New Jewish project puts youth mental health crisis front and center



Amid what’s being described as a youth mental health crisis, the Jewish Federations of North America is spearheading a first-of-its kind, $2.75 million wellness initiative to provide tools, resources and training to support mental-health needs.(SDI Productions / Getty Images)


By Stewart Ain

As the pandemic dragged on, the parents of D., a 15-year-old boy whose name is being withheld to preserve his privacy, grew increasingly concerned about their son’s wellbeing.

Over the course of several months, he became increasingly moody, angry and isolated. When he stopped getting together with his peers, D.’s parents reached out to a psychologist.

“They were concerned, and when that happens we respond differently because they have a sense of what is historically normal,” said Betsy Stone, a retired psychologist who is a clinical expert in adolescence, describing D.’s case, with which she is familiar. “Because the pandemic resulted in a decrease in the kids’ social skills, we did remedial work — literally teaching him how to talk with other people and what kind of responses his words will generate.”

Even before the pandemic, as many as 20% of American children between the ages of 3 and 17 were experiencing mental, emotional, developmental and behavioral disorders, and some 17% of high schoolers reported having seriously considered suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Then COVID-19 arrived, exacerbating the problem with lockdowns, school shutdowns, peer isolation and, for some, the loss of a loved one, precipitating what U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy described as a “youth mental health crisis.”

To address this crisis, the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents 146 independent Jewish federations and 300 smaller communities, have spearheaded a first-of-its-kind wellness initiative to equip the Jewish community with tools, resources and training to support the mental health and overall wellbeing of teens and young adults. The $2.75 million program, called BeWell, is being undertaken in partnership with the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies — the international umbrella organization of 158 agencies in North America and Israel for family and vocational services, elder care, addiction and other Jewish service agencies.

Funding for the program also comes from the Crown Family Philanthropies, Jim JosephFoundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. (Stone, the psychologist, is a consultant for the program.)

“The mental health crisis affecting our communities is something we must confront head on,” said Eric Fingerhut, CEO of Jewish Federations of North America. “This is a major investment in our teens and young adults, and not just the future of the Jewish community, but its ability to flourish in the present as well.”

BeWell focuses on supporting young people ages 12 to 26, their parents and mental health professionals that work with them. The new program has three main areas of activity: providing education and training in mental health support, including for parents and caregivers; bolstering the capacity of myriad Jewish institutions to support youth mental health; and helping clinicians and clinicians-in-training deal with this issue, including funding for training and coordinating ways to deal with youth mental health and promote wellbeing through a Jewish lens.

Teen Mental Health First Aid, a six-hour training program meant to help teens identify and help teen peers in distress, was among the programs rolled out this summer under BeWell. It’s modeled on a similar program focused on adults who work with young people.

“We know teens go to each other before they go to adults when they’re concerned about themselves or their friends,” said Beth Lipschutz, the social worker who facilitated the program at five Jewish camps this summer, in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Association of Independent Jewish Camps. “We wanted to provide them with resources so they could be supportive friends and know how to connect someone with an adult if they see major changes.”

Nevo Naftalin-Kelman, 14, from Berkeley, California, who took the course at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, said he found it helpful.

“We learned to see the warning signs in people and how to react in a mental health crisis — if someone’s life is in danger because they are going to harm themselves or others,” Nevo said. “We also learned about taking care of yourself — noticing if there are big changes in yourself and who to go to for appropriate help.”

BeWell was informed by years of wellbeing efforts led by the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, a network of 10 Jewish communities working on reimagining meaningful Jewish connections, engagement and education for youth ages 12 to 19. In 2019, the Funder Collaborative trained people from each of the 10 cities to be youth mental health first aid facilitators. Since then it has expanded, training more than 4,000 adults.

As part of its mission of serving as the central support structure of the American Jewish community, Jewish Federations saw the promise of the Funder Collaborative’s efforts and its ambition to grow nationally. Eventually, the Jewish Federations acquired the Funder Collaborative, and BeWell is now being scaled up on a national level.

The strategy of Jewish Federations identifying and acquiring successful Jewish programs is not unlike Google’s acquisition of Waze, the Israeli map navigation company whose software is now integrated into Google Maps. It’s a way of identifying innovation and supercharging it with the vast expertise, grassroots communal reach, networking power and financial resources of the Jewish Federations, which collectively raise and distribute over $2 billion every year to support a vast array of Jewish needs.

Sara Allen, who as executive director of the Funder Collaborative and associate vice president of community and Jewish life at the Jewish Federations directs BeWell, said her organization realized several years ago that teen mental health was reaching crisis levels and the Jewish agencies were not equipped to keep up with the needs.

“We saw the challenge in Jewish education and engagement organizations — such as Jewish community centers, camps, synagogues and schools,” Allen said. “Teens were often struggling with anxiety, stress and depression and needed extra support, but the caring professionals who worked with them felt out of their depth.”

BeWell is now providing those professionals with training, resources, best practices and a supportive network so they can address those problems collaboratively.

“Ultimately, we are helping to create a connected community of care that draws on the strengths of the Jewish community to support young people,” Allen said. It’s important for Jewish professionals working with teens and young people to recognize concerning signs, she added.

Signs might include participants repeatedly showing up late, failing to participate verbally, failing to make eye contact with others in a group or a marked decline in someone’s level of enthusiasm. As professionals such as teachers gain more skills in identifying and addressing mental-health challenges among young people, they are better able to build a culture of everyday wellbeing and promote open conversations that destigmatize talking about mental health in Jewish settings.

While there are ample national statistics on teen mental health, little is known about how the mental health of Jewish teens compares to the U.S. average. BeWell is planning a research project for later this year to see how teen mental health issues manifest themselves in the Jewish community.

Elana Naftalin-Kelman said her son Nevo’s participation in the BeWell training workshop at camp this summer was invaluable.

“He is more well versed in how to support himself and his friends,” she said. “It’s important to know how to support friends who are struggling in all sorts of ways.”

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