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The Other Side of the Pandemic

Synagogues tackle the mental health issues that COVID-19 has exacerbated

Paula Jacobs
November 17, 2020
Original photo: Amanda AmiGdalo/Flickr
Original photo: Amanda AmiGdalo/Flickr
Original photo: Amanda AmiGdalo/Flickr
Original photo: Amanda AmiGdalo/Flickr

For 40 years, Judie Cotton has volunteered at the Valley Beth Shalom Counseling Center, an independent nonprofit staffed by 25 trained counselors and housed at Valley Beth Shalom, a 1,500-member Conservative congregation in Encino, California. This year she has noticed increased call volume both at the counseling center and her private therapy practice, particularly among adults under 40 suffering from depression and anxiety.

She is not surprised, given job losses, school disruption, and marital/family stress due to the pandemic—and with beaches and gyms closed, common stress relievers are not available. “We are a place without judgment. People can share their fears and anxieties to a listening ear,” said Cotton, president of the counseling center, which was founded more than 40 years ago by noted Rabbi Harold Schulweis. It provides low-fee mental health counseling for individuals, couples, and families, including depression, stress and anxiety, job loss, and marital/family issues.

Indeed, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on the mental well-being of young adults, including feelings of isolation, stress, and anxiety, according to the latest COVID Response Tracking Study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. Depression symptoms are more than three times as common during the COVID-19 pandemic than they were before, according to a Boston University research study released in September. A majority of Americans indicate feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness, reports a recent NORC COVID Impact Survey.

Other age groups also face increased risk of mental health issues that worry Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom. “The senior population is very vulnerable and has been isolated for months,” he said. “I am worried about our teenagers because they have been socially isolated, and we know that teenage minds are presupposed to depression in the way that adult minds are not.”

In 2018, VBS launched the “So Healthy Together” initiative to focus on depression, suicidality, and the destigmatization of mental health. As soon as the pandemic hit, the vulnerable elderly also became a key focus. “It’s not just a nice thing to do. It’s a moral statement,” said Farkas. “We care about the vulnerable and to feel cut off from the community is a shanda [disgrace].”

As part of the initiative, VBS Connected Conversations organized a core of synagogue volunteers who regularly call and befriend isolated elderly congregants, including those who live alone or are in nursing homes and assisted living facilities; sometimes these conversations are intergenerational or conducted in Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, or Farsi depending on needs and volunteer skills. Another program, VBS Helping Hands, matches vulnerable seniors with teen and college volunteers who shop and perform errands. The VBS Party Line, a Friday afternoon call-in phone line, connects congregants for a Shabbat experience with VBS staff.

VBS isn’t alone. Synagogues around the U.S. are responding to the mental health crisis that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic—mental health awareness and support efforts that they had already started ramping up a few years ago. But the pandemic has now led them to expanding existing mental health initiatives, developing new programs, and engaging in simple acts of hesed or loving-kindness in response to mental health needs during this crisis.

“As a community person you carry the weight of the community on your shoulders in a different way,” said Rabbi Paul Kipnes, spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami, a Reform congregation in Calabasas, California. “It’s the goal of the synagogue and the Jewish community to reach out and help through that isolation.”

Proactively addressing the mental health needs of teenagers has been a longtime priority for Congregation Or Ami, which has redoubled these efforts during the pandemic when typical stress reducers such as sports or drama are unavailable. “Kids are at the cusp of needing to get out into the world and connect to others besides their parents,” said Kipnes. “They can’t go out and connect with their friends, and are stuck at home.”

Or Ami has created several initiatives to help teens cope with the emotional stress of social isolation during the pandemic. Staff was immediately redeployed to focus on teens, led by Rabbi Julia Weisz, the congregation’s director of education. To engage children in grades K-6 and relieve parents, Or Ami opened Camp KB, “Kayitz Ba-Bayit” [Summer at Home], a Zoom day camp staffed by Or Ami teens and college students. A rabbinic intern was hired, funded through a fellowship known as Kadima, to engage college students through a mentorship program related to career interests and social action projects such as feeding the hungry.

The “Teen Henaynu” [“we are here”] outreach team is being retrained to reach out to peers and communicate back to the professional staff any issues such as unexpected absences from class or online comments exhibiting sadness or depression. The “Neshama” [soul] initiative, funded by the congregation’s Judovits family, helps seventh to 12th graders deal with intense emotional issues and draw the inner strength to say “no” to negative behaviors such as drugs and cutting, while interacting with Jewish texts and professionals. “Time In,” a new program led by a rabbinic intern, provides an opportunity during the first 15 minutes of every teen Zoom session for them to share their “Oys and Joys” in peer breakout rooms as a way to express their feelings and manage stress.

The congregation’s programs go beyond teens. Seniors are the focus of “Or Ami Village,” which addresses the social isolation and loneliness of adults 55+ with weekly Zoom programs, such as a talk by Rabbi Laura Geller, author of Getting Good at Getting Older. For parents working at home and exhausted from also schooling their children, Or Ami’s “quarantine gatherings” with a rabbi or parenting expert provide schmoozing and check-in opportunities.

During the course of the pandemic, mental health needs have changed—with increased depression, anxiety, unemployment and financial insecurity, stress due to the illness of family and acquaintances, and balancing work and child care, as well as relationship issues after months of social isolation—and synagogues have adapted accordingly. During March and April, Congregation Rodef Sholom, an 1,100-unit Reform congregation in San Rafael, California, created ways for groups such as single-parent families to connect, explains JoAnne Forman, who coordinates its REAL mental health initiative—a program created six years ago in response to Rabbi Stacy Friedman’s Kol Nidre sermon on the stigma of mental illness.

Gradually, Rodef Sholom moved existing support groups to Zoom. As unemployment increased, programs such as yoga and music were introduced to help congregants manage the stress and anxiety of job loss by nurturing their minds, bodies, and souls. Volunteers check in weekly with those who live alone or are over 85. The synagogue also started a COVID-19 fund for struggling families and distributes weekly meals to those in need.

Rodef Sholom is located in Marin County, which Forbes rates as one of the wealthiest areas in the U.S.—and where the median single family home price is $1.45 million. Yet, some congregants cannot afford to pay rent and face eviction, said Moji Javid, the congregation’s director of synagogue engagement and a licensed social worker: “We have many families that live on the edge. There is constant fear and anxiety.”

Over time, stress has increased, exacerbated by the West Coast wildfires. Homebound seniors struggle with loneliness, congregants have contracted COVID-19, and others are mourning out-of-town family whose funerals they could only attend via Zoom. “Anytime you add more stress, you just increase the challenges. People are having a hard time sleeping, are more suicidal, depressed, and isolated,” said Forman, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “We are using every ounce of our energy just to survive.”

Its existing Shleimut [wholeness] program has enabled Beth Israel Congregation, a 475-household Conservative synagogue in Owings Mills, Maryland, to quickly ramp up its COVID-19 response. Created 16 years ago by local activist Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Shleimut promotes health, wellness, and healing, and provides Beth Israel congregants with access to a nurse, social worker, attorney, and clergy to help manage their physical, mental, legal, and spiritual health needs.

“Coming into the pandemic made us more reflective and responsive than we would have been without the Shleimut program,” said Rabbi Jay Goldstein, Beth Israel’s spiritual leader. In response to the pandemic, a new program component—“Reyim”—centers on phone buddies, who are synagogue volunteers trained in empathetic listening and who connect with elderly congregants and others in need isolated at home.

Rabbi William Hamilton of Congregation Kehillath Israel, a 450-household Conservative synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, spends significant time helping his community manage stress, distress, and despair. “The needs are deepening and widening,” he said. “It becomes an enormous privilege to try to meet them and, at the same time, recognize that everyone has a slightly different place on the emotional palate.”

As a spiritual coping tool, Hamilton teaches a weekly Psalm class, using Pamela Greenberg’s book The Complete Psalms. “Psalms are attuned to full emotions from gratitude to foreboding,” said Hamilton. “It’s extraordinary to read the Psalms with an eye to emotion because that’s where people are. People need to feel the help.”

While helping congregants cope emotionally with the pandemic, clergy must also manage their own self-care even in the face of personal grief. It’s something that Hamilton understands firsthand. In June, he received an emergency call to fly to Chicago, where his father’s health had taken a turn for the worse. In August, when his father died, Hamilton flew back to Chicago for the graveside service, and is grateful that he was able to attend the funeral in person as well as outdoor, socially distanced shiva minyanim upon returning home.

Rabbis are tapping into a variety of tools to manage today’s challenges, including spiritual practices such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation or outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, or biking. The rabbinic organizations also offer numerous resources to clergy.

“We are seeing people under high stress, with children at home, while their loved ones are sick,” said Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg, chief operating officer of the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide organization of Conservative and Masorti rabbis. “When your constituency has a lot of anxiety, it takes a lot of anxiety to be with them. The rabbis have been hard at work on serving their communities in a trying time and the RA is trying to support the rabbis through this.”

During the pandemic, the RA provides stipends for mental health support (funded by a foundation grant), spiritual nourishment such as Zoom meditation and informal get-together sessions, and phone check-ins. A buddy system connects new rabbis with mentors, and rabbis are encouraged to support vulnerable colleagues. Together with the Reform movement, the RA is sponsoring “Heshbon Heshvan,” a clergy wellness week (Oct. 18-22) that encourages congregations to provide their clergy time for self-care.

In August, the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization of Orthodox synagogues and organizations, rolled out Project Resilience, virtual workshops that teach coping skills. Taught by mental health experts, six recorded videos cover such topics as resilience, anxiety, marriage, and parenting, explains Rabbi Phil Karesh, the project manager and Midwest Regional Director for the Orthodox Union’s Synagogue and Community Services Department. “Prior to the pandemic, rabbis played a role in pastoral counseling and life cycle events. The shul rabbis’ world has been consumed with a whole new plate. Project Resilience provides them a tool kit to navigate it.”

Even when not living through a pandemic, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic leadership organization, provides its rabbinic membership support on many levels, including mental health, says CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person. Two rabbinic advisers on staff provide confidential support and short-term counseling for rabbis experiencing mental health issues either personally or within their families, as well as spiritual direction. The CCAR also regularly creates programming for rabbis to address their own mental health needs and those of their communities.

During the pandemic, CCAR has offered webinars and online events to help rabbis address and process their own grief and support grief, loss, fear, and stress within their communities. It has also provided special coaches and counselors in specific areas such as pandemic parenting. During the Hebrew month of Heshvan (mid-October to mid-November), the CCAR is offering programming to help rabbis renew and recharge through music, meditation, prayer, and poetry.

“Rabbis are trying to balance the mental health of their congregants or communities while also addressing their own mental health needs and those of their families,” said Person. “As long as the pandemic continues, the CCAR will be innovating and creating new ways to support our members and to help them support their communities.”

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

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