Recently, Rabbi Brian Leiken of Temple Beth Sholom in New City knew that he had to talk.
As a rabbi, as a leader, he had to make clear that he also is a person in order to lead. And as a person, he had to make clear that he is imperfect — in other words, as fully human — as the people it is his job to lead.
So, at the High Holy Days this fall, he talked about suicide and mental illness.
He’ll be talking about it again on Wednesday, May 15, at the launch of Lo Levad — “you are not alone” — a joint project of the Rockland Board of Rabbis and Rockland Jewish Family Service. (See box.)
The sermon was triggered by two things, Rabbi Leiken said.
The first was the death of a high school friend. Rabbi Leiken grew up in Shaker Heights, outside Cleveland; he’s been gone from there for a long time, but “my mother called this summer to tell me that a friend who I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years had just passed away,” he said. “I talked to a number of friends, trying to figure out what had happened.” Rabbi Leiken is in his 40s. That’s not a time of life when you expect your friends to start dying off. “Nobody knew, and the family wasn’t saying.
“Later, I learned that it was suicide.
“It was only when my mother was talking to his stepmother, when she said something like ‘It was what you think it was.’” No one would use the word suicide.
“It reminded me of when I was just out of rabbinical school and had to officiate at a funeral for a family that had lost an 18-year-old son to a drug overdose. I remember spending two and a half hours talking with the family, and they never mentioned to me how the son had died. They really didn’t want to talk about it.”
So he thought about it, and “I decided to tell a piece of my own story,” Rabbi Leiken said. Not all his story, he added. “Just a real small piece.” But still.
“When I was a freshman in college, at Brandeis, I had a panic attack during orientation week,” he said. “I was sitting at an event where they were talking about junior year abroad, discussing the options and the possibilities. I remember feeling sweaty, and also incredibly depersonalized, as if my body were not connected to my mind. As if I were out of my body.” It was a strange and scary feeling.
“I remember feeling disoriented a lot during orientation week — I think a lot of people feel that, but I was feeling it on a different level.
“So I told my new friends — and they were very new friends, brand new friends — and they called an ambulance, and I went to the emergency room at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital right down the road. And they brought me a brochure that said, ‘So you have panic disorder,’ and they gave me Xanax, and they sent me home.
“I was back in the emergency room the next day.”
“I stayed in school that year” — it was the 1994-95 school year — “but it took a number of months for me to begin the process of healing. And it began a lifelong ongoing battle with anxiety and depression that most likely I inherited from my family, and it’s been quite a journey for me.”
As a rabbi — and as a person — he can learn from it. “It has offered me a lot of context for understanding other people’s journeys and battles,” Rabbi Leiken said. “So I decided, this last year, to tell that part of my story, knowing that it really runs much deeper than I was sharing.
“The results of what I was sharing blew me away.
“All of a sudden, I had people coming over to me, telling me their stories. Telling me their challenges. I had a lot of parents who were talking to me about the paths their children were walking.”
Those parents suffered from a twofold problem, Rabbi Leiken said. “First, there is the stigma. The embarrassment. And then there’s the other part, that I didn’t know would be as much of an issue as it is.
“It’s helplessness. People feel helpless. Mental health is not simply a science, but also an art.” (That of course is true of all medicine, he added, but it’s particularly true of mental health.) It involves both minds and bodies, and the connections aren’t necessarily clear. “And when it comes to kids and adolescents, who don’t really know what’s going on with their bodies anyway….” And the more confusing everything seems, the more people “feel very much alone,” he said.
“We are not so good at understanding the way that our emotions and our feelings and our bodies affect us,” Rabbi Leiken continued. “We have become very fixated on finding quick fixes.” That doesn’t work.
Instead, “it is necessary for us in the synagogue world not simply to talk about mental health issues, but to open our spaces and bring in resources, to have other people talk, teach, advocate, lessen the stigma. We have to normalize our conversations, to make it so that mental health isn’t something you just leave out.”
Rabbi Leiken has been greatly influenced by the work of Brené Brown, and most particularly by her book “Daring Greatly.” “She speaks about the importance of vulnerability, of opening ourselves up,” he said. “She says that we have a fear of being vulnerable because we fear that it will hurt us. But the truth is that vulnerability is how we feel connections.”
Synagogues should offer those connections, but too frequently they do not, he added. “Modern synagogues have become a place of disconnection,” demanding individuality in all things. “It has ripped apart what community has meant, to become just another example of consumer culture. The synagogue has become another extension of our individualistic world, but traditionally it has been a place where people connect to each other, and to God.
“The first thing in the Bible that isn’t good is loneliness,” Rabbi Leiken said; that’s when God created Eve to complement Adam. “That’s why we want to emphasize Lo Levad. You are not alone.
“Remember that the word ‘synagogue’ comes from the Greek word for ‘gathering space.’”
The program that will launch on May 15 will involve Rabbi Leiken and another guest on a panel, and rabbis will talk about mental health issues on two Shabbatot during May, according to Carol King, a social worker who is a clinician with Rockland Jewish Family Service and is heading the initiative. “This is a launch,” she said. “We are not doing the equivalent of National Brotherhood Week,” a one-and-done nod to feeling good. Instead, she said, this “is the beginning of something that we chose to make a lifelong part of our Rockland Jewish community.”
“We decided to start small,” Rabbi Leiken said. “This year, our goal is just to make clear that we want to do something. We are going to unveil a poster in our area synagogues that will designate it as a safe space. The goal is to use this launch as a way of beginning the conversation in the community this year. Next year, we hopefully will have something bigger.
“My hope is that we can build a leadership circle around this issue, and I hope that the team can find a way of helping this issue permeate our walls. It is not enough for me to just tell a story and Carol to just bring a panel. It has to find a way to live and breathe within the life our community.”
Who: Rockland Board of Rabbis and Rockland Jewish Family Service
When: Wednesday, May 15, from 7 to 9 p.m.
Where: Rockland Jewish Community Campus, 450 W. Nyack Rd # 25, West Nyack, N.Y.