Rabbis, therapists to ease Jewish angst at local confab

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A century ago, a Jew with a troubled soul turned to a rabbi. Today, the choice is more likely to be a therapist.

But these two paths to emotional health don't need to be mutually exclusive, say presenters at an upcoming conference exploring the intersection between psychology and Judaism.

"The movement toward wholeness, toward spiritual wholeness — that's a work both therapists and rabbis want to support," said Rabbi Miriam Senturia, a conference workshop leader and a staff member at Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

At the same time, there are no guidelines to tell rabbis or therapists when they might turn to one another for assistance. And there are no set rules for incorporating the spiritual with the clinical.

"Judaism and Psychology: Integrating Psyche, Spirit & Community" will attempt to bridge some of those gaps. The daylong conference, set for Sunday, Nov. 9 in Berkeley, features lectures and workshops led by Bay Area rabbis and psychotherapists.

Workshops include "The Ten Commandments of Jewish Manhood," "Kabbalah in Psychotherapy" and "The Spirituality of Jewish Marriage." Others focus on conflict resolution for intermarried couples, improvisational acting with biblical tales and identity issues for gay and lesbian Jews.

Sponsors include Lehrhaus Judaica, the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, JFCS of the East Bay, Chochmat HaLev and Congregation Kol Shofar.

Other religions are also exploring the overlap between spirituality and psychology. But Estelle Frankel, one of two conference coordinators and a Berkeley psychotherapist, said a specifically Jewish focus is appropriate. Jews in particular are "over-represented" in the field of psychology, she noted, and Jews seeking help often turn to Jewish psychotherapists.

The conference has two goals, Frankel said. One is exploring how self-hatred and internalized anti-Semitism affect Jews. The other is spreading the belief that psychology must reconnect with its roots in a realm that she calls "the sacred."

"The healing arts once upon a time before psychoanalysis were the domain of the theologians. Beginning with Freud, it became a separate domain. It became scientific," she said.

That division was unfortunate, in Frankel's eyes. She doesn't believe that psychology alone can address all the dimensions of the human spirit.

For Senturia, a credentialed chaplain who works primarily with Jews who are sick or dying, the line between rabbi and therapist is both fuzzy and distinct.

"When Jews go to rabbis, it's generally because they have a spiritual issue they want to sort out. A spiritual issue isn't necessarily about God. It's about meaning and connection," said Senturia, who will lead a workshop called "Putting Jewish Healing into Practice."

"In my experience, when someone is able to effect some healing of their relationship with God, with the Jewish community, with Jewish tradition, it helps a person go through the really hard times…It helps so much."

When Senturia is working with someone in crisis, however, she must also rely on instinct to know when someone might benefit from long-term professional counseling.

"I am very clear I am not trained as a therapist. I try to really pay attention when I work with someone to recognize the limits of my training and my skills, as well as my time."

She refers clients to a therapist if, for example, she sees them struggling with major unhealed wounds from childhood.

Joel Crohn, a conference organizer and a psychologist who lives in San Rafael, believes that clients who complain of isolation or feeling cut off just might benefit from joining a congregation. "I know I'm limited if I can't get them involved in life," Crohn said.

He doesn't tell a Jewish client to become religious per se. But Crohn believes strongly in the power of community, which he sees as a form of extended family. Such community can often be found in a congregation.

At the same time, Crohn asserts that many therapists need to work out their own issues with religion in order to better serve their clients.

If a Jewish therapist can't even walk into a synagogue, he asked, how could he or she expect to help a client who might be struggling with religious issues?

Barry Barkan, director of the Live Oak Institute in El Sobrante, which seeks to change negative images of aging and the aged, will co-lead a workshop called "A Journey to the Inner Elder."

Though he has no formal psychological training, Barkan works on a "psychosocial-spiritual wellness model."

He, too, recognizes the healing power of Judaism.

"The Jewish tradition is built around the greatest power source in the universe. Judaism offers up a way to connect up to that power source and work on our lives so that our vessels are capable of receiving the power," he said.

"The spiritual part of Judaism is intrinsically healing."