Rabbi's Message, January 2015
Rabbi Beth Singer, Co-Senior Rabbi
When my oldest sister was ready to start kindergarten in the mid- 1960s, doctors told my parents that she had a chemical imbalance that was causing a form of mental illness to manifest. Although she went through terrible times throughout her childhood and teenage years with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychosis, she miraculously managed to become a Bat Mitzvah and to graduate from high school. She is what we call “high functioning,” and through advanced medications and excellent services from county mental health, my sister lives independently and has a fulfilling life.
Throughout my childhood my sister’s condition was never spoken of outside our family. Although always completely harmless, she did look different and sound different and so she was treated like a pariah at school and at temple. Kids taunted her and adults avoided her. My family attended weekly Shabbat services, but she felt keenly the sense of not being welcome at temple.
During my first six years as a rabbi in the 1990s, not only were congregants discouraged from acknowledging mental illness in the family, but we also pretended that there was no families with gay children or children with learning disabilities or learning differences, and no one ever talked about family members with addictions. To listen to the oneg Shabbat chatter, one might conclude that every synagogue family had 1.8 perfect children who were the captains of their varsity sports teams and headed to an Ivy League university. People with other kinds of family members generally did not share their stories at temple. Many synagogues had a way of silently discouraging people with any notable difference from worshipping or participating fully in temple life.
In the past decade it has been a delight to witness holistictransformation as synagogues across the country, especiallyReform temples like Emanu-El, have opened our doors much wider to be radically welcoming of anyone and everyone who wants to be part of our community. Our temple family is made up of Jews and non-Jews, people of all races and colors, members of every socio-economic group, those gifted,average, with special needs, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addictions, and mental illness. We can do a better job in the ways in which we acknowledge, welcome, support and encourage our own congregants with mental illness, and families like mine to feel fully connected to this Temple family.
I would like to especially commend Sandy Rechtschaffen who has initiated a program for congregants who have a family member with mental illness. Please join us for the open houseon January 27th and sign up for the Family-to-Family series that begins in February and is designed to offer support tofamilies with a mentally ill family member.
We are setting up these opportunities specifically to make the temple a more welcoming space. Every person possesses a spark of the Divine. We want every person to feel fully included and engaged in full temple participation regardless of whether or not they experience mental illness. Even though times are changing, and there may be less stigma attached,we know that families with a mentally ill family member can still feel hesitant or embarrassed to talk openly about the unique challenges they face. Let this series begin to symbolize our congregation’s sacred commitment to honoring the divine spark in every human being. Please be in touch with Sandy,me or any member of our clergy if you would be willing to share with us your own experience with a family member with mental illness. We want to hear your story because you and every member of your family are a treasured part of our temple community.