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Healing over dinner
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Healing over dinner

Peer-led support groups succeed as synagogues struggle to break the stigma of psychological illnesses

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Eta Levenson started Parent to Parent Peer Support after the suicide of her son, Eric, in 2016. She is pictured with Eric at his graduation from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., in May 2010. Photo courtesy Eta Levenson
Eta Levenson started Parent to Parent Peer Support after the suicide of her son, Eric, in 2016. She is pictured with Eric at his graduation from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., in May 2010. Photo courtesy Eta Levenson

Sitting around a dining room table set with snacks and hot tea, as if for a Shabbat gathering, parents offer one another ideas and comfort. They gather twice each month in a private home. It is not a therapy group, and there is no counseling. Rather, it’s peer support for Jewish parents whose children suffer from mental illness. 

“It’s about being there for each other,” said Eta Levenson of West Orange, who leads the group, Parent to Parent Peer Support.“We get each other. We trust each other.”  The group, which Levenson founded in July, has no sponsoring agency, though it is loosely under the auspices of WestOrangeJewishConnectionZ, a consortium of chesed groups in West Orange. 

Levenson, a member of Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David (AABJ&D) in West Orange and a trained social worker, understands the parents’ situation better perhaps than she would like. After years of struggling with serious mental illness, her adult son committed suicide in February 2016.   

Those involved with Parent to Parent are clear about why Levenson’s group works. “The fresh fruit and treats provide a message that we are celebrating in coming together. And there is real celebration and shared laughter and shared successes and shared empathy,” one participant wrote to Levenson, who solicited input for this article. Because, the participant wrote, the group cultivates a feeling that “we’re all in this together, some of the isolation, shame, [and] fears dissipate.” 

Despite Jewish communal efforts to discuss mental health and support those who are suffering, stigma stands in the way. Few attend events in venues such as synagogues to seek support, and anything short of meeting in a confidential location with someone relatable misses the mark. 

The stigma over mental illness is so high that support groups for all but the most supposedly or traditionally neutral issues, like aging or bereavement, have mostly failed in synagogues in the Greater MetroWest area, according to Reuben Rotman, who, until last month, served as executive director of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest for nearly two decades. “We’ve tried women going through divorce, for example. But people are not comfortable going into the synagogue library and talking about a difficult divorce,” he said in an interview last winter, pointing out how much more difficult mental health issues are to discuss.  

Referring to Levenson and her peer support group, Rotman said, “She and I are confident that if her group were held at a synagogue, it would not get the attendance it gets.” Rotman is now chief executive officer of the Network of Jewish Human Services Agencies.  

“There’s something safe and comforting about a peer group, not a professionally led group,” he said. It’s easier for some to speak with Levenson, as “she’s a mother who understands these issues intimately.”

Mental illness occurs at the same rates among Jews as the general population, affecting about 20 percent of adults and teens in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Serious mental illness (such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia) affects a much smaller group, about 4 percent of adults. 

Only about 41 percent of those with mental illness will receive health services.

“We recognize that we need to do more to raise awareness about mental health challenges in our community,” said Rebecca Wanatick, community inclusion manager for Greater MetroWest ABLE, a network of community leaders and professionals advocating and providing support for individuals and families with disabilities. Since its inception in 2008, it has primarily focused on developmental and intellectual disabilities. Recently, clergy, educators, and parents have been more vocal about the struggles of community and family members, she noted. And, pointing to a rising number of suicides in the northern New Jersey area, she said the group is adding a focus on mental health challenges. She suggested that part of the solution will be for people to stop “tiptoeing around mental health diagnoses” and talk about them. She also pointed out that for clergy and other community leaders, training is critical. 

“We have members of our Jewish community who are struggling on a daily basis, and community professionals, clergy, and lay leaders do not know how best to support them, and don’t always understand the issues. They may or may not know how to read the flags to make referrals.”

She offered the example of a person struggling with anxiety who has trouble getting to school in the morning, to Shabbat services, or to a bar mitzvah lesson. “Are we recognizing people who are missing from community life?  Are people noticing someone who is suddenly not around, who may not speak up but is wondering, ‘Is anyone reaching out to me to say, how are you?’”

In the aftermath of her son’s suicide, Levenson said, she found that the people who were similarly situated were the ones who provided the most support. She also took notice of how many people who otherwise felt isolated or stigmatized opened up to her or to one of her other two children, knowing they would understand. 

Those experiences gave her the idea for the group, but she wasn’t sure what to expect when she sent out her first announcement to the West Orange shuls group, an email list. She addressed the issue bluntly: “Do you feel nobody understands? That you have nobody to talk to? If you have a child suffering from mental illness, you’re not alone.” Within days she got three calls and two more the following week. She started with five people, and within months the group had grown to 12.

Studies show that peer-led support groups provide a variety of benefits in dealing with mental health issues, according to Peers for Progress, a joint program of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. These include reduced anxiety, increased ability to cope, and increased knowledge.

“People are in so much pain,” said AABJ&D’s Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler. “We need a community, a village, to support us.” But so far, the support falls short. He pointed out that if someone has a child with cancer and needs to raise money, “They could reach the goal in a couple of hours.” But he said that is not the case for the family of a child suffering from mental illness. 

“The community does not have a grasp of how to help before it’s too late,” he said.

Zwickler believes in the synagogue as a place of healing for those who feel isolated, but he admitted, “We don’t get to say we’re doing a good enough job when people are struggling, suffering, feeling lonely.” 

Rotman pointed out that although congregations are adept at dealing with physical illness and bereavement, parents of kids with anxiety or other emotional needs feel stigmatized and isolated. 

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills illustrated how parents of children with mental health issues become isolated during day-to-day interactions. “Parents aren’t sure how to talk about it,” he said. “Parents often talk about their kids’ basketball games, or theater, and the kid with the mental health issue may not be doing those activities.” He added, “They themselves don’t know how to talk about it, and others don’t know they need support.”

After a crisis, Gewirtz said, there are all kinds of Facebook posts of people offering support. “But in the day in and day out rhythm of life, people don’t even realize what’s going on.” 

While he believes there is less of a stigma today than 20 years ago, he acknowledged that isn’t saying much — it means people are no longer afraid to say they’re seeing a therapist, not that they will speak openly about serious mental illness.

“I don’t think the Jewish community is doing nearly enough to step up to help people with mental illness,” he said. 

Some synagogues are making inroads. For example, Gewirtz tries to connect the spiritual and emotional pieces. “While people are working on the psychological piece with a professional, we want to work on the spiritual piece,” he said. His synagogue will be incorporating positive psychology into its religious school curriculum as “a preemptive antidote,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you won’t get sad. But it means you also have a place where your strengths, those things that come naturally, are accentuated.” 

Both he and Zwickler try to connect people with similar mental health challenges. “Until you meet someone going through what you are going through, you feel you are on a desert island,” said Zwickler. “As soon as you meet someone, you are no longer alone. That’s really powerful, and that’s where we can make a real difference.”

Rabbi David Greenstein hosts a healing service at Congregation Shomrei Emunah on the first Monday of each month, which draws congregants with both physical and emotional needs. Greenstein started it shortly after he joined the Montclair congregation in 2008, after he observed a “lot of us walking around with a sense of being beat up and more vulnerable than we thought we were” during the recession.

Although the substance of the monthly services varies, a small group sits in chairs arranged in a circle in the front of the sanctuary and lights a candle. Greenstein leads chanting and prayers, the weekly Torah reading, or whatever seems relevant to him. Some participants have come regularly for years, others only when it fills a need. 

After a recent service, Geralyn Margulies said the experience is calming and safe, and said she appreciates “the way the rabbi pulls phrases from the liturgy that have different meaning every time we meet together, depending on circumstances in the world and my own personal needs.”

Locally, JFS and Greater Metro-
West ABLE offer different kinds of support in groups and individual therapy, as well as through synagogue social workers and stand-alone workshops, like one held in late April for parents of children with anxiety, and another held in March to train clergy. Greater MetroWest ABLE’s Wanatick added that her group will be incorporating mental health training into its programs for its 2017-2018 year, in part through a major grant to JFS from the Eric Eliezer Levenson Foundation for Hope to reduce the stigma around mental health; the foundation is named in memory of Eta Levenson’s son. 

Sometimes, it takes a few courageous families to speak up, according to Wanatick, like Levenson, who has spoken openly about her family’s experience. 

In other cases, it’s as simple as making sure those who are in a position to see the signs of mental health issues recognize them and know what resources are available. “Sometimes a rabbi can be there to hold someone’s hand and give comfort and support and answer spiritual questions; but we also need to know when to refer someone [to a therapist] and then stay engaged,” said Zwickler, who is also a licensed clinical social worker. 

Levenson’s home-based peer support group is unique in its approach and in its success, so much so that some wonder why there aren’t more programs like it. 

One participant wrote, “Not only do I feel that this kind of group should be replicated, but I feel that every Jewish and non-Jewish spiritual community should create a venue for all individuals to share and heal and create thriving in the darkest of their circumstances.

“In addition to those of us with children challenged by mental health illness, I wish there were also groups for parents with children with developmental delays. I wish there were meetups for the elderly who are also coping with loneliness and isolation. I wish there were groups for people suffering divorce and isolation. I really feel that spiritual communities should provide safe venues for all who suffer in silence and in isolation.”

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