In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes, “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” I have come to know that kingdom of the sick, that night side of life, through the portals of mental illness. And I have come to understand this condition, this medical condition, is chronic —not curable—but treatable.
A recent study by the Center for Disease Control noted that one family in four has at least one family member diagnosed with a serious mental illness. As with most sickness, when mental illness strikes, the whole family is affected. The symptoms displayed by a loved one—erratic behavior, disordered thinking, impaired judgment, disruptive moods— can be confusing and even frightening. Through education, compassion and understanding, family members can move from fear and anxiety to acceptance and participation in their loved one’s recovery.
NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, has been at the forefront of research and education, championing the role of families in the recovery process. It was through NAMI that I was able to move from crisis to advocacy. Through NAMI’s Family-to-Family education program I learned about the biological basis of brain disorders, the current research on effective treatment, and strategies for managing symptoms and improving outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, I became a member of a community linked through hope, committed to combating the stigma of mental illness and providing support for each other and our loved ones as we move towards the kingdom of the well.
In keeping with our Jewish values of tikkun olam and in an effort to give back to our community, I participated in the NAMI instructor training program and am now a certified Family-to-Family instructor. With the support of Emanu-El clergy and staff, I am honored to offer the Family-to-Family program to our congregants. If you have a family member diagnosed with a serious mental illness, I invite you to join us at our open house on January 27 to learn more about NAMI and our upcoming 12-week Family-to-Family program.
Mark Sugarman has been an Emanu-El congregant since 2000. Ever since he moved from Boston, what upset him the most about San Francisco was the many homeless people trying to survive on the streets. Walking by people who were either panhandling or having untreated episodes of mental illness went against the Jewish value of helping the stranger, and Mark wanted to do something about it.
When he had a chance to be a participant in Jewish Volunteer Day at Project Homeless Connect (PHC), Mark eagerly signed up. The success of Project Homeless Connect is due to the ongoing dedication of volunteers. At each event more than 1,000 individuals from every sector of the Bay Area work together to provide efficient and compassionate service to those in need. Volunteers lead and manage most service areas. The common goal is to provide relevant and easily accessible onsite services for clients while creating a valuable experience for all volunteers. At the most recent PHC event, 1,749 clients were served.
With Project Homeless Connect, a homeless person is able to obtain as many services in one day rather than over the course of several months. During each event, corporations, nonprofits and government agencies provide PHC and its participants with services such as dental care, eyeglasses, HIV testing, housing, food, hygiene products, medical care, mental health services, SSI benefits, legal advice, California identification cards, voicemail accounts, employment counseling/job placement, wheelchair repair, addiction services, and more. This is usually a quarterly event at the Bill Graham Center. There are a number of different volunteer opportunities. Mark chose “check-in” and is now a Lead Volunteer in this area. The check-in volunteer helps the homeless person determine the services needed. This few minutes of interaction gives the volunteer an opportunity to learn about the client. The stranger becomes a person.
Mark feels it has been one of his most rewarding volunteer experiences. To quote Kara Zordel, executive director of PHC, “What we do together is far greater than providing essential services. We give support and love to those in our community who often feel invisible, unvalued and rejected. By showing up and serving, we are clasping our hands together in unity. Together, we show that every person has value, even if they don’t have a home.”
Elyse Blatt initially began volunteering at G-House over five years ago with her children Zak (22) and Zoe (20). The three of them really enjoyed sharing this experience together. It certainly made her kids realize how blessed they are when seeing and hearing some of the challenges the residents experience. Each Sunday they left feeling like they did something nice for someone else and that felt great. Her son and the other kids discussed their mutual love of skateboarding and drawing, and her daughter Zoe talked to the other girls about their jobs and school. The kids also would bring out board games on occasion to play with them. Elyse looks forward to continuing to prepare Sunday night dinners at G-House and hopes that others will do the same. “Even though we all lead busy lives, taking the time out to give back, in such a hands-on way, to such a worthy group of kids, is indeed gratifying.”
Danny Grossman and his wife Linda have always wanted to model community service for and with their two children. Finding a direct service opportunity for an 11 and 9 year old, which would enable engagement with clients, was very challenging. “We have all been transformed by the experience over the years. We feel so fortunate that the youth there welcome and engage us in the way that they do; we have learned so much from them over the years.”
Laura Saunders has been cooking Sunday night dinner once a month at G-House for over six years. This opportunity allowed her to share her love for cooking and healthy eating with young adults, many of whom had been living on the street and have dealt with food insecurity.It has been inspiring to sit down for dinner with them every month, hear their stories and watch their transformation over the years.
Rachel Steinfeld and her new husband Scott Burger started leading a group of volunteers on their own Sunday. They invited fellow Chuppah and Beyond classmates to join them at G-House. These young couples, who are very busy planning weddings and starting their lives together, have continued to volunteer monthly at G-House.
Jack Merk, along with his wife Shelley, has been a congregant at Emanu-El for approximately four years. Jack is a staunch believer in the great Jewish teaching of tikkun olam, and considers it an honorable privilege to be considered among the ranks of “world healers.” Jack’s most fulfilling service activity is with the Back on Track Tutoring and Mentorship program. For two evening hours each week, plus the occasional field trip, Jack spends time working with a middle school-aged student who has academic dilemmas that are not fully addressed by the conventional San Francisco city school system.
Thanks to his involvement with the Back on Track initiative, Jack finds great satisfaction in contributing to the enhancement of students’ academic progress and empowering young individuals to become lifelong learners. Jack feels strongly that this academic resource plays a pivotal role in helping to foster a nurturing, learning and positive-socializing environment for the next generation of San Francisco citizens.
“Plus,” adds Jack, “I get the extra-special bonus of seeing the look of joy on my young student’s face when I take him to his first pro baseball, football or basketball game!”
Philip Auerbach heard about Back On Track at Emanu-El about eight years ago and has been tutoring with them ever since. It’s a commitment of only one evening a week. Most important is the fulfillment he receives from tutoring and the deep appreciation of the students, all of whom will be first-generation college attendees, and their families. At the start of the school year, new students often have a huge deficit in reading, vocabulary, spelling, writing and cultural knowledge (“What’s a log cabin?”). But after a year of reading newspaper articles and textbooks, and learning new words with lots of practice, the transformation is a light year’s improvement.
Philip’s students have been American, Ethiopian, and Chinese. His current student is Palestinian/Jordanian. While tutors can choose any grade level K-12, Philip prefers working with high school juniors and seniors. Philip has previously taught English (reading, writing and poetry), Social Studies and French. Two years ago, he spent half the year helping his student craft his college-application essays. While Philip knows that he can’t change the entire world, he feels content knowing that his students will do so one at a time through their future engineering inventions, their social motivations and their broadened perspectives.
Sarah Imber Safdar
Congregant Sarah Imber Safdar became familiar with WildCare (www.wildcarebayarea.org) through her husband Shabbir, who does fundraising work for them. Knowing her love of knitting, Shabbir informed Sarah that WildCare uses handmade wool nests to take care of baby birds during baby bird season, but they don’t have enough. Sarah combined her love of knitting, her passion for social justice and her extraordinary networking abilities to see if she could make a difference in this area of need in our community.
Sarah met with the head of the Bird Room at WildCare in San Rafael, which cares for over 1,000 birds annually, and helped diagnose some problems in the knitted nest pattern that was previously being used. Sarah created a new pattern and brought it to the crafting community on www.ravelry.com. Once the community got involved, they started making a crochet pattern as well. Sarah spent so much time on this project that Shabbir started calling her WildCare’s Knitter-In-Residence, and the title has stuck.
But that was just the beginning of her cycle of giving back. Sarah read on the Emanu-El website that her Temple was in partnership with Star Community Home. The Star Community Home is an 18-month project addressing critical community needs by providing housing and services to homeless single mothers with children at the former convent at Star of The Sea Parish in the Richmond District of San Francisco.
The project was made possible by a generous grant to Catholic Charities CYO by Lynne and Marc Benioff and the Salesforce.com Foundation. Knowing that her fellow congregants were already contributing to this project cinched it for Sarah. She went to the Star Community and start teaching the residents how to knit. Sarah now runs a monthly knitting class for mothers and children at Star Community and has offered those in a difficult situation not only a new skill, but a sense of purpose with the ability to give back.
Ten years ago, the Sanchez/Bornstein family, started Nicaraguan Children’s Friendship Committee (NCFC) to help abandoned children at Casa Jacinta, a shelter for in Leon, Veronica’s birthplace. They celebrated Christmas Holidays with Casa Jacinta’s children, accompanied with family and friends from their son’s school, Brandeis Hillel Day School.
During her visits to Casa Jacinta, Veronica Sanchez observed young mothers abandoning children because they could not care for them financially or emotionally. Children were also dropped off by child protective services in abuse or neglect cases.
On Veronica’s recommendation, NCFC’s Board started a proactive approach of tackling the root causes of child abandonment: teen pregnancy and poverty. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti. Teen girls account for 27% of births in public health institutions and 47% of these youngsters are between the ages of 10 and 14.
In 2010, Las Esperanzas (“the hopes’) was created to educate and empower high-risk adolescent girls. Serving 18 girls, the program has transformed the lives of girls to fulltime students. Previously, they working as food vendors, garbage recyclers or babysitting siblings and dropped out of elementary school.
NCFC’s mission is to make a lasting difference in the lives of Nicaraguan youth. In addition to operating Las Esperanzas it also runs Los Caminantes carpentry program for high risk boys. Additionally, NCFC provides 21 Nicaraguan students with scholarships to complete elementary, high school and vocational schools. Students originate from Las Esperanzas and the carpentry program. Some of the students lived at Casa Jacinta during their childhood.
Without NCFC’s support, none of these students could continue their studies because they are so poor they can’t afford to even buy uniforms, backpacks and school supplies. Their mothers are maids, food vendors or unemployed. In December 2014, 13 students will finish high school and vocational courses, including electricians, veterinary and farm technicians, and a beautician.
Susan Rothstein and John Koeppel
Susan Rothstein and John Koeppel, members of Emanu-El since 2011, spent the first three months of 2013 in Ahmedabad, India as volunteers with American Jewish World Service. They worked for Navsarjan, a grassroots NGO that fights caste-based discrimination by raising awareness and by representing Dalits (the untouchable caste) in the Indian legal system. Susan, a nonprofit executive, worked with Navsarjan’s Executive Director on fundraising initiatives while John, a trial lawyer, helped prosecute cases pending before the Indian National Human Rights Commission.
The caste system, a strict hierarchy based on the family into which one is born, has 3,000 years of religious, political and social history and although it is illegal to discriminate based on caste, such discrimination is still pervasive – especially in the villages. Much of Navsarjan’s work follows the strategies of our civil rights struggle, which serves as a model for them. For example, it is traditional for an Indian groom to ride a white horse to the home of his bride on his wedding day. In a village Susan and John visited, a Dalit groom had been pulled from his horse and beaten by upper caste villagers who objected to his “uppity manner”. Navsarjan is representing the groom in court, and the next time a Dalit groom in the village rode a white horse to his bride’s house, he had police protection due to the publicity resulting from the pending lawsuit.
The experience of living and working in India was life-changing for Susan and John. They quickly bonded with their co-workers, who were welcoming and appreciative. And despite the challenges (overpopulation, extreme poverty, mountains of trash, pervasive air and water pollution, insane traffic), the commitment of their Navsarjan colleagues to basic human rights for all people – regardless of caste – was an inspiration that stays with Susan and John.