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Breaking Down Walls of Silence

Our Biblical prophets worried about people who lived on the margins of society. With fiery exhortations, Isaiah, Amos and Micah implored ancient Israelites to take care of those who need help to take care of themselves. They spoke of God’s demand that we break down walls of silence and invite those on the margins into the center.

The orphan became the responsibility of the community, because who else would take care of parentless B’nai Yisrael, children of Israel? The widow, living when society did not legislate many rights for women, became the responsibility of her father, and by extension, the entire patriarchal community. The stranger – either an Israelite from another community or a righteous gentile who threw in his or her lot with the Israelites for times of plenty and scarcity – gained the community’s support just as did any of the B’nai Yisrael.

Were the Prophets Alive Today…

Biblical prophets, were they alive today, might be take note of how far we have come in our pursuit of economic justice – through social policy, legislation and changes in ideology – to help the stranger (the immigrant), the widow (and women in general) and the orphan (children in our midst). These very same prophets would cry out about many remaining injustices, including discrimination (and racism) against immigrants; inadequate care for victims of abuse, incest and rape; and poor conditions in our foster care systems.

I also suspect that were they alive today, these mouthpieces of the Divine would turn their bullhorns to condemn a whole different categories of social injustice. They would shine the light of social critique on communities of caring – like synagogues, churches, mosques, schools, professional organizations and bowling leagues – to observe how they treat people living on the social margins. And everyone, including those who style themselves as being the embodiment of the “Light of God’s People” (as Congregation Or Ami’s name claims), would find the light of Divine judgment illuminating their own actions.

But who are the people who today live on the margins of our society? Who among our Or Ami membership wonder, because of the character of their lives and struggles, whether they are truly accepted into our kehilla kedusha (our holy community)? As it turns out, many people, including people struggling with depression, mental illness, and addiction, and those who are living through the wrenching pain of divorce.

Welcome to the Hidden World of the Rabbi’s Office

Through its doors, protected by national laws guaranteeing the sanctity and privacy of “clergy-congregant privilege,” congregants walk daily to share the secrets of their souls. Assured that they can pour out their hearts without being judged, they acknowledge daily the worry that if people really knew what was happening in their lives, they would be shunned at worst, whispered about at best. Yet day after day, they turn to their rabbi (and their congregation, they hope) for support and acceptance.

Through my doors walk men and women – alone, in couples, or with children – seeking solace and compassion. In my mind’s eye I see faces of wonderful people in turmoil. They seek to exorcize the demons from their souls; they receive instead a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a promise to try to create within our congregation, a community of openness and acceptance. As open and supportive a congregation as we have (our Henaynu Caring Community Committee helps see to that), many still live within walls of silence. Consider a few examples:

Vast Numbers Struggle with Mental Illness

Mental illness touches our children, our parents, and us. Members of our congregation are dealing with clinical depression, with the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, with psychological imbalance, with Asperger’s syndrome and autism, with anger management issues, with ADD and ADHD, and with a host of other conditions. Some share their struggles with a few friends; many would be horrified to speak about the reality of their lives with a larger group.

At Or Ami we mention during the Mi Shebayrach the names and conditions of those struggling with physical illnesses. We even speak about those preparing to die. Yet the emotionally draining, physically exhausting reality of mental illness remains shrouded, for the most part, behind a wall of silence. The prophets of old would exhort us to pierce this wall carefully but resolutely.

Addiction and Dependency Touches So Many

Addiction and dependency pulls apart lives and families. While many congregants who struggle with addiction attend services for spiritual support, most also attend 12 Step meetings several times a week to help them walk the path of recovery. The stories of these Or Ami congregants – of their descent to rock-bottom and, in some cases, their ascent to recovery – move me deeply. Into my office have walked so many, nearly ten percent of our congregation, each struggling with challenges ranging from alcoholism and drug addiction to gambling, overeating and sexual addictions. And those are only the ones with whom I have had discussions. Experience in other synagogue communities has taught me that even larger numbers of congregants’ families are touched by addiction. Yet, for the most part, our community has failed to recognize that these are congregational issues, demanding congregational openness and rabbinic time and attention.

Moreover, the wall of silence surrounding issues of addiction – demanded in part by the stipulation in the 12 Step program for anonymity (“what is said in this room must remain in this room”) – remains in force even in our congregation. Yet what would happen if we created a community where discussions of addictions could take place alongside discussions about other illnesses?

The Turmoil of Divorce Scares Us into Silence

The pain, anxiety and vitriol that often accompany separation and divorce are overwhelming for those experiencing it. Divorce brings discomfort also to friends and family who care about the couple and their children. Rarely are the problems one-sided. How can our congregation remain a haven of calmness amidst the sea of turmoil? Congregations tend to go silent, either ignoring the situation or declining the responsibility to care for these demoralized individuals. Yet the cry of the prophets awakens within us our social responsibility to offer support, even when it makes us incredibly uncomfortable.

Or Ami is Breaking Down Walls of Silence

I am proud of all that Congregation Or Ami has done through our Henaynu Caring Community Committee to reach out and offer love and support. We have broken down the walls of silence surrounding a multitude of issues – illnesses like Alzheimer’s, cancer and leukemia, the hope of healing and the process of dying. Yet still we inadvertently support a Berlin Wall in terms of our openness to those struggling with mental illness, fighting the scourge of addiction or dealing daily with the bitterly acidic realities of marital separation and divorce.

We have heard the cries of others and have responded. Now we – individually and as a congregation – must also hear the cries of those with problems that cause us great discomfort. These problems are not punishments from the Divine; I suspect they bring tears to God’s eyes, too. Let us hear the call of the prophets, to break down walls, to open up arms, to restore the oneness that our God demands.

As always, my doors and my heart are always open. Please call (email, tweet, Facebook) me if I, or if the congregation, can offer support, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on.

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