Mindfulness Over Matter



February 20, 2019

Noah Etessami needed a nap. It was too early to head home for the day, though, so he called an audible. He went to the University of Southern California Hillel’s wellness lounge, hopped in the bed and closed his eyes. 

He slept soundly. So soundly that he didn’t hear the Hillel staffer call out to any stragglers and lock the doors. It was nearly pitch black out by the time Etessami woke up. Realizing no one was around, he made for the exit, setting off the motion sensor burglar alarm on his way out. 

“I woke up and didn’t know what time it was,” Etessami said, with a chuckle. 

Mental health is a hot-button issue on college campuses across the nation, with anxiety and depression ranking among the leading issues hindering college students. Hillel aims to be on the frontlines of preventative care, providing students with ample wellness resources. The goal is to put students on the right path before they get too low. 

To that end, USC Hillel represents a model to follow. The building’s wellness lounge, unveiled January 2017, provides a respite for students looking to decompress. It has yoga mats and free weights, a piano and guitar. There’s a strict no-homework policy. The bed is open to whomever — so long as they can beat Etessami to it. 

“I think it’s really fantastic that Hillel puts an emphasis on mental health, which is very often overlooked,” said Etessami, class of ’19, who has also taken yoga and meditation classes at USC Hillel. 

Students needing to decompress from a difficult day can even take comfort with director Bailey London’s dog, Gretel. London said it’s common for students to come to USC Hillel, tears in their eyes from a difficult exam, and ask to cuddle with Gretel. 

Other schools’ Hillels are also making an effort to address mental health. Arizona State University Hillel recently hired a wellness intern. Alex Malve, class of ’21, started her new role in July and has been quick to organize events centered around helping her peers improve their quality of life. 

Malve started dabbling with meditation in high school, but made the practice part of her regular routine soon after she got to college. 

“I became so focused on my time and my lack of time,” she said. “I realized I wasn’t enjoying the moment. I started reading books and I attended a mindfulness workshop through ASU, and that was an amazing way for me to expand on my practice.” 

She plans to put together similar events at ASU Hillel, an effort that started during Sukkot, with an introductory yoga class under the sukkah. Later on, she aims to help her peers learn more about the scientific component of meditation, touching on the biological benefits and how it can increase the amount of gray matter in the brain. 

“I’ve noticed something that most college students have in common is the achiever mentality. We just need to achieve and achieve and achieve,” Malve said. “If we don’t slow down to live for right now, we’re constantly thinking of the future.” 

A common qualm among college students seeking mental health help is the lack of resources available on campus. At some universities, it can take weeks to see a therapist. That’s part of the reason why Hillel at the University of Washington, Seattle, has its own counselor, Stefanie Robbins. 

Danielle Hamer, class of ’19, said Robbins’ presence is especially important given Seattle’s rainy climate. A lot of the Hillel students are from California, she said, and the difference in weather can put a damper on students’ moods. Enter Robbins. 

“I have gone through things in college and the fact that that’s there in Hillel is huge,” Hamer said. “The idea of someone who can get to know you and who understands the Jewish community and understands you more than someone in the counseling center would, that’s great.” 

Maddie Feldman, Cornell University class of ’19, has always had a feel for other people’s emotions. In preschool, she would alert her teacher to classmates who seemed sad. When her teacher would respond, noting that the kids in question weren’t crying, Feldman stood strong, insisting that something was up. 

It’s that type of mindset that led her to get involved in the mental health community at Cornell. She was instrumental in bringing the Reflect organization to Cornell, which has hosted dinners for students to speak openly about anything they’d like, including stress, body image and relationships. 

Feldman has helped to implement similar events at Cornell Hillel. After tensions flared on campus early in the 2017-2018 school year, Cornell Hillel ordered 20 kosher pizzas and invited concerned students to chat over lunch.  

“Students wanted to find other like-minded people — people who were worried,” Feldman said. “You want to know when there is a scary thing that just happened on campus that there are other people, and they’re here for you.”