Conference aims to remove stigmas of mental illness

In an effort to erase the stigma that can plague those with mental illness, one East Bay congregation is doing what few synagogues have done before — devote an entire afternoon to talking about it.

Temple Isaiah in Lafayette will host P’tach Libeynu (Open Our Hearts), a series of in-depth discussions and workshops designed for those with mental illness, their caregivers and families, mental health professionals and anyone interested in learning how Jewish tradition treats the topic.

The conference is 12 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at the synagogue, 3800 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. It is free and open to the public.

“We want to help people understand that if they have mental illness, just like any other illness, they are welcome here,” said Rabbi Judy Shanks, who will be one of the day’s presenters. “They are praised and nurtured within the Jewish community with patience and empathy.”

Joining Shanks will be fellow presenter Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, keynote speaker Dr. Johanna Ferman, with the Contra Costa County Mental Health Division and others in the mental health field.

The day will begin with a dvar Torah (sermon) given by Shanks, followed by a panel presentation and the keynote address. Participants will then disperse into a variety of discussion groups, ranging from caring for children and adults with mental illness to coping when a loved one commits suicide.

Weiss and Temple Isaiah Cantor Leigh Korn will lead a healing service, and the afternoon will conclude with closing remarks and a reception. Jewish text and traditions will be woven into the conversation throughout the day.

“When you begin to look at what happens to people who suffer from mental illness, you realize how important it is that we do something to make it more mainstream,” said Diana MaKieve, a Temple Isaiah congregant who chairs the Open Our Hearts committee. “We’re trying to open a door about mental illness so that over time, we don’t create isolation.”

About four years ago, a congregant with mental illness approached MaKieve and asked her to organize an event similar to one held at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. The congregant has since moved away from the Bay Area, but MaKieve said it was important to see her request all the way through.

In the past year and a half, MaKieve formed the Open Our Hearts committee and connected with congregants at other East Bay synagogues, as well as with Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and NAMI: the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Each contact, she said, provided valuable resources for the seminar’s attendees.

P’tach Libeynu is being sponsored by Temple Isaiah, and several congregations and Jewish organizations. A joint grant from the Jewish Community Feder-ation of the Greater East Bay and the Jewish Community Foundation, plus funding from Telecare Corporation, an Alameda-based provider of mental health services, is also making the event possible.

Both MaKieve and Shanks expect the day to be emotional, with many participants divulging personal information.

“In my pastoral care for people, mental illness is something that they are often embarrassed about,” Shanks said. “They don’t want to talk to friends in the congregation, and it’s hard for them to come forward and talk to rabbis.

We want to help people describe what it’s like to have a mental illness, find avenues to reduce the stigma and intensify the ability to help people from a spiritual perspective.”

P’tach Libeynu is set for 12 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. Information: (925) 283-8575.