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Lifting the Veil of Silence about Mental Illness

Teen Dani, an eleventh grader, shared her  mental health journey to an overflowing synagogue on Yom Kippur. Her honesty – raw and real – blew open a conversation about mental illness, suicide and depression (read Dani’s words). Then, Rabbi Paul Kipnes challenged Congregation Or Ami to lift the veil of silence to speak openly and honestly about mental illness (read the sermon below). Then, Dani’s mother, Debby, also spoke about her appreciation that the congregation and its clergy offered deep support for their daughter (read Debby’s words). (You will be soon able watch the video of all presentations here.)

Lifting the Veil of Silence about Mental Illness

Supporting the Journey toward Mental Health

By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Following singing of Birkat HaGomel (composition by Cantor Kyle Cotler)

Amen. Thank you. Thank you all for standing and singing together. I am overwhelmed by how you make Congregation Or Ami a safe place for support and healing.

Once, not too long ago, the names of sick people would be mentioned only in a whisper, and sometimes only to the doctor or rabbi. I’m reminded of the scene in Neil Simon’s play Brighton Beach Memoirs of a family sitting around a table. Mom leans over to her sister and says, “Did you hear about Sophie? She has [whispered] cancer.” There used to be such stigma attached to cancer, heart disease and addiction that people used to whisper the names of those afflicted. A veil of silence surrounded them. Today we talk aloud about those who are struggling, offering each spiritual strength.

Each week at Congregation Or Ami, before we sing Mi Shebeirach or Birkat HaGomel (healing prayers), I pay attention to the names mentioned. This woman is recovering from an operation and that man has a bad case of the flu. I hear the names of kids struggling with physical disabilities and of grandparents whose bodies are slowing down. We speak of families yearning for some grounding, searching for strength after the death of a loved one, and of young parents trying to find an anchor after a miscarriage.

It is painful to hear the names of those who might not get well. Yet I also feel hopeful, because I know how powerful these prayers are to those who are struggling and to those who care for them. You all tell me that our prayers bring comfort and strength, wholeness and healing. I know that if I were to invite those seeking healing from cancer or surgeries to come forward to the bimah for the healing prayers, many would now come forward. But I wonder, were I to invite up people dealing with depression and other mental health issues, would anyone come forward or say their names out loud? Perhaps a few brave souls like that amazing teenager Dani but few others. Why? Because there is still such stigma attached to struggling with emotional or mental illness.

Mental Illness is like Most Illnesses

Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha b’lo mul ha’emet. (Forgive us, God, for the times we have failed to face the truth.)

Well, Yom Kippur is a time to tackle difficult issues, those we would rather not talk about, that we want to brush under the table.

Mental illness is like most illnesses, a medical condition. In today’s world, if we have a heart condition, we would not skip an appointment with the cardiologist. Or if we have trouble seeing clearly, we wouldn’t fail to get over to an optometrist. Why? Because those are medical responses to medical conditions. So when I hear about people who don’t want to go to a therapist or take important medication for their mental health conditions, I want to wrap them in a hug and say, “Of course, you should go to your appointments and follow the advice of a therapist.” When we follow a medical treatment plan, we are doing what any patient does, partnering with God to try to help ensure a long, fruitful life for ourselves.

I am so proud that Congregation Or Ami years ago embraced the Jewish healing movement. We have created a bond of trust within this community, lifting the veil of silence surrounding physical illness. Can we trust each other enough to lift the veil surrounding mental health and wellness too?

When will we mention the names of adults with Bipolar Affective Disorder and…

Where are the names of adults with bipolar affective disorder, or with Alzheimer’s or dementia? When will we regularly name the children living with OCD, the teens with eating disorders, or the pre-teens who are cutting? How about the young people in wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding schools? Aren’t they in need of healing as well? A few here might have mentioned those names. But sadly so many do not.

Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha b’chachash. (Forgive us, God, for the sin of engaging in denial.)

Mental illness is pervasive. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 1 in 5 adults in the United States, 43.8 million people, experience mental illness in a given year. Approximately 16 million adults suffer from depression and 42 million live with anxiety disorders. Many experience both. These staggering statistics represent people’s lives. Many of us are afraid to talk about it even though it is so common. People who are suffering need to be heard, to be accepted and not judged. The challenge is as old as Judaism, having afflicted even our most beloved Talmud scholars.

A story…

The room was dark. Rabbi Eleazar was still in bed, curled up in a ball, turned toward the wall. He could not bring himself to look toward the window at life and light. His friend Rabbi Yochanan entered the room, looked down through the darkness at his friend, pulled up a chair and sat down. Yochanan prepared to sit in this heavy silence for a long time. He began to roll up his sleeve. His face was shrouded in the darkness, but his shirt, reflecting the light from outside, seemed to brighten the room with its own light. Rabbi Eleazar turned from the wall to face his friend.

Yochanan asked: “Does darkness comfort you?” Slowly, Eleazar shook his head. “It did in the beginning, but now it can’t protect me from my thoughts.” Yochanan asked: “And the silence? Is it comforting?” “No.” “And being alone?” Eleazar looked into his friend’s eyes. “No, loneliness adds to my suffering.” “Do you continue to welcome this darkness, this silence, this sadness?” “No. Before I couldn’t bear the light, noise, or laughter. Now I can no longer bear the alternatives. But I don’t know the way back to the living.” Yochanan asked: “Will you let me help you?” “I will try.”

Yochanan extended his hand. Eleazar grasped hold of it. He felt strength and warmth reach him. His friend Yochanan raised him out of his bed and helped him to the door.

Psychologists have told me that Eleazar seemed to struggle with depression. But the Talmudic rabbis did not use words like “depression” or “mental illness.” If Eleazar had been labeled as a depressive, or if the story had been set in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital – say UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute – would we have listened with the same openness? Had the story been about our own children, parents, or ourselves, would we have spoken about it openly, without shame?

I ask these questions because Congregation Or Ami is committed to lifting the veil of silence, to shine the light of caring and healing for those in need. Beyond talking openly about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, we can learn to reduce anxiety and stress by embracing mindfulness techniques to help us manage life’s stresses. Some congregants who are also therapists taught me that there is so much we can do to address the challenges of mental illness.

21% of Youth Experience a Severe Mental Disorder

We are particularly concerned about our youth. Roughly 21% of youth, aged 13-18, experience a severe mental disorder at some point in their lives. And suicide, a tragic expression of depression or other mental illness, is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15–24.

Parenting is challenging, and it takes village to help raise our children. So let’s be honest: few parents today nurture their children into adulthood without facing issues that transcend our limited skills. And many young people suffer from the “not quite good enough” complex because their parents unintentionally made them feel they don’t measure up. In our book Jewish Spiritual Parenting, my co-author and wife Michelle November and I teach that the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elohim, that each child is created in God’s image, means that we ought to nurture our children as they are, instead of who we desperately want them to be.

Parenting expert William Martin talks about how we might redirect parental angst about our children’s future, and how we all might rethink the ways we live our lives: He writes:

Do not ask your children [– or yourself] to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable, but it is a way of foolishness.
Help [each other] instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show [each other] the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show [each other] how to cry when pets and people die.
Show [each other] the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive…
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

Lifting the veil of silence requires that we are kind and compassionate to each other. Some of my heroes are those parents in this synagogue who, after trying everything else, acknowledge that they alone cannot help their suffering children at home, and they seek outside programs. Ultimately many do the gut-wrenching yet sacred act of ripping their hearts out, and sending their child to wilderness programs or therapeutic boarding schools. Each year, Rabbi Julia Weisz, Cantor Doug Cotler and I are involved with two to four such families. These young people return with depth, insight and maturity that can save their lives. Their families should be celebrated, not judged.

Learning Disorders, Mental Illness and Drug Abuse

Additionally, as a community, we want to continue to face the overlap between learning disorders, mental illness and drug abuse. People with undiagnosed and untreated learning disorders or mental illness too often seek solace in whatever they can find, often turning to alcohol and drugs. Our congregants Joyce and Rick Isaac understand this too well. Tragically lost their 19-year-old son Josh. Heroin was the addiction that killed him, yet his parents and his peers understand and the studies confirm, that for many, the descent to drug abuse starts early, when they were children with undiagnosed mental illness or special learning needs. Joyce and Rick and their family are founders of Liberty Crew Foundation whose inspiring mission is to provide teenagers and families with drug abuse education, including programs for early identification and intervention for young people who are at risk. If you are interested in helping the Liberty Crew Foundation with donations, support or expertise please contact me and I will put you in touch with Joyce or Rick.

Acting Collectively to Address this Darkness

As a congregation, we will act collectively to address this darkness. And we will pay special attention to our pre-teens and teens. They are struggling in ways that eclipse the struggles of previous generations.

Congregation Or Ami is the proud recipient of a major grant from the LA Jewish Teen Initiative’s Focus on Teen Wellness, co-funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jim Joseph Foundation with seed funding provided by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. We are transforming our synagogue into a safe space for all, training our staff and faculty to see more clearly the pain within our families, and teaching the teens and pre-teens useful techniques for shmirat haguf v’hanefesh, caring for their bodies, minds and souls. The project is being led by Rabbinic Intern Julie Bressler in partnership with Psychologist congregant Gia Marson, Dr. Steve Keleman EdD, and Dani’s mom Debby Pattiz. In addition, Or Ami also has a resident social worker, Elenna King, through Jewish Family Service’s Ezra Network. These are the first steps in our vision to be an anchor for Jewish teens on a journey that is often full of stress.

Know also that you can be a healer. Help with the Jewish healing movement’s efforts to talk to our representatives and urge our health insurance companies to offer greater coverage for those suffering with mental illness.

And let’s all do more to reach out to those in anguish. If they ask for privacy, give them space. But make sure to try again later.

Maintaining mental health is a life long process; addressing mental illness is an individual and communal priority. We need to raise the veil of silence. Because our family members need us to face this truth. Because this is just what Or Ami does, we reach out. Because our children – our beautiful children – need us to embrace them for who they are, so that they and we can live long healthy lives, in harmony with God and each other. Now that would be a blessing for the New Year.

Ken yehi ratzon. May it be God’s will.

Like all my sermons, this one blossomed into a piece of writing I am proud of because of the incisive, insightful editing first and foremost by my wife, Michelle November (my co-author of Jewish Spiritual Parenting) and by my colleagues Rabbi Ronald Stern and Rabbi Julia Weisz. Additionally, three fabulous rabbinic interns from HUC-JIR had a hand in shaping the prose – Lori Levine, Julie Bressler and Sarah Rosenbaum Jones; if their rabbinates take shape as deeply as they thought about and edited their mentor’s sermon, we Jewish people surely have a bright future. 

The story about Eleazer and Yochanan (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 5b), and the questions that followed were adapted from a breathtaking version told by Rabbi Susan Lippe in her sermon, A Jewish Response to Mental Illness.

I especially thank these Or Ami congregants/therapists for crucial insights about mental health and mental illness: Samantha Bookman, Estee Diamond, Paul Goldin, Gia Marson, Debbi Molnar, and congregant/wiseman Dr. Steven Keleman EdD.

Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) is the proud recipient of a major grant from the LA Jewish Teen Initiative’s Focus on Teen Wellness, co-funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jim Joseph Foundation with seed funding provided by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. We are inspired in this work by the Ruderman Foundation and the Union for Reform Judaism. We are transforming our synagogue into a safe space for all, training our staff, clergy, and faculty to see more clearly the pain within our families, and teaching the teens and pre-teens useful techniques for shmirat haguf v’hanefesh, caring for their precious bodies, minds and souls.

To learn more about Congregation Or Ami’s project, Shmirat Haguf v’Hanefesh: Caring for the Teenage Body, Mind and Soul, contact Rabbinic Intern Julie Bressler.

A final reminder: If you know Dani’s family and want to share words of support with them, please do. Otherwise, Dani and her family request that you post questions and stories about your journey with mental health and wellness here, or be in touch with Rabbi Paul Kipnes directly. Thank you for respecting their privacy and journey. 

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