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Hillel looks to grow student mental health and wellness initiative

Ethan Silverman said he hates the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.”

After his mother passed away during his sophomore year of high school, somebody said this to him.

He said he thought, “What the hell’s wrong with you? Why would you tell me that?”

But he said he does live by the words “you learn from everything you do.”

Silverman, a junior at the University of Florida, has faced an array of challenging circumstances in his 21 years. His mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer when he was 4, and she was given six months to live but surpassed this by 12 years. His parents got divorced when he was 7. He did not have the best relationship with his brother. And during the winter break of his freshman year at college, he fell into a dark and depressive state.

“I felt like there was no getting out of it,” he said. “There was no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Silverman said he has found himself again, thanks to the help of family, friends and therapists. He said all of these times in his life have made him realize he wants to help people.

In the fall, Silverman went to UF Hillel and spoke to Rabbi and Executive Director Jonah Zinn about his desire to include mental health and wellness in the programming there. The staff at UF Hillel were responsive, and now Silverman and Cara Levin, the engagement associate at UF Hillel, have created the UF Hillel Wellness Initiative.

“It's important that we're doing everything we can to seek out students and support them where they are physically, mentally, emotionally, geographically,” said Jamie Zinn, the chief advancement officer at UF Hillel.

“That's why we exist. We exist to serve students.”

The primary goal of the initiative is in its mission statement: to promote the implementation of mental health practices in the lives of students, especially within the Jewish community. Events officially began this semester.

One activity that the initiative started is “Wellness Wednesdays,” where those part of and in support of the initiative make their presence known on campus by spreading awareness and providing an activity at populated areas like Turlington or the Plaza of the Americas.

“We’re always out there with our big UF Hillel tent and also blanket so that people can come and sit and join us,” Levin said. “And you don’t have to be Jewish, which is a beautiful thing as well. We’re open to the community at large.”

On the first Wellness Wednesday, Feb. 22, the people at the tent made terrariums.

Silverman said that this is the moment he realized what he was doing was important.

“People were saying like, ‘Wow, I really needed this,’” he said. “That’s when it hit me. This is something that needs to continue.”

Eden Eyal, a sophomore at UF, is an ambassador for the wellness initiative.

He said he has been involved in Jewish organizations since he was young, and from these experiences, he has found the power of connection.

Being part of this initiative has served as an additional reminder to check in on himself and those important to him, he said.

“I definitely feel proud to be part of the Jewish community, and I think that these initiatives that Hillel does really humanize the Jewish community,” he said.

Emerson Finkle, the program manager at the Center for Student and Staff Wellbeing at Hillel International, said he is excited that UF Hillel is bringing mental health and wellness to campus.

Hillel International has helped provide various Hillels with grants to begin similar initiatives.

Finkle said Hillel is beginning a grant program that aims to support Hillels in hiring clinical social workers and Hillel professionals to support the mental health and wellness of students. These grants will be awarded in the next week or so.

“I really love that the initiative at UF was one that started because a student came to the Hillel staff and said this is something that's important to me, and I want to see this happen,” Finkle said. “Some of the most successful programming that happens at Hillel is really driven by the students and the students’ needs.”

Silverman and Levin said they want to grow the initiative.

Levin said she wants to build the initiative so events become more consistent and hopes to collaborate with other organizations on campus “because it’s not just the Jewish community that needs wellness. It’s everybody.”

Silverman said he wants to bring in guest speakers to educate students on mental health and wellness.

“Given the significant mental health challenges that so many students face, being able to help students in this way is really important,” Jonah Zinn said.

Silverman said his goal is to become a child therapist in the future. Right now, he said he is focused on helping people in any way he can.

He said he will follow the words he lives by.

“You learn from everything you do," he said.

Rachel is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.