Hillels strengthen wellness programs to meet student needs amid coronavirus



October 6, 2020

Before the pandemic, Marlon Sherman regularly participated in weekly meditations along with his fellow Brown University-Rhode Island School of Design Hillel students.

“It’s like putting on the brakes for half an hour, and just sitting back,” said Sherman, president of the student executive board for Brown RISD Hillel.

The Jewishly-inspired meditation sessions, affectionately called “JIM” by Brown RISD Hillel students, provides a space to regularly practice mindfulness and reflection while exploring Jewish texts. 

Although the coronavirus has forced many college activities to come to a halt, Brown RISD Hillel transformed JIM into a popular, virtual opportunity for students to cultivate their mental wellbeing. 

“The really cool thing is, once we went virtual, it actually became easier than ever for this group to put themselves out there because all you need to do is click on a Zoom link,” Sherman said.

Being isolated because of the pandemic has challenged everyone, but the experience has been especially difficult for college students, 80% of whom say the coronavirus has negatively impacted their mental health, according to a nationwide survey conducted by Active Minds. In response, Hillels have increased programs on mental and physical wellbeing, while successfully transitioning to formats that ensure student safety.

These programs range from Zoom Pilates sessions at Northwestern University Hillel, to online poetry workshops at Metro Chicago Hillel, to socially-distanced outdoor yoga at the University of Florida Hillel.

“We’ve been hearing from so many that Hillel is one of the few places where students can gather in person and do it safely,” said Marya Slade, UF Hillel director of Jewish student life.

At UF Hillel, in-person programs are limited to 50 people and are always held outdoors. Slade said wellness doesn’t only mean physical activities like yoga. Rather, wellness is achieved by promoting community and connection, especially during a pandemic.

“All of our programs are focused on wellbeing, because they’re bringing students together during a time when that’s really not possible,” Slade said.

Jewish tradition emphasizes wellness and resiliency. The Jewish value of Shmirat Haguf, meaning “guarding the body,” encourages physical and mental wellbeing. Jewish tradition views the body as the house of the soul, and says a healthy mind and body ensure the soul has the proper home to flourish.

In accordance with the Jewish emphasis on mental and physical health, campus Hillels have long promoted student wellness. In 2018, Hillel International expanded this effort with the launch of HillelWell. Through a $1 million-gift, the initiative increased resources and professional training centered around mental health on campus. 

Along with developing student wellness programming, over 100 Hillel professionals from around the world have participated in mental health training to learn how to support students and identify symptom patterns for mental health conditions.

“We wanted to make sure everyone felt able and confident with a baseline set of skills in triaging students’ mental and emotional health,” said Rabbi Nicole Berne, assistant director of Metro Chicago Hillel.

Metro Chicago Hillel staff participated in mental health training in preparation for the start of the 2020 academic year.

“With COVID, there was an increased desire in both the young adult and the student communities for pastoral care and for those really personal check-ins,” Rabbi Berne said. “We really pivoted to providing that care.” 

At University of Michigan Hillel, the coronavirus hasn’t stopped efforts to facilitate community and promote wellness. The staff has organized socially-distanced nature walks and meditation offerings. They’ve also facilitated small Shabbatot, sometimes outdoors, to safely connect students to their Jewish community.

“Typically, a few hundred students would come to our events, but now we’re repeating a lot of events  to make sure that five or six students at a time are getting what they need,” said Sean Morgan, associate director at Michigan Hillel.

Morgan said that only a few weeks into the school year, Michigan Hillel has already given out over 1,000 Shabbat meals to students.

Though Shabbat meals look very different this year, Morgan said providing students with food and spaces to engage in Shabbat is paramount to student mental health.

“To give people food is the best thing that we can be doing,” Morgan said. “And people are really thankful for it.”

Jason Beeferman is part of the inaugural Hillel International Writers Program, a five-month opportunity for Jewish undergraduate students interested in journalism.