Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Thank you to our friends at the USCJ for sharing this important blog.

There is a synagogue we visit from time to time. Every time we have been there, a man sits alone in the front row. His dress is a bit shabbier than others, his social manner a bit awkward.  He comes early, stays to have a little food at the Kiddush, and then departs. And the entire time, almost no one speaks to him.

We learned that this gentleman suffers from chronic mental illness. He could benefit greatly from social interaction and the support of a synagogue community. And this is a synagogue that prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive. But whether through fear, discomfort, or ignorance of his circumstances, no one has offered.

People race to hold the door for someone in a wheelchair. Teachers praise the student who sits with the classmate with Down syndrome. We all rush to feed a family touched by cancer. Yet no one visits the psychiatric ward when a member is admitted. Congregants recoil from the man who shows up at services without having showered that week.  And most avoid engaging with or including someone struggling with depression.

Despite the fact that one in four adults suffer from mental illness, including Jews, our synagogue communities have not been good at supporting or including those with mental illness.

Our rabbis have always had a complicated approach to mental illness. In the Talmud (Eruvin 41b), mental illness or insanity was described as one who is driven to “act against his own will and the will of his Creator.” The cause was described as being driven by “an evil spirit.” The rabbis did recognize the suffering and the need for compassion. The text concludes by asking, “What does this teach us?” And the answer is: “To request mercy for them.”   But only in modern times has the discussion moved from “mercy” to “inclusion.”

Ben Azzai taught in Ethics of the Fathers, “Treat no one lightly and think nothing is useless, for everyone has a moment and everything has a place.”  We have a Jewish obligation to have mercy on those in need, but also an obligation to allow all to contribute to the community.

So why is it so difficult for our synagogue communities to act on this obligation?

Mental illness is a ubiquitous but often invisible disability. It is difficult to address because it is complex and highly personal. People often fear the stigma that may result from telling others about their disability, which prevents them from seeking support. As our USCJ colleague Rabbi Joshua Rabin once asked, what might it mean to treat every person as if he or she is “fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

To be inclusive when there is stigma, shame and silence, our synagogues must first speak openly about the issues. Talking publicly about depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, and other struggles helps give people the emotional freedom to seek the help they need, and gives community members the comfort level to respond. As Rabbi David Schuck of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, NY observed in his work as part of USCJ’s Ruderman Inclusion Action Community, “The more I talked about it (mental illness), the more individual people in the community felt like they could talk to me.”  Once people came forward, he was able to connect families dealing with similar issues, so they could help each other through support groups and individually.

And we need to speak openly about our own discomfort. Do we embrace a person as being created Btzelem Elohim (in the Divine image) or do we fear them? Without meaning to, we often isolate and abandon those who may need us most. Speaking openly about mental illness is the best way to educate and create a level of comfort.

Here are just a few ways our synagogues can become more welcoming and supportive for those with mental illness:

  • Include people with mental illness, if they wish, in the list of those recited in the Mi Sheberach prayer, asking for the renewal of “body, spirit, and mind.”
  • For those needing a quiet, comfortable space, provide a sensory calming room such as a library, classroom, or lounge. Ushers and clergy should know when and how to direct people to the space, and the synagogue should feature signage and printed directions.
  • Draw on outside resources. For example, Forest Hills Jewish Center  works with an on-site social worker from New York’s Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services to support their efforts at including the mentally ill.
  • Use existing committees to organize efforts to invite individuals with mental illness to attend events, visit in the hospital and at home, bring meals, care for children and offer transportation as you would to anyone with an illness.
  • Make embracing those with mental illness a public conversation in your kehilla through sermons, lectures, and programs.

We have a Jewish obligation to care for others and to allow them to participate and contribute to the community.  And it is our community that loses out when we do not do so. We must confront our prejudices and attitudes as well as adapt our programs and activities to reject silence and isolation and alleviate stigma through acceptance and support. That is the true definition of kehillah kedoshah, building a thriving, vibrant, compassionate, inclusive and holy community.

Jennifer Gendel serves as Inclusion Specialist for the USCJ and Ed Frim is the USCJ’s Director of Learning Enrichment.