Original Article Published On The Chabad.ORG

There are some topics people are happy to discuss with their friends and fellow congregants at kiddush after Shabbat services (and unfortunately, at times, even during services). Popular topics include local sports teams, the weather, the stock market, recent developments at local schools and politics. People might share reactions to the rabbi’s sermon, or express concern about a member of the community mentioned during the communal Mi Sheberach, the prayer for healing.

One topic that tends to be off limits is mental illness. We don’t generally discuss mental illness openly, and we often choose not to recite the Mi Sheberach for people dealing with issues of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, schizophrenia and other mental health issues. Some Jewish communities, mental health professionals and clergy members are working hard to change that. Mental illness and substance abuse do exist in all parts of the Jewish community.

In a poignant editorial in the New York Jewish Week, “Telling the Truth about Mental Illness,” Ruth Roth tells the story about dealing with her son’s first suicide attempt.1

He made it through that episode alive and with minimal impairment to his body. Once out of the hospital he appeared to be the same Jonathan he always was: kind, loving, caring, bright, engaging, witty. He begged us not to tell anyone what happened—not that he needed to. Of course we would keep this a secret, for so many reasons. We didn’t want to have our son labeled “crazy”; we didn’t want him to endure any comments or knowing glances from well-meaning people. We were private people who never revealed our innermost issues to anyone outside our family. And we certainly didn’t want our son to feel exposed.

Without realizing it, by keeping this secret, we validated Jonathan’s feeling of shame. Not only would he have to battle his illness, he would bear the burden of shame about it as well. From this point on, our family would have to present an outside face to the world that did not represent our inner reality. We didn’t comprehend the gargantuan weight we would assume with this decision.

Would we have acted the same way had Jonathan been diagnosed with cancer, gastrointestinal illness, severe cardiac illness, or diabetes? Absolutely not—we would never have hidden any of those illnesses. Ask me now and I will tell you that I wish I had shouted it from the rooftop, done anything, taken out an ad in The New York Times: “My son has a devastating mental illness. Can someone, anyone, offer me some advice to save his life?”

Sadly, five months later, Jonathan committed suicide.

Roth continues, “Having lived with the pain of isolation for the previous five months, we decided to be open about Jonathan’s taking his own life. This way, our friends could comfort us appropriately. More important, we would no longer have to bear the burden of living with a lie. It was the right decision for us.”

Dr. Esther Altmann, a New York-based clinical psychologist, says: “Mental illness is known as machalat hanefesh, illness of the soul. It doesn’t reflect our understanding of the brain, but it captures the essence of what it means to struggle with mental illness for the person or the family. It reminds us that psychological suffering happens to each of us at some junctures—just as we experience machalat haguf—illness of the body.”

Altmann shared the following data on mental illness in any given year in the United States:

  • Approximately one in five adults—20 percent—experiences some form of mental illness.
  • Approximately 4 percent experience a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits their functioning in one or more major life activities.
  • 1 percent of adults live with schizophrenia.
  • 2.6 percent of adults live with bipolar disorder.
  • 7 percent of adults have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
  • 6 percent of the adult population reported heavy drinking.
  • Suicide is now the leading cause of death for young people ages 15–24.

The numbers and stories are alarming, in the general population and in the Jewish community. Articles in the Jewish press, presentations and conversations at Jewish conferences, programs at synagogues and at communal gatherings are starting to raise awareness and offer hope.

In August 2013, Times of Israel blogger Diane Weber Bederman wrote openly about her mental illness in a revealing piece, “Mental Illness and the Jews”:2

I write about mental illness because I have one. I am a third generation mental-health survivor. I am named for my paternal grandmother, Devorah, and she had depression, as did my father. I was diagnosed in my late 40s with chronic recurrent depression. That means that there are times when everything is “tickety-boo” and others that are very dark. I was diagnosed when I was suicidal.

Stephen Fried, author (with Patrick Kennedy) of the New York Times bestseller, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction, suggests ways to make the issue more central in the Jewish world. Fried wrote a provocative article called, “Jews Must Take Mental Illness Out of the Shadows.” In it, he asks,

What messages do we send to our congregations every day about mental illness and addiction? Do we, for example, believe in prayers for healing diseases of the brain the same way we do for all other diseases? Do we believe in mourning deaths from the tragic outcomes of these illnesses—suicides, overdoses—the same way we do for all other diseases? Do we regularly include these diseases in the “health” and “wellness” that we pray for and wish for others? Do our rabbis and community members offer hospital or home medical visits for these illnesses?

Regarding the Mi Sheberach prayer, Fried suggests, “Imagine the incredible power of hearing a congregation ask, as prayers do, for compassion, for restoration, for strength, for healing of the soul and healing of the body—and knowing that they are talking about you and your illness, too.”

Synagogues can bring these topics into the open by creating opportunities for awareness, discussion and networking. Mental health support networks are an essential way to keep families feeling less isolated and ostracized. Possible supports might include discussions and committees to organize help for those with postpartum depression and anxiety, suicide prevention training, mental health first aid treatment, a briut hanefesh (spiritual health) support group, mental health awareness Shabbatons, sessions for teens on body image and eating disorders, and more.

Dr. Andres Martin, Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, sees an important role for rabbis and Jewish communal professionals. He stresses that forging alliances with culturally competent and informed providers can be a huge help not only for those in need of support, but also for rabbis and leaders. Martin further suggests, “It behooves rabbis and other community leaders, who are held in such esteem and respect, to become familiar with common mental health issues, challenges and illnesses. Depression, anxiety and substance abuse are very common, and early identification and treatment can be key to long-term recovery.”

There are several initiatives and training programs geared specifically to clergy and those working with teenagers. Most curricula combine clinical knowledge and Jewish texts to help identify and build resources to support the psychological issues that leaders are likely to encounter in communal settings.

Additionally, there are programs working with youth groups to address the topic of mental health in children and teenagers, raising awareness around issues of mental health and working to end the stigma of mental illness.

While the issue of mental health and mental illness is still in the background in much of the Jewish community, there are reasons for hope as the topic comes to the forefront in conferences, community forums and rabbinic training programs. As the Jewish community continues to tackle this complex issue, lives will be enhanced and hopefully even saved.

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Original Article Published On The Jewish Telegraphic Agency

CHICAGO (JTA) — What a long, strange trip it’s been for Shu Eliovson.

The American-born resident of Kfar Maimon, a religious moshav in southern Israel, Eliovson is CEO and co-founder of the tech start-up Likeminder, an anonymous social networking site for “authentic conversation” with “likeminded” people. He is also an ordained rabbi, though his colorful pants, fedora and purple T-shirt with the Grateful Dead’s famed dancing bear logo make him unconventional, to say the least.

A father of five, Eliovson is also the founder of JamShalom, a “grassroots movement bringing spiritual connection to music festivals across North America.” Since 2011, he has become a legendary face and somewhat of a pied piper to fellow Jewish travelers on the American jam band scene. Eliovson speaks of music festivals as “a tremendous opportunity to create a spiritual encounter” and looks for places to “throw down a big Shabbos.”

“JamShalom is about celebrating the inherent spiritual joy of music, and its power to bring like-spirited people together and sharing a Jewish experience that is unique,” Eliovson told JTA.

And what better place to have an epic Shabbat “throwdown” than the Grateful Dead’s highly anticipated Fare Thee Well Tour — three nights of shows, Friday through Sunday, at Chicago’s Soldier Field marking the 50th anniversary of the band’s founding (as well as the 20th anniversary of the group’s final show with frontman Jerry Garcia)?

Typically, Grateful Dead shows (along with those of their like-minded brethren, like Phish) occur over several days at venues in which camping becomes an integral part of the experience. But due to strict ordinances against camping in downtown Chicago, Eliovson found himself in a bind in the weeks leading up to the Dead’s final shows: How to create a temporary, intentional community in a space where camping wasn’t allowed. And how would folks keep the spirit of Shabbat if they needed to shlep far distances to the stadium?

“I needed a miracle!” Eliovson quipped, using the familiar Dead lingo.

His “miracle” came in the form of Rabbi Leibel Moscowitz of Chabad of the South Loop. After a few calls, Moscowitz was able to offer use of an undeveloped (but highly visible to concertgoers) lot owned by a Chabad supporter. Eliovson was granted permission to set up several RVs and a Shabbat tent. Along with his 18-year-old daughter and a few members of the JamShalom crew, he set out by van from New York to Chicago, kosher food in tow.

On Thursday evening, the entourage began setting up camp — only to discover, at 9 p.m., that the ban on RV camping was to be strictly enforced, even on a privately owned lot. The JamShalom village was shut down; desperate posts on Facebook informed followers that the group was seeking a new site.

With Shabbat only four hours away, on Friday afternoon the group worked out a deal with a less conspicuous parking lot on South Michigan Avenue, one block from the Chabad HQ at a luxury residential building and just a few blocks from Soldier Field.

Volunteers quickly set up tents, chairs, tables and Grateful Dead-themed decorations. The unexpected move meant canceling some advertised programs, like “Munches and Meditations with Rabbi Shu,” as well as the 3 p.m. “Beer and Blessings.” But fortunately, by the time Shabbat rolled in, the tent, two RVs and a colorfully painted bus with “God is One” and “Na Nach” (for Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov) in Hebrew were set up on the site.

At 6 p.m., some 25 guests — who were encouraged to bring “instruments, voices and dancing shoes” — met for a musical Kabbalat Shabbat service. Rabbi Moshe Shur, the former director of the Queens College Hillel and a longtime member of the Jewish music scene, led the service with an inspiring rendition of “Lecha Dodi” set to the classic Dead songs “Ripple” and “Uncle John’s Band.” Midway through the service, those lucky enough to have tickets for Friday night’s show headed out.

Zach Finkelstein, 22, of Long Island, who drove from New York with the JamShalom caravan, was happy with the scene.

“It is almost like going to Israel,” he said. “You land, you feel it in your heart. You are home. There are no strangers. We are all here for the same reason — peace, music and a good time!”

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Original Article Published On The Jewish Telegraphic Agency

(JTA) — Can Yishai Oliel become Israel’s version of tennis champion Novak Djokovic?

London businessman David Coffer is hoping the Ramle teenager can someday join such heady company — and he’s backing up his dream with the funding to groom the hard-hitting lefty for stardom.

Oliel is the most promising member of the David Squad, a small group of young Israeli tennis players that Coffer finances and manages along with his wife, Ruth, and three children. It picks the nation’s most talented up-and-comers — the five members now range in age from 12 to 16 — who Coffer hopes will soon become household names.

The squad is committed to “developing Israeli tennis players of the highest international standards,” according to its website. Since its launch in 2005, Coffer, the chairman of a real estate advisory firm and owner of the popular Tuttons and Dirty Martini restaurant and bars in London, estimates he has financed 100 children and teenagers.

Coffer, 67, is quick to note that the name “is not a reference to me but to King David, the greatest hero of Israel’s history!”

Djokovic, the Serbian ranked No. 1 in the world, personifies Coffer’s hopes for Israeli tennis: Win lots of Grand Slam titles and woo fans for your country. Coffer dreams of the day when one of his precocious players succeeds on an international level.

“Imagine 8 million Israeli citizens glued to their TV sets and not moving until the final game of Wimbledon is over,” he says. “It would mean so much to have a champion — we will cry with joy.”

Israeli players such as Dudi Sela, Andy Ram, Shahar Peer and Julia Glushko have enjoyed some success on the international level — Ram and Yoni Erlich teamed to win the Australian Open doubles title several years ago — but have never approached the top of the world rankings in singles. Israel was shut out in its latest Davis Cup match this year.

Oliel provides some optimism. The long-haired 15-year-old has made his mark already by twice winning the prestigious Junior Orange Bowl tournament in Florida — only the ninth player in the competition’s 70-year history to accomplish the feat.

“Yishai has amazing grace and timing and hates to lose,” Coffer says.

He recalls when Oliel was 11 and playing a tournament in Andalusia in 110-degree weather. The boy was on the verge of being shut out in straight sets.

“We encouraged him to take a rest,” Coffer says, “but Yishai cried ‘I am staying’ and ended up winning one game in the third set.”

Such tenacity, Coffer hopes, will win a Grand Slam championship — the French Open, U.S. Open, Wimbledon or Australian Open.

Along with developing champions on the court, the David Squad also aims to create a good name for Israel, says its managing director and head coach, Andy Zingman, a former Argentine tennis player, “all without political involvement.”

“This can be an important technique to change perceptions,” Zingman says.

David Coffer, in black hat, at ceremony in Raanana honoring him and son Adam, third from left, for 10 years of service to Israeli tennis, April 2015. (Courtesy of the David Squad)

Coffer’s son Adam points out that countries today curry favor through sports, as they have for many years. He points to Djokovic.

“If you stopped someone in the streets 10 years ago, most people would say that it was a country of wars and murder,” the younger Coffer says. “Today, thanks to Novak, half the people will say that the Serbs are nice, athletic, smiling people.”

David Coffer says Oliel, the son of Moroccan Jews, has similar attributes.

“People may warm to Yishai — to his smile, to his talent,” he said. “We could win friends. So we are here to find talent and nurture it.

The squad mostly trains in Raanana with such top coaches as Tzipora Oblizer, formerly one of the world’s top 75 players, Dedi Jacob and Eyal Omid. Jan Pochter, who has tutored Israeli national teams and is a veteran of international tennis, serves as Oliel’s primary coach.

Oliel is joined on the squad by May Kimhi and Keren Rozen, both 16; Roi Ginat, 14; and Yair Sarouk, 12. They make occasional training trips to such destinations as South Florida and Spain to train with extended members of the David Squad family, including former pros Aaron Krickstein and Manuel Santana.

“My father could afford to put them up in a hotel,” Adam Coffer says, “but we all stay together in our home,” referring to Spain and Florida. “They spend time together, feed off each other, pick each other up and share in the glory — you can’t put a price on that.” And the older athletes, like Oliel, mentor the younger ones.

The David Squad family, as the elder Coffer calls it, “is very warm and supportive.”

Being part of the squad requires commitment by the players and their parents, who must abide by a strict code of ethics: play to win, play fair, respect yourself — and, most important, Coffer says, “respect your parents,” who don’t join their children on trips around the world.

Coffer attributes his love of Israel and sports to his parents.

“My father was an ardent Zionist,” he says. “I remember him trying to raise money in those days for armaments. He always loved Israel and sports, and he gave his four sons the opportunity to play all sports — I played college level tennis.”

Coffer remembers visiting Israel for the first time at the age of 20. And he has brought his own family to Israel on many occasions. From the first visit, he says, “I loved Israel. It stood for all Jews — for spirit, defiance and progress. It made me feel good.”

Israel does have other tennis programs for young people. The Israel Tennis Center, for one, is a grassroots effort of 14 centers designed to grow the sport in Israel across religious and socioeconomic lines, often working with at-risk youth. The David Squad approach is more targeted.

“We identify the best possible players in Israel, with the greatest potential, at any age,” Adam Coffer says. “Our sole intention is to produce international level players capable of competing for Grand Slams.”

Danny Gelley, CEO of the the Israel Tennis Center, says, “Every center has a competitive tennis program for juniors, but we can’t afford to do individual coaching. Our whole budget is a fraction of what [Coffer] spends.”

Gelley adds that Coffer “is very independent and we have little relationship with him.”

Adam Coffer stresses his organization’s independence and echoes Galley’s assessment.

“We have very little involvement with the Israel Tennis Association or the Israel Tennis Centers,” he said. “We expect our kids, who are the best in Israel, to be entitled to the same contributions, if provided, by the ITA, as other players.

While Israel tennis stakeholders may differ in organizational mandate, approach and funding, all stand united in their desire for the day when Israel will produce world-class tennis talent.

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Original Article Published On The New York Jewish Week

On a recent visit to a Pikud HaOref, Home Front Command base in Ramle, 14 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, a soldier tells me a very animated story about his role in Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation in Gaza: My job was to copy the papers for our soldiers to drop from planes over Gaza this summer! The soldier, in uniform with his bright orange beret on his shoulder, happens to have Down Syndrome.

He is very excited about his job in the base print shop. Another soldier with a visible disability proudly recounts the visit to the base the previous day by IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Ganz. We saluted him and gave him a present olive oil that we made on the base!

Twenty five other soldiers with disabilities perform similarly important jobs each day on the base. If Tiran Attia and other visionaries have their way, Tzahal, or the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), may become a “game changer” in Israel for inclusion and for shaping attitudes about people with disabilities.

Tiran Attia, who served for 30 years in the IDF and was a commander of Sar-El, the IDF National Project for Volunteers, serves as head manager of Yad Layeled HaMeuchad (Lend a Hand to a Special Child), an amuta (non-profit organization) which consists of two programs, Magshimim Chalom Fulfilling a Dream and Shaveh Madim-Equal in Uniform.

I have had the privilege of visiting two such army bases during recent trips to Israel the home front command base in Ramle, and a logistics base near Kiryat Malachi. During our tour, Attia takes me to visit soldiers from the program at various job sites including the supply room, dining room and print shop. Attia emphasizes several times during our visit, It should be noted that in Israel, army service is the gateway to successful integration into society and the work force. The nearby Chevrat Chashmal (electric company) already employs 260 workers with special needs.”

The program is already impacting the other soldiers through what Attia describes as “the ripple effect. Other soldiers on the base think less of their own problems, they think of the soldiers with disabilities as role models, and discipline problems on the base have gone down.

Arianna Goldsmith, an American olah (immigrant to Israel) works with the soldiers with disabilities as her army service: The other soldiers see these soldiers come to work and it teaches them, it changes their attitudes.

Tiran, who admits to being skeptical of the program at first, notes, One mother of a soldier in our program told me, You have made a miracle! Tiran was injured during the Second Lebanon War and was visited in the hospital by people with disabilities. I saw the love and sympathy they gave to the injured soldiers and I realized they have so much to give so I started to advocate for them to join the program.

The program was founded to enable youth with disabilities to realize their dream and serve in the IDF like most young Israelis, for whom service in the IDF is a normal part of life in the years between high school and college. At the same time, the program promotes a more inclusive society and fosters the attitude that people with disabilities can more fully participate in and contribute to society.

I share with Attia our 45 years of experience successfully including campers with disabilities in our eight Ramah overnight camps and three day camps in the United States and Canada. And I stress how both anecdotally and through research, we know that inclusion benefits everyone. For example, a 2013 study, The Impact of Ramah Programs for Children, Teens, and Young Adults with Disabilities: A Strategic Planning Survey of Special Needs Education Professionals, Ramah Special Needs Staff, Staff Alumni and Parents, conducted by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, shows quite clearly that “Staff and camper alumni who had contact with a Ramah special needs program report major impact on their personal and professional lives. At Ramah, this happens on a massive scale, as each summer, 7,500 campers-some in each camp with both visible and invisible disabilities–and over 2,500 university aged staff members, populate our camps.

Attia and his colleagues don’t need to be convince and they see the potential for inclusion and shaping of attitudes on a massive scale. Yossi Kahana, Director of Development for Aleh Negev-USA and co-founder of the program, believes strongly that If every soldier in the IDF has the opportunity to work side by side with people with disabilities, the potential to change attitudes in Israeli society is tremendous. Kahana now has a personal as well as a professional connection to disabilities. “I’m the father of a child with special needs. My older son is serving in the army and my younger son, Gershon, who is nine years old, is autistic. My dream is that my younger son will one day join his brother in the army.

As the IDF continues to include soldiers with disabilities on an even larger scale, they will no doubt shape the attitudes of an entire society!

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