Skip to content

An Elul Letter from Rabbi Dov Gartenberg on Mental Illness and the Seattle Jewish Community

Monday, August 24, 2015/ 9 Elul, 5775

Dear friends,

During the upcoming Days of Awe we will chant the haunting prayer, Unetaneh Tokef. The famous dyads of this prayer reveal the existential anxieties of our ancestors. I am writing to you about three of the dyads which have absorbed my attention during my adult life.

Who will be at peace and who will be troubled? מי ינוח ומי ינוע

Who will be serene and who will be disturbed? מי ישקיט ומי יטרף

Who will be tranquil and who will be tormented? ומי ישלו ומי יתיסר

These dyads focus on an ancient fear- the fear of what we today call mental illness. There was no word for mental illness in antiquity. Like the fear of death, the fear of falling sick to mental anguish and suffering was part of their reality, and continues to be part of ours. While we know much more about mental illness than our ancestors, we have, like them, found no cures for the myriad ways it manifests in ourselves or in the people we love.

Before I moved back to Seattle in April 2015, I served as the Executive Director of an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Juneau, Alaska. During my time there I learned and taught NAMI’s signature peer education courses for family members who are caring for a loved one with mental illness. I also brought to the community NAMI’s peer support and education courses for persons living with mental illness. Most important, I was able to mine my personal experience as a parent of a child with mental illness to become an advocate for people and family enduring the great challenges of living with it.

In moving back to Seattle I want to continue to advocate, support and educate persons and families living with mental illness as a rabbi in the Jewish community. Under the rubric of Panim Hadashot, the Jewish organization I have reestablished, I am working to bring NAMI’s outstanding peer support and education programs to the attention of the Seattle Jewish community. I am meeting with the leadership of Jewish Family Service and NAMI to foster greater collaboration in bringing forward the peer-led programs that NAMI offers.

One of NAMI's signature programs is Family to Family, a course designed for family members who care for a loved one living with a mental illness such as depression, Bipolar Disorder, anxiety disorders, and Schizophrenia to organize and teach a NAMI. I am working with the Seattle affiliate of NAMI to modify and teach this course to include unique Jewish cultural issues that can arise with Jewish families dealing with mental illness. I will be teaching this course not as a rabbi, but as a peer. A peer in this case is a person who has life experience caring for a family member.

The Family to Family Course has been scheduled to run on Mondays and Wednesday evenings from November 9 to December 16, 2015. It is for any family members or caregivers caring for a loved one living with mental illness. The course is currently offered under the rubric of NAMI of Greater Seattle and Panim Hadashot, my recently reestablished Jewish organization. The course will meet in the Wedgwood neighborhood of Seattle. The course is free, but registration will be limited to twenty persons. You will be able to find information on the course by September 1st at www.nami-greaterseattle.org or at www.panimhadashot.org.

I am also working to hold in Seattle a gathering focused on Judaism and Mental Illness. The gathering would be modeled on a conference that took place in New York City in 2014 organized by the Jewish institute of Drisha.

I wanted to make you aware of these efforts and invite you to join me either as a participant or as a collaborator. I also hope that over time we will be able to train a cadre of persons in the Jewish community who can help others on this journey by becoming NAMI trained peer teachers or support group facilitators. Please feel free to contact me if you are interested at panimhadashot@gmail.com.

I remember many years ago when my son was hospitalized in one of the more severe depressive episodes. He was so sick and in such pain that I hardly recognized him. As I fell to the depths of despair, one of the aides saw the distress on my face and took me aside. He told me, “It will not always be like this. He will find a way out of this.” I will always remember those words of hope and solace. Over time they were prophetic.

I am calling on inspired persons in our community to provide hope, support, and encouragement for those we know who face this enormous challenge. As it says at the end of ‘Unetaneh Tokef’, “Teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka maavirin et roa hagezera”. I translate this beloved prayer to mean “by turning toward, by advocating, and by generous righteous and caring acts we diminish the severity of the decree.” We have the power to make a difference and bring hope to those who live with mental illness.

Shanah Tovah v’tikateivu,

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Panim Hadashot