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Silent Disabilities: How Supportive Are We?

Silent Disabilities: How Supportive Are We?

Jewish Disability Awareness Month is a powerful reminder that we are all created b'tzelem Elohim (in God's Image). We must keep all disabilities in mind, especially those that are "silent." Mental health disease is very prevalent in the Jewish community, yet we often overlook it because the pain of living with it is not necessarily obvious. Those who live with mental health diseases suffer in silence.

Twenty years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Through extremely effective medication, a supportive psychiatrist and a commitment to understand my depression, I have learned to live with it. It's always there, but it does not necessarily impact me on a daily basis. About three or four times a year, I have a bout that immobilizes me for a day or two.

Several years ago, I woke up one Saturday morning and realized immediately that I was in a bout of depression. Anyone who suffers from clinical depression knows that you can just feel it. Unfortunately, you cannot necessarily see it coming. I took care of myself, rested at home, got plenty of sunlight, and tried to remember that the feelings of despair and worthlessness were "the depression talking." I knew I would feel better – which I did, 24 hours later.

That day I was to present a Kiddush cup to the bar mitzvah boy, on behalf of the temple board. I knew I was not up to this task and called my rabbi, who immediately told me not to worry – and that I should just rest.

I did rest, but I also began to think: What if I was the rabbi? What if I couldn't stay home? Is there room in congregational life for clergy who suffer from mental health diseases?

In my work with rabbinic students on the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union-College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), I encourage self-awareness and a willingness to incorporate that personal understanding of self into shaping his or her rabbinate. I believe that these factors will help students create a successful rabbinate. However, in doing so, I wonder if I am painting a picture of exclusion from the congregational rabbinate if any of my students live with mental health diseases.

The Jewish community is getting better at recognizing the pain of "silent disabilities" – in our synagogues, schools, camps, and organizations. However is that awareness and sensitivity only applicable to those served by our Jewish professionals and not the professionals themselves? With regard to clergy specifically, how supportive are we of those clergy who live with depression and and/or anxiety? How open would we be to a rabbi or cantor who lives with bipolar disorder?

What if I had been the rabbi that Saturday 10 years ago? I would have called the cantor, the temple president, or someone in the congregation with whom I had a well-established and safe relationship and told them that I needed their support that day. I'd be fine on the bimah (the raised platform from which the service is led), but just knowing that there was a supportive face in the congregation would be helpful. Congregants would probably be very compassionate if they knew the "poor rabbi" was having, say, a bad asthma day but was doing her best. Why should the rachmanut (compassion) be any different for a rabbi suffering from depression? Imagine how a congregant might feel if he knew that "The rabbi has the same thing that I do, and she still functions quite well – although there are some days that are better than others. Hmm. Just like me."

For 20 years I have worked hard to understand depression and to develop a "relationship" with it. Knowing that I have this disease, I do whatever I can to live a healthy and fulfilling life. With that goal in mind, 17 years ago I chose to leave the world of Reform day school leadership because the level of stress that came with starting a new Reform day schools did not mix well with the reality of my clinical depression. Completely my choice. Fortunately, my work at HUC-JIR is a much better fit for me and is extremely rewarding.

What are we doing to create a supportive environment for our clergy? Do rabbis and cantors feel safe in a congregational setting if they live with a mental health disease? What accommodations are we providing for them to succeed and feel created b'tzelem Elohim (in God's Image) – just as they would do for any of us?

Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz is associate dean at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, CA.

Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz
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