Beth Singer (left) with her sisters Amy (center) and Lori (right), who has schizophrenia
Beth Singer (left) with her sisters Amy (center) and Lori (right), who has schizophrenia

We need to start talking about mental illness in our synagogues

I recently asked my sister when she first recalls being diagnosed. She thinks she was 2. The doctor told our parents that she was retarded and should be institutionalized. Instead, we moved to a new home in another part of Southern California.

The new doctor said, “She’s not retarded. She shows signs of schizophrenia as a result of a chemical imbalance.” My sister was given strong medications, started public school and graduated high school. She was the oldest, and I was the middle, and all I remember is that, as she grew older, she exhibited increasingly bizarre behavior and got into lots of trouble. As a family, we lived a double life. We were shining citizens on the outside and a mess at home.

Our parents were dedicated Reform Jews. Temple was the focus of our family life and we were “all in.” I recently asked my sister how she remembers being treated by synagogue members throughout her childhood. Her memories are kinder than mine. But the truth is that in those days, her mental illness was not mentioned. Our rabbi never said a word. Congregants politely pretended we did not have a family member with mental illness.

My parents were in over their heads. They needed compassion and support. When I think of my younger, healthy sister and myself, it feels as if we walked around with a public secret. I felt like we were the only ones who weren’t a “normal” Jewish family, and it felt both isolating and embarrassing.

We live in a different time now and we know that mental illness affects the Jewish community just as it affects any other community.

As our synagogues have become more welcoming, we have our work cut out to destigmatize mental illness in shul. Like other minorities, we Jews still tend to put only our perfections on display. At onegs we boast of our children’s prowess on the sports field and in the academic realm. We should be rightly proud when our children get accepted to great colleges.

But imagine the parent standing at the oneg with a child with mental illness. Where is there room to speak of that child’s path? We announce publicly at Mi Shebeirach (prayer of healing) when a congregant lands in the hospital with a physical diagnosis. We keep it private when they are in a psych ward or struggling at home with mental illness.

Rabbi Beth Singer (left) celebrating her sister Lori's (center) 60th birthday
Rabbi Beth Singer (left) celebrating her sister Lori’s (center) 60th birthday

Doesn’t the congregant with mental illness or with a mentally ill family member need our prayers and our recognition? Where is the learning session within the synagogue walls about what mental illness is and how we can better understand it? Where is the safe space to talk about our mentally ill child, parent, sibling, aunt, uncle or friend?

When you schmooze at the oneg, Kiddush lunch or Sunday school drop-off spot, how safe is it to share your story or the story of your family member without risk of embarrassment or alienation? How many parents have a child being treated right now for anxiety or depression and stay silent?

Synagogues, we all have our work to do.

Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael is leading the way with groundbreaking programs to destigmatize mental illness in the synagogue.

Following their lead, we at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco are exploring paths to make it normal to talk about and to accept mental illness as a fact of life in our synagogue community. We imagine our efforts will involve educational opportunities — times for congregants to meet in a safe space to discuss personal challenges with mentally ill family members; education for our Jewish educators; advocacy for legislation that strengthens the safety net for those with mental illness; and a consciousness raising about how we encounter any person who feels like “other.”

Remarkably, we just celebrated my sister’s 60th birthday. Though professionals call her “a high-functioning person with schizophrenia, bipolar, psychosis and obsessive-compulsive tendencies,” I call her a miracle. She lives independently in her own rental apartment. She has a job and friendships. Her safety net is woven of support from her family, state and federal entitlements and also the local Chabad rabbi’s family in her town, who fully embrace her.

Judaism teaches that we are each created in the Divine image. We each walk the Earth with a spark of God inside us. “To see your face is to see the face of God,” Jacob once told Esau.

Most of our synagogues do not yet practice what Judaism teaches. We start by seeking out that divine spark and seeing the face of God in each person.

Rabbi Beth Singer
Rabbi Beth Singer

Rabbi Beth Singer is the co-senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.