News Release

NJIT professor trains college counselors to help fight antisemitism

Grant and Award Announcement

New Jersey Institute of Technology

As data from the Anti-Defamation League shows antisemitism growing on college campuses in recent years and spiking after the Hamas-Israel conflict, a New Jersey Institute of Technology researcher is doing her part to combat the trend by developing a training model that will help prepare mental health professionals who work with Jewish students.

Modern students are hearing people chant slogans without understanding the intentions behind the words, or finding swastikas and other anti-Jewish graffiti on their campuses, but they are not encountering suitably trained counselors and psychologists who understand their situations.

“Clinicians really need to do a better job of understanding identity issues of culture and experiences when it comes to not only Jewish students, but everybody — all students — so this is serving that need, it's creating an empirically-based training model that doesn't truly exist right now,” explained Julie Ancis, distinguished professor of informatics, in NJIT's Ying Wu College of Computing. Her project is funded by a non-profit organization, Academic Engagement Network, created in 2015 to counter antisemitism.

Ancis will initiate focus groups with counselors and psychological professionals, and also with Jewish students, to fully understand their current situations. She’ll develop and refine a training model, leading to pilot projects and then rollouts on four campuses, and will present findings at conferences and in published papers.

Leaders of Academic Engagement Network selected Ancis for the $75,000, three-year grant in part due to her extensive experience in researching related issues. She published a book, Culturally Responsive Interventions: Innovative Approaches to Working with Diverse Populations, 20 years ago. She also wrote many journal articles and book chapters on culture and psychology. But specifically regarding antisemitism, even in her own field, “I've noticed that among Jewish colleagues who were doing work around Jewish issues and antisemitism, various opportunities in the form of books and articles, or positions presented to them — October 7th came and it was pulled.”

Ancis said there is essentially no existing literature that trains counseling professionals to work specifically with Jewish students. She has an advisory committee of four psychologists and academics in that field, who study issues around trauma and Jewish identity.

“Culturally responsive interventions and counseling interventions attend to the needs, the culture, the identity and the specific experiences of people,” she explained. “That doesn't just look at the presenting problem, whatever that is, anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia, for example. It also considers a person’s culture, their identity, their experiences. Everyone is unique and views the world differently. So [interventions involve] culturally responsive approaches to both cultural factors and contextual factors, as well as a person's particular perceptions of the world and their experiences beyond just the presenting problem.”

“We know that one of the barriers to using mental health services, and this is among many racial and ethnic minorities, is that they feel that the counselor, therapist or psychologist is not going to understand them, is not going to understand their background — and something that's really significant in terms of counseling and therapy is the therapeutic alliance. If you don't have a strong therapeutic alliance, you're not going to have an effective intervention.”

“A counselor or psychologist doesn’t need to possess the same identity or religion as a client. But they must have a deep understanding of what it means to have a particular racial, ethnic or cultural identity,” Ancis continued. “Therapists need to understand the context and issues around present-day experiences of Jewish students on college campuses, and the importance of feeling safe, feeling like they belong and feeling that their identities are valued. That would be part of the training.”

Mira Sapozhnikov, a senior from Montville majoring in forensic science, is secretary of NJIT Hillel. “I'm glad that this is happening because I do think that this is, in my opinion, a chapter in my life, in the community as a whole, that we're very quick to refuse talking to outsiders because we think that they can't understand,” she said.

Sapozhnikov said she’s experienced antisemitism in various forms, from overhearing an inappropriate joke, to having an unsolicited interaction with someone who follows another religion trying to convert her. But she feels the most concerning example of modern antisemitism is when people equate the actions of Israel, as a political state, with the beliefs of all Jewish people — many of whom are against war and believe in a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, she noted. “There is a point where it's not just a criticism of the state. It's a criticism of Jewish people as a whole,” she observed.

“But we can make them understand if we can talk to them and they learn,” Sapozhnikov said. “That's the point of talking to other people. We can share experiences, and I think that something like this is a great first step towards making us more open toward having those uncomfortable conversations.”

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