From Our CEO
Getting Help, Giving Help
March 15th, 2024

Exactly four years ago, March 15, 2020, then-Mayor de Blasio announced the closure of New York City public schools because of Covid. It’s an anniversary that has slipped by mostly unnoticed, overshadowed by recent events.

While we’re enormously thankful that the medical crisis is largely behind us, the pandemic’s mental health toll lingers still. None of us were spared the weight of lockdown, fear of getting sick, or missed milestones — it was a time of collective trauma. But for some people, the trauma ran much deeper: Many lost loved ones to the virus or were themselves severely sick. Young people’s childhood or adolescence was dramatically disrupted, compounding growing trends in youth mental health issues. Older adults struggled with intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. Holocaust survivors were traumatized.

Vaccines may have reopened the world, but grief and anxiety and loneliness don’t disappear so fast. Sometimes, they don’t disappear at all. Little wonder that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has labeled youth mental health as “the public health crisis of our time.” And now, there’s October 7 and the sharp rise in antisemitism that’s followed, adding yet another layer of heartache.

Responding to what we’ve seen in our community, UJA has significantly enhanced funding in this space. We’re now investing more than $18 million annually to support an array of nonprofits and mental health programs for people of all ages and backgrounds.

We make sure that help is available in the places where we naturally gather — including JCCs, camps, and day schools — through a Jewish lens, knowing that our tradition and community can offer strength and hope. And we reach out purposefully to older adults to ensure that they are regularly present in our local JCCs for programming, support, and companionship.  

This week, leaders of three of the many nonprofit partners in the mental health arena shared their work at a meeting of our Board of Directors: Moving Traditions facilitates peer support groups for young people in Jewish spaces, and extends help to parents, too. The Safe Foundation offers outpatient treatment for substance abuse, eating disorders, and compulsive gambling. And the Shalom Task Force helps survivors of domestic violence.

We asked them how October 7 and its reverberations here in New York have affected their work. From Shalom Task Force, we heard a heartbreaking case in point: A woman had called their hotline, saying her husband had tried to strangle her, but she had been embarrassed to seek help, believing what she experienced was “nothing compared to what happened in Israel.” They assured her that she was very much deserving of help.

From the Safe Foundation, we learned that people are self-medicating more to cope with their grief related to the war. And from Moving Traditions, we heard how young people are grappling with antisemitism, the vilification of Israel on social media, and trying to fully understand the nuance and complexity of the issues. These teens are seeking a safe place to talk about the challenges of the day and what it means to be “othered.”

Our mental health partners — from the Jewish Board, the largest human service agency in our network, to the smallest one, that might be serving only a very niche community — are quite literally saving lives.

With our support, they are telling people every day that they matter. That no problem needs to be overcome alone. And perhaps the most important message: There is no shame, no shame, in needing help, or asking for it.

Giving help when you can. Getting help when you need it. It’s all just another way of saying community.

Shabbat shalom