A Community Partnership Leads to “Belonging and Wellness” for Jewish Youth


A partnership between Jewish Family Services, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford (SSDS), and JTConnect has led to a new “Belonging and Wellness” pilot program for Jewish students at SSDS. This four-session series, developed for the school’s seventh-grade class, focuses on creating a culture of belonging among students, normalizing conversations about mental health, and promoting self-care and resiliency. The partnership was made possible by SSDS and Jewish Family Services’ BeWell Initiative, which is supported by Jewish Federations of North America and the Network for Jewish Human Services Agencies. The program was also made possible by the Jewish Hartford Rapid Relief and Recovery Fund.

The new series helps students open up and trust one another while supporting a deeper sense of belonging and community, practicing leadership skills, and talking about mental health and wellness in a safe space. Each session comprised four parts: an opening staff-led ritual, a community-building activity, a mental health/wellness activity, and a meaningful closing that is modeled in session one by staff and led by a student thereafter.

JFS Community Mental Health Liaison Anna MacDonald and JTConnect Executive Director Caroline Poland helped facilitate sessions for students. Anna reflects on the work:

“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the seventh graders at Schechter and to collaborate with JTConnect. These students are sensitive, insightful, funny, and engaging — but above all else they care about their impact on their local community, current events, and how they can have a positive impact in our world. I was inspired by the students and hope to have given them some skills to care for themselves and others as they go on to make a difference in their eighth grade, high school, and beyond.”

The partnership has been a special opportunity for the three organizations to work together to comprehensively meet the needs of teens in our community. Through the group’s work with seventh grade students at SSDS, they helped each student make a new connection with another student; guided everyone in the group to learn something meaningful or personal about someone else; allowed students to talk about mental health and wellness in a trusting and supportive environment; and ensured that all participants felt recognized for their unique selves.

Jill Gengras, School Counselor at SSDS, shared her impression of this Belonging and Wellness series:

“The sessions run by Caroline and Anna have had a meaningful impact on our seventh graders. Prioritizing mental health and wellness helps develop kids in many ways and strengthens positive relationships. Wellness is multidimensional and Anna and Caroline both bring a wealth of knowledge and background to support our students and grow their curiosity about themselves, each other, and their world. As an active member of this group, I have watched the students open up to each other and reflect on their own experiences at their pace and how these experiences have shaped them. Caroline and Anna have, through these interactive lessons, prioritized belonging, acceptance, and introspection.”

Students engaged thoughtfully in each workshop and parents were encouraged to continue these conversations at home. SSDS School Counselor Jill Gengras participated in each session, ensuring continuity for students. The group hopes to continue making a positive impact on local Jewish teens while learning about their needs throughout this series.

The need for this partnership became evident through a special connection forged between board members from SSDS and JTConnect, who got to know each other as part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s Community Leadership Initiative (CLI). A conversation on the CLI trip to Israel led to a moment of inspiration, and through their excellent leadership, board members brought the organizations together. From there, Caroline and Anna developed each session in an iterative process that produced thoughtful and engaging sessions for students. The students inspired facilitators to keep thinking about the needs of teens in our community as related to mental health and wellness.

Caroline Poland, Executive Director of JTConnect, shared:

“Getting to know the SSDS seventh-grade class and facilitating deeper connections, self exploration, and trust building among this wonderful group of students was a joy and privilege for JTConnect. Partnering with JFS and SSDS for this four-session Belonging and Wellness series deepened the relationship between our organizations and created a wonderful pathway for continued student engagement for Jewish teens in our community. Thank you to Anna and SSDS staff and students for this wonderful collaboration, and thank you to the Federation’s CLI program and our thoughtful board members for making important community connections inspiring this partnership.”

If you are a teen or the parent of a teen who needs mental-health support, or if you have an idea for bringing mental-health support to youth, please contact Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford at AMacDonald@jfshartford.org. Click here to learn more about JTConnect’s Jewish teen education and engagement opportunities, including social-action projects, yearlong teen philanthropy programs, social events, and Jewish learning and leadership.