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Synagogues finally tackle mental health

Paula Jacobs
June 13, 2018
Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock

At the beginning of each school year, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami, a Reform congregation in Calabasas, California, and his colleague Rabbi Julia Weisz give out their cellphone numbers to the congregation’s youth. They ask the children to text whenever a crisis arises. And every year, teenagers contemplating suicide or facing addiction have reached out to them for emergency help. “The message we are sending is that we care about you, you matter, call or text,” said Kipnes. He still recalls the text he received a few years ago from a high-school student worried about a friend on drugs. Even though he was attending a rabbinical convention on the East Coast, he replied.

It may sound like an unusual move, but Kipnes says it’s a sign of the times. “Teens are under unprecedented pressure and stress that play out very publicly on social media,” Kipnes said. “We listen to what our youth are saying and … learned to help them identify the brokenness inside and fill it with love and meaning.” Two years ago, his congregation began teaching stress-reduction skills such as Jewish meditation and yoga. At the same time, the religious school faculty and youth leaders have begun conducting 10-minute mindfulness exercises at the beginning of every preteen or teen event and class. Teen madrichim help lead mental-health retreats for younger peers. For the upcoming High Holidays, there will be sermons about mental health and a panel of teenagers discussing issues they face.

The rabbis of Or Ami are not alone. Proactive mental-health awareness and prevention programs targeted at youth are becoming a synagogue priority, given the high suicide and suicide ideation risks among young people—approximately 4,600 young lives are lost each year, with 157,000 people between the ages of 10 and 24 across the United States treated for self-inflicted injuries. Aware that the synagogue has not always seemed a safe, welcoming space for individuals and families struggling with everyday mental-health challenges—including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and other issues—many shuls across the U.S. are stepping up efforts to destigmatize mental health.

“We are beginning to chip away at denial and attitudes,” said Rabbi Edythe Mencher, who helps lead mental-health and disability initiatives for the Union for Reform Judaism. “Belonging to a community and knowing there is a place to return to are so important for people feeling marginalized and lost. Our congregations don’t replace therapy but are the ideal place to help people survive and flourish.”

This shift comes at a time when experts have observed that a faster pace of life, longer work hours, economic pressures, decreased affordable housing, intense political divisions, and other stresses are impacting the mental health of American Jews.

“What we’ve seen is a combination of an apparent increase in the actual incidence of mental-health issues, greater awareness, and decreased stigma, which has resulted in more requests for help,” said Jonathan Katz, director of Jewish Community Service at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City. “In response, we are seeing a growing incidence of anxiety and depression and of substance-use disorders that include, but are not limited to the opioid epidemic.’’

Often a High Holiday sermon changes the conversation. Four years ago, Rabbi Stacy Friedman of Congregation Rodef Sholom, a 1,100-unit Reform congregation in San Rafael, California, addressed the stigma of mental health in her Kol Nidre sermon. That talk became the impetus for a congregational transformation. The congregation created the REAL Mental Health Initiative. Rodef Sholom has now integrated mental-health awareness in all aspects of the synagogue—education, youth and adult programming, and religious life.

“I want people to know that their darkness is not too dark for our community and our tradition,” Friedman said. “For centuries and centuries in Judaism, there have been examples of depression and role models for support. I believe that one of the primary gifts of Judaism is to bring holiness and light to everyone—and through this initiative to let people see that this is a holy journey and we are there to hold, guide, and support them.”

Rodef Shalom has now extended its focus to wellness and recovery. To spark conversation, a MarinSalon TEDx community speaker series recently took place during May Mental Health Awareness month. In the spring, Rodef Sholom co-sponsored two Shabbat services with Kol Shofar, an 800-unit Conservative congregation in Tiburon, California; these services celebrate recovery, incorporating music, the Jewish tradition, and the spiritual wisdom of 12-step programs. A newly formed study group uses a 12-step program model, integrating recovery with Jewish text study and wisdom.

In the Jewish community, addiction is still mired in shame. But last year, congregants in recovery or struggling with addiction reached out to Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz of Congregation Beth El in Norfolk, Virginia, after hearing his Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon about dealing with pain. He now counsels and directs them to appropriate therapeutic resources, including addiction therapists and an online global recovery network. “If we are not providing a safe space for the most challenging part of our lives and also our greatest joys, then we are not doing our jobs,” said Arnowitz, whose 500-family Conservative synagogue has experienced opioid-related deaths.

A one-year-old Mental Health Task Force at Mount Zion Temple, a 636-family Reform congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, educates the community about mental health, supports those affected, and works to confront the stigma. This past winter, its Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month programming series included a religious-school program that explored the values of Shmirat HaNefesh (caring for the soul) and Shmirat Ha’ozen (being attentive listeners); a high-school youth program on mental health and self-care; a congregational panel discussion called “Smash the Stigma!” that featured personal congregant stories; and book and film discussion groups.

Sometimes congregants jumpstart the conversation. “There isn’t a family in the room that doesn’t have their own pain, but the ethic in America is that you are not allowed to tell people you are suffering. There’s this idea that we are all supposed to be shiny on the outside,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, which houses an in-counseling center founded 40 years ago by noted rabbi Harold Schulweis. After hearing from families struggling with mental illness, Feinstein plans to address the issue during the coming High Holiday season. The National Alliance for Mental Illness will also set up an information booth at the 1,550-family Conservative congregation.

Meanwhile, synagogues such as Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado, offer ongoing support groups for individuals struggling with mental health. “People are showing up because we are creating a safe space,” said Senior Rabbi Fred Greene. “Healing is about finding wholeness on a journey with other people with similar experiences and knowing that the synagogue cares about them and their families.” Monthly sessions at the 470-household Reform congregation, sessions led by Rabbi Emerita Deborah Bronstein and a professional clinician, attract approximately a dozen attendees who seek a spiritual path to healing by sharing personal stories and studying the wisdom of Jewish tradition.

Rabbinical schools are also ramping up. “The rabbi is often at the front line of mental-health and family issues,” said Rabbi Neal Turk, director of the mental-health-counseling program at Yeshiva University’s rabbinic seminary, which offers a joint 18-month program with the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology.“We are trying to bring students deeper into understanding the issues so they can more effectively face 21st century challenges.” At the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Center for Pastoral Education, in the Conservative movement, online classes are being added this fall. “The statistics are that a huge percentage of us live with mental illness,” said center director Rabbi Mychal Springer, “and when we recognize the prevalence of mental illness, there is an urgency of being inclusive because it speaks to a great majority of us.”


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Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.