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At night around the camp fire, staff and campers check in and discuss weekly goals.
At night around the camp fire, staff and campers check in and discuss weekly goals.

Wilderness Therapy

Sponsored by our community partners Pain Free Life Centers
Photos courtesy of BaMidbar Wildnerness Therapy

Detroiter helps shape Colorado camp for young Jews struggling with mental health issues.

Shining the Light, Spotlight on Teen Mental Health. Mental health, mental illness. mental health awareness.Growing up in a Lubavitch home in Oak Park that was open to all Jews but closed to secular values, Hindy Finman reached adolescence in a happy bubble. Other than her kid brother, she hadn’t talked to a boy without an adult nearby. When she did, at age 19, her life’s purpose became clear. As her father, Rabbi Herschel Finman, might say, it was hashgacha protis, or Divine providence.

One afternoon, Finman, her sisters and friends met up at Victoria Park in Oak Park. While they were idly chatting and tossing pebbles, a young religious Jew stopped to talk. During the conversation, he revealed he had struggled with a heroin addiction, an admission that shocked her.

Hindy Finman

Hindy Finman

“Somebody who’s frum [religious] suffering from addiction? What? I called a rabbi, who told me to leave it alone, ‘Don’t talk to boys.’ That was a big wake-up moment. I asked myself, ‘What is my community doing and what am I doing?’” Finman, 30, promised herself she would be a person who would have answers — or try to get them — when somebody in need called. She promised she would work to destigmatize drug addiction in the religious community.

Before enrolling at Temple University in Philadelphia, Finman worked for Chabad in Alaska and Chicago. She staffed Birthright trips for young adults with special needs. After graduating with a criminal justice degree, Finman moved to Boulder, Colo., to start a Moishe House. She was doing the outreach work Lubavitchers are known for.

New Opportunity

In 2015, she overheard talk about the development of an outdoor therapy program outside of Denver that would be kosher and Shabbat-observant. It would be focused on young Jews struggling with psychiatric and substance abuse issues. It would integrate spiritual practice with intense therapeutic work and emphasize self-reliance. Finman raised her hand. This was the work she was waiting for. She joined the founding members of BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy Program, becoming its first communications associate and an adviser at large on all things frum.

“We’re taking the best of a Chabad house, a summer camp, a treatment center and hiking in nature, and smushing it together. That’s what we’re about,” Finman says.

Rabbi Eliav Bock

Rabbi Eliav Bock

“Hindy was a key person early on who helped us think about what it would look like,” says Rabbi Eliav Bock, founder and executive director of BaMidbar, which is designed for young Jewish adults in crisis.

Bock, 41, started Ramah in the Rockies in 2010, a kosher summer outdoor adventure camp for kids outside of Denver. He was inspired to start BaMidbar after hearing from Jews who were in recovery and wanted to work at Ramah.

“Many of them found wilderness to be the place for their recovery and to get on a good mental track,” says Bock, who lives in upstate New York when he’s not in Colorado. He was also influenced by a non-Jewish staff member at Ramah who felt that the Jewish community “turned its back” on people with substance abuse issues.

“Many of them found wilderness to be the place for their recovery and to get on a good mental track.” — Rabbi Eliav Bock

Bock recognized a need and, in what he says was his first successful business venture, raised money to buy the 360 acres where Ramah is located. It didn’t seem right that the property, 90 minutes outside of Denver, sat vacant for nine months of the year.

Bock raised $20,000, enough to hire consultants to write a business plan. The next step was raising money to hire a full-time director. He quickly surpassed a goal of $150,000 to run BaMidbar for a year. To date, he has brought in close to $700,000.

“We thank God we’ve raised a fair amount for scholarships, which has been very important,” Bock says. At nearly $500 a day, the cost of the program can be prohibitive for many, and insurance covers only the therapy sessions.

During an early morning hike up one of the nearby mountains, the group stopped to allow time for shmirat ha’nefesh (mindfulness practice) and personal prayer.

During an early morning hike up one of the nearby mountains, the group stopped to allow time for shmirat ha’nefesh (mindfulness practice) and personal prayer.

In January, BaMidbar opened its doors to the inaugural group of participants, all of them from New York. They learned about the program from their rabbis and are in various stages of graduating. The program goes for two to three months.

BaMidbar has a staff of 20, including a medical doctor, four masters-level clinicians, a field therapist, three field guides, an on-call psychologist, spiritual advisers and rabbinic interns.

Therapy In Nature

Participants move through five phases, working with a therapist throughout. They set goals and are measured against them. During the week, participants are paired with field guides. They backpack. They haul and treat their own water; they carve their own spoon to use throughout their stay; they sleep in tents. Days are broken up with prayer or meditation, journaling and therapy sessions.

BaMidbar therapists also work with parents before, during and after the program, helping them to repair their relationship with their child.

The sixth phase is transition support that lasts for six weeks.

Jory Hanselman

Jory Hanselman

“At BaMidbar, students work through challenges in an environment where they’re totally immersed and where staff can help them recognize triggers. We put a huge emphasis on understanding of the self,” says Director Jory Hanselman. “We also put an emphasis on skill building — like learning how to build a primitive fire. We connect the process of building to building skills to face challenges. We say how you do anything is how you do everything.”

BaMidbar has graduated two people so far, and the feedback has been positive, Hanselman says.
“Our population was not struggling with substance abuse but with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder. For many of our students, substance use and abuse play a role. We see a lot of co-occurring mental health disorders with substance abuse disorders,” she says.

“For our first season and first year we built a really strong foundation. Students have grown and developed. We stress that there is no panacea; not all challenges are fixed in 8-12 weeks. We lay a foundation and build skills to face those challenges,” says Hanselman, 27.

After taking the summer to refine the program, including curriculum, staff support and transition support services, BaMidbar will formally launch a year-round program after Sukkot in the fall. It will take a maximum of 24 participants or three groups of eight. During the summer months, when Ramah is in session, BaMidbar will be held on additional acreage that Bock plans to lease.

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“I hope this program is the beginning of a larger dialogue within the Jewish community, within the camp community,” Bock says. “I hope this is a model for what other summer camps can do in the mental health space.”

Julie Edgar

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