Kids weather a pandemic … and then a war

Kids weather a pandemic … and then a war

Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey mobilizes to help children, teens, young adults, and their parents

Michael Schmidt
Michael Schmidt

The kids are not particularly all right.

They haven’t been since before the pandemic, when statistics showed that teens were facing problems with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues; it seems that the increasing reach of social media were affecting kids in as-yet-understudied ways.

Then there was the pandemic, with children and teenagers, like everyone else, locked away in their houses, in their rooms, staring at their screens. The descent into covid life was hard and fast, and the ascent from it was unguided.

And now Jewish kids have to face another problem — the sudden, unanticipated resurgence of antisemitism as a result of the horrors of Hamas’s October 7 butchery and the war in Gaza that followed.

It is clear that at least some kids and some of their parents need help in dealing with these realities.

The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey solicited RFPs — that’s Requests For Proposals in bureaucratese — for grants of up to $150,000 a year for three years to create programs to help kids and their parents.

The process started about a year ago, Michael Schmidt, the foundation’s CEO, said. “We held three convening sessions — one for the Jewish community, one for the suburban community, and one for the community in Newark and its environs.” The community here are the towns in the catchment area of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest; a convening session, Mr. Schmidt explained, is “when we reach out to community partners and leaders — in this case synagogues, Jewish Family Service agencies, JCCs, the people who are in the front lines and see and engage with the youth.

“After hearing from all those different constituents, a pattern began to emerge. There was a lack of services, and a lack of access to services when there were any, a lack of coordination between providers so that people don’t know where to go to get the services they need,” he continued.

Michael Schmidt, CEO of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, and the foundation’s board meet to discuss the grant proposals they’ve received. Board members include, from left, Candy Blau, Carol Marcus, and Rabbi Ari Isenberg.

“We saw that particularly in this stage of emerging from the depths of the pandemic, as the surgeon general said, there is a secondary epidemic of loneliness that everyone is feeling, but that is particularly acute among youth — from preteens to young adults — where social media has taken on such an increased presence in their lives.”

(The surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has taken on the fight against that epidemic of loneliness, which he sees as a great modern scourge, an abstraction that leads to many very concrete bad outcomes.)

Although all three groups face these pressures, the extra pressure on the Jewish groups led the HFNJ to focus on that segment first. “We are planning to issue at least one RFP to address the Newark and environs community, but we started with the Jewish community because the trustees — themselves parents and grandparents in the community — identified this increased need about Jewish youth and wanted to respond to it,” Mr. Schmidt said.

“The Jewish community not only faces the isolation and the social media and bullying and the traditional mental health challenges, but they’ve been exacerbated by the events in the Middle East and the growing antisemitic behaviors that we’ve experienced locally. So acknowledging this situation, and the tremendous pressures that it puts on their parents, caregivers, teachers, and families, we issued this RFP to address the needs of the community.”

One of the issues is that “we have heard that Jewish kids, whether they’re in Jewish day schools or in public schools, don’t always have the language, the aptitude, or the confidence to speak about their Judaism in a way that is appropriate for 2023,” Mr. Schmidt said. “They don’t know how to respond to antisemitism that they never have experienced before. And to complicate the issue, these kids have grown up knowing about the state of Israel. They never had to experience it as under an existential threat, as it is living through now. Neither have their parents. So they often don’t know how to handle it.

“In many cases, friendships that have developed across different faiths and communities have turned out disappointingly because of the way people feel that their allies and friends have responded to the events of October 7.

“Anecdotally, we have heard from the schools about concerns about possible self-harm, intense isolation, depression, and anxiety, which all have been exacerbated by October 7.

The RFPs were due by the end of November, and Mr. Schmidt hopes to be able to release a list of the proposals his group can fund in the spring.

The HFNJ is focusing particularly on collaborations between organizations that otherwise would not think of working together. “It might be different synagogues — maybe across denominations or town lines — submitting proposals to work together. We will give priority to groups that work together.

“In addition to collaboration, we strongly encouraged groups that were considering apply to think about best practices that have worked in other communities and could be replicated here. We heard from two or three national groups that might be coming into New Jersey for the first time. This might serve as an impetus for them to develop ties in the community.”

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