On the line

A new anonymous phone service provides psychological help for one-year program students.

nightlife 88 224 (photo credit: JJ Levine)
nightlife 88 224
(photo credit: JJ Levine)
When Rabbi Aaron Tirschwell spent a week vacationing at the Dead Sea last Pessah, the stories he heard from yeshiva and seminary students boggled his mind. "The problems were far more serious than I had imagined," says Tirschwell, who is the founder and director of Eye Squad. Launched in February, Eye Squad is an anonymous 24-hour hot line (*9111, 866-550-4EYE in North America) geared to students in one-year Israel programs. It is manned by a team of young advisers, who have undergone in-house training but are not professional therapists. Callers can choose to speak to male or female counselors. According to Tirschwell, roughly 7,000 post-high school students come to Israel from North America each year, and another 500 students come from other English-speaking countries. The students are enrolled in a wide variety of programs, ranging from work/volunteer programs to Torah study programs While most of the students end up enjoying a year of growth in their chosen paths, many find themselves coping with issues outside the purview of their educational institution, according to Dr. Daniel Jacobson, a clinical psychologist who works with yeshiva students, among others. "The problems range from low-level interpersonal issues, the stress of living in dorms, anxiety about separation from their families, all the way to serious psychiatric problems and issues of substance abuse and addictions," says Jacobson. Although some students continue prior psychological treatment in Israel, others come, or are sent by parents, hoping their year here will be a panacea for a variety of personal and social problems. It is for some, says Jacobson, but not for others. While a year of study can mean exposure to a variety of positive factors, such as the individual attention paid to students by the staff at some schools, or a refreshing independence from parental influence, it also brings with it stresses that are unique to their particular situation in Israel. "Most [of the students] have lived at home for their entire lives, most have never dormed, many have never even been to a foreign country. This is the first time in their lives that they are living with no family oversight," says Tirschwell. "Just because they've crossed the 'magic border' of high school doesn't mean that they're ready." As the director of Yeshiva University's Israel program, which is connected with 44 Israel programs, Mark Lehrman is in a unique position to describe the sort of problems these young adults encounter. "Many of the problems that come up are issues that the kids have brought with them from home," he says. There are issues that arise that are to be expected in any population of that age group, says Lehrman, such as panic attacks and eating disorders. But such "ordinary" psychological problems can often become entangled with the religious and personal introspection that are a hallmark of the yeshiva environment. For many it's a successful journey of self-discovery; for others it is a combustible mixture of social pressure and identity crisis. And while both young men and women are susceptible to the pressures of a post-high school identity crisis, female seminary students have an added pressure that the men don't have: to prepare for the world of dating and marriage, which Orthodox women (especially in more religious communities) are expected to enter shortly after their year in Israel. On the other hand, young men in yeshiva programs are often encouraged to curtail their relationships with the opposite sex, which can be a difficult transition for those who grew up with a number of female friends. And while some limit their relationships with the opposite sex, still others find the confluence of newfound independence and adolescent hormones too great a temptation to resist. "Male-female relationships are a major and not-so-discussed issue," says Jacobson. "There's no question that some of the same stuff happens here as happens between young men and women on any college campus." That some young men and women are making choices that may violate school guidelines and Halacha, means that they will often be unwilling to talk to rabbis and staff about their issues. Tirschwell says that is one of the reasons he felt there was a need for the Eye Squad hotline, a neutral and anonymous outlet. "We don't have an agenda, we're not going to try to make anyone religious. We're here to help the kids - whether it's just not having any friends here, or someone who is wondering whether they might be homosexual, or is scared because their friends are getting stoned," he says. But many of the students interviewed said they already have access to all the help they need - within the framework of their yeshiva or seminary. Eye Squad was available to help students cope after the traumatic terror attack two weeks ago at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. In addition to responding to calls from students upset by the attacks, Tirschwell says he received an email from one yeshiva asking for guidance in how to discuss the attacks. He helped guide them in making a therapist available to discuss the matter, and advised the yeshiva to clearly address the issue, whether religious questions to be dealt with during classes, or talking about students' concerns for their personal safety. Many of the year-in-Israel programs have realized that they need someone on staff to whom students can turn for help. "The better programs will have a professional do some training for the staff. Many have a therapist whom they know well and can refer students to," says Jacobson. "Others are catch-as-catch-can." But Shlomit Fidma, a student at Midreshet Moriah, says that many of her friends are likely to hesitate before confiding in a staff member. "The teachers all say 'Come talk to me about anything,' but most girls probably wouldn't want to talk to a teacher," she says. Still, Tirschwell believes the Eye Squad is filling an important niche. "The response we've been getting [to the Eye Squad] is an indication of how much of a need there is for this type of service." It's also a sign that the community has become much more ready to talk about mental health problems. Jacobson says that over the past few years, the stories swirling around and the personal experiences of educators have made them more aware of the mental health needs of their students and more willing to be proactive in dealing with them. For example, Yeshiva University in Israel has begun running programs for yeshiva and seminary staff to give direction on mental health issues. Lehrman says staff and administrators have shown "not just an acknowledgement of the problem, but a real desire to improve." Caryn Green is the founder and director of Crossroads, a drop-in center for English-speaking youth, including yeshiva and seminary students. She says that she has seen a sea change in the attitudes of the Orthodox community toward issues like substance abuse. "When I founded Crossroads 10 years ago, people wouldn't talk about it [mental health issues], they believed there were no problems. Now, high schools [in North America] are dealing with it. Yeshivas and seminaries are more aware. It won't get shoved under the rug."