Challenge and vulnerability

Strengthening our open Structures: World Mental Health Day and  Sukkot

In Short

Looking at a typical “minimal” sukkah, it is often a fragile structure – impermanence and openness is part of its intentional design. The sukkah is an excellent analogy for mental health; just as the sukkah is imperfect, so, too, is mental health.

It is fortuitous timing that the start of Sukkot coincides with World Mental Health Day. Building a sukkah requires the use of organic materials, walls to withstand typical wind, an entryway and roofing that is open enough to see the stars. Looking at a typical “minimalist” sukkah, it is often a fragile structure – impermanence and openness is part of its intentional design. The sukkah is an excellent analogy for mental health; just as the sukkah is imperfect, so, too, is mental health.

In September, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the BBYO Center for Adolescent Wellness facilitated an important conversation among camp directors, executives and mental health professionals on mental, emotional, social and spiritual health (MESSH) trends during summer 2022 – many of whom benefited from having a mental health professional at camp through the Yedid Nefesh initiative. As camps reflected on the past summer, a few patterns emerged: 

  • Developmental stunting, related to independence, confidence, social skills, emotional regulation;
  • Increased controlling behaviors, related to disordered eating, self-injury, and other behaviors;
  • Camp as a connector to resources and a healer for families;
  • The need for more mental health support on the ground and a lack of professionals in the pipeline;
  • Empathic strain (exhaustion from cumulative exposure to others’ pain) of seasonal staff and year-round professionals

These patterns mirror the way MESSH is showing up in the larger world. As we look at the trends from summer 2022 and the larger picture of mental health across North America, we have to ask the question: what does it truly mean to be healthy – mentally, emotionally and socially? Being mentally healthy does not mean being happy all the time. It is not a state of absolute balance and perfection. Rather, it is the ability to face challenges and know that things will get better. It is the ability to maintain relationships and live life without feeling the need to be closed off. In a sukkah, the holes and imperfections are where the light gets in. 

Jewish immersive experiences, like camp, are so deeply impactful in part because they create moments of challenge and encourage vulnerability within the context of safe, nurturing environments. It is in those moments of challenge and vulnerability that individuals are able to learn and grow. Mental health is our ability to face adversity, to feel a full range of emotions and get through to the other side.

While a sukkah must be rebuilt each year (even though we may reuse our materials), it remains an opportunity to build something fresh. Every year we have a tradition of purposefully putting ourselves in a vulnerable state and opening ourselves up to the elements. In our sukkot structures, we are expected to invite others to join us and immerse ourselves in community – sustaining and strengthening ourselves by being together. 

This year, let us all use the coincidental timing of Sukkot and World Mental Health Day to speak up and help be a bridge to mental health. Just as the light shines through the holes in the sukkah roof, allow your conversation to bring light to mental health challenges in your community as well as the opportunities for help, support, and resilience. 

Looking beyond Sukkot towards next summer, we ask you to think about:

  • How is your community preparing to support mental health challenges?
  • What are you offering to ensure that toolboxes are full and ready to handle the challenges of today and the future?
  • Who are you building bridges with across the community?
  • How are you welcoming everyone and encouraging them to bring their whole selves?

Perhaps most importantly, we ask Jewish institutions, families, supporters and friends to consider how we are collectively strengthening and fortifying our structures – staffing, physical buildings, attitudes, policies and procedures – and those who serve them, without closing them off. This, we believe, is how we ensure the long-term thriving of our entire community.

For some conversation starters, check out these resources from Blue Dove Foundation about Sukkot and mental health.

Drew Fidler, LCSW-C, is the director of BBYO’s Center for Adolescent Wellness. Drew helps to ensure that all Youth-Serving Organizations are places where adolescents thrive through institutional best practices in health and wellness. 

Jill Goldstein Smith, MAJE, is a senior program manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) where she oversees Yedid Nefesh: Nurturing Mental, Emotional, Social, and Spiritual Health (MESSH) at Jewish Camp (supported by the Marcus Foundation along with UJA Federation of New York and the Jewish Communal Fund). She also works on other MESSH and community care initiatives, leadership development, and Jewish education projects, including FJC’s Cornerstone Fellowship.