel they could talk about it. 

What else would you wanna see practically that could help change that stigma? Because by definition, when something is stigmatized, it’s very difficult for people to kind of courageously put themselves out there and say something about it, cause it can have effects on how people see them, their careers in certain communities, their shidduch prospects. So what else, what would you wanna see happen to help reduce that stigma?

Yael: I, I think um, this feels like something that maybe isn’t even possible, but a lot of, for our students, the stigma that comes from their families, like you were mentioning, I had a student who I met with who wanted to get counseling, but their family didn’t want them to, like, they had always felt like they needed it for many years and going back into high school. And their family did not help them or want them to get the support. 

And it was only once they were at school that they, sought out a mental health professional to connect with. So I think families play a large role and I think just the more that we talk about it, I guess that’s just how everything is destigmatized like we, we make sure that it’s out in the open, that we share numbers on how many people are getting mental health support, that if we are comfortable saying it out loud that we’re modeling for students, actually even here at Hunter Hillel, when I started, I was really impressed because on the shared staff calendar, people wrote when they have therapy.

And me aside, and a couple other people aside, this is a very young staff. There’s Gen Zers. And so I think that we’re modeling right there that like, this is what we do. We need this. There’s gonna be no judgment if you take your hour, you know, once a week to get your therapy. So I think the more it’s just laid out in the open that hopefully we can reduce the stigma and make sure everybody’s getting the support that they need.

Yehuda: Let me ask you one last question. It’s kind of a weird one. So I read this article today that said the following quote: “the study of elderly New Yorkers recently published in the Journal of Religion and Health, finds that Jews had greater confidence in a therapist’s ability to help, they’re more tolerant of stigma and more open to sharing their feelings and concerns than either Black respondents or non-Jewish white respondents.”

So, part of the premise of our conversation today has been, it kind of doesn’t matter that it’s a Hillel. It’s just happens to be a place where Jewish students are, and therefore we’re gonna do this work. But I do wonder whether there are some something about Jewishness that is more sympathetic to therapy. There are Jewish roots in some psychotherapy. There are aspects of the Jewish condition that seem more open to probing maybe our identities and our feelings. 

I wonder if you see that. Certainly like you spent 10 years working with elderly Jewish adults in New York, like, what commonalities do you see? Cause it might actually be useful for us if we know something about Jewishness that could help us think more affirmatively about what this work is about for our community. 

Yael: Mm-hmm. I’m not sure about Jews being more open to the counseling or the sharing. I just don’t know about that. I do think that in my transition here to Hunter Hillel, I’ve thought about the commonalities between serving older adults and working with college students.

I appreciate that they’re both in this like, very special, important moment in their lives. One where they’re looking at the future and thinking about where and how, what they’re gonna do, who they’re gonna be, and the older adult that’s looking back on and like contemplating what they are proud of, maybe what they regret.

So that’s not what you were asking, but a commonality that I’ve enjoyed noticing over the last year plus. And again, I know we said it, but this issue is not a Jewish issue. It’s just that we as Jews are supporting people who are struggling. We’re doing it in a Jewish way, you know, so we have students that come to Hillel for the food, but maybe they stay for their relationships. Or they come for food and they stay for the support. 

So I’m glad to hear that article, you know that, I hope that that only grows and that more people in our broader community will feel like they can access that support. I will also just make a plug that at Hunter Hillel, in addition to the diversity among our Jewish students, we have neighbors and our fellows, we’re in the multi-faith hallway and we have friends coming from different clubs. Um, and that’s something very special too. It’s a place where really everybody feels comfortable. 

The one thing that I think is specific to the Jewish experience right now is the uptick in anti-Semitism. Which I think that one little, you know, this whole time I’m saying it’s not a Jewish issue. This is the one factor that I think plays a different role in the Jewish community. And here at Hunter, we’re in the CUNYs where there’s been a number of instances of antisemitic things that have come up.

Even a couple weeks ago we had a program, um, a “not Chanukkah-Chanukkah party.” And, um, we had a student that came into the space and started proselytizing and getting very loud and in people’s faces. And ultimately we had to call like campus security. And the students who were there were really shaken. They felt really nervous. They wanted to know where he was when they were leaving the building. So I think that that’s the one piece that’s a bit different for the Jewish students.

Yehuda: Yeah. And that probably needs more probing, I will tell you, like it’s a micro trend. But I’ve heard now of two families this year who are on the fence about sending their kids to Jewish schools versus non-Jewish schools, for whom anti-Semitism changed the trajectory of their decision. And they decided to put their kids into Jewish schools. That’s a micro trend. I suspect that we’re gonna see some longer ramifications of the ways that anti-Semitism is generating Jewish anxieties. 

But I will say, I’m very moved by what I hear you saying, which is, these challenges are not specific to Jews, but we as Jewish leaders and Jewish professionals have a unique responsibility to address it, especially as it relates to our people. And maybe even your work could be a model for the field beyond the Jewish community of here’s how we take care of the kids who are under our watch. And hopefully others can take responsibility as well. 

So, thank you very much, Yael Kornfeld, campus social worker at Hunter Hillel for being here today.

Yael: Thank you. 

Yehuda: And thanks to all of you for listening to our show. 

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. The show was produced with assistance from Maytal Friedman, Miri Miller, and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by so-called.

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