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Jewish leaders blend old tradition, new resources for mental health

Jewish faith leaders are combining ancient lessons with outside resources to help congregants with mental health now and in the long run.
Jewish leaders blend old tradition, new resources for mental health
Posted at 8:02 AM, May 08, 2023

Rabbi Susan Shankman has been teaching at the Washington Hebrew Congregation for more than 20 years. Like many spiritual leaders, she's had to navigate changing times, including an embrace of mental wellness.

"There was more of a stigma, certainly, than there is today. And I say that as a parent of teens and young adults who have had their own experiences with mental health," Shankman told Scripps News.

For her, that means boldly taking on topics that weren't discussed a generation ago, like how to handle fasting when members have eating disorders.

"The idea of Pikuach Nefesh — which is saving a soul, keeping a life healthy — supersedes the fast itself," she explained.

She's also had to preside over funerals for congregants who've died by suicide.

"When there's a funeral with difficult issues surrounding it that have to do with mental health … not shying away from talking about it," Shankman said, explaining that she never does so without the blessings of the deceased's family.

According to data from the Blue Dove Foundation, a group dedicated to Jewish community mental health and illness, Jewish Americans suffer from mental illness at about the same rates as the general population. 

SEE MORE: America's breakdown: Confronting our mental health crisis

Past research showed higher rates of depression in Jewish men, but that has been challenged over the years.

However, there is ongoing research about intergenerational trauma and the impact events like the Holocaust and war have had on survivors' offspring.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg recognized the need to wade into the intersection of spirituality and mental health too, a topic he confronts alongside co-host Moshe Yachnes and mental health professionals via his podcast, "Out of the Shadows." He also takes the message to the pulpit of his congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.

"We have a fairly large congregation — 1,000 active families. And you simply see, of all ages, people who are really confronting, struggling, engaging and dealing with these issues that are proliferating, growing and spreading," Goldberg said.

"I can't tell you how often after a sermon or an article I write, or this podcast that we produce, where if, minimally, we validate what people are going through, they say, 'I'm not the only one. I relate to that. Thank you for giving it a name. Thank you for sensitizing people,'" he continued.

He says the old text and traditions are full of answers to modern problems.

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"The role of meditation, the role of breathing, the role of slowing down, the role of refocusing, the role of having mantras that we repeat. These are ancient ideas that go back to the very beginning of Judaism itself — the comfort in our own skin to disconnect from technology and to be able to be in conversation with ourselves and a relationship with ourselves and to regulate ourselves," said Goldberg.

Shankman agrees, pointing to the connection between practices involving gratitude and lower rates of depression.

"There's a tradition that says that we could say upwards of 100 blessings a day," she said. "And how many of us actually say 100 blessings? How many of us actually pause to say one? And just working at gratitude."

Both leaders combine those ancient lessons with outside resources that can help congregants now and in the long run.

"If you break your leg and you don't go to the doctor, if you have an infection and you don't go to the doctor, it doesn't matter who you are, you're not going to heal. And there is healing and there's a positive, bright future," encouraged Goldberg.

"The more we provide a safe space where people are comfortable coming and asking for the help they need and being able to connect people with the right resources," Shankman said.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources on the benefits of spirituality and mental health, along with avenues to find help if you need it. You can visit the website at nami.org and, of course, you can also get free and confidential help by contacting the suicide and crisis lifeline.

If you need to talk to someone, reach out to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.
This national network of local crisis centers provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


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