By Dov Kram
(Adapted from a sermon delivered on the second day of Sukkot 2015 at Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, Newton, MA.)
My father, alav ha-shalom, was diagnosed as having a mental illness, bi-polar disorder, 13 years ago.
While sitting shiva for our father my siblings and I spoke openly about his struggles and we were struck by how many people told us that they were struggling with mental illness themselves, or a loved one, or someone close to them was struggling with one, and how they had never heard anyone speaking openly about it before.
My siblings and I realized almost immediately that we could honor our father’s memory by continuing to speak openly about both our experiences and his experience attempting to cope with mental illness. Doing so is an attempt to eliminate the stigma that is associated with mental illness by creating empathy and understanding for those dealing with it in their own lives. I know from my own experience that it’s not just the person with the diagnosis who needs support but those around them as well.
I am a builder and my father was a builder. I love the holiday of Sukkot and so did my father. As if being outdoors isn’t enough, we get to build our own sukkot. My father didn’t just build sukkot though. He built big buildings such as the Boston Design Center, the Burberry building on Newbury Street, and the Bio Tech facilities. He also built Jewish Schools: a Kollel, a Hillel house, and shuls. He built communities.
Just as hard as watching my father go through his battles with mental illness while simultaneously trying to manage his care was watching how certain aspects of different communities shunned him as if he was “dirty.” This was a man who literally built the physical structures that house the Jewish institutions of Greater Boston and was a pillar of the community.
We spoke throughout shiva about how our father was someone who could see past a person’s disability and into their core, or into their neshama. Our take home message for those visiting us was that if people could emulate that character trait we would be much improved as a community. We spoke about how much it meant for us as a family when others were also looking out for our dad. We knew that while the buck stopped with us, we were not alone in this difficult struggle. As a community we rally behind people with all types of physical illnesses, we fight to help the unemployed, but when it comes to mental illness we fall short.
Throughout shiva people told us that our openness and willingness to talk about mental illness was refreshing. We responded saying that we didn’t think twice about it. To us our father was not someone who “is” bipolar but someone who “has” bipolar, and once you can differentiate between the person and the illness you can come to a level of understanding and sensitivity for how to manage a complex situation. It took time for each of us to come to this place, where we could separate the man from the illness, but once we did we came to a much better place.
What does it mean to include someone in a community? A person can come to shul and daven with everyone in the room, but are they being included or just standing in the same physical space as those around them? My father expressed to my brother about five years ago that his favorite part of shmoneh esrei had become the words “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; and let my soul be like dust to everyone.” I think this spoke to my father’s experiences while in manic episodes, which is a manifestation of bi-polar disorder. He would lose the ability to control the things that he would say to others, and he understood what it caused others to think about him, and he didn’t want to be judged by what he would say or do when not in control due to his illness. He could be davening in a room with others and at the same time feel completely alone. The people around him didn’t understand what he was struggling with and they would exclude him and make him feel like he was invisible or unwelcome.
It’s not always easy to deal with a person who is experiencing a manic episode, and there is no one correct approach for dealing with it, but coming to a place where we can understand what the person is going through gives us perspective and equips us with the knowledge and understanding that can help to de-escalate a potentially scary or dangerous encounter. It helps us understand that the actions of the person are not their own, rather they are a manifestation of an illness that they have.
In an article that Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot wrote which was published in Jewish Action about his own personal struggles with mental illness, specifically uni-polar or major-depression, he makes an important statement – one that needs to be internalized and acknowledged. He writes, “It is no more possible for the depressive to emerge from his depression than for the cancer patient to will away his tumor or the diabetic to magically lift his own insulin level by wishing it upwards.”
Mental illness isn’t a choice. It’s not something that someone decides to take on and then attempts to deal with. Those who have been diagnosed with mental illness often describe themselves as being trapped by their illness. My father himself expressed that to some of his closest friends.
Our experience showed that when the leadership of a community showed sensitivity to our father it set a tone of acceptance and sensitivity for others within the community to emulate. We found that when the opposite happened, when there was a lack of sensitivity to understand a complex situation, the majority of the community didn’t see it as their responsibility to step up. We also found that those all too frequent and unfortunate examples of lacking sensitivity would enrage our father. He was extremely hurt that they couldn’t see beyond his illness.
My father told me and my siblings and some of his closest friends that love was the best medicine, better than any medication that a doctor could prescribe. Being made to feel like you are part of a community in the good times, but especially in the bad, can have a profound impact on a person’s life. Not everyone can be like my father, who would feel comfortable walking up to a person in a room or on the street who looked different, or was acting strange, and give them a hug. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a hug. A simple wave, or a smile, or a handshake, or saying hello, or asking how someone is doing can make a difference. It can impact the person you interact with and it can impact those closest to them.
We have a family tradition that I hope is not unique to just our family. We all make sure to speak to each other before Shabbat and Yom Tov. When my siblings and I would call our father, in addition to the usual questions we would ask about what he had been up to since we last spoke and how he was doing, we would ask what his plans were for Shabbat or Yom Tov. The times when he would tell us that he was going to be on his own were hard for us, but the weeks that he would tell us that he had received a dinner or a lunch invitation, those were great Shabbatot and Yom Tovs both for us and for him. Those were times when he truly was part of a community.
This is not just an issue I believe is confined to dealing with mental illness. I have seen cases of chesed where, unfortunately, aspects of communities shy away from responsibility when a case is perceived as too “dirty” or complex. We should be a community running to help those cases. But only when we have the understanding and sensitivity towards a family going through these complex cases do we allow ourselves to say that there is no such thing as a case too complex to help.
In an article published in The Times of Israel, Rachel Rosenthal writes, referring to the broken tablets being placed in the ark alongside the complete tablets:
“Even as something is broken, it retains its holiness. It is not discarded, but instead, it must be treated with the same kavod as that which is whole. Completeness comes from combining that which is flawed with that which is pristine. All of us are made of parts that are whole and parts that are broken. May we find a way to show each other our brokenness. And perhaps it will allow us to become a little more whole.”
My siblings and I are working on a project to help educate our future community leaders by incorporating education relating to understanding the complexities of mental illness and how to help those who are dealing with it themselves, or with those who are close to them. This is not, however, something that we can expect our community leaders to tackle alone. It is up to all of us.
I’ll conclude with another quote from Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot’s article:
“It is long past time for us all to break the silence and speak openly about mental illness, not just at conferences of Orthodox mental health professionals, but in the public forums of our schools and yeshivot, our conventions and fora, and in the pages of our newspapers and publications. In much of our frum world, despite the fact that significant progress has been made, the vestiges of these stigmas linger on. It is time for this last stigma to fall and fall quickly in the spirit of menshlichkeit, rachmanut and the recognition that we are all created b’tzelem Elokim.”
Dov Kram was raised in Brookline, MA and attended Maimonides School and then spent a year and a half studying in the Old City of Jerusalem at Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalaim. He then attended Yeshiva University where he majored in History. He lives in Newton, MA with his wife and four daughters and works as a residential building contractor.