Five Ways Hillel Mental Health Professionals Improve Jewish Life on Campus



January 24, 2023

Yael Kornfeld, Hunter Hillel Social Worker, recently sat down with Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute North America, on the Hartman Institute’s podcast, Identity/Crisis, to discuss her work. Here are five ways that her work and the work of social workers across the Hillel movement are improving the lives of Jewish students on campus.

While the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for mental health support on campus, it did not create that need.

Yael shared that Merav Fine-Braun, Executive Director at Hunter Hillel, identified the need for mental health care at Hillel in 2019 when she learned that 80% of Hunter College’s students experience food insecurity. From the beginning, building out a role for a social worker on Hunter Hillel’s staff was about addressing basic needs for every Hillel student, from mental health to housing. 

Students on different campuses have unique needs.

Hunter’s student population has a diverse range of students from different socioeconomic, geographic, and religious backgrounds. Having a mental health professional who is an expert in a specific student population and who is familiar with the culture and needs of the students is critical. “Many of our students are either first-generation immigrants, or their parents are… It’s so important to have someone at Hillel with the cultural competency to understand where our students are coming from,” Yael reflected. 

Mental health professionals embedded in Hillels have a particular effectiveness in reaching students who need care.

As Yael said, “A very basic tenet of social work 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 to.” 

Hillel mental health professionals work in concert with university counseling centers to make sure students are receiving comprehensive services.

One of the biggest questions about having mental health professionals work full time at Hillel is where their work intersects with university counseling services. Yael emphasized that Hillel mental health professionals and university counseling services work in collaboration with each other and often fill different mental health needs for students.

Mental health and wellness are crucial to student success.

Hillels have always been dedicated to supporting and enriching Jewish students’ lives. Through Yael’s work and the work of other mental health professionals at Hillels across the world, Hillels are meeting students’ emotional and mental needs in addition to their communal and spiritual needs. 

Yael and the other mental health professionals working in Hillels all over the country have shown the need for Hillels to provide mental health support on top of the diverse array of programming and guidance that they already offer. Thank you to the Shalom Hartman Institute North America for continuing this important conversation.