Teen Mental Health: Rolling Darkness into Light

By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Rolling light into darkness and darkness rolling into light. Goleil or mipnei choshech v’choshech mipnei or.

With these words, the evening Ma’ariv Aravim prayer draws attention to the cycle of day and night, thanking God for the unending seasons. Ma’ariv Aravim also assures us that even when darkness shields our ability to see, we will eventually return to a light which will shine a way forward.

This insight guided us as a busload of seventh to twelfth graders, from all over Greater Los Angeles (including San Pedro), for a Mental Health and Wellness teen retreat. The retreat is the centerpiece of Shmirat Haguf v’Hanefesh: Caring for the Teen Body, Mind and Spirit, multi-year initiative of Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), to transform our synagogue – and by extension the Jewish community – into a kind, safe space for teens. The project is supported by a grant from the LA Jewish Teen Initiative through Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, with support of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. It builds upon innovations in teen engagement undertaken in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism, URJ Camp Newman (Santa Rosa, CA) and NFTY SoCal.

Teen Life: Ups and Downs, Hopes and Despair

Teen life – and life in general – flows through a series of ups and downs, bright moments of possibility and hope, and darker moments of disappointment and despair. The pressure builds and the anxiety threatens to overwhelm. Our still developing teens lack a matured brain to divine a course through, and thus cannot differentiate between normal challenges and the risky, worrisome ones. Literally.

According to Dr. Daniel Siegal, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine where he also serves as a co-investigator at the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, the growing teen brain biologically, the increased dopamine reward drive, and the extra activity in the lower, more emotional parts of the brain, impedes teens from knowing where to turn. So we adults in partnership with our teens, can devise and promulgate routines and skills to guide them through these regular cycles of darkness and light. That’s what this retreat aimed to accomplish.

Discovering Stress and Anxiety Reduction Techniques

The retreat’s t’filah – musical and spiritual – provided a particularly powerful Jewish modality through which to create awareness of and explore techniques for reducing and managing the darker, more challenging moments in their teen lives.

Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night began with teens in a candlelit circle, open siddurim in laps, and a musical invitation to explore “Am I awake? and I prepared?” (song by Noah Aronson) as we sang our way through the t’filah. We named kavannah (intentionality) as a key to addressing the challenges in life. We sang “Roll into dark, roll into light” (song by Rabbi Noam Katz), which excerpts the line from Ma’ariv Aravim.

Tfilah Graffiti Moments

Each subsequent prayer began with a kavannah, followed by a teen or rabbi’s personal sharing about where and how we found light and hope. Teens then engaged in silent T’filah Graffiti Moments, writing their answers on wall-sized giant sheets of paper to prayer-related questions including: Where is the darkness in your life? Where is the light? When has the Sea split for you to allow you to walk forward on dry land? What kind of healing do you seek at this retreat and in the months ahead?

The teens heard how God and spirituality helped one rabbi through the dark struggle in the family, and another rabbi successfully turned to talk therapy to gain insight through the disappointment in a challenging relationship int the family. Before singing Mi Shebeirach, teens silently read each other’s words on the Graffiti boards and wrote commentary in the form of encouraging words, personal experiences that helped them through similar situations and hopes for healing.

Tfloptions: Options for Spiritual Practices

Shabbat morning interspersed traditional matbeah t’filah (structure of prayers) with t’floptions, options of spiritual practices to simultaneously gain spiritual strength and stress reduction. Participants chose between yoga, art therapy, hiking in nature and sports. Led by therapists, trained yogi instructors, and other professionals, the t’floptions aimed at modeling things the teens can make part of their own home stress reducing routines (or rituals).

Why did Congregation Or Ami focus our energies on creating a mental health and wellness retreat?

It became clear over the course of the past years – and was reinforced during the T’filah Graffiti experiences and in one-on-one conversations throughout the retreat – that today’s teens are particularly stressed out, overwhelmed by anxiety, buffetted by the emotional turmoil engendered by social media. They crave support and relief.

Darkness and light, rolling one into another, are spinning our precious youth around and around. Judaism offers a wealth of texts, prayers, rituals and songs to bring comfort to the confused and strength to the weary. So we as a youth-focused synagogue we are committed to mining those treasures to help and guide our youth.

Giving Out the Rabbis’ Cell Phone Numbers

During the closing Friendship Circle, Rabbi Julia Weisz asked teens to turn their cell phones back on, and type in their rabbis’ cell phone numbers for use when they feel they need somewhere to turn. We wanted our teens to know they were never alone, that we were always there for them, goleil or mipnei choshech, when the darkness overwhelms the light.

And so now they know.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California and blogs at Or Am I?