May is Mental Health Awareness month and instead of brushing it under the rug, the Orthodox Jewish community is increasing conversation and resources, and having Shabbatons to help those who are struggling. The Pandemic has had an effect on everyone, but all the more so on those who were already struggling with their mental health. While the community has been making strides in its normalization and treatment of mental health disorders, it is now at a new level. Dr. Rachel Goodman, who is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience and expertise in anxiety, trauma and more, says, “The silver lining of the pandemic is that we’ve gotten a window into what it means to struggle with your mental health…we’ve heard from people [who were being seen] prior to the pandemic ‘oh now people know what it’s like for us.'”
Goodman’s Community Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, spearheaded by Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Côte Saint-Luc, Montreal will be fully virtual this year, with a Mental Health Symposium on Thursday evening, a Friday workshop for high school students and a Sunday morning Mental Health workshop. “The theme of this year’s Shabbaton is resilience. I really do believe that people generally are resilient…that doesn’t mean that more people won’t be reaching out for therapy, but people do reach out for help and we grow from it.”
In terms of the source for the mitzvah to take care of your health and mental health in particular, Goodman says, “If you look at sources for the importance of taking care of yourself in the Jewish world, it’s been there all along. You take care of your brain in the same way as you would your body. If you speak to any rabbi they would tell you that is true.” Although the Torah world still relied on the secular world to bring the conversation to light in the way we currently understand it to be, rabbis are now at the forefront of helping their congregants to get the help they need. We saw this last year at the beginning of the pandemic, when people made their phone numbers available for people in distress to call, even on Shabbos or Yom Tov.
This Shabbaton has always been Dr. Goodman’s dream. She co-chairs it with Yair Meyers, and they started it three years ago, when they were stunned to get 18 shuls to come together on the same evening. “We had people from the Hasidic to the religious conservative, reform, to the reconstructionist community.” Dr. David Pelcovitz was their guest and their theme was Anxiety. Last year they went fully virtual and were able to reach out to people in many other communities.
This year, Dr. Rona Novick, licensed clinical psychologist and the Dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration of Yeshiva University, is their scholar in residence. Tomorrow’s teen workshop is of particular significance. “All of our kids are going to be impacted [by COVID], whether educationally, socially, emotionally or otherwise.” Sunday morning, they are having a mental health morning with Dr. Novick and Mark Fein will be speaking about depression. Other communities are having further events in-person as their local areas allow. Some are sending emails or resources or have their shul rabbis giving drashas on the topic as well. “Globally it is becoming more de-stigmatized…there is more awareness of it and more resources for it.” The OU has even had classes which they have offered to rabbis on how to focus their drashas on the topic of mental health.
“In the Jewish community, it is improving. There is still a lot of secrecy about this.” Goodman works with a lot of young women at marriageable age, and because of shidduchim, they are very private or sometimes unwilling to even get help. But in general, she is impressed. “I do see thankfully that we’re moving forward.” We even see that issues of mental health and shidduchim are being addressed in the current third season of Shtisel.
Goodman proudly contends that the Jewish community itself is built for resilience. “I know there are people from Holocaust survivor families…many of us have been lucky to have been taught to take the next step forward, you look towards the future and you take each day as a gift.” She knows this personally as the daughter and granddaughter of survivors. “I wrote about my grandfather, [who] I’m sure had post traumatic stress disorder, screamed out every single night in nightmares and woke up in the morning smiling, ready to face the day, ready to be there for us, ready to teach us that this is what you do, you embrace your Judaism and you celebrate Shabbatot and holidays and you be together and you live each day for what it is and what it offers to you and you thank God for what you have.” She has lived that lesson since she was born and tries to teach it to her children too.
Her work with the Hasidic community shows the work that needs to be done, but also the strides that have been made so far. The Hasidic community is nearly 100% Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors, not all of whom have dealt with their trauma. “This is in the process of being dealt with, but we as a community have more work to do.” As survivors are dying, there is a race for those remaining to confront their trauma so they can record their experiences for the next generation. “I hope that from what I see from being a child and grandchild of survivors and also being somebody who works in this area, we are working to become more aware as that very scary date of the last survivor being alive is coming too soon. I think that there is a lot of research being done.” In Israel, there have been big changes over time of people becoming willing to talk about it. “We’re doing better.” Goodman sees the beauty of relationships in the Hasidic community and knows that despite the fact that this version isn’t in the media, it is incredibly heartening.
But she isn’t stopping at this weekend; for her, this is only the beginning of the journey. “This Shabbaton is a great start, but what about the rest of the year? How do we support people with mental health issues?” Goodman is definitely making headway.