When Jory Hanselman was 15 years old, she knew she needed help.
Her brother was struggling with addiction and mental health issues, and two of her friends had recently died, one by suicide and the other from a drug overdose.
“I was in a really bad place,” recalled Hanselman, now 27. “I told my parents I needed a change.”
The trajectory of Hanselman’s life was redirected through a wilderness therapy program in Utah, where she learned to light a fire without matches and slept in the rain and snow and through which she gained the self-confidence and self-awareness necessary to successfully face life’s obstacles.
Now, Hanselman is primed to lead a wilderness therapy program tailored to at-risk Jewish youth, set to launch in January at Ramah in the Rockies, about 90 minutes from Denver.
Hanselman, who has spent more than 400 days leading wilderness trips, is the director of BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, a kosher, Shabbat-observant program for Jewish emerging adults, ages 18-26, who are struggling with a range of issues including substance abuse and failure to launch. The program will run in the fall, winter and spring, when camp is not in session.
“Using wilderness and adventure-based experiences as a vehicle,” Hanselman said, participants will work with trained therapists to build the tools they need to build trust and the strength “to address challenges.”
Research has shown that wilderness therapy programs can be effective in treating young adults dealing with a variety of problems.
While they are expensive — typically costing from $20,000 to $30,000 for about eight weeks of treatment — a study published in the Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs in 2010 showed that the participants’ moods and behavior improved during the treatment and that those outcomes continued long after the program was completed.
Rabbi Eliav Bock, executive director of Ramah in the Rockies, conceived of using the Conservative-affiliated camp as a hub for therapy for Jewish kids a few years ago after having hired several staff members who had themselves been through wilderness therapy.
“I heard time and again, ‘I wish I could have had that experience in a Jewish setting,’” Bock said.
That there was a need for a wilderness training program tailored for Jewish youth was confirmed for Bock when Cliff Stockton, a specialist who had been providing wilderness first-responder training to Camp Ramah kids and a 20-year provider of wilderness therapy, asked the rabbi, “Do you have any idea how many Jewish kids I have in wilderness therapy?”
“I was silent,” Bock said. “I was blown away.”
Bock got busy looking into the industry and hired Stockton to help, along with “an amazing group of lay leaders” who were able to raise the money necessary to hire a staff of trained professionals to run the new Ramah program.
The National Ramah Commission, as well as the directors of other Ramah camps have all been “incredibly supportive,” Bock said.
“We’re starting small,” Bock said, adding that the program will ultimately be able to accommodate about 20 participants at a time.
With more than 30,000 campers, staff and alumni in the Ramah movement, “there are definitely more than 20 people in that network that can use our services,” Bock said.
The program will run from January to May and then reopen in September, following the camp’s typical summer program. The cost is $485 per day, with a one-time admissions fee of $2,000. Up to $7,000 is available as financial aid.
The program includes treatment planning, individual and group therapy and family education. It will serve those struggling with self-esteem, trauma, mild self-harm and dangerous or risky behaviors, in addition to substance abuse.
The program is not equipped to address anorexia or bulimia, psychosis or “someone who needs more psychiatric support,” Hanselman said.
While the program does not provide a medical detox for substance abusers, it might be right for those who have already gone through detox, she added.
Participants at BaMidbar need not have had any previous backpacking experience, Hanselman said.
The program is “not a panacea,” Bock cautioned, adding that once a participant has completed his stay, he must “connect into a community and resources” to establish a lifelong connection of support.
Ramah in the Rockies, which is rebuilding some of its facilities following an electrical fire last August, is a 360-acre ranch.
The BaMidbar program will offer backpacking, rock climbing, mountain biking, service-learning and equine programs, incorporating Jewish values, traditions and spirituality.
Through the integration of Jewish storytelling, participants will learn “what Judaism has to say about helping us live well,” Hanselman explained.
The program is pluralistic, she said, and to be inclusive will adhere to the highest standards of kashrut. Daily prayer or meditation activities, however, will “be specific about meeting each person where they are.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at