What would I want my congregation to know? Part III

Posted on February 11, 2007

An anonymous letter to my congregation:

I write to you today as one of the Unseen. It hurts to not be seen. It hurts even more to suffer alone and in silence.

I have a mental illness, depression in particular. I hide it well most of the time.

Today I did not hide it. I cried openly in shul. I trembled from the sheer pain of it, surrounded by some two hundred people, during the kiddush luncheon that followed, and still you did not see me. I stumbled out of the social hall, blinded by tears I could not control and sobs that left me unable to breathe, and still no one saw me.

I took refuge in the chapel and sobbed aloud. In the past I would hide in the bathroom, taking great pains to silence my tears when anyone came in. Today I did not. I sought solace, but I did not hide. People came into the chapel for various reasons: to look for a lost tallis, read the newspaper, find a book in the library. Even still, I remained Unseen.

When my sobs exhausted themselves and I found my peace in emotional numbness, I rose to leave the chapel, falling onto a chair in my weakened state. One man remained in the chapel, facing me. He did not even bother to look up. I left the chapel, Unseen.

I made my way to a class. At one point I was standing in the middle of a crowd. Two dozen or more people were close enough to me that accidental contact was inevitable. I was crying, wiping tears, choking through my breaths. I was in your midst, and still I remained Unseen.

Two women who already know me and know I’ve been struggling with this for the better part of a month did stop me on my way and expressed concern. After being surrounded by my congregation for four hours by then, I was finally seen. But only by those who already knew of my condition. And as a side note, every single of one of those are converts. What does that say?

My rabbi called after me. I was shaking and doing everything possible to hold back the tears. I was not successful. He said while hospitalization was not an attractive option, the results I could get were positive. He said a misheberach for me. He mis-remembered my Hebrew name, leaving off part of it. I didn’t know if that invalidated it, but I was too shaky to correct him.

I entered late to the class, which was populated by people I know. You know me. But you did not see me. The teacher asked my opinion on the topic, and I somehow managed to push my brain into something resembling coherent thought. My voice as I answered was clearly one that had been crying. My eyes were red; my hands still grasped a damp tissue just in case.

The teacher was quite pleased with my answer and the discussion continued. I didn’t trust my voice to contribute further. When the class ended, people left. No one said anything to me about my demeanor. You who were in the class with me have known me for a dozen years. You are part of the lay leadership of the shul. I respect you and your learning and your commitment to the congregation. Why did you not see me?

Perhaps all of you in the congregation had too much going on in your own lives today. Perhaps you saw only what you wanted to see. Perhaps you saw me and thought to yourself, it’s not my business.

On behalf of the Unseen, it is your business. If we are not sensitive to the pain and needs of each other in the congregation, what business do we have even being there? You may not be able to fix the problem. But you can show that you care. You can ask if I’m okay, if I need help, if I need to talk to someone, if I need to be alone.

But silence only tells me that you do not care. You do not see me. I am less than unimportant; I do not even exist.

My congregation, my Jewish community, my adopted family has let me down. That the only people who saw me other than my rabbi are all converts says nothing good about the Jewish community.

I do not understand why you will not see me. It hurts as much as my depression attacks my spirit. I am left only with the hope that you will hear me now. Do not assume that a fellow Jew in obvious pain is none of your business. Do not keep your blinders on in shul. If you cannot attend to someone yourself, find someone who can. Go get the rabbi if necessary. Do not walk away and assume someone else will come along.

Good questions to ask include: Do you need help? Are you safe? Do you need to be alone (if safety is not a concern)? Do you want to talk? Can I get someone for you?

Use your common sense. Depression kills. It kills the spirit, but it is also a leading cause of suicide, either intentional or by accident when someone with depression cuts himself or herself to relieve the pain, to be seen, and accidentally cuts too deep or the wrong thing and can’t get help in time.

Taking one small minute out of your day, out of your life, to see someone in obvious pain could literally save a life. And it is the only Jewish thing to do.


  1. Naomi

    Rivka, I am so sorry for what you are dealing with, both the depression itself and how your community is (not) responding. Without excusing anyone’s behavior, I think that anon #1 might have a good point.
    Many people don’t know what to do or say when they see someone else crying in public, and may think that they’re helping by giving you your privacy. Much of how people respond to others comes from how they imagine they would like to be responded to. So if they think they would want to be left alone, they may do the same. They may not actually want to be left alone, if they were in your shoes, they clearly don’t understand what you’re going through. As far as the fact that those who did speak were converts, it makes me wonder about the culture of the Jewish community where you live. Just like individual families have cultures, so do communities. Our community, I think (and hope!) would have stopped you to inquire, but our community is eclectic and very much not mainstream in any way. Your concrete suggestions re. what questions to ask are wonderful and I hope many people see and take them to heart.

  2. Anonymous

    As someone who suffers from clinical depression, I have had many instances where family, friends, and others did not see my pain. It makes one feel like a non-entity.

    That made me angry. So angry that for the first time in years I felt something other than the overwhelming numbness of depression. I used the anger as a springboard and learned to talk to others about what I was going through.

    In talking about the pain, I gradually became aware of the pain that others were going through.

    The anger also kept from acting on the suicidal thoughts.

    I’m glad you’re reaching out by posting about this. Our congregation has a new rabbi. He started goading members of the congregation to look after one another.

    He gave a simple question for us to ask one another: What can we do for you?

    That one simple question has made our tightknit congregation even tighter. By asking the question instead of waiting for someone to volunteer the information, people are drawn together.

  3. Ayelet

    Anon: Do you usually stop to comfort someone who is crying and upset?

    I would hope so! How could you walk by a person suffering and not hold out your hand? My kindergarten students have the heart to ask their classmates what is wrong if they notice them crying in the corner!

    Rivka, frankly, I’m horrified at the apathy your fellow congregants display. Is this the only shul in your area that would suit your needs? Right now, it doesn’t seem that they are suiting your needs at all. I’m sorry to sound so judgmental but I’m feeling so terribly disappointed for you. I wish there was something i could do to make things better for you.

  4. Anonymous

    There are fine and caring individuals that are introverted, and even when noticing your unhappiness were at a lose of what to do & how to react.
    Do you usually stop to comfort someone who is crying and upset?
    It should be done, but I dont believe it shows disinterest or lack of caring. Rather not knowing how to proceed and how to offer comfort.

  5. Rivka

    Thank you, EK.

    Ezzie: I don’t expect people to seek me out or come find me. I think that is too much to ask. But I spent the better part of five hours today in full view of people, not hiding from them or hiding how much I hurt. And no one saw me.

    People stood or sat right next to me as I cried and did not see me. Or if they saw, they did nothing. The message that sends to me is they do not care.

    I’m not asking people to go hunting for those in pain. Only to see that people right next to them may be in need. And to do something about it.

    I hope that helps?

  6. Unknown

    Amen to EK.

    A serious Q: How should people know where to look, to see you? (For those who don’t know already.) In other words, if I’m unaware of someone who is depressed or struggling in my shul/work/etc., how can I know something is wrong? I may want to help if I knew… but how do I know?

    (This is similar to #13 from the post a few below this one, I guess.)

  7. Anonymous

    I’m glad you made it to shul. Just getting out of bed is a very good thing. You gain strength from this, even though it seems as if no one sees or hears you. God see you and hears you. Although I imagine that is hard to feel as well. Hang in there!

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