Reaching out to heal

Posted on October 23, 2007

There is much to tell but today I am very tired, so I will only begin.

I saw my rabbi last week, thankfully. I wanted to be strong and in control but even on the way to meet him I was in tears. This recent downturn since the end of September has been hard though the increase in meds helps and I’m sleeping better and I’ve been through much, much harder. But it has kept me away from shul. Lately it has brought up too much pain, too much remembering of how it feels to be Unseen and not valued.

I know that my perspective is skewed at the moment, that the painful events feel closer and more painful than they do when I’m feeling strong and happy. I even said as much to him.

My rabbi said two things that really stuck with me. One was that he would do everything he could to prevent and help heal such painful experiences related to the shul, short of embarrassing me. I am glad and relieved that he wants to make this about the shul, not about me. I know that I am not the only one in the congregation battling depression and it would be grossly unfair for me to receive validation while others continue to remain Unseen.

The other was that he wants me to help him–and the shul by extension–learn how to help me and others like me. Already I had an idea. It is not unusual to train congregants on the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. In my area it has been focused on hospital and nursing home visits. But why could we not expand it a bit to include people we see in shul, at work, friends, who are in pain?

The thing I hear most often here on the blog and in person conversations is that people don’t know what to say, how to act, so they say and do nothing.

Why can we not teach people a range of things to say and do? The question or offer that helps me might not help another, but if there is a larger range to choose from, adaptable to the situation and the people involved, it would be a starting point. It would open a door that has remained closed for too long.

As if on some divine cue, I received today an invitation to join a committee at shul to study and make recommendations on inclusion. While inclusion is often used in terms of physical, developmental and learning disabilities, there is no reason it should not also include brain disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, and others. Ours is often a hidden illness, but
by nature, these disorders make it hard–even impossible–for people going through an episode to reach out, get involved, or even to come to shul.

Shul should be a place that people can bring their confusion and fear and pain, a place that should be free of stigma for what we know is a biological medical brain illness, a place where those who are able can be there for those who are not, knowing that which end of the need spectrum we’re on can change.

I went to another Jewish mental health conference, too. I wrote about last year’s conference and I’m relieved that this year’s was much, much better. I want to write more about that, too, but today I must take it slow and save my energy.


  1. Rivka

    Daniel: I know that feeling well. I am also aware that what might help me might not help you. I would love to see this sort of training but I worry that there are no universal answers.

    RWAC: Thank you. I don’t know what I would have done if he didn’t get it, or worse, didn’t want to. The more I write about this, the more I hear that this is not at all an uncommon issue in shuls. Do rabbis get training to help others like me, or do we just have to hope that they have some internal instict or former training in another field?

    Shira: it has gone even farther now. There is a committee I am now on whose job it is to “operationalize” inclusion in the shul. How can the shul’s inclusion of not only physical and developmental disorders but also biological brain disorders (like depression) and learning disorders become second-nature, so that it is present in everything we do?

    Halfnutcase: I think that I might have liked this, especially this past year. But then I found out that this was tried on another absent congregant and his response was something like, What? You’re taking attendance now? Trying to guilt me into coming back?

    That would not have been my response, but I guess I can see where someone might find it intrusive. From where I stand, I don’t understand that; when you join a shul aren’t you looking for a community?

    Anonymous: You go/don’t go–is it that it doesn’t matter so much to YOU or it doesn’t register with anyone else that you’re there or not? Does that matter to you?

  2. Anonymous

    I hope some truly good things come from your meeting with him. I go to shul/don’t go to shul, it doesn’t matter so much…

  3. Looking Forward

    I would suggest that perhaps, when Men do not show up to shul in a way that is characteristic (IE a man who is always there and always on time gets there somewhat late, or doesn’t show up, without mentioning something (if they’re that kind of person) or it repeats for a long enough pattern that they should have mentioned it (IE going out of town) it might just be a good idea to call in, or to ask a friend to call in to check if everything is ok and if they need help. and do it every time. You might bother some people, but those who need it will be appriciative, and even if they decline, it will show that you are worried about them and miss them.

    Similarly if anyone doesn’t show up on shabbos as they normaly do, and the rabbi hasn’t heard that they’re out of town (which in my experiance most people tell the rabbi) then check in on them, even possibly by visiting on shabbos to make sure that they’re ok. (maybe they’re depressed, but maybe the kids are being a nightmare.) This works for girls too, because at least most women I know get to shul at a reasonably regular time (not necessarily perfect but) and if they aren’t there, then obviously something isn’t right. Or if they are there and leave early, or if they’re hovering in the back near the door, or if they’re sitting in a different seat than normal, or anything. And for both boys and girls, if you see someone who normaly davens sitting in shul and not davening, then please, if your a friend sit down with them, or offer them to sit close to you, or find a friend of theirs and tell them, and suggest that they offer to sit next to them or bring them next to them. and always, after shul check in on them quick, but non intrusively and just ask if they’re ok, and remind them that you want to see them in shul and that you care.

  4. Shira Salamone

    “Your idea about training people to help people with depression and the like is a good one.” Amen. I’m clueless. And I’m glad your rabbi acknowledges that the shul needs to improve how it responds, and wants to figure about how to help.

  5. rabbi without a cause

    I am thrilled to read this; it appears that your rabbi does get it. May this continue, and so help you and many others.

  6. Anonymous

    Your idea about training people to help people with depression and the like is a good one. I suffer from depression, and friends and family have said they want to help, but don’t know what to do. It is often hard for me to express what help I would like, and the worse I am feeling, the harder it is to explain.

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