While Hasidic Jews are often depicted in the media as being emotionally unstable, Gelly Asovski, one of the first Yiddish speaking Hasidic female therapists in Monsey, is trying to bring more mental healthiness to her community.
Born and raised in Monsey – and raising her own family there as well – Asovski was not too pleased with how her town was depicted in Netflix’s My Unorthodox Life. Her approach to life and education is far from the way her community was painted there. Asovski emphasizes that there is room for diverse experiences within every subcommunity – and recalls her childhood with fondness.
Asovski admits that while there are more therapists in Monsey and the surrounding Orthodox Jewish areas than ever before, she had been the first Yiddish-speaking female therapist in her community. When asked about her career inspiration, she describes that her husband had done work with Hasidic kids-at-risk in the early years of their marriage. He confided in her that there were no social workers in Monsey who were capable of catering to the Heimish and Hasidic communities – not because they were untrained, but because they didn’t have the cultural context to understand these children. Aside from cultural barriers, there were also language barriers; many of these children only spoke Yiddish, or spoke English with a lesser degree of fluency. Asovski had always had an interest in advanced education, mental health, and holistic health: her husband suggested that she be the person to go into social work, and be the gateway to helping these children.
Having never considered this career path before – much less going to college – Asovski consulted with her parents and her rabbi. With their full support, she went on to be one of the first women in her community with a master’s degree. Her Jewish education prepared her for her master’s studies at NYU: after learning in three languages in childhood and writing analytic papers with citations, she couldn’t understand why her classmates were complaining!
Twenty years later, Asovski is a registered play therapy supervisor, an EMDR consultant, and the coordinator at the trauma-recovery network that services her geographical area – which offers pro-bono services in the even of hate crimes, terrorism, and natural disasters.
When it comes to her Jewish clients specifically, Asovski has stuck locally: most of her clients are Heimish or Hasidic children and families. She has noted that nearly 100% of these families are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, and that the generational trauma is particularly strong here. Much of the work she does is in addressing negative messages (ex: that the world is going to pieces) or scarcity (particularly with food). In addition to treating people individually, she is a believer in family therapy as the means of mass healing. “Everyone comes to parenting with something,” she says. “When there’s an identified problem, if the family can heal together, then we can not only heal the family – we not only help the child, we help the parent – we also build resilience for the future and the following generations.”
While Asovski was one of the first Yiddish-speaking therapists in her area, she is far from the only one. While the Hasidic community is known for insulating itself against the goings-on of the secular world, it has slowly, then enthusiastically begun to embrace advances in mental health. She even jokes that her area has more therapists than any other zip code in the country! This boom is, in part, due to the flexibility of the newer frameworks of providing higher education in separate-gender classrooms. Heimish and Hasidic men and women are now becoming therapists, social workers, nurses, and special educators. Teachers and pediatricians are recommending therapy as the first response to issues in children – which in turn opens doors to parents being receptive to receiving therapy for themselves.
Asovski’s work is not limited to the Hasidic community, though. While she is most informed about the cultural nuances of her home, she has wisdom about communal mental health on a larger scale. Every community has stigmas regarding mental health and starting sensitive conversations. She has observed patterns in her work with both the local Orthodox Jewish community and the Haitian community: many of the psychological, community, and family issues are the same across both groups. “Every mom, every dad wants the best for their children,” she says. “If a kid is acting out, a mom and dad wants help. So we have all made progress.”
She jokes, “The nature of family is dysfunction. the question is, how much?” When you put a whole group of people together, problems will inevitably arise! But there is a difference between normal – and even healthy – minor clashes, and deep dysfunction that is detrimental to all.
This can be a difficult pill to swallow: to a degree, we expect the Jewish community to “be better” and less dysfunctional due to holding ourselves to a higher standard. This goes for all dysfunction, not just the familial variety: including sexual abuse. Asovski is also a specialist in treating sexual abuse, and has her rabbi’s guidance in educating patients and their families. She reports abusers with full support of daas Torah, and supports parents in taking abusers to court.
Educating children and their parents is another matter – Asovski has observed that parents around the world are themselves uncomfortable discussing sensitive topics with their children, each within their own community and cultural mindset. She firmly believes that the first step in mutual family education is to provide children with basic language to address or approach these topics.
Once more, Asovski emphasizes that her approach to therapy is as family-centric as possible: the heimish way, one might say. As much as social systems are important, home is where the heart is, and if one feels secure there, then that is the biggest breakthrough for safety and mental health.