Counseling at Hillel Supports Gen Z’s Focus on Mental Health and Resilience



April 22, 2021

Living with new roommates, stressing over finals and deadlines, and feeling homesick have always been sources of stress for college students adjusting to life away from home. Even before the pandemic, Hillel professionals had reported seeing stress increase across the board, as students grappled with fears, loneliness, tech burnout, and more. More and more Hillels across the United States are adding social workers or licensed therapists to their teams to help their students cope with stressors.

The University of Washington Hillel was the first Hillel in the country to have a counseling program for its students. UW Hillel Executive Director Amee Sherer says the program has been around for over 20 years, and that the UW Hillel building has both a private office for the counselor and a discrete entrance for students seeking counseling.

“Most universities don’t have [open-ended] therapy–they’re looking for a diagnosis, generally speaking…you might get six sessions with a therapist on campus and then come away with a diagnosis or medication,” Sherer said. UW Hillel offers continuing counseling and therapy with the end-goal of general wellbeing rather than a diagnosis.

After a brief period without a counselor, Sherer says UW Hillel found their “unicorn” – a well-trained Jewish counselor with experience serving college-aged students. Sheri Davis serves as the UW Hillel counselor for students, offering one-on-one counseling in a partnership with Jewish Family Service (JFS). The appointments are currently remote because of the pandemic. Grants help keep costs low to ensure the sessions are accessible to the students who need them.

“It’s nice [for students] to have the space that you can say anything you want and be validated and heard – to externalize the worries and thoughts and feelings, to be able to shift and make changes to reach some goals,” Davis said.

The University of Southern California Hillel has had a wellness initiative since 2015. USC Hillel Executive Director Dave Cohn said that the programming started in an “organic and grassroots way” propelled by student leaders. The initiative was expanded into the Bradley Sonnenberg Wellness Initiative in honor of the late Bradley Sonnenberg, and is funded by his parents, Glenn and Andrea Sonnenberg, and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles Cutting Edge Grant.

“We expanded the wellness initiative after seeing so many cases of students operating under stress, dealing with anxiety, needing places to turn for help, and not knowing where to go,” Cohn said.

Rebecca Ruben is the counselor at USC Hillel and usually sees 10-15 students per week. She said that political upheaval and the pandemic have caused increased stress among students, but that students have still shown resilience and “a real awareness of shortcomings and challenges. Wanting to resolve them is incredibly admirable and hard to do when you’re doing school.”

USC Hillel as a community also plays a large role in students’ mental health. A tight-knit, compassionate group of staff and students create an environment that both Cohn and Ruben say is conducive to further improving student wellness.

“A huge part of [the wellness initiative] is identifying and amplifying the inherent wellness value of Hillel…Things like feeling a sense of belonging, having meaningful community, and connecting to the idea of spirituality,” Cohn said.

“There’s individual wellness,” Ruben said, “but to have a place for community wellness [at USC Hillel] cannot be more valuable, especially in today’s world.”

The University of Kansas Hillel has offered free therapy for almost three years. Sessions are paid for by a combination of grants and donations.

“I’ve worked with millennials and Generation Z for 20 years,” said KU Hillel Executive Director Suzy Sostrin. “In Generation Z, we found that they were coming to college and just having so much more stress and anxiety…to be able to have a licensed therapist has really made a huge difference.”

Sostrin said that KU Hillel’s counseling program was inspired by those of UW Hillel and USC Hillel. KU Hillel hired a social worker from JFS, Wendy Anderson, who offers weekly sessions for students. Anderson says that students are generally struggling but are taking it upon themselves to seek help.

“I think students are at an age where they really take advantage of the opportunity to do counseling,” Anderson said. “They’re really dedicated to wanting to be healthy in an emotional sense.”

UW Hillel, USC Hillel, and KU Hillel are only three out of many that offer extensive mental health programming and/or counseling. These types of clinical offerings are part of a holistic approach to wellness that has taken root across the Hillel movement, complemented by virtual and in-person programmatic offerings like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and more.  As the pandemic continues, these programs are more relevant and necessary than ever before.