Finding light in the darkness

Robin Kahn has spent much of her life terrified God is trying to punish her.

No matter how many prayers she uttered, no matter how faithfully she observed Shabbat, Kahn could not escape her certainty.

“I was up at 4 a.m. praying,” she says. “I would pray for hours. After I prayed I felt some relief, but by the end of the day I was depressed again.”

So depressed that she first attempted suicide at age 15. There would be more attempts, more hardship and psychiatric intervention for the 36-year-old San Jose native who still battles the phantoms that plague her.

“It can become like physical pain,” she says of her clinical depression. “When I’m on the bottom, I just lay there and cry.”

Kahn is one of thousands and thousands of Jews who suffer from mental illness. Depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia affect the Jewish community as much as they do the general population.

Statistics indicate at least 20 percent of Americans will either experience mental illness themselves or have a loved one who suffers from a mental disorder.

While stigma surrounding mental illness persists, many in the Jewish community — rabbis, social service providers, doctors and even patients — have come together to get the message out to sufferers: You are not the only one, you are not alone, help is available.

On Sunday, Dec. 11, a group of Bay Area religious leaders, providers and community members will gather at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills for a one-day conference on the subject.

Called Yehi Or (Shining Light), the conference is meant to show that Jews with mental illness may find help within the Jewish community.

One of the speakers is Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, a co-sponsor of the event. “We wanted the conference in a synagogue to encourage congregants to look at this in terms of caring communities,” he says. “Sixty percent of people with mental illness go to a member of clergy before anyone else for guidance and support. It means people yearn for a place in their own faith community.”

Another conference participant is Selina Glater, 48, a Jewish mental health advocate who has bipolar disorder and has experienced what she calls “tremendous amounts of trauma” in her life.

That may explain her current career in the field of mental health advocacy. “It’s a miracle I’m even here,” says the Mountain View resident. “I never felt accepted. I always felt I was being judged or cast out.”

In her case, it was arguably true. Much of her biography reads like a Dickensian horror story. Glater grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of two respected college professors. “We looked like the perfect Jewish family,” she says. “We were anything but.”

Glater claims she suffered verbal and physical abuse in her home, adding that “intellect was encouraged but the emotional life was ignored. I got more and more depressed.”

As a teen Glater required institutionalization. A gifted musician, she managed to graduate college, even earn a master’s degree in music. But her life became an endless cycle of mania and depression peppered with suicide attempts. “I thought I was losing my mind,” she says. “I became the black sheep of this dysfunctional family.”

As an adult, she would experience upswings in energy typical of manic episodes. “I would have a million projects,” she recalls. “I threw myself into music.” She even played fiddle in a country band, ironically named Pink Freud.

In 1987 she moved to Dallas to serve as director of cultural arts at the local JCC but her mental problems quickly sabotaged her. “I had the first significant breakdown of my adult life,” she recalls. “I was completely and totally fragmented, sobbing nonstop. Nothing could calm me down.”

She attempted to kill herself, and ended up in a locked psychiatric unit. Despite medication, her depression persisted. Glater sought a fresh start by moving to Santa Barbara to work for the county mental health department. But starting in 1992, her psychiatrist at the time initiated an illicit sexual relationship with her.

“He effectively brainwashed me,” she says. “When I think back, I ask myself how I let this happen. Part of me needed to be validated in this way.”

Over the ensuing years, Glater attempted suicide again, though her doctor did nothing other than continue his abuse. “I sued him for malpractice and won,” she says. “I’m still reeling from what happened.”

That experience led her to relocate to the Bay Area, where she now works as a consultant and advocate for mental illness patients.

Throughout her decades of suffering Glater was under a doctor’s care, taking powerful drugs for her symptoms. Her experience underscores the limited effect of drugs as the psychiatric treatment of choice.

“The meds we use to treat major mental illness have come far,” says South Bay psychiatrist Saul Wasserman. “But they’re not silver bullets. They don’t have huge mass-effects, and you don’t get that much better. Lots of people would rather take a pill than talk to a therapist.”

Wasserman, who will speak at the Yehi Or conference, has found that his Jewish background has profoundly influenced the way he practices medicine.

“It’s not something I learned in my residency,” he says. “Jewish values entered into my work in ways I was not completely aware of. Jewish tradition goes back to balance in one’s life. In the Pirke Avot [Wisdom of the Fathers], it asks, ‘Who is strong?’ Tradition says strength is about controlling your feelings and emotions to act wisely.”

Mark Gottlieb is a Berkeley nuclear engineer and Chassidic Jew who knows much about Jewish tradition. He also knows about mental illness: For more than 25 years, he has been treated for clinical depression, bipolar disorder and paranoia — and he doesn’t care who knows about it. He views it as part of his faith to reduce the social stigma of mental illness.

“Stigma has to be seen in two ways,” he explains. “External, where people are fearful of mental illness, and then the internal stigma, which frequently happens among people with bipolar and other disorders. We become very upset with ourselves for having this and worried about people liking us or working with us.”

For Gottlieb, a return to his Jewish faith provided a key component of his healing.

“I look on Judaism not as a religious convenience,” he says. “It requires work to live a Jewish life, and this means taking responsibility. It meant helping other people. This helped me because bipolar is an illness of isolation and self-absorption.”

A native of Savannah, Ga., Gottlieb recalls his father describing him as “hot and cold” as a child. “Looking back, I see he was referring to my mood swings,” he says. “I was raised in a very temperamental, dysfunctional family. Very loving and affectionate, but very argumentative at times.”

Gottlieb, 57, was in his 20s when diagnosed bipolar, around the time of his first suicide attempt. Though he excelled in academics at both Columbia and MIT, he also spent time on the welfare rolls as a disabled person, due to his disorder.

After moving to the Bay Area in 1980, he made strides professionally, spiritually and medically. “I began to study Torah,” he says. “I found ethical principles I could live by. I also began helping others in the San Francisco chapter of the Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association. They do peer counseling, advocate legislatively and do conferences.”

Peer counseling like that offered by Glater and Gottlieb is one option for Jews with mental illness. Another is an agency such as Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

“The major service we provide is mental health service,” says Anita Friedman, director of the S.F.-based JFCS. “Most of our [professional] staff are licensed social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists.”

JFCS provides everything from psychiatric care, prescription medications and case management to vocational counseling. Being a Jewish institution, Friedman notes, means JFCS emphasizes healing of mind, body and spirit.

Her agency helps not only clients that walk in the door. Friedman also has allies in the community where the mentally ill are most likely to live. “We have people in the Tenderloin we’ve been working with all their lives,” she says. “The managers in Tenderloin hotels know if they have a Jewish client in trouble, they can call us.”

That kind of outreach dovetails with the overall JFCS model. “Our approach is an integrated approach,” she adds. “We show [clients] what it looks like when the community is nurturing, supportive and embracing its members. When you get money from an agency because you can’t pay your rent, it sends a powerful message that we really mean it.”

Weiss’ Bay Area Healing Center mirrors that holistic approach. “For someone who struggles with mental illness, a recurrent theme is to reassure them that God is with them in their struggle and is supportive of their efforts to manage their illness.

“Sometimes it’s cured, sometimes it’s managed like a chronic illness. Just as with someone with a physical illness, someone with mental illness is ultimately whole. One’s soul is still whole and pure.”

That phrase succinctly describes the battle Robin Kahn has fought most of her life.

Growing up in San Jose, she had by most appearances a normal childhood. She celebrated the Jewish holidays with her family, attended Camp Shalom at the city’s old JCC. But outward appearances masked what she calls a dirty secret. A family member, she claims, sexually assaulted her, adding to her already nascent mental illness.

“I became very depressed at 10,” she says. “I had symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and by 13 I had OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] and manic depression.”

By her early teens, Kahn was under a psychiatrist’s care, but at 15 she attempted suicide. By 17, her symptoms worsened, with her religious compulsions, a disorder known as scrupulosity, flaring up as well.

Kahn married at 22, though her husband, a non-Jew, forbade her to practice Judaism. “I wanted to continue practicing,” she says, “so I went into hiding and said prayers while he was in the shower. He wouldn’t let me light candles. He was abusive.”

The couple divorced after two years, which sent Kahn into a tailspin. New meds didn’t help. She couldn’t hold a job, and found herself a shut-in, crying most of the time. At 26 she checked into Stanford Hospital’s psychiatric program. “We had educational groups, crafts groups and self-actualization to try and get out of the hole.”

From there, she transferred to crisis residential centers, then board-and-care facilities. Further setbacks resulted in what’s called a “5150,” a statute under which authorities can mandate a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation for those suspected of being a danger to themselves or others.

“It’s taken me seven years to change the script,” says Kahn. “Now the meds are working. I’m going back to school next semester. I find great comfort in prayer and I still celebrate Sabbath.”

Still, Kahn has fashioned her own unique form of spirituality. She regularly attends a nondenominational San Jose Christian church, but quickly adds, “I’m born Jewish and will always be Jewish.”

Today she says she has good relationships with her mother, stepfather and boyfriend. “They understand me, and have been through hell with me. It’s hard to be in the world, but I’m happiest when I have the freedom to be myself.”

Wasserman has seen many patients come through hell to find a measure of inner peace and success. The battles for the mentally ill don’t heal as neatly as, say, a broken arm or an appendectomy. But even in the worst cases, he believes there is hope.

“None of us gets to say which cards we’re dealt in life,” he says. “The measure is how well we play the cards we have. That’s another Jewish value: If every human life is sacred, then everyone is entitled to live the best he can.”

Where to get help

If you or a loved one need information, guidance or assistance regarding mental illness, there are several resources available in the Bay Area. They are:

• Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties: (415) 449-1200.

• Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay: (510) 704-7475.

• Bay Area Jewish Healing Center: (415) 750-4197.

• San Francisco Suicide Prevention Hotline: (415) 781-0500.

• Crisis Center of San Mateo: 1-800-SUICIDE.

• Crisis Support Services of Alameda County: (510) 309-2131.

• Suicide Prevention & Community Counseling of Marin County: (415) 499-1100.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.