Categories
member support mental health

Rabbis, Can We Talk?

Life in the ministry is one of contrasts. There can be great joy, a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and also loneliness, frustration, and pain (Hileman, 2008, p. 121).

Clergy families experience stressors that are unique to their situation, including lack of privacy and heightened visibility, extra expectations and higher standards, significant time demands, frequent moves, and intrusiveness and boundary ambiguity (Cooper, 2013, p. 2).

I don’t think that most of us need academic articles to tell us how uniquely challenging it is to be a rabbi and, for many of us, to be part of a rabbi’s family. In ways large and small, those of us employed by organizations and congregations have experienced such “loneliness, frustration, and pain.” And now that we are living in Covid-world, these feelings are multiplied seven-fold.  

All of this, of course, is exacerbated by the ongoing challenges, stresses, and too often injustices experienced by women, people of color, LGBTQIA colleagues, older rabbis, the unemployed, and the underemployed. The rabbinate can be the best of callings and the worst of jobs. We find ourselves having to navigate through the constantly changing landscape of working for/with bosses we are tasked with leading. Reflecting back on his career, one of our most respected and “successful” past-presidents once said, “The rabbinate is the perfect place to have your heart broken.”

Studies have shown (Kress, J.S., et al., 2007), and most of us can attest to the unique meaning and fulfillment that comes from serving communities as rabbis. I have felt so very blessed to be part of people’s lives in their most joyous and most tragic moments, playing a unique healing and transformative role unavailable to persons of other helping professions. And I would imagine that you have felt so blessed as well. For many, this balances out the unique challenges we face and the hurt we endure.

But there are moments in our lives when this is not enough. Many, like myself, have had difficult if not devastating experiences in our organizations and congregations. Many, like Joseph, have risen and transcended; many have not, framing themselves as failures and despairing of ever having a satisfying rabbinate again. And even in the absence of such, so many of us know the pervasive feeling of being alone.

Through surveys and conversations, CCAR has heard you.

I am honored and grateful to have been welcomed into the CCAR staff as a Special Advisor for Member Support and Counseling. I, along with our amazing colleague, Rex Perlmeter, am here for you. I bring to this position my thirty-nine years as a congregational rabbi, my experiences of advising and nurturing other rabbis and cantors, and my ongoing training as a marriage and family therapy intern. I am offering to walk with you–and, if desired, your family–as you cope with the emotional issues with which you are dealing in your professional and/or personal life. And of course, our conversations are totally confidential.

Final words (for now)–a story:

A man walked into a psychiatrist’s office, fell onto the couch and, with deep sadness, blurted out, “Doctor, I hope you can help me. There is no joy in my life. I constantly feel depressed, unworthy, and filled with despair. Nothing, but nothing lifts my spirits.” Said the psychiatrist, “Sir, I have just the remedy for you! Go to the theater tonight where Carlucci the Clown is performing. He brings laughter to every face and joy to every heart. I guarantee you that Carlucci will lift your spirits!” Said the man, “Doc, you don’t understand. I am Carlucci!”

Have you ever felt like Carlucci? I have. So often we have found ourselves fulfilling the needs of others while hiding and suppressing our own. Loneliness bears down as we feel unable to share our vulnerabilities and self-perceived failures with our peers and with others who understand, sometimes even with those closest to us.

And so, in the words of a great Jewish sage, “Can we talk?”


Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff, D.D., R.J.E, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. He is certified as interim clergy by the national Interim Ministry Network, and he is currently pursuing an MS degree in Marriage and Family Therapy through Capella University.

Cooper, N. (2013). Resilience and clergy families (Order No. 3604924). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1477549275).

Hileman, L. (2008) The unique needs of Protestant clergy families: implications for marriage and family counseling.Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10(2), 119-144, DOI:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19349630802081152

Kress, J. S., Cohen, S. M., & Davidson, A. (2007). Perceptions and roles of conservative rabbis: Findings and implications related to identity and education. Journal of Jewish Education, 73(3), 191–207. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1080/15244110701653967

Categories
chaplains Healing mental health

Bikur Cholim: Bringing God with You on Your Visit

“One should follow the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing…Just as the Holy One of Blessing visits the sick as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: ‘And the Eternal appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre’ (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick.” (Sotah 14a)

Bikur cholim is, of course, a large part of our job as rabbis, especially these days during the midst of the pandemic.  And the visiting is hard, because it is all virtual. We don’t get to be like God and visit Abraham while he was sunning himself outside his tent as he healed from his formal, ritual entry into the b’rit with God. And yet, we know how important our presence is, even an online one or a phone call. The visit is real, even if the technology is virtual.

As someone with chronic illnesses, both “physical” and mental, I am often on the receiving end of bikur cholim. Whenever I am in the hospital, I always ask for a visit from the chaplain office, Jewish or not; I like a chance to talk theology and theodicy, and I find relief in a visitor that is concerned for me, but not so upset at my illness that I have to comfort them in return. Over the years, I have (as I am sure many of you have), collected favorite “what not to say” sayings. One chaplain (a lay person, not Jewish) came into my room as I was recovering from a medication reaction. With a big smile, she said, “Hi, I’m Marie, from the chaplains office. I understand you are Jewish. I love the Jews!” It’s hard to follow up on that. I mean, I want to be loved, but…

We all know, at least in theory, that bikur cholim is all about the “I-Thou” moment, the being together, person-to-person, recognizing the Divine in the other, and opening ourselves up to the other, to risk showing who we are, the Divine in ourselves. And truly doing that, creating that safe, gentle holding space for the sick person to just be—well, that, after a while may be, not only moving and profound, but also exhausting. Being vulnerable is risky; it may be frightening. And in the midst of all the other things one has to do these days simply to keep one’s congregation, one’s nursing home or other job function, summoning all that energy to be fully present when calling/ Zooming with yet another sick person may simply feel like too much. 

Instead, we text or email: “I’m thinking of you.  R’fuah sh’leimah.” And that is not nothing. Being remembered matters, at least to me, when I am ill. It is not, however, the same as the gift of your presence—even if our time together is only a short phone call. The warmth of your voice on the phone (even just a message on my voicemail) feels healing, and I save it for months to play back in hard moments; if we actually connect, you might make me laugh for a moment or let me cry in your presence. All of this matters more than you can imagine.

And all the more so when my illness is psychological and not just physical.  From the depths of my depression, I do not have the energy to reach out, to figure out what I need and ask for the help I need. When you extend your hand, it can be a lifeline into my abyss. 

In the time that I have been struggling with my depression (over 35 years and counting!), as well as my struggles physically with my stroke and its aftermath, I have been visited by rabbis and friends of all sorts. So many of them, of you, have talked with me, made jokes, sat with me in silence (although most people find that hard to do, it is necessary at times; a good thing to remember!). And many, virtually all of the rabbis, as well as my best friend, who is an Episcopal priest, have offered to pray for me, to put me on their Mi Shebeirach list. I was, and am, always grateful for that; praying for me, for anyone, is, in my belief, is a way of placing me, metaphorically, from one’s heart into God’s hand. But in that time, only one person, a rabbinic friend, has ever offered to pray WITH me at that moment. 

And that is also what I needed. When I am depressed, it is not just that God feels hard to reach. It is that when I reach out to God, I experience a deep, dark, whirling abyss, and I fear that I shall fall into in, falling forever into nothingness. I can’t pray. But if someone were to pray with me (and sometimes I find the strength to ask a clergy friend to pray with me), then I have a hand to hold. My theology, my belief feels tenuous at best, but when you pray with me, I can lean on your faith, as it were, if only for a moment.  And that is a blessing.

I know it might feel awkward to ask each person: would you like me to say a prayer with you? But if you don’t ask, you don’t know. Some people might just like to say the Sh’ma together, or sing whatever Mi Shebeirach your community is using, while others might like a Psalm or a prayer you make up in the moment, just for that person or family. Especially in these days, when we cannot hold the hand of the person we are visiting, offering a prayer as part of our bikur cholim may be yet another way of connecting with those who are hurting. It is bringing the Holy One of Blessing right there, into the FaceTime call.


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 ravsjcohen@gmail.com

Categories
mental health

‘Coming Unglued’: Losing and Finding Myself during a Pandemic

Rabbi Cohen is well known for her involvement in national mental health outreach in the Jewish community using traditional Jewish values/ middot of compassion and respect as a model for reaching out to people with mental health issues. She is a determined advocate for those with mental illness and their families. She sees her work as both opening the topic and continuing the conversation. Here, she shares a feeling so many of us can relate to during this uncertain timethat of feeling unmoored—and the ways in which she\ copes.


The ribbons on my book, Talmud Bavli, Masechet B’rachot, fell off. There were two of them, one red, one blue, pasted to the inseam of the volume, so I could mark my place—my places, actually, since I learn this tractate with three different chavrutas, as well as having been through it twice in the Daf Yomi cycle, B’rachot being the first tractate in the Talmud. “Let’s start at the very beginning. . .“ “From what time does one say the evening Sh’ma?”

Because I am learning B’rachot with three different people, I had stopped exclusively using the ribbons as place markers; Post-its, it turns out, mark page and text well. My chavruta mostly do not know Aramaic, the language of much of the Talmud, and mine is a bit rusty (much better since beginning the Daf Yomi project, but probably not quite as good as my Hebrew and Aramaic were in rabbinical school). Therefore, the edition of the Talmud we are using is the Koren, which has the traditional version opening from the right, Hebrew style, and an annotated English version (with occasional pictures!) opening from the left. Sometimes, I would use my ribbons to mark the Hebrew daf; sometimes, they would mark an important explanation that we needed some pages later; other times, the blue ribbon would stay on a page with a puzzling picture: Did the editor think we could not imagine a donkey with saddlebags without an illustration?

And now, I have come unglued. Or, at least, my ribbons have. They lay across the white page of my journal, marking nothing. It seems right, somehow, that now is the moment they would lose their bearings, as it were, because, well, haven’t we all? Except for Shabbat, which I mark with candles, Kiddush, Motzi, Havdalah, it is hard to know what day it is. Morning runs into afternoon into sleep and morning again. I check my calendar anxiously, to make sure I haven’t missed an appointment. Is that meeting tomorrow, or this afternoon? I am trying to write a little every day. Am I יוצא (yotzei) having fulfilled today’s obligation, or was it yesterday I fulfilled it?? I think of my ancestors, who marked time by the dawn, by the stars, by the phases of the moon. How did, I, with my Google Calendar and clock on my phone, get so lost in space and time?

It’s not that I don’t have some standing appointments. Somehow, however, it’s not the same as having them in person. My weekly lunch date with a friend has become an occasional picnic on her front porch, carefully distanced, floating from day to day, depending on the week and our schedules; it no longer shows up as a “repeat weekly” on my phone. We have to seek each other out, this friend and others. I plan walks “with” friends, each of us on the phone, in the early mornings before it gets too hot. I hear the traffic in their neighborhoods, while they hear me going up and down the hills in mine. It is not the same as exercising together in person, deciding to take one more lap around the park as we hash out the problems in our lives and in the world, but it is something.

My therapist, who is still a regular appointment, baruch HaShem, appears to me on FaceTime from her kitchen or backyard, looking slightly more casual, but still there. I have finally figured out how to place a tissue or sock over the small image of myself in the corner of screen; it’s well-nigh impossible to do therapy while looking at myself. But teletherapy is still odd, different. The silences which are so normal, so important, so rich in a therapy session feel even more awkward on screen. The focus feels strange: on the one hand, my room, my home is filled with distractions from therapy and our relationship, making it hard to go deep into whatever I am wrestling with; on the other hand, having the screen filled with my therapist’s shoulders and head makes me realize how much time I spend looking at her knees during a typical session—a way of being with her, but not too intensely as I struggle with difficult material. And still. I lose track of time and days: Am I seeing her tomorrow? Or was that yesterday? And what is there left to talk about? The silence grows. A new way of coming unglued—I feel less connected to her, and that frightens me.

My chavrutas connect me, however. We check in with one another, some more deeply than others. Over the years, we have learned one another as well as B’rachot. “You say you are fine, but you don’t sound fine,” one of us might say to the other. או חברותא או מתותא (o chavruta o m’tutah), the rabbis taught: friendship/companionship or death. We argue and push and pull, laugh and wonder and struggle over the daf in front of us. What were the rabbis thinking? How does this prooftext possibly prove anything? What is the connection between the daf and our practice today? And underneath, before, and after, we hold one another with a Torah of presence: I am here for you. Sometimes we use words; sometimes, just this gentle “holding” is enough to give each other strength. 

So, these are the people in my life to ask “Where am I?” I have come unglued. I have lost my “place,” not just in the Talmud, but in my life right now. Where am I?

My enormous whiteboard looms large and colorful in my room; I am storyboarding my book in different-colored dry-erase markers. The ideas are flowing well, and I am frightened: I seem to be committing myself to actually writing a book. It has moved—no, I am moving it—from theory to possibility to something I can see myself doing. How did this happen? Who am I to write a book?

This is where I am—and I’m coming unglued. Am I crazy to think I can do this? My mind is running away…

And my circle of people responds: Here is where you are. At the beginning of the process of writing a book. We believe in you.

You play bridge with us and take virtual walks with us, say my friends.
You listen to us and make us feel heard and loved. That is where you are. 
Your place is beginning chapter 6, says my chavruta. Or page 124. 
Your place is inside yourself, says my therapist. It’s okay.
And all respond: Breathe. We believe in you. In your project. In your book. In you. 

Perhaps the ribbons will mark new space—in my book, about mental illness and Judaism, and about me becoming unglued.



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 can be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com
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Categories
mental health Torah

Responding to and Healing from Our Own ‘Tzaraat’ Without Stigma or Shame

In days of old, when a person came down with scaly skin, weird baldness, and strange discharge, he or she went to Aharon or one of his descendants, priests all, to be diagnosed. If it was bad enough, if it was indeed tzaraat,once translated as leprosy, but understood by the rabbis as a spiritual, not just physical diseasethe ill person was isolated and sent outside the camp to get better. After a certain amount of time, the person with tzaraat would return to the community, with an elaborate welcoming ritual: mikvah, a sacrifice, and an anointing by Aharon himself. But what happens when we are all sent outside the camp?  

In this second half of this week’s parshah, there is an even stranger idea introduced: tzaraat of a house. What might look like mold on the walls of the house might be something more dangerous, more insidious – the plague of tzaraat in the house, permeating the walls and inner workings of the place where we dwell. Once again, if “plague” of the house is suspected, or feared, a person goes to the priest, who examines the house. If the house does not “heal” within seven days, it must be taken apart, brick by brick, stone by stone, and those building blocks cast outside the camp. The house is then rebuilt, plastering new stones in in place of the old, plagued ones.

What are we to learn from this? Here we are, in a time of “plague,” both separated from one another for our own good, and yet connected in our separation; here we are, alone, together. And I am struck that in the Torah, when a person is afflicted with tzaraat, there is no shame; there is simply a method of dealing with the occurrence. Indeed, we are told later in the Torah, that when Miriam was struck with tzaraat, the entire community of Israel waited seven days for her to heal so that she could rejoin the camp before they all moved on, together. (While the rabbis make a connection between tzaraat and lashon hara, I am going in a completely different direction here, so bear with me!) So, too, we might treat those of us who are struggling with stress, anxiety, depressionwhether normative, existential responses to the world we are inhabiting right now, or those of us who have actual mental illnesses. When in doubt, the first thing to do is to get help:  go to someone to check out your condition. That might be a friend, or a fellow rabbi. It might be a therapist, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. This reaching out for help is the first step in treating the problem. It is, alas, not a magic step: even Aharon, the high priest, could not instantly cure tzaraat.  But he, and we, can at least name the problem, and take steps to treat it.  

Of course, we shouldn’t send folks with mental health issues outside the camp. We want to decrease stigma, not validate harmful stereotypes! And the rabbinic interpretation of the treatment of the m’tzora is already moving in that direction. Concerning the m’tzora, the Torah explains, her clothes shall be rent, her head shall be bare; she shall cover her upper lip and call out “טמא, טמא!! Impure! Impure!…And her dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45)

Upon first reading, this crying out is a way to tell people “to go away, avoid me. I am sick, I am dangerous. I have bipolar disorder! My child is autistic!  I am so anxious I can’t get dressed in the morning! I am mentally ill: beware lest I infect you. I am impure, unclean, perhaps even God has forsaken me!!” But the rabbis turn this over upon its head. In the Talmud, in Tractate Niddah (66a) they explain, the afflicted person calls out “טמא!” so as let others “know of his sufferings so that they may pray for mercy on his behalf.” Instead of casting out those who suffer, it is our job to bring into our community those who are in pain. And until we know who is hurting, we cannot help one another.

Sometimes, when mental illness, or just overwhelming stress, enters our lives, our daily routine can become a “plagued” house. We have to look at the stones that make up our lives, and see which ones are moldy and full of tzaraat, full of things that are making our depression or anxiety worse, and cast out those behaviors. Perhaps we need moreor less sleep. How is our eating: full of sugar, or nutrients? We can look for balance: for actions that heal, and also forgiving ourselves for not being perfect, for doing the best we can. Sometimes, a five-mile run is the best we can. Sometimes, taking a shower takes as much effort and deserves just as much credit. 

We will survive this external plague of COVID-19. With compassion and courage, we can name and respond to the internal tzaraat among us as well.


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 can be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com

Categories
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 ravsjcohen@gmail.com.

Categories
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 ravsjcohen@gmail.com.

Categories
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. 

Categories
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 btorop@ccarnet.org.  Rex Perlmeter, LCSW, CCAR Special Advisor for Member Care and Wellness, (rperlmeter@ccarnet.org) is available for short term counseling and spiritual direction.

Categories
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 SAVE.org 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. 

Categories
chaplains General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

APA Mental Health Guide for Faith Leaders

The American Psychiatric Association has just released new resources on mental health for faith leaders. Thanks to our colleague Rabbi Edie Mencher for bringing these new materials to our attention. The linked resources are invaluable gifts from a partnership between the faith community and the American Psychatric Association (not to be confused with the American Psychological Association, in our awareness for very different and disappointing reasons this week.) The deeply informative manual as well as the supplementary quick reference guide should be required reading for all of our rabbinic work. For those serving in congregations, I call your attention in particular in the manual to the section on wellness, as well as the second portion of the manual focused on ways the congregation can become even more responsive to mental health issues.

I offer two additional foci for your consideration. One, mentioned briefly on page 17, cannot be underestimated. That is the power of the pulpit. On these kinds of issues, your power to open hearts and provide illumination is immense. I know of several of our colleagues who have spoken recently, often from very personal perspectives, of grief, depression and other mental health issues. They have reported to me the impact of these interventions and can feel the depth of the service they have provided.

The other focus, not mentioned explicitly, is of equal import. I speak of the importance of self-care. And, in this case, I am not back on my soapbox about wellness practice. Rather, I am referring to the importance of attending to our own mental and spiritual fitness when we are engaged with helping others attack these issues in their own lives. From compassion fatigue, through vicarious trauma to triggering of deep-seated conflict, our work both puts us at risk and REQUIRES of us that we make sure we are staying attuned to our inner lives and how they are affected by that work.

So, please, read the materials referred to here, and also take an inventory of your current state and support systems. And, as always, if you’d like to discuss these or any matters, please reach out by e-mail anytime at rperlmeter@ccarnet.org.

A Prayer of Healing for Mental Illness – check out this PDF from Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Rex D Perlmeter is the CCAR Social Work Intern for Member Care and Wellness