HillelWell microgrants help Hillels adapt and expand wellness offerings



April 28, 2021

In the year since Covid-19 entered our lives and altered what ‘normal’ student life looks like, Hillels across the country and around the world have been implementing new wellness programming to meet students, and their newfound wellness needs, where they’re at, with support from Hillel International’s HillelWell microgrants.

At Santa Cruz Hillel, this new programming has taken the form of a weekly Zoom class called Cook for the Body & Soul, which gives students the opportunity to be in virtual community as they learn and cook new recipes every week.

“We thought this was a good combination of the necessity of having to be physically separated, but also not just sitting and staring at your computer. You’re online with everybody else so you have this community on your screen but then you also have your cutting board in your hand in front of you,” says Daylen Degelsmith, Santa Cruz Hillel Director of Student Life. This semester’s recipes include Shakshuka, Israeli chocolate balls, Tabouleh, Borekas, Matzah Ball soup, and Matzah Brei. The recipes are dorm-friendly too, utilizing just a microwave and a refrigerator so students living on-campus can also participate. Santa Cruz Hillel is providing most of the ingredients to students: Local students pick up the food from the Hillel’s food pantry and students who aren’t local are sent grocery gift cards.

Meanwhile at GW Hillel, students’ desire to talk about wellness sparked Tiferet, an eight-week online cohort with weekly meetings discussing eight facets of wellness. This semester, GW Hillel’s Springboard Social Justice Fellow Marleee Goodman’s ‘brainchild’ has expanded to three cohorts: Tiferet: A Wholistic Wellness Cohort, a continuation of the original; Tiferet: Detoxifying Masculinity in Wellness (an all-male cohort experience); and the From Inauguration to Liberation Yoga Cohort.

The all-male cohort encompasses the core eight facets of wellness, but also discusses “the layers of societal expectations around gender that make men less likely or less comfortable seeking or being provided wellness resources.” The idea came from a student in the original cohort who now co-facilitates the all-male cohort. The yoga cohort, in tandem with Yoga Otzma, a Jewish yoga organization, focuses on the relationship between Judaism and the practice of yoga. This cohort has been fully student-run. Each week consists of a presentation of the theme, a reflection, an activity, and a larger discussion.

In the future, Goodman hopes to continue these cohorts, eventually offering in-person versions and ingraining open conversations about student wellbeing and mental health into Hillel as a Jewish space. “I want it to be something that we can all really internalize and use to empower ourselves,” Goodman says. “The cohort model… has helped to build trust and vulnerability, people really bring a lot to the table in that instance and they also are able to create a built-in wellness support system.”

Hillel Milwaukee has taken to the outdoors to provide their students with a break from Zoom fatigue. “Nature Walk for the Soul” and “Gardening for the Soul” came from a recognition that students are ‘zoomed out’—their wellbeing and mental health seriously impacted by the amount of virtual classes and programs they are attending. For the nature walk, Hillel Milwaukee is partnering with a local nonprofit organization, the Urban Ecology Center, whose mission is to connect people to nature and each other. The program will offer a guided nature walk to students, a goodie bag of ways to be more eco-friendly, snacks and a discussion on how Judaism connects us to nature, allowing them to be together and be active in nature.

Gardening for the Soul gives students the opportunity to set up a vegetable and herb garden at Hillel Milwaukee, including planting seeds, tending to the garden, and, come fall, harvesting the crops. This initiative is designed to “get people outside, doing something offscreen and good for the earth,” says Anna Goldstein, the Director of Jewish Student Life at Hillel Milwaukee. It’s also a buttress against food insecurity on campus: “The garden will be free for people, they can get whatever they need to supplement their food source. I want it to be really casual and lowkey for students to come by.” 

Hillel of New York University has replaced the NYU Bronfman Center for Jewish Life’s annual Shabbat for 2000 event with “Rest for 2000.” This community-wide, week-long event will revolve around “wellness and rest and different interpretations of Shabbat.” The activities will consist of Challah baking, a yoga workshop, journaling, exercises and prompts, painting-by-number, and will culminate in Shabbat and Havdalah. In a year without spring break, this initiative serves as an outlet to rejuvenate before finals.

NYU Hillel’s Jewish Leadership Specialist Beckie Hamroff says, “I think we’re used to talking about student wellness in the abstract, like ‘We’re here for you, let’s get a coffee, let us know if you need support.’ But there’s something in the middle that was missing that we’re trying to get at now. You just need community and a space to step back… that is still social and fun and low-barrier, you want that community feeling of being on this wellness journey together.”