We can be proud of OJC.
I do not write that sentence lightly. It is something to be proud of our synagogue, and let me be clear: I am speaking about the people of the place, not the place itself.
This past Shabbat, #ojcsupportsU, under the creative leadership of Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, once again served our community with a sacred, meaningful consideration of mental illness and mental health. Together, we spent a Shabbat and Sunday putting a face to mental illness.
A Friday evening Neshama service lead by Music Director Amichai Margolis and a community dinner after established the tone of the Shabbaton: Olam hesed yibaneh. We will build a world with loving kindness.
Shabbat morning services were highlighted by a transformative sermon given by one of our own congregants, Sharona Levine: Sharona Levine’s sermon January 2020. In powerful and accessible words, Sharona shared her story. She explained why she decided to tell her community about her family’s struggles with mental illness: “What made me decide to speak up was the day I finally felt empowered. And I wanted to pass that feeling on to someone else. I went from feeling bereft in the beginning stages, to ashamed, from self-blame to angry – to educated – to empowered. Why am I standing here in front of you today? Because I want you to know: If you are the sufferer – you are not alone; if you are the caretaker – you are the key, and you are not alone; and if you are a community member or passerby in anyone’s life with mental illness— you can make all the difference by your language, your non-whispers, and your role modeling to others.”
Those of us who heard Sharona‘s words will be changed forever. So many people approached her after to share their own story. After all, when it comes to mental illness, everyone has a story.
Miriam Suchoff led a special program for the children of our community and their parents about recognizing emotional responses in others. At the end of kiddush lunch, congregants participated in interactive dramatics and discussion. We had a Rabbis’ Tisch for our teens where we discussed how and when to reach out to others. In the afternoon, we practiced a variety of ways to cultivate mental wellness: a walk, a talk, or yoga were the choices.
On Sunday morning, 25 people attended a breakfast roundtable presented by NAMI.
And the weekend was completed by a seasonal healing service led by Amichai Margolis and me.
So what was accomplished?
The people who participated in the Shabbaton experienced insights, gained information, and felt the support of our community.
The committee was invigorated and is busy planning next steps.
The clear message of OJC as an inclusive community was heard loud and clear.
And what of all the people who could have benefited from the Shabbat or the weekend but were not able to attend? The very people who need support so often are not able to come into community. We know this fact to be true.
We just keep trying. We just keep sharing the message that our intention is to stop the stigma. Want to join us? Contact Miriam and Mark: firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we put a face to mental illness, we look all around and we see that it affects all of us.
With friendship, hope and optimism, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
When I think about my dad at home through all the years of my growing up, I think of him as alone. And when I think about my mom through those same years, I think of her as lonely.
Living with bipolar disorder, my dad spent months at a time inside our house, often in his bed, almost always alone. My mom went out to work every day, and my brother and I went to school. When we got home, there he was, on the couch, watching television. I was a kid. It never occurred to me to wonder about how alone he was.
In the 1950s and 1960s, no one understood my father’s mood swings. My parents’ friends wondered and perhaps pitied, but mostly stayed away. My dad‘s parents fretted that they had done something wrong to cause such brokenness. My mother’s parents urged her to leave my dad, and bring my brother and me to live in their house. Instead, my mother stood by my father, the love of her life. She held him and us together. There were no support groups for her; synagogue was not a safe place; and her friends were not equipped to understand. I wonder who could have possibly listened to her without judgment even if she could have articulated her sorrow and her rage. She must have been very lonely.
I thought a great deal about my parents yesterday as we celebrated a beautiful Shabbat of mental health awareness at OJC.
Thanks to the dedication and planning of #OJCSupportsU chairs Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, congregants experienced a wealth of opportunities to open our hearts and minds, and to create feelings of well-being and happiness – keystones to nurturing and sustaining good mental health. Through meditative prayer, singing, text study, and guided building of relationships, we practiced experiences that promote resilience.
We walked in silent meditation from the Daily Chapel to the bima in the Sanctuary to receive Torah, a powerful reenactment of Mount Sinai where everyone received Torah in his or her own way. God does not see anyone as broken; everyone is created in God’s image. We walked together as a community, from the four-year-old twins skipping to the 90-year-old couple walking carefully with canes. Being together in a community where everyone is accepted as “just fine,” just the way they are, is a most powerful sustainer of mental wellness. Everyone who was in synagogue yesterday felt this crucial teaching in our very souls.
But what about everyone who was not able to be in synagogue with us? What about the people who struggle with mental illness in their homes or in facilities and cannot leave, trapped there, unable to enter into our community of faith? What about the caregivers of those people, too exhausted and fearful of stigma to come out and join us in community? They probably do not see a sanctuary, rather they see an unbearable barrier to entry. How can we begin to change this reality for Jewish people who feel isolated due to mental illness?
We must continue to speak out. We must work hard to enable people to feel safe enough to be vulnerable in our sanctuary spaces.
There are many opportunities in the month of May, #MentalHealthAwareness.
Wednesday, May 15 at 7:00 pm at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, Rockland Jewish Family Service and Board of Rabbis present Lo Levad, You are Not Alone.
Thursdays, May 16, 23 and 30 at 7:30 pm at OJC, join Rabbi Scheff to study Jewish sources and mental health issues.
Thursday, May 30 at 6:30 pm at OJC, join me and Amichai Margolis for a spring time service of healing and harmony.
If you are struggling with mental health issues and you feel alone, reach out to your rabbis or to #OJCSupportsU in any way that you feel able so that we can meet you halfway. Even if you can only reach out a very short distance, we will meet you the rest of the way.
If you are lonely because you are a caregiver for someone you love struggling with mental health issues, we invite you in to listen, share and strengthen yourself.
You might feel alone and you might feel lonely. We want to provide a community for you in whatever way we can, not just in the month of May, but always.
Yesterday, before the Musaf Amidah, Mark Brownstein read Merle Feld’s poem, “Dreaming of Home.” To me, it reads as a clarion call to all homes of worship to be places where people are safe and known.
We want so much to be in that place
where we are respected and cherished,
protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged, heard.
And seen, seen
in all our loveliness,
in all our fragile strength.
And safe, safe in all our trembling
vulnerability. Where we are known
and safe, safe and known —
is it possible?
In closing, I dedicate this post on Mother’s Day to my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack z”l, a woman of extraordinary strength and dedication.
With prayers for a refuah shlayma, a complete healing, a healing of body and healing of spirit,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
When I was a child, I overheard conversations about the shanda of my Poppy’s brother, Uncle Jake “the Horse Thief,” his jail time and his drinking issues. The implicit and explicit messages I received growing up were: Jews don’t do illegal things. Jews aren’t alcoholics. Jews drink a bit of wine in moderation for celebrations. But Jews don’t lose control; Jews aren’t addicts.
On Rosh Hashana this year, I spoke about addiction because Jews can, and obviously do, develop life-threatening problems with drugs and alcohol. To believe otherwise leads to an unwillingness to ask for help. The “shame” of having a problem Jews aren’t supposed to have prevents many from seeking support and treatment.
I chose to speak about addiction because addiction is an issue in our OJC community. On Rosh Hashana I spoke about addiction because the path of teshuva – redemption – is parallel to the path toward sobriety.
Most of all, I spoke about addiction because people struggle and suffer quietly, in isolation, with a profound sense of loneliness. They and their families carry a burden of shame and embarrassment because of the stigma attached. When I listen to their stories, I want them to know that the Jewish community is here for them, that we can hold it, that we will fight against the stigma and sorrow. I want them to feel affirmed, to hear their stories in public, to know that this Jewish community can speak their truths and not look away.
For our community to be as inclusive as we say we are, we must open our eyes and our hearts to the stories of those who are struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol. And more than this, we must open our arms to the families of those who are addicts. Their suffering and powerlessness is never ending. Relief is not in sight. . . only endurance will get them through to the next day. I shared the stories of three OJC congregants and their struggles with sobriety, with loved ones’ addiction, and with feelings of extreme loneliness.
People were moved by the stories. I believe that they listened open-heartedly. But now is the time to take action. First, I encourage you to learn more about addiction in the Jewish community. Getting educated is one way to make a tikkun (a repair) in the world. I learned so much in preparing for the sermon. I hope that you will too:
- Olitzky, Rabbi Kerry, Renewed Each Day, Volumes 1 and 2
- Shapiro, Rabbi Rami, Recovery – the Sacred Art: the Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice
- Steinberg, Rabbi Paul, Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality
- Twerski, Rabbi Abraham J., MD, Living Each Day
Resources for Help:
- Twelve Step Programs: https://www.na.org/ or http://www.nnjaa.org/ (in Northern NJ) and http://rocklandnyaa.org/meetings (in Rockland County NY)
- JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) 212-632-4600 and their website: www.jbfcs.org/JACS.
- Smart Recovery, a scientific, behavioral approach to recovery: http://www.smartrecovery.org/?gclid=CjwKCAjwu7LOBRBZEiwAQtfbGNQ_KXOOJWtd0X6Cr8qKmRqxJifgE3qJNfUhKUsdOZM3nLAsr28PMRoCku0QAvD_BwE
- Another useful organization: https://www.chapter9couplesinrecovery.org/
In my sermon, I spoke about another way for our community to make a tikkun, to bring the problem from outside our walls within. Most sobriety programs take place in church basements. If you are interested in working to bring a meeting or a support group here to OJC, please be in contact with me. Our congregation is dedicated to #OJCSupportsU, our program of mental health awareness and support. We are thus perfectly poised to open our doors to those in need of sobriety support. What a shift that would be for us here at the synagogue, knowing that we are not just acknowledging that addiction exists, but offering our holy space to be a part of people’s recovery.
The director of counselling services at an inner-city rehabilitation center for teen heroin addicts described why the center is successful: “This is the first place they’ve ever been that gives them unconditional love. We are the first people they’ve met who care enough about them to say No.”
The unconditional love paired with limits and boundaries that supports struggling teens is just what God does for us each year in these days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We make mistakes, some small and some devastating. We could carry on like this indefinitely, harming others and ourselves, were it not for the High Holy Days calling us to account for our sins. At this time of teshuva, if we open our hearts, we encounter God. And God offers us unconditional love and cares about us enough to say No.
That ultimate no is tough business. Too often we ignore warning signs that our friends or family, or we ourselves are in trouble. Perhaps we are not aware that there is a problem, or are too embarrassed to seek help. And sometimes, we actually enable our teenagers to indulge in substance abuse, perhaps by buying the alcohol and serving it in our homes, by partying with them, or by driving our teens to and from parties where alcohol is served so they do not “drink and drive.” The message in these parenting choices is that using drugs and alcohol is normal, and harmless. . . which it is… till it isn’t.
“Choose life” is a core Jewish value. Choosing life includes being fully present to the abundance and blessings of our lives. It means not anesthetizing ourselves from the beauty or the pain. It means not causing harm to our bodies, our minds and our spirits.
In this season of repentance and atonement, I pray that we take the first steps toward awareness. Chemical dependency, whether it involves alcohol, narcotics, or cocaine, is a destructive, malignant condition. It claims as its victims not only the user, but the family members as well. Judaism teaches: Choose life. May we do so today and tomorrow and throughout the year 5778. Shana tova.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
When it comes to comforting the mourners or caring for the sick, the Jewish tradition provides ample wise guidance. The one in need of comfort and the one offering, the one in need of healing and the one giving care, the community with which both connect–all benefit from the ritual that the tradition provides in order to manage expectations, overcome insecurities and fears, and offer structure and control where uncertainty and chaos often reign.
In the event of death, broken bones or illnesses that present in noticeable ways, the tradition serves us well. In the case of hidden illnesses, however, the traditional responses are far less effective. After all, if the person suffering illness chooses to remain silent about the affliction, so must the caregiver; and if neither is willing to share publicly that they are in need, the community is rendered ineffective. The resulting failure in connectedness is to the detriment of all three parties in multiple ways.
For a long time, cancer was greeted with this kind of ineffective response, probably because it was viewed as a death sentence. The diagnosis was whispered, family privately grieved, friends had no words. Today, cancer is shouted out and proactively battled with the support of practitioners, caregivers, support networks and public advocacy.
Sadly, mental illness remains a source of shame for those afflicted, isolation and sadness for their caregivers, and helplessness for communities. In general, people still fail to grasp the true nature of mental illness. Those suffering keep their stories and needs to themselves to avoid stigmatization. Victims are often expected to fix themselves, to get over it. All too often, we greet news of suicide with responses–“Why did they do it? They had so much to live for?”–that reflect our own refusal to acknowledge the perniciousness of the disease and that perpetuate the stigma attached to mental illness. Families protect their loved ones’ privacy, so they suffer quietly. Communities passively watch as affiliates recede to the margins.
On the Shabbat of Tazria-Metzora, a reading that offers a ritual through which the priest ministers to those afflicted of a skin disease and thereby keeps them connected to the community despite their temporary quarantine, I chose to address the topic of connecting with those who experience, or care for those who experience, mental illness. I offered that our pursuit of mental wellness must begin by removing the stigma attached to mental illness and to those who seek therapy for their own mental care. After sharing that I have sought therapy for my own mental well-being at various times over the years, and that I recommend therapy as an important part of self care to all the rabbinical students I teach, I invited anyone who has received or is currently receiving therapy to rise in their places. When half of those in the room–scores of people–rose to their feet, there was an audible release, and then tears. People found comfort, validation and relief in discovering that they were not alone. For a moment, any shame or isolation was gone.
I hope that this moment marks a new beginning: when those in crisis know that they need not hide in shame; when their families have permission to speak openly with their clergy and community about the challenges they face; when the community can reach out in care to offer support and to pull into the center those who may otherwise feel marginalized.
Share your story. Offer to be part of the network of support. Join us on June 4 at 5:30pm, whether you are a professional wanting to facilitate or someone seeking to offer or receive support, as we commence this initiative to show that OJC supports you. With your help and participation, we hope to have various support groups and referral services in place by the fall.
Email us at email@example.com with your intention to attend our opening meeting. If you are interested in having a particular support group, please note that as well.
It’s time to bring this topic out of the shadows. And it starts with you and me stepping into the light, together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff