When I think about my dad at home through all the years of my growing up, I think of him as alone. And when I think about my mom through those same years, I think of her as lonely.
My dad, who was living with bipolar disorder, spent months at a time inside our house, often in his bed, almost always alone. My mom went to work every day, and my brother and I went to school. When we got home, there he was, on the couch, watching television.
I was a kid. It never occurred to me to wonder about how alone he was. He was my dad — funny, smart, devoted to his family. Most of the time, he was also bitter, angry, and dark. Then would come the weeks of mania, when he was full of ideas, excitement, and risky behavior.
In the 1950s and 1960s, no one understood my father’s mood swings. My parents’ friends wondered and perhaps pitied, but mostly they stayed away. Those friends who tried to help often were pushed away by my dad’s anger. My dad’s parents fretted that they had done something wrong to cause such brokenness. My mother’s parents urged her to leave my dad, and bring my brother and me to live in their house. Instead, my mother stood by my father, the love of her life.
She held him and us together. There were no support groups for her, synagogue was not a safe place, and her friends were not equipped to understand. I wonder who possibly could have listened to her without judgment, even if she could have articulated her sorrow and her rage. She must have been very lonely.
I thought a great deal about my parents throughout the month of May as we observed Mental Health Awareness Month. In synagogues and community centers throughout Rockland and Bergen counties, we experienced a wealth of opportunities to open our hearts, to educate ourselves toward deep understanding, and to empower us to be advocates.
At my synagogue, Orangetown Jewish Center, we dedicated a Shabbat to mental health. Our mental health committee (ojccares4U@gmail.com) planned a special day of prayer and learning designed to create feelings of well-being and happiness — keystones to nurturing and sustaining good mental health. Through meditative prayer, singing, text study, and guided building of relationships, we practiced experiences that promote resilience.
For example, we walked in silent meditation from the daily chapel to the bima in the sanctuary to receive Torah, a powerful re-enactment of Mount Sinai. Tradition tells us that everyone received Torah in his or her own way. God does not see anyone as broken, because everyone is created in God’s image. And so we walked together as a community, from the 4-year-old twins skipping to the 90-year-old couple walking carefully, using their canes.
Being together in a community where everyone is accepted as “just fine,” just the way they are, is a most powerful sustainer of mental wellness. Everyone who was in our synagogue that day felt this crucial teaching in our very souls. But I wondered about all of those people who needed such a Shabbat and could not be there.
Over three Thursday evenings, Rabbi Craig Scheff taught Torah and rabbinic texts that address Judaism’s understanding of mental illness and wellness. One text that touched me deeply is a discussion about Proverbs 12:25 that says: “If there is care in a man’s heart, let him quash it [yashhena].” In a talmudic debate, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi disagree about the intention of that verse in Proverbs, based on different pronunciations of the verb “quash.” “One said: He should forcefully push it out of his mind. And one said: It means he should tell others his concerns.” (Yoma 75a). Both rabbis’ opinions can be interpreted as therapeutic in their understanding of the destructive power of dysfunctional, circular thinking. One rabbi prescribes banishing the thoughts — I imagine him using behavioral interventions to help his client stop the harmful loop — while the other rabbi prescribes talk therapy to lower the person’s anxiety. Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi have different methodologies, but they agree that the person suffering from disruptive thoughts must deal with the matter.
Everyone who participated in these study sessions came to understand that our tradition has named and understood mental illness from ancient times. Rabbi Scheff’s teaching made clear that the wisdom of Judaism provides authority to combat the stigma of mental illness and a salve for its associated pain. But I wondered about all of those people who needed these classes and could not be there.
This week, music director Amichai Margolis and I led a service of healing and harmony at the OJC. This gathering for prayer, meditation, and music was planned to create a safe space for all who attend, a place to think about their own mental health and those of their loved ones. The message that life brings struggles and we can turn toward God for support and strength is the keystone of this service. And I will wonder about all of those people who would benefit from a healing service and could not be there.
Thank goodness for the month of May, for the programming and education and focus on mental illness. But what about everyone who is not able to be in synagogue with us? What about the people who struggle with mental illness in their homes or in facilities and cannot leave, who are trapped there, unable to enter into a community of faith? What about those people’s caregivers, too exhausted or fearful of stigma to come out and join us in community? Where many of us see a sanctuary, they might see an unbearable barrier to entry.
How can we begin to change this reality for Jewish people and their families who feel isolated due to mental illness?
Merle Feld’s poem “Dreaming of Home” reads as a clarion call to all homes of worship to be places where people are safe and known.
“We want so much to be in that place
where we are respected and cherished,
protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged, heard.
And seen, seen
in all our loveliness,
in all our fragile strength.
And safe, safe in all our trembling
vulnerability. Where we are known
and safe, safe and known —
is it possible?”
We can continue to speak out. We can become really good listeners. We must work hard so that people feel safe in our sanctuary spaces. If you are struggling with mental health issues and you feel alone, reach out to your rabbi or local Jewish Family Service or one of the mental health agencies in your area.
Reach out in any way that you feel able, so that someone who cares can meet you halfway. Even if you can only reach out a very short distance, I hope that an empathic, caring person will meet you the rest of the way.
If you are lonely because you are a caregiver to someone struggling with mental health issues, I hope you find a friend, family member, or professional to listen, share, and allow you to strengthen yourself.
You might feel alone and you might feel lonely. The goal of Mental Health Awareness Month is to provide a community of support for those who struggle not just in the month of May, but in all the months that follow.
I pray for all of us for a refuah shlayma, a complete healing, a healing of body and healing of spirit.
Paula Mack Drill is a rabbi at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg. She also has been a social worker at Daughters of Israel Geriatric Center and Golda Och Academy, both in West Orange, and the assistant director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.