Last year, together with my co-chair, Yair Meyers, we spearheaded an initiative in our community in Montreal which became known as the Community Mental Health Shabbat. Our goal was to get as many synagogues in our community as possible to dedicate the same Shabbat in May to mental health awareness and destigmatization.
As a psychologist, I had become increasingly aware of, and saddened by, the stigma associated with mental illness in our community. We reached out to synagogues across our city from every spectrum of Judaism to join to observe this Shabbat timed to coincide with Canadian Mental Health week in May. The goal was to increase mental health awareness and decrease stigma by talking about mental health in an open and honest forum. Each synagogue that participated was asked to dedicate that Shabbat to mental health in their own way. Some synagogues invited speakers, some Rabbis dedicated their sermons to speaking about mental health and other organizations invited members to speak about their own experiences with mental health, either as individuals conveying their very personal experiences or as professionals in the field. We were so fortunate that our synagogue, Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem (TBDJ), arranged for Dr. David Pelcovitz, renowned psychologist and mental health advocate, to be our scholar in residence for the Community Mental Health Shabbat weekend. We were thrilled to learn from his expertise and our synagogue community, together with the members of our community-at-large drew inspiration from a Mental Health Symposium, where Dr. Pelcovitz presided as the keynote speaker. The panel also included a local Orthodox rabbi, a leader of our local community agency for mental health, and a family caregiver who shared her experiences with those in attendance. We had no idea what to expect and were astounded by the capacity crowd in attendance that evening. We had hundreds of people who came from all parts of the community including individuals representing several Hassidic communities. This mixture of communities was not a common occurrence. It was clear that this was a topic that resonated with the Jewish community as a whole and the response was overwhelming. Each speaker was heartfelt and shared critical information. However, it was the family caregiver who shared her pain and at times, her joy, at having spent years caring for her sister with schizophrenia that resonated with the participants. You could hear a pin drop during her talk, and she was overwhelmed and in tears at the standing ovation that she deservedly received after she concluded her presentation.
This year, long before any of us ever heard of the Coronavirus or COVID-19, sheltering at home, or social distancing or began to feel the impact that all of these would have on our mental health, our synagogue had booked Dr. Norman Blumenthal, another renowned psychologist and trauma specialist as the scholar in residence for this year’s Mental Health Shabbat. It became apparent rather quickly that our local Montreal Jewish Community Mental Health Shabbat would become a virtual one, and thus we took this opportunity to spread the initiative more globally. The topic of mental health that has often been hiding in the shadows has now become a household term, written about in every major newspaper, posted about widely in social media, spoken about regularly by public health officials, and felt by each and every one of us from young to old. We worry about the cancellation of our children’s classes, about workers who lost their jobs or those who now must figure out how to work from home. We worry about our seniors who are isolated, and of course, those with pre-existing mental health conditions. Rabbis made halachic decrees regarding the urgency to reach out to anyone that might be alone and hurting on Passover. Due to a successful social media campaign, hundreds of Jews from across the globe signed up to answer their phones on Yom Tov and Shabbat, because our concern for human suffering is above all else.
This year’s Mental Health Shabbat will be held on May 7-10, 2020, beginning with the Mental Health Symposium on Thursday evening, May 7, at 7:30pm (www.tbdj.org/mentalhealth2020). The topic will be “Anxiety through the Lifespan: A Jewish Community Response.” While it is important to note that mental health concerns came long before this crisis, and will last long after we have resumed our normal activities (whatever that “new normal” may look like), this pandemic has allowed us all to have a very small window into what so many in our communities suffer on a daily basis. These people need our support, now more than ever. That is why I am observing the Community Mental Health Shabbat, and I invite you to join me. Better yet, ask your local synagogue to dedicate this Shabbat to mental health this year and in the years to come. Together, we can destigmatize mental illness and understand that mental health is part of being a whole person. Moreover, caring for those who are suffering, whether publicly or silently, is an attribute that is intrinsic to being a Jew.