Healing mental health

The Water Will Hold Me Up

So many of my friends love the water. They swim laps, do water aerobics all year long, conceding to the indoor pool during Denver’s chilly winter, but, especially for a couple of them, it is summer’s heat that calls to them. Once the sun’s warmth raises the temperature even into the mid 60s, into the outdoor pool they dive, swimming lap after lap after lap in the sun’s friendly rays.

I grew up in Minneapolis and firmly believe in the traditions of walking around the lake, going up north to the lake, fishing, reading by lake, boating, and even entering the water to water ski.  But I do not like to swim.  I don’t want to dive in, jump in, or even get my face wet.  My parents fulfilled the Talmudic dictum of teaching me how to swim, and I did the same for my daughter, using happy and encouraging young people at the JCC to instruct her in the delights of the pool noodle and the glories of the front crawl and backstroke.  As it turns out, she doesn’t like to get her face wet either. As a child, learning the basic safety measures in the pool, I remember thinking, “Dead man’s float? Who named that, anyway?” It was not encouraging to this fearful child.

I am not really one for diving into things either. I like to study them first, learn all about them, make sure I am prepared. As I reach middle age (okay, I’ve been there for a while!), I am witnessing my colleagues and friends doing, and advertising themselves as being capable of doing, things that I only dream of. That old boyfriend from rabbinical school whom I helped with his papers and planning his dissertation ideas? He’s writing books and touring the U.S. as a scholar-in-residence and expert on topics right and left. Someone younger than I am is heading my rabbinical association. A friend with less education than I have, and less expertise, is teaching classes in my field. Colleagues are running from pillar to post, running this organization and that one. And I? I do not want to be jealous of these folks. I just want to know how they do it.

Over the past few years, I have begun to speak and teach about mental illness, my own and its existence in the Jewish community. After almost a lifetime in therapy, and a rabbinic career that has always emphasized pastoral care, I feel comfortable in mental health outreach. I like listening to people’s stories; I am, in fact, good at being that non-anxious presence that someone in crisis or pain, mentally ill or just hurting, might need. On a larger scale, my years of learning Talmud and other Jewish texts have come together with personal and rabbinic experience to give me some expertise in Jewish mental health outreach. My ideas are guided by Jewish middot/values and embodied though mitzvot/commandments. 

And yet. It is frightening to claim an expertise. As I go public, I am afraid. Not of being shamed for having a mental illness—that, oddly enough, feels like something I am willing to share, if it can help others. Indeed, it is my hope that I might take my life’s experience with illness, mental and otherwise (I had a stroke almost eighteen years ago and its effects on my life continue in profound ways), and use it to help others. Rather, I am afraid to be told that I have no right to be teaching about mental health outreach. That I have no wisdom to offer. That what I say is obvious, basic, almost useless. It is the fear of a child, who both wishes to be seen, and is afraid that, upon being seen, will be rejected. My colleagues have much to offer. What if I do not?

Going public with my goals, my dreams, means opening myself to criticism, both helpful and not. I tend to believe everything negative someone says about me or my work; probably not a useful or accurate position. There are those who say that feedback is always about the other person. This idea isn’t really true either; it would shut me off from ideas that could help me grow. Last year, when reading evaluations from an adult education class I taught at local university, I came across perhaps my favorite piece of criticism ever: When asked, “was the teacher engaging,” the student replied that the teacher, me, was endlessly interesting and fun, which was good, because the subject was terribly dull! Positive and negative wrapped up together in a single sentence! If only all comments could be so devastating and charming all at once.

The only way to find out, is to try. I want to make meaning out of life, to have a sense that I have something to contribute. That belief, that there is meaning in my pain, is what gets me through, will give me a sense that God is present, is here with me. 

My friends are in the water, splashing about, trying new things, having fun. It is uncomfortable here on the edge of the pool, boring, lonely. I’ll never find out what I can do without jumping in.  It takes faith to find out what will happen. But I’m an adult now. The shallow end is not what I need. Indeed, while the deep end of the pool—the riskier end—is more frightening, it is also, oddly enough, safer. Even though I can’t stand, there will be more water to hold me up.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at

Healing mental health

Moods and Music: King Shaul and Me

“Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Shaul and a רוח רעה ru’ach ra’ah, an evil spirit from the Lord began to terrify him.”

What to do, indeed, when God’s light, God’s very Presence departs from you?  It is an invisible phenomenon, but a discrete and frightening occurrence that I know.  Not that God has ever chosen me the way God chose King Shaul, of course, but, in my own, small way, I feel God in my life — and then, suddenly, not. 

It is reflected in the puzzlement in the doctor’s gentle questioning:  did something precipitate this drop in mood?  “No,” I say, anticipating his disbelief. “I was fine, I was a bit manic for a few days, and then. . . well, then I dropped off the edge of the cliff and I am still falling.”  He may not understand, but he tries to help.

I walk into shul on Shabbat, and I have no skin between me and my fellow congregants.  They are kind, they are loving, they see too much, and I cower in the bathroom before leyning, and leave early to avoid the conversations at Kiddush.

Shaul had David and his music.  I have a therapist whose kind words and open heart surround me, like a hammock beneath me while the רוח רעה, the evil spirit, the bad energy, if you will, breathes through me.  Sometimes words can help; sometimes words fail. 

What do you do, what should you do, when God seems to desert you?  Did the Holy One of Blessing completely leave King Shaul, or simply try to show him to a new role in the world?  Sometimes we mistake an ending for the ending.  But, then, for Shaul, it was the beginning of the end.  He couldn’t find a way to be, without being king.  He mistook his pain in the moment for unending pain.  And no one, it seemed, could tell him differently.

This, too, I understand.  The depression comes and goes.  I know this intellectually.  But when I am in the middle of the fall, when I reach out for God and find only emptiness, a vast void where once was Presence, intellectual knowledge means little.  It come and goes?  It leaves only to return again.  Where to put my faith:  in the recurrence or the remission?  In God’s presence, or absence?

The music worked for Shaul while it worked.  And then, his pain would return.  But so would David and his lyre.

So, too, do I, do all of us, put our faith in one another.  We walk together in light and darkness, our voices and music creating a path in the night, reminding us of God’s grace, of God’s return.  Sometimes we are Shaul, with a רוח רעה squeezing our hearts so hard we can barely breath.  Sometimes we are David, providing a message of hope, that the רוח יי, a spirit from God, might yet return.  And sometimes, we are blessed to be the lyre itself, strings of connection between the worlds, between our souls and the Soul of World. 

Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach offering national scholar-in-residence programs.  She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.  She may be reached at

mental health

I’m Not Who I Appear to Be

Sometimes, I think it is the disappointing people that’s the hardest.

I am a high achiever — or, at least, I used to be.  That was a big part of my identity growing up.  I did well in school and excelled at my chosen, geeky extracurricular activity, debate.  I was the valedictorian, I got into an Ivy League College; I was ready to succeed for all the world to see.  I graduated summa cum laude, made junior phi beta kappa, and learned all I could in rabbinical school.  My husband even began dating me, he told me at the time, because he was “attracted to women with higher standardized test scores than his.”  We married, I became a pulpit rabbi, and we had a wonderful baby.  I moved to my own, small, solo pulpit, and they loved me.  Success, success, success.

But, as with everyone, my story has an underside, the places where I have “failed,” where things went wrong.  That Ivy League school:  I left it for another college, also good, but closer to home, when it became apparent that my launching was going be slower and harder than my older sister’s. The baby: she was perfect in every way, but also, as I told her, “not one of those boring babies that slept all the time.”  She wept, I wept, and neither of us could find comfort.  The therapist I found then for postpartum depression, I still see today.  (The baby, however, has launched nicely and is entering law school in the fall.)  And almost 5 years into motherhood and work as a solo rabbi, I had a stroke, which changed my life.

While I recovered well, considering, the stroke put an end to my pulpit life, and much else. I was no longer going to be the primary wage earner in our family.  What can you do professionally when you need 12 hours of sleep most nights?  I felt like I was serving God as pulpit rabbi, using my brains to teach and preach, my heart and emotions to do pastoral care.  And now?  What commitments can I make, when my previously troubling depression has sprouted into bipolar disorder that seems to rule the few waking hours I am left with?  While I don’t believe God “sent me” the stroke, I often wonder what it is God had in mind.  My life, my sense of purpose, seemed so much clearer 18 years ago.  Sometimes I look around and count the people I have let down:  my husband, my child, friends, congregants, myself. 

It is hard to admit my limitations.  When I was younger and first in therapy, back in high school, I remember struggling with my therapist.  Sure, my dad loves me, I remember saying, but if I stopped hiding behind good grades, and told him how depressed I was, would he still be proud of me?  I still struggle with the same issues today.  If I tell my husband that we are in for another round of depression, will he love me, or just be resigned?  He is too good a man to leave me in this mess, I tell my therapist.  But surely I am a disappointment to him.  Instead of success in the pulpit rabbinate, I offer him the ups and down of mental illness made severe by stroke and complimented by physical ailments.  Who would chose that?  Who would chose me?

And yet. . . meaning, the search for meaning, persists, if slowly.  I teach a class here and there, and a student tells me I have changed her life.  I read my Daf Yomi, my daily page of Talmud, and my brain makes a connection with something I learned last year, or last decade.  Listening intently during a pastoral care session, I  feel trust growing between us.  I take my struggles with God and myself onto the bima, and speak of mental illness in the Jewish community and the importance of outreach, of steps small and large in welcoming those of us with mental health issues and our families.  And at the kiddush or the oneg, I am flocked by those who need an ear, who have a parent, a child, wrestling with mental illness.  Those with their own issues call me, and tell me how much it means for me to be open with my own journey — and I listen to the stories as well. I speak with chesed committees about first steps — and beyond — to make their communities more open and welcoming. 

Could it be that meaning lies not with the grand journey I pictured so long ago, but in just being myself, open, honest, as God created me?  My flaws, my weaknesses, my failures, it turns out, may be the most important parts of myself that I have to share.  I am not an icon to be worshipped.  I am fully human, letting down people left and right.  And in telling others that truth, I may yet find redemption.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts (Talmud, midrash, commentaries), offers pastoral care, and is venturing locally and nationally into the world of mental health outreach in the Jewish community.  She and her husband live in Denver, CO. 

mental health

Telling My Truth: Mental Illness in the Rabbinate


Sometimes it is hard to speak one’s truth.

There I was, at the bridge table, listening to my friend expound  on how so many mental illnesses resolve on their own.  She is a social worker and I have no doubt that she both encounters people with a variety of mental illnesses on a regular basis, and knows exactly what she was talking about.  And yet, I felt so invisible.

My mental illnesses have not resolved over time.

I have serious, diagnosable illnesses — bipolar disorder, with some generalized anxiety disorder— and they, especially the depression part, significantly impair me at times.

The arc of mental illness is often portrayed as a simple one:  a person is suffering, she gets help from a therapist and a rabbi, and perhaps some medication, and then she gets better.  A happy ending.

This is not my experience.

I was first diagnosed with major depression as a teenager.  I went to therapy, took medication after medication in desperate hopes of finding one that would help and was even hospitalized. Since that time, I have continued to work with a therapist and a psychiatrist —and a rabbi.  My last bout of deep depression lasted some eight months, as my treatment team and my family struggled to find something, anything, that might help.

There are many types of depression.  There is situational depression, the painful response to difficult life events, such as a death, a divorce, a job crisis, a sick child. This might be a moderate dip of mood, or a horrid, deep trough, but one can see the cause, and, often, the way through.  There is the psychological depression, the result of hurtful life history or problematic ways of responding to life.  When we are experiencing this type of sadness, it is possible to picture ourselves, standing small, alone and sad.  We can then bring our adult self, more competent and unafraid, to embrace that frightened child, telling ourselves that we will be okay.

Then there is biological depression.  When I experience this, it is overwhelming and complete, a fog so deep that I cannot see out. A small part of my mind that knows that I am ill, but I can not remove myself sufficiently to make it go away.  I drown in it.

Mental illness is complicated.  For some, medication relieves suffering. For some, meds and therapy work.  For some, medication, therapy, rabbinic support, and family love help us navigate an ongoing illness for which there is no cure. Mental illness is real illness:  curable for some, in remission for others, chronic for yet more.

As rabbis, we want to support people experiencing all kinds of illness.  We do this through our presence, reaching out to those who are ill and to their families.  We do this by noticing when faithful Shabbat attenders disappear from services — and calling to find out why.  We do this by offering to pray with someone who is suffering.  We do this by bringing God to those in pain.

We are not immune. There are many rabbis taking psychotropic medications, seeing therapists, praying for their children in pain, hoping spouses will recover soon.

And yet, we do not tell. It is still risky for a congregational rabbi to speak of his own mental illness.  Who among us would want to risk judgmental glances or whispered conversations about our beloved spouse or children when they are already suffering?

Hiding the reality of mental illness from each other is isolating at best, dangerous at worst. If we cannot speak our truth to one another, to whom can we speak? Our presence in each other’s lives might be redemptive.

We have two partners in our struggles: other rabbis and the Holy One of Blessing.

What is the “אמת” of this verse from Psalm 145? God is close to all who call upon God in truth.  The rabbis teach: there is no “Truth” but “Torah.”  But when one is ill or in pain, it is not the Torah of hevruta learning to which we turn.  Rather it is the Truth of the hevruta of בוקור חולים, of companionship in our illness, of prayers for healing and the shared silence of gentle friendship.  By leaning on one another as rabbis, telling the truth of our stories, we can call out to the One Who Heals in truth, and find God’s answer in our community.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen offers pastoral care, works in mental health outreach, and teaches adult education in Denver, Colorado, where she lives with her family. 

If you are looking for support for mental health issues, please be in touch with Betsy Torop, Director of Member Engagement and Growth at  Rex Perlmeter, LCSW, CCAR Special Advisor for Member Care and Wellness, ( is available for short term counseling and spiritual direction.

Healing member support mental health

Leaving Shame Behind: Sharing my Story as a Recovering Alcoholic

“We have heard from you that balancing our professional and personal lives is one of the biggest challenges of rabbinic life.  Being in the public eye is not easy.  This is especially true when we are facing all too human circumstances such as physical pain, family trauma, mental illness and alcoholism.   We know that there are rabbis who are struggling with alcoholism and addiction.  We have held workshops on addiction and ‘Friends of Bill W.’ meetings at CCAR convention for many years.  Above all else, it is the support and embrace of colleagues traveling the same road that can help us feel less isolated and alone.”  — Rabbi Betsy Torop, Director of Rabbinic Engagement and Growth

Shame. That’s the only emotion I was feeling as I frantically searched the library where I was sure I had left my book. The book I had used when I met with my sponsor. And now it was gone – not to be found anywhere. I worried what I would do if a congregant found it. I’d be exposed . They’d know my secret. They’d know I was an alcoholic. Okay, I’m a recovering alcoholic, but it still felt shameful to me.  I knew what I had to do.  Even after I found my book.  That experience showed me I had to make a decision. I had to come clean. I couldn’t continue to feel this way.  I ripped up the sermon I was going to give on Yom Kippur and wrote a different one, one on mental illness.

I admitted my struggles with alcohol and drugs. I confessed that I used and abused substances to make me feel better.  Alcohol was my friend, my confidant and my lover. It helped me do impossible things.  But one day it turned on me and I had to get help. I struggled with getting help.  I didn’t know how I would live in a world without my vodka. Alcohol had been such a crutch for me.

But getting the help wasn’t as hard to I had thought. As soon I as I reached out, someone was there to walk with me – to guide me through the trials and tribulations of sobriety.  I worked and struggled a day at a time, but eventually I found solid ground.  And now it was time to share this struggle publicly.

I was afraid to admit I was an alcoholic to my congregation, afraid of their reaction, but I was no longer willing to live in shame and fear.  I thought maybe I’d be asked to leave, but instead, that sermon was a turning point in my rabbinate.  It opened the floodgates – and my congregants came in droves to see me to tell me about their spouse, child, parent, boss, and friends who also struggled with addiction.  I was no longer afraid and ashamed. I had become a real person to my congregants and my relationships with them improved.  I gained the trust of my community.  Today, I do not have shame about being found out.  And I’m here to help you.

Rabbi Andrea Cosnowsky provides Alcoholism and Addiction Response and Recovery Support for CCAR members. If you think you have a problem with alcohol or drugs, please reach out to her.  All calls are confidential.  Rabbi Cosnowsky is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Etz Chayim in the Western suburbs of Chicago.

mental health

13 Reasons Why and What We Should Do About It 

We love spending time with the children of our congregation, and in doing so we learn so much about them – their needs, their wishes and of course the world they look to navigate each day. In building a safe, nurturing place at our synagogue where they feel safe communicating,  we often hear what they are watching, reading and talking about with their peers. Because of this, it has recently come to our attention that the Netflix original series entitled 13 Reasons Why (based on a popular novel by Jay Asher, 2007) is being watched and certainly discussed by many of our junior and high school students. We have also discovered this show is on the radar of the younger siblings of our preteens and teens. We are concerned about their developmental maturity necessary in viewing and digesting the intense nature of this program.

We felt it important to provide resources and support for our families and their teens and preteens. We know that other communities are addressing this issue too, and so we wanted to share some resources in case they’re helpful to others as well.

The series revolves around 17-year old Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people who she says in some way were part of why she killed herself. The series graphically depicts a suicide death and addresses in wrenching detail difficult topics ranging from bullying, starting rumors, sharing compromising social media images, shaming, failing to be an “upstander”, sexual assault, drunk driving, drug use and not noticing the warning signs of impending suicide, or seeking adult help and intervention.

Mental health experts are torn; some suggest that that the show could pose health risks for young people who have suicidal thoughts, exposes viewers to multiple traumas and that it romanticizes the idea of suicide. Others suggest the show provides a valuable opportunity to discuss suicide risk with young people, as well as teaching them how to identify the warning signs of depression or suicidal thoughts among their peers.

The show is rated TV-MA, meaning the series may contain intensely suggestive dialogue, strong coarse language, intense sexual situations, or intense violence, which it does! But only parents can determine if the show is appropriate for their child. We recommend that parents view it for themselves, or watch alongside their children, but most certainly engage in dialogue with them about what they are feeling and thinking as they digest each episode. As articulated by the National Association of School Psychologists, this show might be an opportunity to better understand children’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. But they will need supportive, understanding and caring adults to process it. Below are number of resources to aid parents and communities in that goal:

  1. National Association of School Psychologists’ Guidance for educators
  2. 13 Reasons Tip Sheet from and the JED Foundation
  3. Beyond the Reasons: (Also on Netflix) This 30 minute follow up to the series interviews the cast, producers and mental health professionals to discuss scenes dealing with the difficult issues.
  4. Suicide Prevention Lifeline:  or call 1-800-273-TALK
  5. A really helpful article for parents with great tips/advice if they are watching together!
  6. Psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz speaks about the danger of 13 Reasons Why.

Most importantly, we should let our communities and congregations know that we are here for them and their children. Sometimes these topics (and realities for some of our teens) are too painful and embarrassing to discuss with their parents. Educators recommend that parents remind their children to seek out connections and relationships with other adults. We can be those adults.

Our tradition affirms life and celebrates hope. Rabbi Gedalyahu Schorr teaches, “Just as the hurts from our past leave an imprint on our souls, all the joys from our future leave an imprint on our souls.” The pain, the trauma, and the darkness we experience along life’s journey may shake us, and scar us, and may even make it hard to find the courage to begin again. But our future joys are inscribed on our souls, too. Let us help those around us – most especially our young people seek the beauty waiting for them around the next bend, help them discover new opportunities that will bring light into their world, aid them in embracing more confidence, more light and more hope.

Rabbi David Gelfand and Rabbi Melissa Buyer serve Temple Israel of the City of New York.