“Mental health doesn’t mean pathology,” Rebbetzin Shuli Fuchs of Pomona said. “It involves understanding the social, emotional and subconscious components of how we act and behave.”
Rebbetzin Fuchs, a teacher and grade advisor at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth and rebbetzin of Khal Avreichim of Pomona, recently participated in “Foundations of Community Mental Health Support.” The two-day conference in Great Neck was one piece of a fellowship program organized by the Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative for rebbetzins, teachers, and women in other communal positions.
The Women’s Initiative offers spiritually inspiring programming and provides support for women in religious leadership or lay leadership roles, Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, the initiative’s director, said. Dr. Shmidman is the rebbetzin at the Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania and earned a doctorate in educational psychology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
The fellowship began in May with large weekly Zoom sessions and small group conversations facilitated by psychologists and social workers who serve in similar communal roles. The program will continue with monthly virtual sessions and facilitated conversations through next April. Rebbetzin Fuchs is part of the program’s second cohort, which includes 32 members from across the United States.
“My roles of rebbetzin and high school teacher both require a heightened ability to be able to understand where a person is coming from, to understand their pain, to be able to see them from their point of view, for who they are, and to recognize their potential, what they can be,” Rebbetzin Fuchs said. “These are things that require understanding human aspiration, understanding human pain, and understanding some of the very common challenges that people face and how those challenges can be masked. So an understanding of mental health is important. I couldn’t possibly separate my roles from mental health.”
The seminar covered a range of topics including the teenage years, couple relationships, addiction, and eating disorders. Participants also learned to recognize red flags and when to refer people to mental health professionals. Rebbetzin Fuchs now feels better able to notice possible issues and to recognize when someone might need more help than she can provide.
She also feels better prepared to respond to situations as they arise. “Often your initial response is crucial,” she said. “It can have a significant impact on the situation.”
The fellowship also is helping her strengthen connections to community members and students. “Having a deeper understanding of what a person is going through, being able see people in a more holistic sense, is very helpful,” she said. And she appreciates the camaraderie and support system inherent in the fellowship. “There’s something really powerful about connecting with people in similar professional roles because they just get it – they really understand your lifestyle and the challenges you might face in your role.”
CM Gerson of Springfield, who teaches at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, participated in the conference. She and her husband, Rabbi Chayim Gerson, Congregation Israel of Springfield’s assistant rabbi, also are the shul’s youth directors. She is a member of the fellowship’s inaugural cohort; about half the members of that group attended this summer’s seminar.
Ms. Gerson participated in a similar conference last year as part of the fellowship and returned because she believes mental health is an important subject. “When I was growing up, mental health wasn’t talked about so much,” she said. “And when it was talked about, it was kind of hush-hush, under the radar. It was very much taboo.
“I really think it’s so important for us to prioritize our mental health and to make sure that our communities and our students are taken care of emotionally, mentally, and religiously,” she continued. “I feel like people often put mental health on the back burner because you don’t see it, and you can act like you’re okay, but we know very much now that that is not okay.
“We need to take care of our mental health just like we feed our bodies.”
The fellowship program and the recent seminar prepared participants to help their constituencies, Ms. Gerson said. “We are not mental health professionals, but it is important for us to know how to talk with people in our communities, how to talk with our students, when it comes to challenges that they are dealing with. And it’s important to know how to deal with tricky and complicated situations that unfortunately do come up. Often the answer might be referring people to appropriate help, but that is still a conversation that you have to have, and it’s important to understand how to have it in the appropriate way, in the way that’s the most beneficial.
“If a student or community member has a negative experience with a rabbinic figure, or with a teacher, or with somebody in a position of authority, it could preclude the desire for a future relationship with anybody in a similar position. So to have the tools to react appropriately, and resources and ways to help, is crucial.”
The goal of the seminar and the fellowship is to equip participants to provide the foundations of mental health support, Dr. Shmidman said. To give them the knowledge of basic diagnoses, of how to refer a congregant or student to a mental health professional, and of what types of things to notice when someone seeking help has a conversation with them.
“The issues relating to mental health are all encompassing and far reaching, and have accelerated in recent years,” Dr. Shmidman said. “And rebbetzins and teachers are often in the position of being first responders. What we’re seeing is that in order for these women to feel on sure footing in their communal roles, this basic knowledge is fundamental and foundational — it really helps them do their jobs.”
One of the sessions is a 101 of psychological disorders that familiarizes participants with a range of issues. “If you know what something could look like, if you know what you’re listening for, you’re in a better position to notice issues,” Dr. Shmidman said. “Of course, the program does not give participants the knowledge to diagnose, but it gives them knowledge to be able to assist, support and redirect.”
The program also prepares participants to have conversations that might be uncomfortable. “It gives them the language and the knowledge of how to say to a congregant or to a parent, ‘I think this needs professional help,’” she said. “Participants are often in the position to facilitate community members getting the professional help that they need, and to really help them feel bolstered and feel supported in this space.”
And while the program sessions provide important information, “the sense of community and camaraderie, of being part of something, is huge,” she explained. “You could really feel that in the room.” And the program has led to significant resource sharing among participants. “That’s something that has been very visible in the WhatsApp space.
“We want to make sure these are not one-off programs. We are continuing to invest and to network, and to connect and collaborate so there is a continuing sense of support for these communal leaders.”
Ms. Gerson is grateful for that. “When I was in high school, I had friends who were dealing with difficult situations and adults in the school didn’t really know what to do,” she said.