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Changing Times: Mental Health Awareness in the Jewish Community

By Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)

A highlight of a recent conference on Judaism and mental health featured several members of the host synagogue telling their stories. Two men and a woman spent the better part of a late morning describing their journeys and how the congregation's openness to them as individuals helped support them and their families. Gradually, in the past decade, increasing numbers of congregations and agencies with the Jewish community have begun to focus on the challenges of reducing the stigma of mental illness on a public level as well as creating opportunities to educate members of the community regarding the place of mental health within Jewish tradition.

These half and full day seminars are growing in number and are often linked with types of "health fairs" that enable attendees to become familiar with local mental health support networks. We are also seeing a rise in the number of smaller support groups within the community aimed at specific issues such as Alzheimer's and dementia support. The reasons for this rise in interest are varied. Certainly, the current economic climate has produced increases in stress and strain on individuals and families. Likewise, there appears to be a greater willingness on the part of clergy to preach and teach about mental health concerns, which help demystify the subject. The rising awareness that this issue impacts so many families and spans the generations has helped raise the profile of need.

What is also becoming important is the realization that mental health concerns play a part in so many personal and family behaviors. Issues such as self-inflicted violence and eating disorders among young people, addiction and anxiety among middle-aged people, and loneliness and depression among older adults are finding a wider avenue of discussion and study within the Jewish community. Why? The answer is that so many more of our people are experiencing these issues and these same people often turn to their clergy and congregation asking how or if Judaism and Jewish tradition has anything of value to say to them. The reality that Judaism has spoken to mental health concerns for much of its history often is liberating and comforting.

Congregations, Jewish Family Services and Jewish Federations are each creating more opportunities to raise awareness and reduce stigma. In addition to synagogue sponsored conferences and sermons, Family Services and congregations are adding support groups and programs to their schedule of offerings that speak to issues that span experiences from addictions to Alzheimer's to care-giving and loss.

The Jewish Federation of New York has even undertaken a major yearlong campaign to raise this issue within all denominations this year. The program was launched with a communal conference in May of 2010 and will feature educational materials and a Sabbath devoted to mental health awareness this fall (contact Rabbi Edythe Mencher who is developing this material at ehmencher@gmail.com).

Other resources include:

  • R'fuat Ha Nefesh: Caring for the Soul (URJPress), an overview on Judaism and Mental Health and includes essays on texts and healing services that speak to the issue.
  • Resilience of the Soul (URJPress), a program book for congregations that looks at resilience and issues of self-destructive behavior.
  • L'tapeach Tikvah: To Nourish Hope, a text-based program guide for congregations that wish to examine the subject of eating disorders (available from my office at URJ).

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