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Let's talk about it: breaking the silence about mental illness

09/18/2018 10:29:53 AM


Rabbi Allison Berry

Rabbi Berry gave the following Kol Nidre 5779 sermon on  Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

A member of Temple Shalom recently posted a message on Facebook. I share it today with her permission: “I’m not Kate Spade, and I’m not Anthony Bourdain. I am a real person. I’ve suffered from periods of crippling depression and anxiety for most of my life. I am in no way ashamed; but despite being a loudmouth I’m actually a rather private person, so this hasn’t been something I’ve advertised.

As an adolescent I had no image of a person with mental illness living a relatively normal life. But guess what - it can be done! But only when you acknowledge your shortcomings and lean on people who love you. So I’m leaning on all of you now. And here’s how I’m starting: If you ask me how I’m doing, I’m going to tell you the truth. And I hope you will do the same. No more saying “I’m fine” when you’re not. I understand the urge to hide. I understand the shame. Let’s talk about it.” (1)

On the most sacred night of the Jewish year, I want to respond to this Facebook request. My wish for tonight is that we all respond.

As your rabbi, I see how mental illness impacts individuals and families in this community. I hold your hands as you whisper to me about loved ones who cannot get out of bed or go to work, or who are trying another medication, with the greatest of hopes. I visit you at home and in the hospital and I encourage you to be optimistic, when you or your children, or your parents suffer. I stand by too many graves, and eulogize those who have taken their own life, while I never once mention the reason for their premature death.

Let’s talk about it. Every single person in this congregation has someone in their life who is grappling with mental illness. Tonight, I choose to speak for those who can’t and I use your voices, your stories and the teachings of our tradition to do so.

We can take our cue from our sacred texts. They talk about it. They tell us that the most important leaders of our people suffered from mental anguish and pain.

My colleague, Rabbi Stacy Friedman shares two of the earliest examples: “There was Moses, who cried out to God, “I can no longer bear the burden of this people is too heavy for me...Please kill me, let me no longer see my wretchedness.” (2) And there was King Saul who was overcome by a ruach ra-ah, a “bad spirit” or today what we may call bipolar illness. (3) Our biblical ancestors faced great darkness.”

Our rabbis have talked about mental health issues across the centuries. In particular, the Jewish authors and leaders of the Talmudic and Medieval periods grappled with the question of suicide. With terrific insight and deep compassion, rabbis around the 11th century said that no adult was considered to have taken their own life if he or she suffered from, “a multiplicity of troubles, worries, pain or utter poverty.” (4) (5)

Our rabbis were clear: people with mental distress or anguish suffer an illness much in the same way a person suffers from flu, or cancer or any other sickness that could cause death. Such a person, could be buried in a Jewish cemetery alongside their loved ones with dignity and respect. (6)

A few months ago, a Temple Shalom member invited me out for coffee and shared the story of his life. There was so much pain, so much...and at the end of our conversation he told me, “Rabbi, I was afraid to share my story with you. I was worried if you knew I was bi-polar you would think differently of me and reject me. Other people have ended our friendship when they learned the truth about who I am. So, I stay silent.”

He was brave to break his silence. Author, William Styron, who penned one of the first books in 20th century America about depression wrote, “pain is pain, whether it’s in the mind or the body.” If we understand this to be the case, Styron questions,“Why are depressed people treated as pariahs?” (7)

The silence around mental illness is huge and powerful. It comes from shame and fear and misinformation. So here are some facts worth noting: according to the World Health Organization, one in four adults experience mental illness at some point in their lives; (8) it is the leading cause of disability in the United States.(9) It appears in a variety of forms and can be severe or it can feel like a film that overlays your day to day life.

Mental illness does not discriminate between the young or old, it cuts across all races, genders, educational backgrounds, and economic status. It is our young people who are often hit the hardest and least likely to receive medical intervention. 22 percent of youth (the highest number of any age group) experience anxiety, depression, eating disorders and many other mental health conditions (10)  But unless a celebrity takes their own life, or there is another tragic school shooting, or someone’s mental health is linked to salacious gossip, fully ⅓ to ½ of young people do not seek treatment. (11)

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov lived in the 18th and early 19th century. He was well known for both
his wisdom and life-long encounter with mental illness. He once shared, “Struggle with your sadness. Struggle with your soul … the point is not to rid oneself of struggle, but to accept it as a condition of being human." (12)

Modern-day statistics support thousands of years of Jewish wisdom: Mental illness is bound up in the fiber and existential reality of human experience. And yet, we still don’t talk about it, and silence wins.

We don’t talk about mental health, because we don’t always know what to say or do: Do we give our family members or friends privacy or insinuate ourselves into their lives?  Do we bring up our concerns directly or try to help from a distance? How much are we willing to risk?  Many of us stay silent because we are afraid we will be ineffective. We stay silent because we don’t want others to know. Or perhaps we feel ashamed. And so with all of these possibilities in hand, we do nothing because “nothing” is easier.

Five years ago, I experienced first hand just how difficult it can be to talk with a loved one about their wellbeing. (13)

Near the end of her pregnancy, my friend, Karen, underwent a tremendous personality change. After her son was born, it only got worse: she seemed to be severely anxious and paranoid. But I stayed silent. I wanted to reach out to her partner about my concerns, but I was afraid to betray Karen’s confidence. I didn’t want to alienate her or lose her friendship, especially when she was suffering. I told myself her behavior was justified, she was a new mother. My kind and loving friend was just going through a rough patch with a new baby. We had all been there.

But when her baby was a few months old, it all came to a head and she developed postpartum psychosis. Luckily, Karen had a loving partner and family and friends ready to step up. She had her synagogue community. And, she had health insurance. She found herself at the right hospital and worked with professionals who understood her diagnosis. Five years later, she is back at work and running 5Ks.

For a long time afterward I asked myself, what more could I have done? Why didn’t I step forward? What if things hadn’t turned out so well? I still wrestle with these questions: Was I a good friend? Could I have been a better one?

Again, I turn to our tradition for guidance: in one of the earliest books of the Talmud there is this beautiful story: (14) We are taught that Rabbi Eleazar was ill, suffering from deep despair, so his friend, Rabbi Yochanan, went to visit him. He found Eleazar alone in a dark room, facing the wall. Yochanan saw his friend crying and asked, “Why do you weep?” Eleazar answered, “I weep because all light fades into darkness, because all beauty eventually rots.” Yochanan sat down beside his friend and replied, “Yes, Eleazar, ultimately everything does die. Perhaps you have reason to weep.” And so Yochanan and Eleazar wept together. After a while Yochanan gently asked, “Does darkness comfort you? Do you want these sufferings?” “No,” Eleazar replied. Yochanan extended his hand and Eleazar grasped hold of it. He felt light and life touch him. Yochanan raised him out of bed and helped him to the door.

There is so much we can learn from this passage. It reminds us that when we fulfill our sacred obligation of Bikkur Cholim and visit the sick, it is not our job to convince a friend or loved one to buck-up or get over it. (15) Instead, we are called upon to acknowledge their reality and sit beside them so they are not alone in their darkness. When we visit someone who suffers and simply listen to them, tradition teaches, we can remove 1/60th of that person’s pain. (16)

Just a few weeks ago, Temple member and psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Waldinger shared with me, “mental illness is actually a very treatable condition. The most effective treatments often involve a combination of medication, talk therapy and support from a caring community.” (17)

We can be that caring community. So tonight, I put this question to you: What if we told everyone who enters these doors that they are not alone...Many of us struggle and we are here to support each other.

We need to do this for ourselves and especially for our young people. We can explain that what they see on Instagram or Snapchat is not reality. Life is not perfect. Real life can be frustrating and hard. When we share the story of our own personal darkness alongside the story of our triumphs, our children will listen. They will listen and just maybe, believe they can build a life of meaning and worth.

This year at Temple Shalom we are going to help our kids and we are going to help ourselves. We are going to talk about mental health.

We are going to become an important place to look for resources and support. And the work has already begun. Two years ago, our Sisterhood won a grant from the national organization, Women of Reform Judaism to begin a conversation here about mental health.

This evening, as you leave our building, please pick up a Mental Health Community Resource page, created two years ago specifically with our congregation in mind. It is available at the usher stand and is posted in temple lavatories throughout the building.

As your clergy, we are ready to listen, to direct you to resources, and to offer caring support. The good news? When you meet with us, there’s no co-pay! We are here for you. Yes, it is actually that simple.

Tomorrow, in place of our usual afternoon study sessions, we will offer three opportunities to explore the topic of mental health and well-being with talented and caring members of our community.

Choose between a guided meditation with Karen Kramer and Dr. Renee Brandt, a text study of light and dark in the book of Isaiah with Josh Conescu, or take the opportunity to engage in our first, open-forum community conversation about mental health with talented professionals: Dr. Elizabeth Stone and Dr. Robert Waldinger.

Our efforts to deepen our communal conversation do not end on Yom Kippur. Right now, Temple members Barbara Fierman and Judy Levin-Charns are taking the lead as we create our first synagogue task force on mental health.

As we embark on this endeavor, it is vital we remember this central idea: “nothing about us without us.” (18) We hope those who struggle, as well as their families, will guide us. Your ideas and your suggestions are what matter most. We want to learn from you how Temple Shalom can be a safe, inclusive and caring space for you and your family.

On Yom Kippur, we pray that we can leave the pain and hurt of the past year behind. But as I look around, I know some of you do not have that luxury. You are the caregivers who are relentless and tireless in your support of loved ones. You are the professional healers, therapists and doctors on the front lines, each and every day. And you are the people in this room who have experienced or will experience a mental health challenge at least once in your life. You might be experiencing one now. Please remember, if life seems very dark, we are here for you.

One of the great rabbis of the Jewish people also moonlighted as a physician. When Moses Maimonides writes about health and wellness, his thoughts are grounded in personal experience. He once shared, “there is health and illness of the soul, just as there is health and illness of the body…[and] it is an obligation in our tradition to work to heal both.” (19)

On this Yom Kippur, may we seek to heal body and soul in equal measure. Let us leave here ready to be brave and pioneering. Let us build a community that values authenticity and compassion. Let us reject whispers, assumptions and labels, and find the courage to share what is hidden on the inside. Let’s talk about it. When we do, we come one step closer to living in a world of kindness, generosity of spirit, and peace.

1 Anonymous Facebook post of a Temple Shalom member, adapted with permission.
2 Exodus 32:32
3 I Sam. 16:4 and I Sam. 16:23

4 There are many Jewish sources with commentary regarding suicide. The rabbinic conversations I drew from for my findings in this section were: Mishneh Torah, 29:4, Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 345:1-3 and in particular CCAR RESPONSA: American Reform Responsa, 90. A Eulogy for a Suicide (1980). Also:
5 This quote is specifically from a responsa called B’samim Rosh 345. This work is attributed to Rabbenu Asher or the “Rosh,” (c. 1250-1327). However there is controversy about who the actual author of this work might be and if the dating is accurate.
6 Responsa of the Titz Eliezer (R' Eliezer Waldenberg) 12:18:8 (mental illness is similar to physical illness and the same rules should apply).

13 I share this story today with Karen’s permission.
14 Original story from Talmud Tractate Berakhot 5b. Interpretation heavily edited by Rabbi Allison Berry and prior to her edits, edited by Rabbi Stacy Friedman in her sermon:

15  Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De‘ah 335:1 and many other sources
16 Nedarim 39b, Leviticus Rabba 34
17 Dr. Waldinger is a member of Temple Shalom. He is a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Harvard Study for Adult Development: His biography can be found here:
18 This is a saying used by the disability and inclusion community. There is an important book that studies this issue called by the same name. See these links for further information: and
19 The first part of this statement is taken from Shemoneh Perakim 3. The second part of the statement is is from: Commentary on the Mishnah, Nedarim 4:4.


Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780