JFCS East Bay Launches a New Semester of Therapy Services at UC Berkeley for Jewish Students

August 09, 2022
By JFCS East Bay

JFCS East Bay begins its third year of student mental health services for Jewish students at UC Berkeley

Since 2020, the need for student mental health services has increased on campuses nationwide. Between the pandemic and cultural and political tensions, students are experiencing a wave of new stress. Now, with the onset of war in Ukraine and further geopolitical instability, tensions are running even higher on campus.

In response to the crisis, beginning in 2020, JFCS East Bay partnered with UC Berkeley Hillel and the Jewish Community Federation to provide free mental health services for students seeking assistance at the University of California, Berkeley. The sessions are free of charge and offered either virtually or in the convenient-to-campus Berkeley JFCS East Bay office.

JFCS East Bay hired Hagar Ben-Eliezer, who works as a Jewish Chaplain BCC and Wellness Therapist at Cal Berkeley Hillel. Hagar offers in-person and virtual therapy sessions for UC Berkeley students, and demand is increasing. The first year the program opened, 32 students were served. By the second year, the number was up to 48 students.

This year, Hagar is preparing for the return of students to campus for the fall semester and anticipating even greater demand.

“There’s an exciting buzz in the air. I’m already getting tons of emails from students saying, ‘I know I’m going to be stressed when the semester starts, so I’m booking right now.’” Hagar is encouraged by this societal shift; “Not only are we speaking more openly about our mental health, but young people are destigmatizing it by making part of their daily routine.”

The services offered are for all students, not just members of the Jewish community. However, because the program is advertised through Hillel, Hagar estimates that 90% of her clients have some tie to Judaism. Jewish students especially seek out Hagar for matters of spiritual distress because of her Jewish Chaplain certification.

“For a lot of our clients, it’s the first time they’ve had a chance to live away from home,” she explains. “They’re figuring out what that means. ‘Who am I now that I’m away from my family?’”

This is especially relevant to members of the Jewish community who are living for the first time outside their family bubble and experiencing anti-Semitism directly. In one instance, swastikas were drawn outside the front doors of the Hillel building. “Students talk about how they don’t always feel safe identifying as Jewish, and what that means,” Hagar explains. “They need to feel seen and to feel heard. We’re helping students feel stronger together.”

Students also face the universal storm of emotions when embarking on adult life: stress, anxiety, dating heartbreak, and depression. Some students are processing domestic violence situations, navigating gender nonconformity, or battling academically-related stress.

“This is meant to be short-term counseling of 10-12 sessions,” Hagar says. “But if a student is in deep distress and can’t find another therapist who can take them on a sliding scale, they’re going to stay with me until they’re in a better place. We won’t turn anyone away.”

Hagar offers a wide variety of sessions to meet students’ needs. “I try to stay in the know of what’s happening on campus, so if a student comes to me feeling lonely, I can say, ‘This club is looking for new members, here’s an opportunity, etc.’” She also offers wellness, meditation, and guided mindfulness sessions.

“I’m proud of working for an agency that values mental health,” Hagar says. “We are able to remind students that they are not alone. They have support. We can, as an organization, create this safe space to make it happen. We’re helping young people determine the type of adults they want to be.”