Excitement and anticipation -- to pray at the Western Wall for the first time, see their first camel, float in the Dead Sea, experience the night life in Tel Aviv. These are a few of the emotions college students feel when they land at Ben Gurion Airport on a Birthright Israel trip.
But what else do they bring with them?
College students don't leave behind their myriad other hopes, fears, anxieties and life experiences when traveling with their peers, on Birthright or any other trip, say experts from the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA). They bring any number of common issues for young people -- depression; anxiety; grief; eating disorders; prior trauma; dating abuse; relationship troubles and academic issues. At a special training for Hillel professionals, geared toward those who staff Birthright and alternative break trips, held this month at the D.C. offices of Hillel International, specialists from JCADA taught some 100 attendees that their role on any trip is not to provide medical care but to be an active and approachable listener and a connector to the right resources for students in need.
The webinar marked the beginning of a new partnership with JCADA and Hillel International to help "create healthy community" on trips abroad and back on campus.
If a student gets a phone call on the fifth day of a trip that his or her best friend from home has committed suicide, what would you do, asked the facilitators? Such crises do occur on immersive experience trips, said many of the attendees, and it can be especially difficult to feel supported far from home.
Communicate empathy, said the experts. Acknowledge that you understand that they've been experiencing something difficult. "Experiencing trauma can be isolating," stressed JCADA teen and young adult specialist Claire Bernstein. She co-led the training with colleague Leah Siskin Moz, JCADA's assistant director, and Sara Teichman, director of Birthright Israel: Hillel.
But "the power of validation is strong when someone hears tough news," Bernstein continued. "Reassure [the student] that it's OK to feel how they feel. Let them know it's OK to feel the feelings they are feeling." However, all three of the trainers cautioned the attendees not to insert themselves into the student's story. The natural inclination might be to say "I know how you feel," but such well-intended statements actually serve to minimize what a student is going through, they said.
The key, said the experts, is active listening. Create a quiet space to listen, give a student options and connect them to the right resources. "You can't immediately fix or solve [every student problem] on a trip, but you can listen, validate and recognize when students need to be connected to a professional," summed up Moz.
Attendees, who represented Hillels from all across North America, were thankful for this opportunity to learn and share best practices.
"When staffing immersive experiences, my number one priority is the safety and welfare of the participants. This webinar afforded me the opportunity to think critically about how I respond during times of crisis and what I can do as staff to promote and environment of emotional and physical safety. I certainly feel more comfortable and prepared to handle these issues, not only during immersive experiences, but also in my everyday interactions with students," said. Sharon Silverman, assistant director, Hillel at University of Vermont.
Added Heather Rubin, the Janet L. Swanson director of Jewish student life at the University of Pittsburgh, “As a licensed social worker, the JCADA session validated and reinforced what I have learned and practiced in crisis intervention and how to apply this to alternative break trips. For someone new to dealing with these situations, I feel the explanations and topics were helpful, relevant and focused.”