Mental Illness, Stigma, & the Jewish Community: Achieving Lasting Change

Do you or someone you know suffer from mental illness? If you answered yes, you are correct.  If you answered no, guess again. Tens of millions of Americans suffer from a mental disorder and, just as with cancer or diabetes, the Orthodox Jewish community carries no immunity.  Studies show that the incidence of mental illness within our community mirrors that of the general population. While the management and treatment of mental illness varies from person to person and depends upon the nature and intensity of the disorder, we are all directly connected to individuals with mental illness, whether we realize it or not.

Unfortunately, unlike most physiological disorders, those who struggle with mental health disorders are forced to confront a separate set of challenges. Although not a symptom per se, the social stigma which often accompanies mental illness, imposes additional pain and hardship upon sufferers and their families.  The consequences of this stigma, albeit unintended, are numerous and far-reaching. In addition to the shame and isolation experienced by individuals, mental illness’ powerful stigma can often obstruct one’s path towards social acceptance, gainful employment, and fair consideration for long-term relationships.  As if these social barriers were not painful enough, this stigmatization often compromises treatment and hinders recovery. Sadly, individuals are less likely to seek the help they need or commit to a prescribed treatment plan if they perceive that these measures will cause them to be further stigmatized.

It is quite unfortunate, yet deeply ironic, that members of the Orthodox Jewish community are so susceptible to the harmful effects of stigmatization. As a community, we take great pride, as we rightfully should, in our collective ability to provide resources, support, and services to individuals in need and distress.  We value charity and kindness, in all of its forms, and we are particularly attentive to the needs of those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged. It is therefore profoundly disappointing that we have, all too often, tolerated, and, at times, even enabled, the proliferation of this stigma by failing to truly understand mental health disorders and embrace those that struggle with mental illness and their families.

To a large extent, the pervasive stigmatization of mental illness has been generated and sustained by the widespread belief and acceptance of a host of myths and misconceptions.  While there are too many to list them all, what follows is a sample of myths that are all too common in our community. Frequently, individuals who suffer from mental illness are mischaracterized as unmotivated, moody, or needy of attention. Rather than objectively acknowledge the impact of an involuntary chemical imbalance upon one’s brain, we are often misguided in our assessments and conclusions, due to our prejudice and blind acceptance of false or misleading information. Mental illness is often perceived as a mark of personal weakness or excessive sensitivity.  In this regard, the Orthodox Jewish community is particularly at risk because we place great value upon personal effort and individual achievement. When we choose to interpret specific patterns of behavior as a departure from those sets of values, we are inclined to become harshly judgmental. Finally, many fail to appreciate how truly taxing and debilitating mental illness (which, in many cases, is chronic) can be upon individuals and their families. For example, at times we wonder why one who is suffering from depression won’t simply “snap out of it.” The fact is, however, that most mental disorders, like any other illness, cannot be conquered by willpower alone. Suggesting that someone with a mental illness should just “get over it,” would be no different than suggesting to someone with a broken leg to “pull yourself together and just walk normally.”

Successfully combating the stigmatization of mental illness is much easier said than done.  Over the past number of years, we have witnessed an increase in community funding and programming aimed at raising awareness and sensitivity towards individuals with mental health disorders. It has been profoundly reassuring and genuinely heartwarming to witness the continued willingness of individuals, on both sides of the discussion, to share their personal experiences, in an effort to inspire greater awareness and sensitivity.  By doing so, they inspire and encourage those that struggle with mental illness and their families to come forward and receive the communal support they deserve and the assistance they need. As significant as these developments are, it is clear that to effectively reduce the level of stigma that exists in our community, a systematic and sustained effort is needed. An occasional Shabbos morning drasha, an inspiring film, or a community-wide symposium are all great steps forward, but to achieve true and lasting progress, an informed, ongoing, and relentless communal campaign is what is ultimately needed. Let us work together to ensure that our community continues to lead this critical discussion, raising awareness and sensitivity, seeking to eliminate the pervasive and painful stigma from our midst.

Are We Ready to Admit? A Plea on Behalf of Our Children

I have lived in Bergen County for much of the past 35 years and have had the personal privilege of witnessing my beloved community flourish and grow.  Our community’s incredible growth has enabled the transformational development of our social and religious infrastructure.

One of our community’s greatest achievements is the founding and continued growth of our many academic institutions; each of them – without exception – reputable and renowned. I am genuinely proud that our local yeshivot represent a wide spectrum of institutional styles, educational philosophies, and religious hashkafot.  That our community is blessed with such a wide variety of educational options, both on elementary and high school levels, is not to be taken for granted and serves as a model for other communities.

There is one particular feature that sets our community apart from other communities of similar size and composition. Currently, there is no Bergen County yeshiva which follows a ‘K-12’ model.  Thus, upon graduating from eighth grade, our local students continue their education by selecting and then entering a new institutional setting. This model presents our community with a unique set of opportunities and challenges.

Without a K-12 model, high schools are compelled to actively engage in student recruitment, which has created an exceptionally intense competitive environment.  All of our local yeshiva high schools, in addition to high schools located outside of Bergen County, invest substantial resources to attract, engage, and recruit students.  It must be noted that our school leaders, despite the institutional competition, frequently collaborate and coordinate, often serving the community collectively, rather than individually.

The yeshiva high school application and admissions process is multifaceted and complex.  It is therefore quite remarkable that historically well over 90% of Bergen County children are accepted to at least one of their first schools of choice. (Given the limited capacity of any given school, eighth graders are expected to apply to at least two separate schools and, at times, students are strongly advised to apply to at least three schools.)

Each and every year, on a pre-specified date in the middle of February (this year February 12), high schools inform all of their applicants if they have been accepted, rejected, or waitlisted.  In recent years, many local eighth graders are accepted to more than one school, some are accepted to only one school, and a small, but not insignificant, number of children are informed that they have not been accepted into any yeshiva.  Ultimately, virtually all of these children gain admittance, but only at the conclusion of a grueling process that can take many weeks, if not months. The emotional impact of feeling rejected by one’s community, even if only temporarily, can be devastating.  I have witnessed firsthand the extraordinary pain experienced by these children and their families, all of whom feel marginalized, isolated, and helpless. There are of course situations where children have special learning or behavioral needs which cannot be accommodated in one of our mainstream yeshiva settings.  Such cases are not the subject of my remarks. My focus at this time is to address what has repeatedly occurred to students whose educational and behavioral needs can certainly be met within our yeshiva system, but do not gain admittance to any school, until the time that their peers have finalized their own decisions.      

It goes without saying that each of our schools must strive to achieve excellence on every level; academic, religious, and social.  In doing so, schools must work diligently to assemble a student body that will facilitate the successful achievement of their unique institutional goals.  Understandably, this level of success can only be achieved by establishing a quantitative and qualitative balance in the classrooms and hallways. With over 20 years of professional classroom experience, I can personally attest to the impact that even one student can have on many others.  This phenomenon is neither imagined nor exaggerated. Be that as it may, we must confront the following reality: for the past several years, 2-3% of the graduating eighth graders of Bergen County face rejection and uncertainty, with the knowledge that over 97% of their peers have been accepted to yeshiva.  

To be clear, I have no doubt that our school leaders act with the purest of intentions and face extraordinary challenges, as they earnestly strive to preserve and promote the success and integrity of the schools that they lead.  Furthermore, there are numerous complexities and systemic realities which have made it exceedingly challenging to fully resolve this issue in the past.

These challenges notwithstanding, I issue this public appeal on behalf of the children of our community who may otherwise suffer humiliation and pain.  Over the next several weeks, school leaders, together with their admission committees, will finalize their decisions as to how to process the applications that they have received.  As a community, we must commit at the outset to offer every one of our children the dignity of acceptance.  I therefore propose that until a placement is secured for every one of our children, all letters of acceptance be withheld from every Bergen County student.  I respect the right of our school leaders to build institutions of excellence and genuinely admire their sense of responsibility in doing so.  Collectively, however, we must do so in a manner which allows us, as a community, to simultaneously offer a space and a place for each and every one of our children.

Critics of my proposal will accuse me of presenting an oversimplification of this issue in public.  Some may argue that Bergen County does not yet offer an appropriate and suitable educational setting for each of our children; an argument that I personally believe has merit.  As I have already acknowledged, this issue is profoundly complex and solutions that will satisfy all parties will require an unprecedented level of communication and compromise, involving elementary, high school, and communal leadership. I firmly believe that as a community we are capable of achieving that goal. Until that time, however, let us please commit to sparing any child the extraordinary pain and anguish of rejection.  




Holy Halls & Holey Walls

Among the many wonders of human physiology is the following reality:  The human body is not self-sufficient.  In order to survive it requires the intake of various vital matter, from oxygen to the proteins contained in the food we eat.  At the same time, however, most of these acts of consumption, although essential to our survival, have what it takes to kill us.  Kidney or liver failure or repository illnesses that alter the balance between O and CO2 are as potentially dangerous as any other bodily malfunction.  When the body consumes without a filter, it is more than likely going to break down.

Over the course of Chanukah we have the opportunity to light and enjoy the transcendent candles of the Menorah.  Those who lit in a doorway were surely made familiar with the Gemara’s recommendation, after some debate, to place them Menorah on the left side of the doorway, opposite the Mezuzah which hangs on the right.  Many explain that this configuration of mitzvos is to create an environment where one is surrounded with mitzvos.  At first glance, this seems like a persuasive rationale.  However, the Meiri, in his commentary on the gemara, seems to emphasize a different aspect of the placement.  He is dealing with the obvious reality of most doorways; they have no right or left because it always depends on your own orientation.  As a result, the Meiri stresses that the Gemara’s recommendation leaves us with a Mezuzah and a Menorah on the “right.”  The Mezuzah is on the right a one enters, and the Menorah is on the right as one exits.

His suggestion is particularly exciting because it would seem to properly reflect the very specific natures of these two Mitzvos.  The doorway is a very significant place in the home.  It is the area of interaction between the house and the world outside.  It is no wonder then, that it figures prominently in the laws of Chanukah.  The obligation of Pisrumei Nisa is not limited to an announcement of a single miraculous act but is part of a greater mission of Or LaGoyim.  Chanukah is the most public of religious acts and is a prime example of the effect we can have on the common street and in the greater world.  Of course, the doorway runs two ways.  It is also the point of entry into the house, and this is where the Mezuzah takes the stage.  A home is defined by its boundaries; a house without walls is no house at all.  These boundaries have breaches, places where the walls must allow the passage of people, possessions, and ideas.  The Mezuzah reminds us that not everything from the outside can be brought home.  There is a need to filter, and to be especially selective.

So when we exit, it is the Menorah on our side of strength, and it is the Menorah that guides us through our encounter with the world, its culture, and its beauty.  And when we return, enlightened and exhausted from that encounter, it is the Mezuzah that greets us at the door.  Rav Wosner once explained that the Mezuzah was only intended to cover the breaches in our walls.  That is, no home can be perfect in creating an atmosphere of safety and Kedusah.  There will always be areas of vulnerability.  This is where the Mezuzah promises to help.  However, if the walls themselves do not exist, then even the Mezuzah is not enough.  The doorway may be covered, but the home itself is overrun.

The physical safety of our homes and families are guaranteed at an unprecedented level.  Sadly, they are being bombarded by influences that are of grave danger to the soul.  Never before have our homes so closely resembled buildings without walls.  Through the wonders of high-speed internet and cable connections, we are attached to our surroundings to an incredible degree.  There is no longer even the need for an outlet or wire for us to have the entire world at our fingertips.  It is irresponsible to expect the Mezuza alone to serve as our filter.  We must make sure that there are walls, not to shut everything out, but to help preserve the sanctity of our homes.

We must not be naive about the stakes of this battle, nor can we afford to be so blind to the fact that we have already suffered considerable casualties.  What our children are being exposed to in our own basements, family rooms, and at times, in their own bedrooms often runs contrary to the values and identity we hope to pass on to them.

To crush Yavan and Greek culture is only one step harder than to submit to them.  The ultimate challenge lies in integrating the best of their innovations and initiatives and filtering out the good from the dangerous.  As we confront the world, we will carry the Menorah in our hand of strength, and present a Judaism of great vibrancy and relevance.  And we will work preserve our unique identity and with the help of our Mezuzot and man-made walls.


Chanukah Flyer- 2018

Do You Want to Talk in Shul?

If you are like me, you must have quite a lot on your mind. Our fast-paced lives, in our ever-changing world, provide us with constant fodder for thought. From personal experiences to thought-provoking articles, to the constant buzz of social media, we are continually inundated with endless flashes of information, the sum of which is way too much to possibly process. From time to time, we are blessed with moments of reflection, which enable us to pause, breathe, think and process. When granted such opportunities, which are, unfortunately, few and far between, we can more easily construct opinions which are informed. We find it less challenging to respect opposing views and appreciate their wisdom and merit. Through the process of thoughtful deliberation and interpersonal dialogue, our perspectives and views become enriched, ultimately reflecting greater nuance and sophistication.

In an effort to create more such opportunities for our community, last fall I introduced a new initiative called “Talking in Shul.” From time to time, the community was invited join in a dialogue – not a monologue – regarding issues that are on my mind. I selected topics for discussion that are, by definition, complex and multifaceted, and, at times even controversial. Those who participated in these forums found the discussions thought-provoking, emotionally stimulating and spiritually enriching.

I’m happy to announce that we will be kicking off the second season of “Talking in Shul” next Friday night, November 23 at 7:30 p.m. for the first event in a new series of “Talking in Shul.” The topic of this year’s first discussion will be “Do We Have a Drinking Problem? An Honest Discussion About Alcohol Consumption in the Orthodox Community.”

Hoping you can join next Friday night and I look forward to the opportunity to talk with you in shul.


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Progress in an Uphill Battle


What are the schools doing to address substance use and abuse?  Are the schools’ policies too harsh or are they effective? How so?

What is julling?  What are the real dangers of juuling and how prevalent is it in our community?

What does the legalization of marijuana mean for NJ? Will it be available in local stores? Will my kids be able to get it online?

Are the schools and the shuls really the right place to speak about addiction and substance abuse? Is it really the responsibility of the local Jewish community to deal with substance abuse problems?

Doesn’t calling addiction a disease remove all responsibility from the addict for their actions? Don’t we believe in free will?

These are just a few of the questions that were discussed by the panel of speakers at Congregation Keter Torah past Sunday night. For those who did not have an opportunity to attend, the video link is found here. Over the course of 90 minutes, lots of information was exchanged and offered to the many who attended this event. I am proud that our community continues to demonstrate commitment and progress in raising awareness in this most critical area.  I hope and pray that we remain focused and determined to address this issue and bring greater awareness, healing, and growth to our entire community.


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Our Community and Substance Abuse: Next Steps

Families don’t suffer from addiction – individuals do.        

Schools don’t struggle with addiction – students do.         

Shuls are not plagued by addiction – congregants are.  

Communities are not affected by addiction – members are.

Or so, it seems, some of us believe.  In preparation for the upcoming community education event on November 4th at Keter Torah, the public was given the opportunity to submit anonymous questions to various experts and communal leaders regarding substance abuse and addiction. The evening will be dedicated to the panelists discussing and addressing these questions.

There were quite a number of questions about how one can tell if someone is using drugs, or how one can help someone suffering from addiction. Many other questions indicate a deep concern about the accessibility of drugs, the risks of vaping, juuling, or even prescription medications. Many of the questions reflect a true desire to understand more about these issues and how they impact us as a community, seeking ways to address and prevent.

There were a few questions, however, that followed a common theme which I wish to directly address. Some individuals questioned the very assumption that it is the responsibility of the local community to deal with substance abuse issues. Others wondered why should schools or shuls should take any responsibility to deal with individuals struggling with addiction. To be clear from the outset, I respect these questions and genuinely appreciate that some are seeking clarification as to our roles as community members.

Firstly, as members of a community, we should always seek ways to support and display concern for one another. We understand that, when one of us suffers, we suffer as a whole. This is true even if the suffering is limited to a small group of people. We run for diabetes, walk for cancer, ride for autism, and raise money for all sorts of causes and struggles that we may not have a personal connection to. Would anyone suggest that Friendship Circle, Chai Lifeline, Sharsheret or any of the many wonderful organizations in our midst should shift their attention to issues that directly affect every individual within our community? Of course not.  While it is true that we can state that the entire community, thank G-d, is not suffering from cancer, we are proud that so many people devotedly raise awareness and money to support those who are unfortunately ill.

An additional benefit to raising awareness and education about this issue is the impact it has by allowing people to talk more openly about substance use and addiction and to know that others care about their suffering. It signifies acceptance and recognition that their pain is real and that others want to help.  If I open a carton of eggs during October and each egg is stamped with a pink ribbon, I am reminded that it is OK to talk and think about cancer. And if addiction is a community problem, if we have gatherings and demonstrate our support, we are sending a message to those struggling and to their families that this is a problem we all care about.

The reality is substance abuse and addiction affect numerous members of our community.  This is not a myth, nor a hunch. There is now a support group that regularly meets to support the family members of loved ones suffering from an addiction that is well-attended, from what I am told. There are members of shuls who have come forward to ask for help. Take that number, whatever it may be, and multiply it because, for every person who has come forward on his/her own behalf or to help a loved one, I can guarantee you there are many more who suffer in silence.

Despite our best efforts to establish a grounded, supportive and, in some respects, an insular community, we are not immune to this threat and we know that it is growing.  We have been raised and taught to help our fellow man, to be sensitive to the suffering around us, and be active in addressing the struggles and challenges others may be facing. It is easier to distance oneself from issues that one believes do not present a risk to himself, nor others he knows.  Yet, the harsh reality is that we are all at risk, adults and children alike, and it is incumbent upon each of us to raise the issue to the same height of caring and attention that we pay to other communal issues. Not only is it critical to ask the questions that have been asked about how to detect substance abuse, how to prevent it, and how to treat it. It is equally important to ask to learn about how to become more sensitive and supportive to those who are suffering and to seek guidance as to how to convey proper understanding and genuine acceptance.

I conclude by sharing an email (shared with permission) that I received following the awareness event on substance use and addiction, hosted by our community this past April.  I hope it will touch you the way it touched me.

Dear Rabbi Rothwachs,

I want to thank you for your participation in last week’s event on addiction. I am especially grateful that you publicly stated that it is the responsibility of rabbis to lead the community and reach out to those who are struggling with addiction and offer spiritual guidance and emotional support. I am most appreciative because until this event, I did not feel as if I could approach my rabbi. You see, I have been struggling with an opioid addiction for the past several years. Never in a million years would I or anyone who knows me ever have imagined that I would be an addict. I never got drunk in my life (I don’t even like alcohol) nor did I ever smoke marijuana, not even once.  My addiction began as I innocently experimented with a stimulant drug, prescribed for one of my children. It’s a long and complicated story but suffice it to say that this “innocent” experiment triggered a series of events which has profoundly threatened my marriage and continues to strain all of my relationships. My husband has been supportive throughout this ordeal but we do feel very alone in this struggle.

Until last week’s event, I did not know if I could approach my rabbi. It is not because I feel that he is in any way insensitive. I have approached him numerous times over the course of many years on sensitive issues. He has displayed sensitivity and understanding and has spoken from the pulpit many times about the need to break the stigma around mental health and other social issues.  His public lectures and private discussions have demonstrated that he has an understanding about how complex these issues are. Yet for reasons that I cannot properly explain I felt that I could not approach him. I assumed that I would be unfairly judged and incorrectly labeled. I was just too afraid to cross that line. Obviously once a congregant tells her rabbi that she is an addict, there is no taking that back.

But your words the other night have given me the courage to take this leap and reach out to my rabbi. I am hoping that in doing so, he can support me, my husband and my children. I am hoping that he will have some thoughts which may be inspiring and some suggestions which may be helpful. But most of all, I am hoping that I will feel a little more connected to the community from which I feel so distant at the moment. I am hoping that taking this small step forward, will constitute a step towards my complete and everlasting recovery.

There is no need to follow up with me. You will be hearing from me again soon because you Rabbi Rothwachs are my rabbi.

With much appreciation,

A grateful congregant of yours       

No one in our community should ever feel alone. Our community’s continued conversation on substance abuse and addiction sends a very clear message to anyone suffering from addiction or to anyone trying to support one who is.  You are not alone. We do not judge you. We understand that you did not choose this illness. We believe in your ability to overcome this challenge. More than anything though, we want to help you get there. Because no one should ever have to suffer alone.

Parental Guidance Suggested: A Pre-Simchat Torah Message to Parents of Teenagers

In a few short weeks, Jews all over the world will unite in celebrating the annual completion of the Torah reading cycle. Communities, families, and individuals will participate in a range of communal festivities, including singing, dancing, learning, and dining.  For many centuries, Simchat Torah, the climax of the Tishrei season, has been observed with enthusiasm, spirit, and a deep appreciation for the holiday’s extraordinary potential and opportunity.

More recently, Simchat Torah has become a day marked by new features and trends, which, at times, lack the sacred qualities of our more established traditions.  One such example is the popularity of teen get-togethers, often labeled “reunions.”  Large numbers of teens, from different communities of origin, gather together to spend the 48-hour holiday in each other’s company. These gatherings, some organized while others not, have become so commonplace that, for many of our teens, Simchat Torah reunions have become a defining feature of the holiday.  For many, in fact, it is not a question of if one will be going away for Simchat Torah; the only questions are where, with whom, and how will you be getting there.

I can certainly appreciate the appeal of this model, particularly as Simchat Torah comes at the conclusion of a long holiday season.  Spending the last days of Yom Tov with friends, while taking a small break from family, is understandably attractive and easily relatable.  Furthermore, for teens who may be seeking opportunities to sing and dance in a high-energy environment, they will more likely achieve a lively and spirited experience if they stick together.

While some members of host communities have expressed their pleasure in receiving a large influx of young guests, it is not uncommon for these gatherings to lead to unanticipated trouble and attract unwanted attention.  Those shuls who have sought to protect themselves from negative exposure, risk, and liability, have attempted to restrict “nonparticipating” teens (as they choose to define) from their premises.  While their efforts may or may not succeed in enabling them to protect their institutional interests, these measures have not been successful in reducing the frequency nor the impact of disturbing incidents, which have, at times, included criminal behaviors and life-threatening emergencies. Rather than occupy local shuls, groups of teens enjoy each other’s company in the streets, local parks and often in private homes.  In recent years, many of our yeshiva high schools have sent written communications to parents in advance of Simchat Torah, alerting them to the potential risks that their children may encounter over the holiday.

Yet, despite these efforts to educate and alert parents, a sizable (and likely growing) number of our teenagers continue to participate in self-planned gatherings and extemporaneous activities.  Of greatest concern, is the fact that these gatherings often lack adequate supervision, if there is, in fact, any supervision at all. Not surprisingly, many teenagers find themselves facing challenges and temptations that they are not prepared, capable, or perhaps committed to properly and responsibly managing.  As a result, there have been many reported situations in which teens casually observe or actively participate in dangerous behaviors that they were never personally pursuing.  These activities, which often include alcohol consumption and drug use, consistently occur in the absence of sufficient adult supervision.

Which brings me to the point of this message.

Parents – please parent your children. Although teenagers are transitioning into adulthood, they do not yet possess the emotional nor psycho-physiological capabilities to properly handle many challenging situations independently.  It is a parent’s role and responsibility to provide or arrange for supervision of their children.  To be clear, this is not a call for 24-hour parental surveillance.  I am a strong believer that parents should allow their teenagers to experience opportunities of independence, at times completely withdrawing themselves and allowing their children to discover, often through trial and error, how to become responsible adults. No, I do not believe that it is appropriate for parents to track their teenagers’ every move, nor to listen in on their conversations. But, to allow groups of teenagers to spend 48 hours (or 24, or 12, or even 6, for that matter) in an inadequately supervised setting is a gross and negligent failure of parents – not of the schools, shuls, nor summer camps.  Toeing the line with teenagers can be enormously challenging, particularly when our kids perceive that “all” of their friends do “whatever they want.”  Regardless though of how our kids respond, allowing them to participate in unsupervised gatherings/events/parties/reunions, is a complete and total abdication of parents’ most sacred and primary responsibility; to protect one’s children from harm.  Could there possibly be a more important halachic, moral and rational responsibility?

As we prepare to celebrate Simchat Torah, let us commit, collectively and individually, to act as responsible parents. Regardless of when you are reading this, it is not too late to insist that your teenager’s social activities be properly supervised.  Regardless of where your teenager was last Simchat Torah, it is not too late to insist upon an itinerary which is transparent, reasonable, and appropriate.  Regardless of what sort of parenting your teenager is accustomed to, it is not too late to insist upon basic norms of safety and accountability.

Together, let us protect and safeguard the most precious gifts with which we have been entrusted; our children.



Back To Shul Supplies

Cruising down the aisles of Walmart, firmly holding my (almost) 4th grader’s sweet little hand, as she excitedly waved her freshly printed school supply list,  I could not distract myself from one particularly gnawing thought, which relentlessly clamored for my attention; why were two pink erasers needed for the year ahead? After all, would one eraser not suffice?  Especially given that these days the built-in eraser option comes standard on all new pencils. Maybe it’s just me but I personally don’t recall ever coming close to wearing down a pink eraser, facing the sudden urgent need for a replacement. On the other hand, I can certainly appreciate why two glue sticks are needed.  (We actually got three, just to be safe.)  I was also pleasantly surprised that we only needed to purchase one box of Mr. Clean Magic erasers and was similarly gratified that this year’s list only called for six erasable pens.  As some may recall, last year we needed eight.

Unquestionably, there is something special about the return to school. Granted, most of our children prefer the joyful sounds of splashing water and smells of outdoor fun to that of school bells and yellow buses. Adjusting bedtimes, adapting to new schedules and becoming acclimated to more structured settings, certainly comes with challenges.  But filling up one’s supply box with freshly sharpened pencils and gently opening a package of 300 blank sheets of paper, triggers thoughts of optimism and feelings of hope.

Although for many of us, our years of formal education have come to an end and we are not necessarily in “back to school” mode, we are surely preparing for our imminent return “back to shul.” Hopefully, most do not need to prepare for a literal reentry, following a multi-month hiatus from shul.  At the same time, many of us yearn for the unique opportunities of inspiration and special moments of connection that are often more naturally experienced during the month of Tishrei.  This is, after all, the season of teshuva, the season of return.

As we prepare to return, I wonder what our supply list should look like and what materials we should be preparing at this momentous time.  Here are a few suggestions:

RULER: In order to plan for a successful year, one must have the tools to properly and accurately measure change. Have I grown since last year? If so, how much?  As change typically occurs gradually, it is critical that we identify the proper tools that will enable us to quantify and track those changes and trends.

ONE MARBLE NOTEBOOK: The process of teshuva requires cheshbon henefesh, a thorough and comprehensive inventory of the soul.  This can only be properly achieved through a system of accounting, calculating and logging. Coming to shul with an actual notebook in hand, while completely appropriate and commendable, will likely be too awkward for most. Yet to rely on extemporaneous thoughts and spontaneous memory alone reflects a profound lack of appreciation of the complexity of the human mind and soul, not to mention the extraordinary challenges and opportunities of teshuva.

SCISSORS: One of the most challenging, and at times painful, stages of teshuva, is the internal dissection that true repentance often requires. Breaking habits and reforming attitudes entail the excision of targeted behaviors and indulgences, coupled with the commitment to let go of all that obstructs my path to personal freedom.

BINDER: Often we begin the new year with many goals and aspirations. We earnestly consider countless resolutions, both new and recycled, identifying numerous areas for needed change and improvement. If we truly want to be successful, our resolutions should be very few in number. Perhaps just as important though, our new year’s resolutions must be carefully bound together and incorporated into a carefully coordinated plan for implementation and sustainability.

REINFORCEMENTS: Lasting change cannot occur in a vacuum.  We need to commit ourselves to lifestyles which support our commitments and dreams. Our social connections and moments of leisure must reinforce the ideals and values that we seek to maintain.  Anyone can make a New Year’s resolution.  Without reinforcements, however, they are doomed to fail.

4 FOLDERS WITH PRONGS: I have no idea but could never hurt.

TWO BOXES OF TISSUES: We should prepare to invest ourselves emotionally as we commit to the grueling, yet redemptive, process of teshuvaTeshuva, like prayer, is an avoda she’balev, a service of the heart.  As we stand before God and confess our sins, we repeatedly strike our hearts, reminding ourselves of the need to be genuine and sincere.

SCOTCH TAPE: Teshuva gemura (complete repentance) can indeed enable one to achieve a state of pristine purity and complete and absolute renewal.  Thankfully though, that’s not the only option. Often times, we can successfully apply tape to those parts of our soul that are torn and tattered. Emerging from the days of awe with temporary repairs and loose ends is not a reflection of failure.  To the contrary, partial repairs enable us to remain mindful and aware of our weaknesses and shortcomings, thereby improving the likelihood that we will successfully protect and reinforce our fresh stitches and patches.

As we each prepare to return to shul in the days ahead, we should make every effort to identify and gather the tools and materials that we will need to achieve success.  Unlike school lists, there is no single list that will enable each and every individual to be prepared for the first day.  So, let us spend these final hours before the start of the new year, replacing, replenishing and restocking so that we gather all that we need to succeed in the days ahead.  But, please don’t delay.  Hurry – while supplies last.




Generous to a Fault

Consider the following statements:

  • “Clean up the mess that you made.”
  • “Go find the keys that you lost.”
  • “Fix the window that you broke.”
  • “Throw out the food that you burned.”

Granted, in the absence of any context and additional information, it is difficult, if not impossible, to offer an informed opinion regarding these statements. Are these accusations fair? Are the complaints warranted? Perhaps. Perhaps not. With such an incomplete picture, we can never know. What is clear however is that these expressions reflect genuine resentment, harbored by an individual who makes no effort to conceal the grudges that he bears.

It is remarkable therefore to consider the following. When God informs Moshe to prepare a second set of luchos, as a replacement for those which Moshe had destroyed, He says, “Inscribe these tablets with the very words inscribed on the first tablets – the ones that you broke.”[1]  Rather than merely communicate His instructions, Hashem takes the opportunity to “remind” Moshe that it was his (i.e. Moshe’s) personal and unilateral decision to destroy the luchos.  Surprisingly, however, rather than interpret this expression as one of resentment and disappointment, our rabbis come to the exact opposite conclusion. They regard this statement as an explicit endorsement; Hashem’s clear declaration of approval of Moshe’s bold decision to break the luchos.[2]  This interpretation however, seems quite surprising.  Would it not be more reasonable to conclude that God’s reminder to Moshe of his actions was nothing more than an expression of disapproval and denunciation?

Rav Baruch Epstein z”l [3] offers an extraordinary insight, with profound and relevant implications.  Indeed, most often people cannot resist the temptation to remind another of their missteps and indiscretions. Stating the blatant and obvious failures of another affords one a momentary sense of satisfaction and superiority. While this may very well be human nature, there is one problem; doing so is both insensitive and improper. It is unnecessary to remind a child that it was he who made a mess. It is unproductive to remind one’s wife that it was she who lost the car keys. It is pointless to remind one’s husband that it was he who forgot to remove the food from the oven. Yet, many of us are guilty of doing just this. We do so primarily because we are human and because, at times, we lack the resolve to exercise self-control, particularly at moments when our patience is being tested. Not so by God. Hashem is perfect in all of His ways and His words reflect precision and they model refinement. Therefore, argues Rav Epstein, the very fact that Hashem “reminds” Moshe that it was he who had destroyed luchos, in and of itself, proves that Moshe’s unilateral decision was met with divine consent and approval.  Had destroying the luchos been, in fact, the wrong decision, there would have been no need to remind Moshe of that which he already knew.

What a profound example of proper behavior for each of us to model and emulate. For most of us, moments of disappointment and frustration with other individuals, particularly with those who are close to us, are not uncommon occurrences. How we handle ourselves in these situations, will likely determine the extent to which we succeed in inspiring others towards genuine reflection and motivate sincere change.  The Torah [4] instructs us to emulate the ways of God. While we can never achieve perfection, we carefully study His ways, ever so closely, as we strive to model His precise and deliberate instructive behaviors.

So, the next time someone messes up and, in the process, lets us down, let us resist the temptation to remind them of that which they already know.


[1] Shemos 34:2 and Devarim 10:2

[2] Bava Basra 14a

[3] Torah Temimah and Tosefes Bracha, Devarim 10:2

[4] Devarim 11:22

An Open Letter to the Orthodox Community: Don’t Say No to Drugs

In 1982, Nancy Reagan visited the Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, CA, as she embarked on her historic national anti-drug campaign.  During this visit, she was asked by a young schoolgirl what she should do if she was offered drugs. The First Lady responded, “just say no.”  The rest, as they say, is history. “Just Say No” clubs and organizations were established all over the country and one of the most famous slogans in modern times was born.  The “Just Say No” rallying cry has since become ingrained in the minds of hundreds of millions of people, spanning all races, ethnicities, and religions.

I wonder however if the Orthodox community has taken Mrs. Reagan’s instructions a bit too far.  Indeed, we can all agree that the only proper response from one who has been solicited to accept drugs is “no.”  Too often, however, many of us express “no” to the mere suggestion that we discuss drugs at all.  Many of us naively believe that the Orthodox community is, more or less, unaffected by the drug epidemic, which so dreadfully affects the general population.

Consider the manner in which many well-intentioned members of our community would likely respond to the following questions:

  • Do substance and alcohol abuse and addiction affect members of the Orthodox community, to any significant degree?
  • Should we, as a community, organize public gatherings to discuss how best to detect alcohol and substance abuse and introduce methods of intervention and treatment?
  • Do substance abuse and addiction afflict individuals who come from supportive families and functional households?
  • Do people who are committed to a life of Torah observance and seek to embrace Torah values abuse alcohol or drugs?
  • Do individuals who truly appreciate the value of self-control struggle with alcohol or drug addictions?

Did you answer “no” to any of these questions?  If you are like most of us, then you probably have.  The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.”

  • Yes, substance and alcohol abuse and addiction undeniably affect a significant population within the Orthodox community.
  • Yes, we must absolutely come together as a community and discuss methods of detection, intervention, and treatment of alcohol and substance abuse.
  • Yes, substance abuse and addiction often affect members of supportive families and functional households.
  • Yes, it is not uncommon for individuals who are genuinely committed to Torah observance and values to develop addictions to alcohol and drugs.
  • Yes, most often, individuals who struggle with alcohol and drug addictions thoroughly and deeply understand, appreciate, and value the virtue of self-control, despite their destructive behaviors.

But why the disconnect?  Why does our community so glaringly miss the mark on this particular issue?  After all, our community consistently displays profound sensitivity to the needy and disadvantaged, demonstrates care and concern for the weak and vulnerable, and is typically proactive in addressing the myriad of social issues that affect the members of our community.  Why then do we seem to possess a lapse in awareness and deficient sensitivity when it comes to the issue of alcohol and substance abuse and addiction?  It is my impression that many Orthodox Jews (simply) lack information, exposure, and context, all of which would enable us to develop a more informed, nuanced, and accurate perspective of the reality.  Our detachment from the facts on the ground does not reflect insensitivity or indifference.  Rather, our disconnect is, among other things, a reflection of our limited exposure, inadequate education, and impaired understanding.

Whatever the underlying causes of our disconnect may be, its effects, albeit unintended, are no less harmful and destructive.  The common misconceptions that we, as a community, continue to harbor and, at times promulgate, clearly and predictability obstruct our collective ability to responsibly and effectively address substance abuse and addiction. The longer we maintain the belief that members of our community are either immune to or unaffected by alcohol and drug abuse, we fuel the fires of stigmatization, causing our very own friends and neighbors to shoulder their hefty burden alone.  The longer we allow ourselves to view the families of those who suffer from addictions with prejudice and presume their shared culpability in their child’s/spouse’s/sibling’s/parent’s addiction, the further we estrange those who desperately need comfort, support, and reassurance.   The longer we view alcohol and substance addiction as a failure of character, rather than what it actually is – a physiological illness, we further alienate members of our community who may already feel helpless and ashamed.  As individuals, we must band together and inspire a paradigm shift in the way we approach alcohol and drug addiction, recognizing it for the illness it is.  As a community, we must hold ourselves accountable, knowing that there are those among us who are afraid to come forward and step into the light, lest they be unfairly judged, mislabeled, and misunderstood.  We must learn to encourage and embrace those struggling with addiction, as well as their families, assisting and supporting them on their road towards healing and recovery.

Needless to say, success in achieving such a radical and fundamental shift in thinking and action will take time, effort, and coordination to actualize. But we need to start and that time is now.  Please join me on April 22 at 8 p.m. at TABC, for an important community awareness event, coordinated in conjunction with Amudim.  Participants of this event will become more informed and enlightened regarding the growing epidemic of substance abuse and addiction within our community.  With your participation, this event can be a major step forward for our community.  However successful this event may ultimately be, it will be a starting point, with more work to follow.  I hope this event will inspire our community to slowly but surely create an environment where families can comfortably seek and easily discover support.  And then we, a more attentive and informed community, will more naturally strive to sustain and nurture that supportive environment.  I hope and pray that we demonstrate the courage, commitment and resolve to restore peace and health to all in our midst.

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