No Longer Feeling Trapped – Breaking the Silence on Mental Illness

Last week, I went for sushi with a friend.

As we were eating, I became aware of the 75+ gallon fish tank that was a focal point of the dining room. What fascinated me about this tank was not only were there a few large gold fish swimming inside, but that the entire tank was dominated by one huge fish. It appeared that this fish was much too large for the tank. I observed the fish swish it’s tale once or twice, immediately arrive at the end of the tank and then maneuver to turn around and begin this process again – over and over and over.

Fish in TankNow, I’m no fish/fish-tank expert, but it seems to me that this fish needed a different size tank for its home. Its current tank was too small and it seemed to be trapped, constrained by the walls of this inappropriately sized tank. I actually felt sorry for this poor fish (I know…it doesn’t make sense: I was eating fish as I watched this).

There are times in our lives, when we too, feel trapped or constrained by the circumstances of our lives. Sometimes, we might be suffering from mental health issues, sometimes from physical issues, sometimes from circumstances that we feel are beyond our control. We feel boxed in like this fish – we can’t seem to budge, we can’t make headway, we think we have nowhere to go.

We are often loathe to share our feelings because we don’t want to burden others, or we think we’re the only ones to experience this, or we think we should be able to “snap out of it” on our own, or we think there’s a stigma attached to these type of feelings.

Everyone around us seems so…happy, so content. Their world seems so much larger than ours. The rest of the world seems so wonderful and perfect. So why are we so miserable?

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re feeling like this. It’s our friends, family and those around us who realize that something’s wrong. How do we approach a loved one when we are concerned for their well-being? How do we let someone “in” if they express concern for our health, whether it’s our physical health or mental health?

As a community, we need to begin talking about mental health issues and increasing mental health awareness.  Let’s keep in mind a few things about mental health issues:

  • About 1 in every 4 people in the US will experience some type of mental health issue during their lifetime.
  • Mental illness is a real illness, the same as every other kind of illness. It is not “all in someone’s head”.
  • Mental illness comes in many different forms – just as other illnesses come in all forms. And there are many different types of treatments.
  • Just as more research is needed to discover new treatments for cancer treatment, the same is true for mental illnesses.
  • The more we talk about mental health issues, the more educated we become.

As a Jewish community, we too, need to become more pro-active about mental health education. We need to encourage conversations, outreach and advocacy about this issue.

We’ve had no problems addressing the issues of cancer, diabetes, ALS, weight-loss. Now it’s time to bring mental health issues out of the darkness and into the light. For too long, many people with mental health issues feel like they live under a cloud of anguish and despair. Their families and friends feel distraught and worried. To whom can they turn for solace, comfort, support, community, hope and healing?

As long as people have roamed the earth, illness has existed. Both physical illness and mental health illness. We see mental illness in the Hebrew Bible going all the way back to King Saul. David used to sooth Saul when he was exceedingly agitated by playing his harp. Where can we find what soothes us now, as we cope with our own struggles and those around us?

Every one of us knows someone affected by mental illness: it could be a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, an acquaintance or ourselves. And mental illness has many forms – just as physical illness does. It can be subtle or wildly out-of-control; it can be easily managed or difficult and painful. We need to understand what we can do so that everyone in our embrace feels nurtured and strengthened, so that everyone knows that they feel safe, so that everyone knows that they do not have to feel “trapped”.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the image of God. It is up to us to educate ourselves so that we can remove the stigma, and treat everyone with dignity, respect and honor in that “image of God” that each and every one of us so deserves. And so that those who are ill no longer feel they have to remain under the cloud of silence and secrecy about their suffering.

May we open our ears so that we hear the pain in the voice of those who are mentally ill. May we open our eyes so that we see what is going on in front of us and truly see the suffering in the eyes of another. May we open our hands to act on what we see and offer help to those in need. May we open our mouths to respond to the emotional pain in those who suffer, and may we offer healing words of love and comfort. (adapted from Rabbi James L. Simon)

If you feel burdened or trapped or feel that you need to talk to someone (or if you have a loved one in this situation) please know that you can always do the following:

  • call your physician
  • call your rabbi, priest, minister, clergy person
  • go straight to the emergency room if you feel that you might harm yourself or someone around you.

For some excellent Jewish resources on Mental Health issues, please click on the following links:

The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center Mental Health Page

A book for families dealing with mental health issues: Caring for the Soul, R’fu’at Ha’nefesh

A terrific article on mental health issues and the Jewish community: From Darkness to Light: by Rabbi Marci N. Bellows (The Jewish Week. 4/20/12)

The Battle to Oppose Restrictions to Reproductive Rights

It’s estimated that more than one hundred million people will be watching the battle on the playing field for the Super Bowl this Sunday as the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks compete for the title and that amazing ring.

That amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in ads, sponsorships…you name it.

For weeks, the press has been interviewing players, talking about odds, getting us hyped for the “big game.”

Even if one isn’t a football fan, it’s hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of Super Bowl fever.

As for me, I’m attending two Super Bowl parties myself.

But there’s another battle being waged right now in the United States: one that affects every single one of us in some manner: either because we are female, or because we have a mother, wife, sister, daughter, granddaughter or some other woman in our lives. And it’s my hope that we can get just as caught up in this battle as we are in the Super Bowl:

The Battle to Oppose Restrictions to Reproductive Rights for Women

Be A Voice for Choice: Speak Out to Oppose Restrictions to Reproductive Rights
Be A Voice for Choice: Speak Out to Oppose Restrictions to Reproductive Rights

I am joining with many of my colleagues and with the Reform Movement to speak out to oppose restrictions to reproductive rights for women. I urge you to write to your congressional representative to oppose these restrictions as well.

For me, the issue is based on both personal experience and on my understanding of Jewish values.

The Personal Perspective:

  • One of my closest family members became pregnant as a result of being raped by her physician. (His license to practice medicine was revoked as a result of that attack. He should have gone to jail.). If she had not been allowed access to an abortion, she would have been forced to give birth to a child by rape. (And she was not in a situation where pregnancy was a viable option).
  • I have six nieces and many other close relatives who are all female. It is important to me that they, and I, have the ability to make our own choices when it comes to decisions about our bodies.
  • One of my dear friends became pregnant with a baby who was grossly deformed. It was determined the fetus had no brain. She and her husband had to make the difficult but necessary choice to terminate the pregnancy as soon as they were able.

The Proposed Legislation:

On February 28, the House of Representatives passed The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 7)
by a vote of 227-188.

Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism: Focus on Reproductive Rights
Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism: Focus on Reproductive Rights

The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) has a great deal of information and updates about this issue. Click here to read more about this from the RAC. Here is a summary of the issue:

This is dangerous and highly restrictive bill that severely threatens the right to choice affirmed by the Supreme Court in Roe V. Wade (1973). With the passage of this legislation, it threatens to prevent women seeking needed reproductive health care from using their own private money to pay for abortion services.

H.R. 7 would also deny women the right to deduct abortion services in their health care tax credits. This infringes not only on federally-administered health care plans, but also on privately-run and paid-for plans.

This legislations would likely lead many private health insurance plans to eliminate abortion coverage altogether. This reduces a woman’s access to safe, legal and affordable abortion.

Additionally, H.R. 7 further enshrines the “Hyde Amendment” of 1976 into law. The “Hyde Amendment” forbids any federal funding for abortions for those on Medicaid, Medicare or those in the Indian Health Service (except for in the cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the life of the mother).

The Jewish Perspective:

Judaism teaches us that all life comes from God and therefore, all life is sacred. However, a fetus is not considered to be a fully functioning “human being” until “it’s head has crowned”. What does this mean?

This means that from a Jewish traditional perspective, our tradition teaches us that we place the health and well-being of the mother as our top-priority while the mother is pregnant. Yet, at the same time, we still do all we can to nurture the growing fetus as it has the potential to grow into a fully viable human being.

We learn from the rabbis in the Mishna (Mishna Ohalot 7:6) that a woman is forbidden to harm herself or risk her own life to save that of her unborn fetus. If her life is threatened, she must “dismember the fetus limb-by-limb to save her own life”. In other words, she must abort the fetus to save her own life. Additionally, if her mental health is at risk (as in the case of rape, incest) the woman is permitted to terminate the pregnancy. However, if she is giving birth, as soon as the baby’s head has crowned, we are taught, the baby is a viable human being, and one must save the lives of both the baby AND the mother.

Therefore, our Jewish tradition teaches us that there are circumstances when the sanctity of life demands of us that in order to save a woman’s life, abortion is both the moral and correct decision.

Take Action:

What can you do? You CAN make a difference!

It’s even simpler than planning a Super Bowl party!!

Urge your congressional representative to speak AGAINST The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R.7) which would deprive women of the ability to make their own choices about their reproductive health.

You can email your representative directly by clicking on this link (all you will have to do is fill in your email address and address):

(As an aside, I know my representative, Brad Schneider. He assures me that they DO READ all of the letters and emails they receive and they do make a difference).

Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center Email Direct Link to Your Congressional Representative

To reach your Members of Congress, call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121.

We cannot stand silent while the House of Representatives considers a bill that violates the US Constitution, the US Supreme Court Roe V. Wade decision and our Jewish tradition.
So while you are gearing up for the Super Bowl this Sunday, take a few extra minutes and “gear up” for the women in your life as well.

Join me in the battle to oppose restrictions to reproductive rights.

Turn Your Guns into PloughShares

“Guns! Buy your guns here! We sell all types of guns: wild west guns, shot guns, guns, guns, guns!’

I’ve just returned from visiting friends in the Southwest. It seems that on every other block, I had an opportunity to purchase my own gun. There were more gun shops than fast-food joints. I almost felt assaulted by all the gun shops I encountered. Perhaps I could grab a burger and a gun to go?

My friends and I initially joked about what kind of gun we should purchase, but in reality, it is not a joke. Not when each week, we read of another school shooting, another accidental killing by gunshot, another drive-by gang killing.

We have some staggering statistics regarding guns and gun violence in the United States: On average:

  • 30,000 Americans are killed by firearms each year;
  • 12,000 Americans are murdered by firearms each year;
  • 30 Americans are murdered each day via gunshot
  • 200 Americans are wounded each day via gun violence; and
  • with 88 guns per 100 people, the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. (Statistics courtesy of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center).

This past June, Illinois (where I live) became the last state to pass the “Concealed Carry” Bill, allowing Illinois State Police to issue a concealed-carry license to any qualified applicant. The law just went into effect the beginning of January, 2014.

Many places, such as houses of worship, (including my own Congregation B’nai Torah),  restaurants, grocery stores display a “NO CONCEALED WEAPONS ALLOWED” sign:

No Concealed Weapons Allowed
No Concealed Weapons Allowed: Turn Guns into Ploughshares

Is this the kind of world we want for our children? A place where they become as familiar with the logo for “No Guns” as they are with the logo for the “Stop” sign? Do we want them to worry that they might not be safe at school or at the playground? Do we want them to worry that their parents might not be safe at work? 

I am sure that many of us know someone who has been personally affected by gun violence. And it isn’t something that only takes place “out there”: it takes place in JCC’s, in synagogues and in our own homes as well. Guns do not discriminate when it comes to age, gender, race or religion.

In last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, from the book of Exodus, we receive the 10 Commandments. The first two Commandments are statements: 

I am the Eternal Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

You shall have no other Gods beside Me. (Exodus 20: 2-3)

Our text tells us: God exists. And the singularity of God’s nature suggests that all of us are equal in God’s eyes. As such, we need to treat every human being with that same sense of equality. With dignity and respect.

We need to combine the first two commandments with the Sixth Commandment:

“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20: 13)

It becomes clear from our text that guns and other weapons of violence are not to be used indiscriminately. That if we are to preserve our relationship with God and our relationship with each other, we need to carefully think through what our society does to prevent gun violence.

The Reform Movement supports Gun Violence Prevention Advocacy and offers congregations educational and programmatic resource materials.

Visit the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC)website: www.rac.org for more information or click below for the RAC’s

Gun Violence and Prevention Program and Resource Guide

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into ploughshares first.” –Yehuda Amichai