Push For Synagogues To Focus On Mental Illness


Late last month, Joanne Harpel and Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman met in a restaurant to celebrate what would have been their brother Stephen’s 50th birthday. They’ve been holding the annual ritual with several of their brother’s friends since 1993, when Stephen committed suicide at the age of 26.

“He went from someone who had been an honors graduate at Yale, who went onto Harvard Law School … from being this high-functioning human being, to someone who didn’t have the capacity to function,” all in the space of a year, Harpel said.

In the months leading up to his death, Stephen began to show signs of bipolar disorder, an illness that often doesn’t manifest itself until one’s 20s.

Next week, the pair is commemorating their brother’s life a second time, by organizing the conference “What Do I Do When … ? What Congregational Leaders Need to Know About Mental Illness.”

Harpel, founder of Rethink The Conversation, a nonprofit that raises public awareness about mental illness and suicide, and Rabbi Mitelman, who founded Sinai and Synapses, which promotes the embrace of critical thinking and scientific inquiry by religious organizations, brought the idea of the conference to the UJA-Federation of New York. Their collaboration on the daylong conference was soon joined by several other organizations, including the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (The Jewish Board).

While the Sept. 12 event is certainly not the first conference to educate Jewish clergy and lay leaders about how to address mental illness, this is the first one that Rabbi Mitelman and Harpel know of that has a strong focus on the science of mental illness, with a two-hour session on the topic led by a psychiatrist and a neuropsychologist.

“The more individuals or congregations can understand the neuroscience that lies beyond the illness, the more they can be supportive,” Harpel said, “because mental illness manifests itself in behavior that can be very difficult to deal with — it looks like behavior that people should be able to change.”

The second half of the conference focuses on what congregations can do to help people affected by mental illness, whether they be congregants with the condition or those who have a person struggling with mental illness in their lives.

“The idea was to have a conference to enable rabbis and lay leaders to understand more about mental illness, both in terms of understanding what it’s actually about and … knowing and identifying what to do,” as well as “learning how the community could be a wrap-around support for families struggling with mental illness,” said Devora Steinmetz, a Talmud scholar on the leadership team for special programs at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and founder of Beit Rabban, an Upper West Side day school.

The focus on mental illness among congregations and clergy, of all religions, has been revving up in the past few years. In May, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray launched a “Weekend of Faith for Mental Health,” in which more than 1,000 synagogues, churches, mosques and other houses of worship dedicated their services to the issue of mental health. McCray, along with city commissioners and elected officials, made the rounds at dozens of houses of worship, including East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, where McCray herself spoke, and Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan, where the city’s executive deputy commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, Dr. Gary Belkin, delivered a speech.

Synagogues across the country have been increasingly focused on the issue. In New York, nearly 150 Jewish communal organizations, including day schools, Hillels and synagogues, have added The Jewish Board or Westchester Jewish Community Services social workers to their staffs through the UJA-Federation Partners in Caring program.

While rabbis, lay leaders and congregants with psychological training address mental health issues at many synagogues, “sometimes a congregant wants privacy and confidentiality,” said Jonathan Katz, The Jewish Board’s director of Jewish Community Services.

“By being onsite,” he added, “we’re not sitting in some distant office waiting for people come to us. It makes Jewish Board services more accessible and also less stigmatized.”

Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — the Bayit, has participated in the Partners in Caring program for more than a decade. HIR Associate Rabbi Ari Hart says his shul’s social worker, Anna Kirshblum, has been invaluable.

“If a synagogue is there to reach out and really make an impact you need people like Anna,” he said. “She does everything from offer counseling one-on-one to individuals who are struggling with acute mental illness or financial stress” to running support groups, to connecting people with support services at other organizations, to supporting the clergy. “I’ve turned to her for guidance if I’ve been presented with a situation that’s complicated,” he said.

While the rabbinic staff can help people with short-term mental health issues, he said, “a social worker can provide support at a much higher level.”

HIR is also addressing the issue in other ways as well, Rabbi Hart said.

“Something we’ve tried to do here is destigmatize mental illness. We’ve had sermons from the pulpit about inclusion, about the fact that a mental illness is an illness and it’s not something to be tucked away into the shadows and it’s not something to be ashamed about,” he said. “It’s something to be talked about and discussed and recognized as part of our community fabric.”

Rabbi David Schuck of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle agreed.

“The most important thing we can do is try to bring the conversation out in the open, which is really challenging to do because the challenges of mental illness are still very much taboo,” he said.

When faced with mental illness, he continued, “Families tend to withdraw. What we really need to do is try to help people find out how to respond [to congregants affected by mental illness]. Often the people who need support are the loved ones, who are caring for them. Because they are trying to protect the privacy of a loved one they feel like they can’t talk about it.”

Once Rabbi Schuck began talking about the issue from the bima, he found that “the more I talked about it, the more individual people in the community felt like they could talk to me.” Once people came out of the woodwork, he was able to connect families dealing with similar issues, so they could help each other.

“Of all the things I tried to do [to address mental illness], that has been the most effective,” he said.

Indeed, the destigmatization efforts are beginning to have an effect, said Rabbi Edythe Mencher, a clinical social worker who coordinates the Union for Reform Judaism’s partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation for Inclusion of People with Disabilities.

She said the increased openness about psychiatric issues comes out of “an atmosphere of greater openness about many issues in life that had previously been highly stigmatized,” such as “gender identity, sexual orientation and even going further back, racial pride.”

“As those movements have all gone forward, I think we have reached a very crucial time in which there is a readiness for more openness about mental health conditions,” she said. “I think the shift in the Jewish community also comes from the awareness that having a sense of community and belonging goes a long way to helping us both to preserve mental health and to sustain ourselves if we do have a psychiatric condition.”

It’s not only rabbis and social workers that can help destigmatize psychiatric issues, agreed Steinmetz, who organized a three-night program at Drisha on confronting mental illness in 2014.

“We don’t think rabbis can do it alone. As Hillary [Clinton] would say: ‘It takes a village.’ It really is about the community rallying around people, about the community allowing people’s suffering to be visible and not being afraid to give support,” she said.

Congregations are increasingly offering an eight-hour course run by Mental Health First Aid, a nonprofit that aims to make such courses as common as CPR classes.

Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia was prompted to participate in the program after former U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy discussed his own struggle with mental illness at the shul, Catherine Fischer, the shul’s director of community engagement, wrote in an email.

Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego is offering the course in September as part of its increased focus on mental health. The synagogue also expanded its casserole delivery program to people with mental illness, said Liz Levine, the congregation’s Caring Community Program director.

“When families have an individual who has a physical illness, friends tend to show up with casseroles, but when people have a mental illness, people tend to shy away,” she said in a telephone interview.

Drisha and The Jewish Board are planning to launch a pilot program called Melavim (escorts), which formalizes the practice of congregants helping each other with issues surrounding mental illness, Steinmetz said.

“When people are diagnosed with a mental illness, she said, there’s loss of identity and [sometimes] a loss of a job or school. But there’s also a loss of community [as people withdraw]. And the most important thing is for them to have a social network.”

Many congregations have committees for helping families with members who are physically ill, grieving or adjusting to a new baby. Why not, she said, have committees to support families encountering mental illness?

“We’re really drawing on congregational models that have been out there for other needs,” she said.

That’s why the conference next week is aimed at lay leaders as well as clergy.

“It’s not just about a rabbi learning how to recognize mental illness and pointing them [congregants] to a psychiatrist,” she said. “It’s about the fact that the congregation has enormous power to help them in their recovery.”

For more information on the conference, or to register, visit the UJA-Federation of New York's website.

Editor's Note: This story was corrected on Sept. 8 to reflect the fact that and AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion is not a collaborator on the conference, and on Sept. 9 to add that Drisha is launching the Melavim program together with The Jewish Board.