Spiritual well-being

New coalition looks to help religious Israelis struggling with mental health issues and their families

Organization has 250 members from a variety of groups and an army of volunteers, advocates for patients, organizes religious events and hopes to do more

It started with a Passover seder.

Rabbanit Vered Mezuman-Aviad’s daughter had struggled with mental health issues in her later teenage years, giving her an acute understanding of the difficulties not just facing patients in mental health centers in general but religious patients in particular. Shabbat meals, prayer services, holiday celebrations — in the often cash-strapped, carefully regimented wards of Israeli psychiatric hospitals, these are often not available.

Mezuman-Aviad, who has long been active in Israel’s religious-Zionist education system, felt that her religious community was not adequately dealing with the issue of mental health. After her daughter was released from the hospital, none of the educational frameworks that she had previously been a part of agreed to have her return. “She was stuck in the house for four months. I just thought: ‘What is happening in the religious community? What’s going on? How are they tossing my daughter out of my ‘home?'” Mezuman-Aviad told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“I spoke to parents who had been through similar things. We understood that there was something going on that we needed to get a handle on. So I started this group — the Coalition of Religious Organizations for Mental Health — and added all kinds of leading people from the religious community: the head of the state religious education system, a  number of rabbis, including Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who helped me found it, [Knesset members] Michael Woldinger and Idit Silman,” said Mezuman-Aviad, who now serves as CEO of the organization.

“We started just before last Passover at the Geha [Mental Health Center],” said Mezuman-Aviad, whose daughter had been hospitalized there. “We wanted to make sure there’d be a Passover seder. We bought presents for all of the patients at the hospital, all 170 of them.”

From there, the coalition took off, with regular activities at 17 mental health centers across the country. The organization, which is run almost exclusively by volunteers, has some 250 members — representatives from youth groups, religious communities and other organizations from across Israel — and hundreds more volunteers who visit and hold events at mental health facilities.

“Shabbat meals, candle lightings — they don’t always happen. There may not be prayers. The center may not have a synagogue or provide a natla [cup for ritual handwashing],” Rabbi Avi Novis Deutch, dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and an active member of the coalition, told eJP.

The coalition looks to both provide those services itself and to lobby the government to step in and ensure that patients receive the religious services they are entitled to.

Mezuman-Aviad said the organization was now working to establish a call center for the families of people dealing with mental health issues to provide them with “information, support and direction.” The coalition has the necessary volunteers to run this call center, which is being run in partnership with the Orthodox Union and officially launches later this week, from 4 p.m. to midnight five days a week. Mezuman-Aviad said the organization hopes to eventually hire a social worker to run the call center from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but this will depend on securing the necessary funding. The coalition also wants to establish five support centers for families of people dealing with mental health issues across the country.

In addition, the coalition is looking to build new hostels for religious people who have been released from hospitalization but still require a comprehensive framework. No such hostel exists today specifically for religious patients.

Funding for the coalition’s activities often comes from small one-off fundraising campaigns within religious communities, occasional donations from larger donors and some foundations, Mezuman-Aviad said. “I’m not as good at fundraising. I don’t come from that world. My background is in education – that’s my world,” she said.

The organization is part of a growing engagement by Israel’s religious community with the issue of mental health. In addition to the coalition’s founding last year, around the same time Rabbi Yoni Rozensweig, a community rabbi, teacher and posek (a rabbi who rules on issues of halacha, or Jewish law), wrote a book with Dr. Shmuel Harris, a psychiatrist and the head of a behavioral health clinic in Jerusalem, titled Nafshi B’She’elati — literally “My Soul in My Question” — which looks to provide resources to rabbis so they can answer questions about the intersection of mental health and religion. This includes issues like how a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder should abide by the requirement to clean their house for Passover without potentially triggering compulsive behavior or what a person with a history of eating disorders should do on Yom Kippur and other fast days.

The coalition was initially focused on this direct outreach to patients in mental health centers and focused its fundraising efforts on one-off initiatives. In one case, Mezuman-Aviad raised some $4,400 from within her community, the Leshem settlement in the northern West Bank, to buy 20 armchairs for the Geha Mental Health Center so that patients could drink their morning coffee “comfortably, not on the institutional plastic benches that they had.”

Mezuman-Aviad and the other members of the coalition reached out to communities located near mental health centers to recruit volunteers to help run regular religious programs for their patients. Mezuman-Aviad said they currently have “30-40 registered volunteers for every hospital,” who bring flowers, lead Kabbalat Shabbat services, organize study sessions, lectures, Hanukkah candle lightings and other holiday-related events.

In addition, the coalition advocates in the Knesset to ensure that patients in mental health centers are provided religious services by the state. The organization also puts together events for religious communities to learn about issues of mental health, as well as seminars for rabbis so they can learn what their role is in helping people dealing with mental health issues and their families.

Novis Deutch, whose seminary includes a far greater focus on pastoral training than most rabbinic programs in Israel, said rabbis can serve a key position in helping people with mental health issues. At the same time, rabbis are not therapists and need to know where the line is between providing pastoral care and offering mental health advice.

“There is a tension between the rabbi being someone who can help — and the need to give them those tools — and the fact that a rabbi is not a therapist, they do not give treatment. There are professionals who do that,” he said. “Rabbis should see themselves as a figure involved in the process, not — heaven forbid — as having the responsibility of a therapist.”

Earlier this month, Novis Deutch and the coalition organized a seminar for rabbis at the Be’er Yaakov Mental Health Center in central Israel, which focused on this issue, he said. The event was attended by dozens of rabbis from across the religious spectrum — Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and Haredi — and was sponsored by the Honey Foundation, Novis Deutch said.

He added that while this was just one element of the one-day seminar at Be’er Yaakov, it is a more significant focus in the seminary’s rabbinic training.

The event at Be’er Yaakov also included a talk by Rozensweig about halacha, as well as presentations from people dealing with mental health issues and their families. “We always include people dealing [with mental health issues] in our events. We don’t want to speak over their heads,” Mezuman-Aviad said.

In its roughly 16 months of activity, the coalition has raised the issue of mental health considerably within the religious community in the past year, with op-eds in community news outlets, conferences and partnerships with major organizations within the religious Zionist world. Mezuman-Aviad said it all came from frustration and desperation.

“We went through hell. You get to the point where you just want to bury yourself from the sadness and frustration, but as time goes on, you realize that if you don’t do something about it, no one else will. So that’s where I started,” she said.