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

CCAR on the Road General CCAR Pesach Statements

Rabbi-Hacking IV: Hacking Our Teaching

One of our colleagues wrote a humorous and thoughtful “rabbi’s” version of the ahl cheyt. One of them was “for the sins we have committed by relying on ‘Rabbi Google’ rather than the sacred texts in our study.” I can relate. The extent of Jewish teaching resources available online is extraordinary. Websites for texts, commentaries, and community continue to grow. A contemporary Kohelet could say, “Of the making of websites there is no end.”

How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? Personal preferences play a role. So denomination and ideology, along with usability and relevance. We all know of the excellent URJ site. What follows are some of my favorites. Please leave some of your favorite resources in the comments section so we can all benefit.

1. Jonathan Sacks recently retired as Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. Yet, he has maintained a website filled with Torah commentaries, essays and lectures, and it is filled with wonderful ideas and chomer l’drush.

2. A lay leader brought this to my attention. It gathers texts from the Tanach to Maimonides to Midrash Rabbah in Hebrew and English, in a format where one is able to create a teaching source sheet. The site is still developing, and the available texts are a bit haphazard. Yet, this site is beginning to prove eminently useful.

3. Maintained by the American Jewish World Service, this site has a similar concept as Sefariah, but is more developed and focused on social justice. It also has the benefit of providing users with access to source sheets put together by others.

4. JTA is a great source for Jewish news, opinion and blogs.

5. I am biased, as I blog regularly for the Huffington Post, but the range of writers and topics is phenomenal. I’ve found many good ideas for lunch and learn and other adult education classes on the site.

6. Mosaic is the successor the Jewish Ideas Daily. Though its selection has a clear conservative bent, Mosaic offers articles on topics in Jewish thought and history difficult to find elsewhere. Its articles lend themselves to good discussion.

7. Tablet is a bit more pop-culture orientated than Mosaic, but it also offers excellent essays on Jewish life and thought, and it is frequently updated.

8. This site has nothing to do with Judaism or Jewish life. In fact, its author is a devout Christian and former head of a major Christian-orientated publisher. But the insights on leadership and productivity are better than can be found anywhere else. He gives insights into blogging, organizational leadership, and how to get more done in less time. That’ Unknownsomething we can all use.

 Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.