Rodef Sholom takes aim at mental health issues

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Last year on Rosh Hashanah, members of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael wrote down things they were struggling with in their personal lives and submitted them anonymously.

Ten days later on Yom Kippur, some of the cards were read aloud during services. “I live in constant mental and emotional pain and I don’t know what to do,” stated one. “Please release me from constant thoughts of suicide,” read another.

Moji Javid, Rabbi Stacy Friedman and JoAnne Forman (from left) at a recent mental health conference

While going through the cards, clergy and staff realized there was a common thread. “We looked at them and noticed how many people were struggling alone in silence from mental illness and addiction,” Rabbi Stacy Friedman explained.

Friedman had already decided to devote her Kol Nidre sermon to the struggles these people and their loved ones face. The then-recent suicide of Marin County resident Robin Williams was part of the reason she chose the topic; she also decided to open up and talk publicly for the first time about the pain caused by her stepfather’s suicide two years earlier. Friedman invited everyone to a meeting later that month to discuss how to better address mental health issues in the community.

Eighty people showed up, and Rodef Sholom’s Mental Health Initiative was born. It started as a series of meetings in which participants shared their personal stories and brainstormed how to better serve people struggling with mental health issues and end the stigma in the Jewish community.

Now, entering its second year, the initiative is taking some bigger steps. Over the summer, JoAnne Forman was hired to be the program’s coordinator, and this month, the congregation is kicking off a four-part speaker series called “Breaking the Silence: Conversations About Mental Health.” Each will feature one or two mental health experts in conversation with a rabbi.

Ken Druck

“As a synagogue, I think we do a wonderful job at caring for those with physical illness,” Friedman said, noting, for example, that it’s not unusual for the community to provide support to someone fighting cancer. “But people who were struggling with mental illness felt isolated.”

Though Jewish tradition understands physical and mental suffering to be on an equal plane, social stigmas against mental illness persist, according to Friedman.

Amy Barad, a 21-year member of Rodef Sholom who is on the Mental Health Initiative steering committee, said that during Friedman’s Kol Nidre sermon — in which she spoke frankly about the need for healing for those who are suffering from mental illness and for their families — there were a lot of wet eyes in the room.

The ensuing meetings inspired people to intimately share their experiences in a way that is often uncommon. Breaking down barriers so people realize they’re not alone in dealing with mental health issues — and can share things that are difficult to talk about — is a key part of the initiative, Barad said.

Moving forward, Rodef Sholom is considering a number of ways to make the synagogue more welcoming to individuals and families dealing with mental illness, such as possibly starting support groups. Also, religious school teachers have been trained to spot the signs of mental illness as well as encourage compassionate behavior among students. Last spring, a healing Shabbat service was held.

“We are not a social service agency; we’re a synagogue,” emphasized Moji Javid, director of synagogue engagement. “It’s more of a culture change, changing the culture of what it looks like to talk about mental health issues.”

The first event in the speaker series is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22 in the Rodef Sholom sanctuary and will feature Ken Druck, an authority on dealing with adversity and healing after a loss. He will be addressing how to cultivate resilience after a loss or setback. Admission is free, but an RSVP to (415) 479-3441 or [email protected] is requested.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.