Mental health is an issue in post-October 7 world

Mental health is an issue in post-October 7 world

Foundation awards $1.7 million to 16 groups, with focus on Jewish teens

Teenagers work with adults in programs sponsored by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.
Teenagers work with adults in programs sponsored by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

The world is not particularly conducive toward mental health right now.

It’s not a great time to stay sane, balanced, and happy, no matter who you are or how you define those words, but there are specific issues that make it particularly hard for young people. Add in the stresses of being Jewish now, even in the United States, and you’ll find yourself looking at a potentially tough situation.

It is of course unrealistic to look at a general problem and then chirp about a local agency that’s able to help, but in fact help comes from being able to chip away at the edges, until the problem seems to become more manageable.

That’s what the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey is doing.

It has awarded $490,789 to five organizations in response to requests for proposals — RFPs — to provide mental health support for Jewish adolescents. It gave nine other awards as part of its regular grant-making, which means that a total of $1,719,969 was distributed during the first quarter grant cycle of 2024.

The agency, established in 1996 when Saint Barnabas bought the legendary Newark Beth Israel Hospital, defines its mission as serving the underserved in greater Newark and the Jewish community in greater MetroWest. It gives out and oversees grants, as its website,, says, to “elevate the quality of community healthcare, reduce disparities in access, and promote the infusion of compassion and humanism into our healthcare system.”

Last summer, the foundation sent out requests the RFPs, looking to address the problems Jewish adolescents face as they confronted a range of problems. Some are specific to the Jewish community — the rise in antisemitism, mainly on the right, that’s been evident since about 2016 — and some are more general and deeply threatening, including the still-new risks posed by social media — the tiny judge, jury, and executioner in everyone’s pocket — and the mental health issues created by the social isolation that grew out of the pandemic.

“And that was before October 7,” the foundation’s executive director and CEO, Michael Schmidt, said.

By chance, the RFP was launched, as had been planned, on Monday, October 9.

“From before covid, the status of youth mental health had been of concern, and it was exacerbated by the pandemic,” Mr. Schmidt said. “People were isolated and anxious. The surgeon general came out and said that we had a second pandemic.” That was in February 2022, when Surgeon General Vivek Murthy talked clearly about what mental health professionals had been seeing. Isolation had been necessary, but the toll it took on young people’s ability to connect, trust, and simply be themselves with other people was high, he said. “Mental health challenges were leading to devastating effects among young people,” Dr. Murthy told the New York Times in 2023.

Michael Schmidt

Jewish adolescents also had to deal with rising antisemitism, “and everything else that’s going on in the world, and that had been spilling over into local schools and school districts,” Mr. Schmidt said.

“We had realized that antisemitism was an issue, so we — the trustees and staff at the Healthcare Foundation — convened a group of representatives from the MetroWest Jewish community, and we listened to them.

“We heard from groups representing Jewish day schools, synagogues, JCCs, the Jewish Family Service, and other agencies and organizations that serve the Jewish community. They told us what we already knew, both instinctively and from data around the country — and we know certainly is true in our own community — and we knew that not all the mental health issues we were seeing were being addressed. There were no services for them.

“That became the foundation for the RFP that coincidentally went out on October 9.”

That was two days after Hamas slaughtered 1,200 people in Israel on October 7, and antisemitism went into overdrive, and the world changed. “Things have gotten much more challenging for young Jews,” Mr. Schmidt said.

The RFP “invited proposals stressing two points,” he continued. “One is collaborating across different groups, and one is best practices that people had seen from other communities, or innovative ideas that including collaboration.

“We got 11 applications from organizations that serve children and teens in the local Jewish community, and we currently are funding five of them, including some in areas that we had not been involved in before.”

Groups that have received funding as a result of the RFP include “the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, an ultra-Orthodox group that is establishing an office of emotional wellness,” Mr. Schmidt said. “It is for students, both men and women, girls and boys, for individual and group services. It’s for middle-school-age children, yeshivas, youth, college age students. We feel that this is a positive move in the community.

“There is stigma in the ultra-Orthodox community surrounding behavioral health issues, so the willingness to confront it head-on is unusual.”

As the result of another grant, “the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest is hiring a mental health professional to build out its program.” There’s a need for more staff, Mr. Schmidt said; “this will provide them with the opportunity to address distinct populations and create strong connections among institutions and give people easier access to care.”

The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey funds programs to help teenagers develop resilience.

As the result of a third grant, “Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills will provide youth mental health first aid.”

That’s training that enables teachers, school leaders, educators, and others who work with children and teenagers — non-clinicians — to recognize when young people are having problems — depression, anxiety, or other behavior health issues — to provide emotional support, and to have the knowledge and resources to be able to connect them with help.

“It’s a collaborative model called One Community, One Goal, and it works with people across different denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, who work in Hebrew schools, afterschool programs, youth groups, and similar programs.”

That program is at B’nai Jeshurun, but it’s open to all local synagogues, Mr. Schmidt said.

The Healthcare Foundation recently had a full-day mental health first-aid training; it invited its grantees, “and the feedback that we got was very positive,” Mr. Schmidt said. “People found that it was very helpful in helping them identify what they were seeing.”

The Great MetroWest Day School Initiative, which provides information, scholarships, and guidance to families considering and then using the area’s four day schools, “brings together all the day schools in the community, which is unusual,” Mr. Schmidt said. His foundation will fund “an intensive summer training for 25 teachers, working with the Stanley King Institute. The institute is a very well-respected educational center that works primarily with private schools, focusing on teachers’ listening. It’s similar to mental health first aid — it’s assuming that teachers are not clinicians but can learn to become more perceptive in identifying symptoms in students.”

The foundation also is working with Moving Traditions. “Since its founding in January 2005, Moving Traditions has championed impact-focused youth-serving programs at the intersection of gender, wellbeing, and Judaism,” its website,, says. One of the group’s founders, Sally Gottesman, grew up in MetroWest; she’s one of the daughters of Paula and Jerry Gottesman, who created the Day School Initiative. But this will be Moving Traditions’ first foray into New Jersey. “We’re working with them on a program to advance training for teachers in mental health and social-emotional development. And we’re going to fund a curriculum development program with them.”

These grants are for a year, with an option to renew for a second year, Mr. Schmidt said. “We typically look at grants every quarter, but this year we front-loaded in the first quarter.”

The amount of money the foundation has given in just that one quarter — $1.7 million — is substantial. “This is a lot of money, because we are very serious about what we are funding,” Mr. Schmidt said. “We recognize the importance of what we are doing” — providing support and training to help address the crisis of mental health among adolescents in general, and Jewish adolescents in particular. “We are putting our money behind our values and our mission.

“We are trying to meet the needs of our community by putting money in places where there is a lack of services, and by encouraging collaboration and integration across the boundaries that you typically see.”

As he thanked the foundation’s senior program officer, Marcie Felsenfeld, the chair of its board, Amy Schechner, and other leaders, both professional and lay, Mr. Schmidt talked about the ways in which they not only collaborate but model collaboration.

Because of that work, “We know that people can work together,” he said.

read more: