In May, our synagogue will be hosting A Mental Health Shabbat in partnership with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Institute. The flyer for the event states that “as part of Mental Health Week, help us raise awareness and break the stigma surrounding mental health.”
Ever since we announced this special Shabbat many people have reached out to thank us for putting this together and have told us how important the issue of mental health is for our community.
It has been gratifying to hear the overwhelming response because it speaks to the special role of community in this area. A community is well-positioned to support those suffering with health issues and our community is top notch in this area; but, I know that when it comes to those that are suffering with mental health issues we tend to be more hesitant with our support.
I think many of us mean well in our hesitancy as we do not want to invade on people’s privacy - quotes such as “she’s a private person, I think she would be uncomfortable if I called her” are all too common - but it’s misplaced and just a result of a deep stigma that surrounds mental health. I knew that having the courageous and inspiring Taylor Schachnow, a young woman in our community who so many know and love, take the stage in our synagogue and talk about her mental health struggle was something that we badly need to hear.
Every community needs someone like Taylor to get up and tell us that not only is it okay to talk about mental health, it is imperative that we do so.
I knew that it was important for us to focus on mental health. But even after having announced this event and after having worked on it for months, it has only been in this past week that I finally had the experiences that helped me put words to a deep feeling I was having trouble expressing.
The first experience was this past Shabbat, the weekend of March 30th. I was sitting in synagogue listening to the Torah being read when we arrived at the reading of a devastating story. It was the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu; the precious sons of Aaron the High Priest, the brother of Moses. These two men, “holy” “brothers” and the “chosen of God” as the Torah describes them, they died in their pursuit of transcendence as they brought an “extraneous fire before God.” Then we read of Aaron’s response to the news of this death; and he was silent. These are words I have read so many times before, but this time, I felt my heart break.
And he was silent. He suffered in silence. Our sages tell us this was a conscious decision for Aaron and that it worked for him. At the same time I could not stop thinking of so many suffering in silence because they feel like there is no other way or because their community or family or environment are not truly hearing their cries. There is nothing more agonizing than suffering in silence, being alone in suffering, and in the area of mental health in particular this is a reality too many face.
That is why we are coming together as a community to focus on mental health; so that next year when we read those words and he was silent, we will be able to reflect on all of the members of our community who are no longer suffering alone and in silence.
The second experience happened this past Wednesday, April 3rd. I had the opportunity to take part in a day-long conference on inclusion, a collaborative project between several of our very special Jewish community organizations. One of the workshops during the day was a panel of people with disabilities and caretakers of people with disabilities speaking very openly about their lived experiences. One eloquent young man with autism said something profound:
We can build ramps in our synagogue for people with mobility disabilities, we can invest in sound systems for people with hearing disabilities, and we can invest in braille signage for people with visual disabilities. We can keep investing in inclusion, but it is all for nothing if we do not get rid of stigma. Because when all is said and done, while stigma still exists, we will have no one in our synagogues to take advantage of any of our investments.
That is why we are having a Mental Health Shabbat.