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
Shy, I’m not! On a stage in front of a room of people, on the bima before a congregation, or in front of a video camera — it’s all just fine with me! When Judith Umlas and I first spoke about the idea of an interview format for her Rockland Jewish Family Service Author Series presentation (in partnership with the OJC), I knew that it would be a lot of fun. What I didn’t realize was how profound an experience it would be for me.
On Tuesday evening, our own Judy Umlas, author of three books (The Power of Acknowledgment, You’re Totally Awesome: The Power of Acknowledgment for Kids and Grateful Leadership) spoke about her calling to teach the simple yet life changing lessons of acknowledgment. Judy considers her writing and speaking about acknowledgment to be a fulfillment of the Jewish call to Tikkun Olam, repair of the world.
One of Judy’s favorite sayings is: “Gratitude – it’s not just a platitude.” In her teaching, Judy is clear that acknowledgment must be authentic and heartfelt. Surface thank-yous and thoughtless praise are not what true acknowledgment is all about. In answer to my questions on Tuesday night at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, Judy shared real stories about people who changed lives by generously telling others that their actions and words matter. Thanking a barista for always remembering her coffee order made that young worker feel noticed and appreciated. She burst into tears. Telling a phone operator that she appreciated his going the extra mile shocked him. “No one ever says thank you,” he explained. “I only hear complaints.”
We practice acknowledgment with people who are not in our intimate circles so that we become adept enough to share our thanks and appreciation with those closest to us: co-workers, friends, partners, spouses and our children. For so many of us, acknowledgment does not come easily. We take our spouses for granted; we feel competitive with co-workers; we feel awkward showing gratitude to our friends. Judy convinced us all that the results are well worth the effort. Judy posts testimonies from people who experience heart-opening joy through giving and receiving acknowledgment each week on her blog, http://www.thepowerofacknowledgment.com.
Judy challenged the audience to complete a writing assignment she calls “Knock Your Socks Off.” At the end of the presentation, we sat quietly and wrote to any person we wanted to acknowledge. One woman thanked her postman for his consistency, dedication, and willingness to ensure that her slightly broken mail box was always closed tight. Another woman thanked her teachers for creating safe space and for always acknowledging their students. The evening could not have ended in a more precious way than the final audience member who shared her letter of acknowledgment. Judy and Bob’s daughter Stefany acknowledged her brother with a wonderful list of things that she appreciates about him.
We should all practice acknowledgment! I’ll start right now by sharing that Judy Umlas is a treasured congregant and friend in the OJC community. She shares her wisdom with generosity and humility, and I do believe that her work can repair the world.
With acknowledgment to all of you for reading our blog each week,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill