Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Holiness of Brokenness

There are conversations that have been going on in our community, our city, and our country for too long, but until now, these conversations have been kept to a mumbled whisper. These are conversations in which we want to share our brokenness with the world, but instead we keep it hidden. We keep it hidden because we think we are alone. But we are not. Mental illness impacts your family. Mental illness impacts my family. It affects us all.

And when we don’t discuss it, when we don’t talk about it, when we don’t offer help and support, especially in a sacred community, then the unthinkable happens, then mental illness leads to loss. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, of Florida’s 18.3 million residents, over 660,000 adults and 181,000 children live with serious mental illness. In the state of Florida alone last year there were over 3,000 deaths by suicide, which is almost always the result of untreated or under-treated serious mental illness. That is more than 8 a day in the state. As a result of the lack of mental health awareness, care, and treatment, Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in our country, and rising quickly.

We don’t talk a lot about mental illness in my family, even though I have loved ones who have suffered and do suffer from such an illness. Part of it is because of the stigma attached to such illness. I’m sure such a stigma has led many of us to not discuss the mental illness that we or our own loved ones suffer from. That stigma remains. That stigma remains because of ignorance. That stigma remains because of fear.

MentalIllnessBut it also remains because we don’t talk about it. And when we don’t talk about it, it goes untreated. We do not hesitate to discuss the physical ailments family members suffer from, the surgeries we are recovering from, or the cancer we are fighting. Those are acceptable to talk about. For some reason, mental health and mental illness is not.

For that reason, two organizations in our city that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is a part of have taken it upon themselves to increase mental health awareness and mental health services in this city.

Florida’s public mental health system provides services to only 26% of adults who live with serious mental illness and the statistics of just a couple of years ago suggest that Florida spent just $38 per capital on mental health agency services. In fact, Florida is ranked 49th out of all 50 states in the federal funding it receives for mental health services and Duval County receives the least amount of funding among all counties in the state.

JCCI, Jacksonville Community Council, in which our congregation participates, focuses on Engaging People for Community Change. Their latest inquiry, entitled “Unlocking the Pieces: Community Mental Health in Jacksonville” will examine the prevalence of emotional and behavioral disorders as well as mental illness in Northeast Florida and develop community-wide recommendations for system change. ICARE, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment, the social justice organization that our congregation is also a part of, has a similar mission this year. At the Community Problems Assembly a couple of months ago, representatives from our congregation were present with dozens of other congregations to decide what the most pressing needs of our city were and overwhelmingly chose mental health and mental illness as the issue we must address.

We must remove the stigma. We must embrace the brokenness of ourselves and of our loved ones. We must be okay with carrying that brokenness with us. For that brokenness is a part of us and a part of who we as a community are. For that brokenness is holy.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects every race, ethnicity, gender, language, and religion. According to the US Center for Mental Health Services, at any given moment more than 48 million Americans are suffering from “diagnosable” mental illness. Many more are suffering and go undiagnosed. It is our job as a sacred community to rid our community, and our country, of this stigma. For each of us, even with the brokenness that we sometimes carry, are made in God’s image and are worthy in the eyes of God. Removing the stigma can allow us to open our doors, our arms, and our hearts and be supportive, allowing our loved ones to get the treatment that they need.

This past week, we read the Torah portion Parashat Ki Tissa. In it, we learn that the Israelites built the Egel Zahav, the Golden Calf. They got tired of waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. When Moses finally came near the people’s encampment with tablets in hand and saw the calf and the dancing, he shattered the tablets at the foot of the mountain.

Most assume that Moses hurled these tablets out of anger. I want to suggest a different explanation.The tablets were heavy, too heavy to carry. Moses didn’t carry the heavy stone tablets alone. Rather, because he carried them in his heart, they lifted him up and carried him. He was willing to take the burden of God’s word on his shoulders because he believed that this was a burden that the entire community was carrying. They broke when he saw the Israelites dancing around the idol because he felt alone. When he realized he was alone, that this was a burden he was holding on to all by himself, they shattered. It was too much to bear without the support of community.

We all have our burdens, our challenges, to carry. When we carry them alone and feel we cannot share them with community, when we are embarrassed to share them because of ignorance and fear, when we worry about not being embraced or accepted, then those burdens, like the tablets of the covenant, turn to brokenness.

But that brokenness is just as much a part of who we are as our whole selves. For we read at the end of the Torah portion, in Exodus 34:4, that

Vayifsol shenei luchot avanim karishonim.

That Moses carved two new tablets of stone, just like the first. He ascended Mount Sinai again with stone tablets in hand and inscribed God’s word on to them.

Yet, we learn that when the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was eventually completed, the two sets of tablets both rested in the Holy Ark. The brokenness displayed alongside that which was whole, for both are holy and both are worthy in the eyes of God. The darker, more challenging parts of our identities and who we are and the pleasant and joyful demeanors are both holy.

We cannot hide the brokenness. We cannot brush it under the rug, we cannot pretend it isn’t happening. We cannot pretend that mental illness does not exist. Rather, we understand that those who suffer from mental illness are still sacred and holy. We care for them and we reach out, in the same way we do for any other illness.

Moses didn’t throw the shattered pebbles of sacred text away. Rather, he understood the holiness of brokenness. And while we cannot hide the brokenness, we also must do our best, as community, to prevent such shattering. Moses shattered the tablets because he felt alone. There was no place for him. There was no outlet. There was no help. There was no support. We must be that support. When those among us – our family, friends, members of our community – fear that life is broken, we must be that outlet.

As a synagogue, when we pray for healing in the Mi Sheberach prayer, we must understand that we are not only praying for recovery of bodily harm and physical ailments, but also for strength and stability from mental illness. We must continue to use our communication to inform the community about the work of JCCI, ICARE, and other community endeavors that strive to make mental health care more accessible. We must open up our synagogue building to offer support groups for those suffering from serious mental illness as well as for family members and caregivers of those who suffer from mental illness.

Finally, and most importantly, we must teach, preach, and recognize that no matter what illness – physical or mental – that we suffer from, we each still have the Divine spark within us. There is a place for each of us, at times when we are feel broken and times when we feel whole, in our holy ark, in our sacred community. May it always be so.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Teen Girls Laying Tefillin: Brave Enough to be Different

This article was originally published on January 29, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Egalitarianism is more than simply allowing women equal opportunity to engage in Jewish rituals; it’s about encouraging them to do so.

 I remember the first time I worked with a bat mitzvah student. We had been studying for over a year, learning her Torah portion together, working on a Dvar Torah to deliver to the congregation, and planning a mitzvah project to reinforce her newfound responsibility toward all of humanity. We learned about tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) and she was excited about the possibility of wearing these ritual objects.

She soon realized that she was in the minority. No other adolescent girl was wearing tefillin that morning, and very few chose to wear tallitot. Although the community was egalitarian and women had the same opportunities for participation in Jewish ritual as men, most of the teenage girls declined to engage in the rituals of laying tefillin and wearing tallitot. So too, this bat mitzvah girl folded up her tallit, zipped up her tefillin bag, and has yet to put them on again. Why? Because she does not want to stand alone. She wants to be “normal.”

Jewish newspapers and social media were abuzz this past week over the brave decision of two teenage girls to be the anomaly. They decided to take on the ritual of laying tefillin daily, even if this was foreign to those around them. Ronit Morris and Yael Marans, students at the SAR Modern Orthodox High School in Riverdale, N.Y., will now wear tefillin daily, according to The Forward. Debra Nussbaum Cohen recently explainedin a Haaretz article that this is nothing new; SAR Academy had apparently permitted girls to wear tefillin two decades ago. Still, at this point in time, such an institutional decision is significant, so much so that it led to another well-known Modern Orthodox Jewish High School in New York, the Ramaz School,  to also announce that it too were open to girls in their school wearing tallit and tefillin if they wish.

The decisions made by these institutions recognizes the diverse spectrum of religious expression, halakhic interpretation, and commitment to Jewish ritual, even within a specific movement or denomination.

As a Conservative rabbi and Jew, and a staunch supporter of egalitarianism, I am a part of a movement in which the overwhelming majority of affiliated congregations are egalitarian. While the Conservative Movement has been egalitarian for over a generation, I worry that it has never truly embraced nor encouraged women’s participation in Jewish rituals.

Under the movement’s understanding of halakha (Jewish law) women have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of Jewish rituals if they wish. It was thanks to this understanding that the Modern Orthodox institutions SAR Academy and the Ramaz School came to this conclusion. However, if the Conservative Movement truly stands for egalitarianism, it must do more than simply permit women to participate in rituals.

GirlWearingTefillinIt must, via us – the clergy, educators, professionals, and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement – encourage it. When Conservative leaders do not take a true stand for egalitarianism – saying it is a priority of our movement and our affiliated institutions – it makes it hard to prove to the women of the movement, and young girls like the bat mitzvah student who’s tefillin remains tucked away in a drawer, that egalitarianism is a priority.

Making egalitarianism a priority is about more than giving women a choice; it must encourage and expect participation. True egalitarianism is men and women being viewed as – and feeling – equally obligated. We need institutions that encourage our b’not mitzvah to take on ritual. We need more female role models that wear kippah, tallit, and tefillin to show our young girls that this is a possibility. We need more men who understand, appreciate, preach, and teach the importance of egalitarianism in our communities. We need more leaders who don’t simply permit participation, involvement, and equality, but instead encourage it. We need more male leaders who promote gender equality in the same way our female leaders do.

I am standing up, asking, promoting, and encouraging true egalitarianism. Who is with me?

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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