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Nefesh Orthodox Jewish Mental Health conference

Have you ever been invited to a stranger’s home and wondered what the people and dinner would be like?

You have a few ideas based on pictures you have created in your mind’s eye, though, truly have no idea of what will transpire. You are nonetheless excited and simultaneously full of trepidation. What have I gotten myself into? Will I like the hosts? Will they like me? Will I say the right things, ask the right questions, dress respectfully? These were some of the ruminations dancing through my head as I arrived at the Nefesh Orthodox Jewish Mental Health conference in Long Island.

Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Jeff Nalin and Cole Rucker of Paradigm Treatment Centers and the graciousness of Laura Smith national outreach director for Seasons Treatment Center, who also thought I must go, I was an invited guest.

From the moment I entered till I left in the wee hours of the morning, I was awash with warmth, wonder, curiosity and respect. While networking was omnipresent, the sense of community permeated the arena. The rooms were full of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, Rabbis and Talmudic scholars, wives, husbands and at night young children joined in. I attended sessions from 8:00 a.m. till 11:00 PM , ate more food than I could ever imagine, celebrated the Sabbath and immersed myself with a posture of awe. I lapped up the experience with as much gusto as I relished lox, bagels, potatoes, knishes, falafel, rugelach and a host of other delicious and delectable treats.

The dress of my hosts was beautiful, elegant and traditional. While most Jews dress similarly to non-Jews when outside synagogue, many Orthodox Jews are recognizable on the Sabbath by their distinctive garments worn for reasons of ritual, tradition or modesty. In particular, some of the Orthodox men cover their heads with kippot, and some cover these with black hats or a “shtreimel”, a type of fur hat. The Orthodox wore dressed black suits, and some Hasidic men wore suits that are reminiscent of the style Polish nobility wore in the 18th century, when Hasidic Judaism began. Many Orthodox men and also young boys also wear a “tzitzit”, a four-pointed garment with fringes on the corners underneath their shirt. Sometimes the fringes hang out from the shirt, but sometimes they are not visible.

For women, modesty is key with dresses and skirts below the knee, stockings and shoes. Many wore beautiful “Sheitel” (wigs) which signify she is a married women thus creating modesty, a psychological barrier, a cognitive distance between her and strangers letting all know she is beautiful but inconspicuous; she is attractive but unavailable to no one but her husband. In essence he has created a private modest space, and only she decides who to let into that space. Likewise, in meetings and on the Sabbath, men sit on one side the room, women the other, men dance and sing while women watch.

The conference sessions were robust and often intertwined with Talmudic discussions, Hebrew and Yiddish sayings, which participants were so kind to explain to me. Some of the sessions I attended included:

  • The use of forensic psychology in custody battles
  • The nine essentials of couples counseling (Alan Singer Phd, LMSW)
  • Perinatal partum depression
  • Compassion, fatigue and resilience
  • Values – Yours, Mine, Ours (Shmuel Brachfeld Psyd)
  • Child rearing, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders
  • Compassion, fatigue and provider resilience
  • Navigating cultural and clinical clashes, DSMV and the Torah
  • Spiritual interventions for trauma survivors

This was a scholarly group, bridging traditions of old with modern evidenced-based modalities all the while mindful of the clash between cultural expectations and modernity.

As an outsider, not only was I welcomed, I was viewed as a fellow traveler trying to do good. A scholar who was eager to learn, my listening skills were sharpened like a fine knife as every word had importance. I was reminded how one has to start where one’s client is and suspend any foregone conclusions about him/her/they and hold assumptions in abeyance as one questions, listens and learns.

Of the many sessions I attended, Barry Horowitz’s LCSW-R session called “Hello Darkness My Old Friend” stood out amongst the crowd as he so beautifully demonstrated through song, photography, art and journaling – along with ACT and unconditional positive regard – one can work successfully with individuals beset with trauma, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, cutting, disordered eating, etc. coupled with cultural and parental expectations. This was the best session at any conference I have attended. He is worthy of speaking across the nation for his soft gentle ways, expertise, attention to detail and his talk about ACT is an excellent message for our field.

Morning 12-Step meetings (traveling friends of Bill W.) are always a highlight for me at behavioral health conferences. In the wee hours one meets and hears words of recovery across a wide variety of sessions and seminars. It was good to see this conference also had open 12-Step morning meetings for comradeship.

Sidebar conversations were equally stimulating. Having an interest in women and widowhood, I met several women like me who had been widowed at a young age. Not only did they experience many of the same tribulations as I had, but as Orthodox Jewish widow women who loved the sabbath, I learned even that was challenging to celebrate as the closing prayer or song to end the sabbath must only be sung by a man and with no man in the home ending the sabbath became problematic. It was a startling reminder of death and a new confusing status. To be denied their spouse due to an unexpected death, left with children, to be an outsider with their friends and to have to also amongst the myriad of other things figure out how to celebrate the Sabbath seemed so intense, so sad. We embraced speaking in silence of what we once experienced as young widows. Both of us – now happily remarried – remembered for a moment that status of non-status and joined hands with implicit understanding that only one who belongs to the group of young widows no matter what their religious orientation may truly understand.

I met a woman professor at the Yeshiva who is working on her dissertation on substance abuse in the orthodox community and am so excited for the contributions her research will have. I attended lectures on the use of mindfulness, learned what a Torah-based practice means from an outstanding woman professional, and heard Los Angeles’ Rabbi Fox talk about idiopathic ways we can address our clients mindful of Talmudic ways, and the Gender identity, LGBTQ, the use of electronics, digital addiction and adherence to customs are many of the issues we discussed. Family time is important, and the Sabbath provides a special time for work to stop, no use of cell phones, or other electronic media and a time for family, friends, and prayer that the week has passed. This is a wonderful practice for any family and an escape from the omnipresent digital gods. I see it as a spiritual buffer so-to-speak that refreshes the mind and cuts off all the inner-dialogue of cell phones, the internet and our own mental tapes becoming a direct conduit to one’s soul.

Having grown up in Pittsburgh, named at The Tree of Life Synagogue, confirmed at Temple Rodef Shalom and spoon-fed on the cartoons that Rabbi Abraham Twerski, PHD wrote, I became awestruck that a young girl of yore could come all this way and hear him speak from Israel and meet his daughter-in-law, Lisa Twerski LCSW, who co-chaired this event with Chaim Sender LCSW.

I am grateful to Ruchama Clapman, Executive Director of Mothers and Fathers of Mask, the new people I met, and to all the Nefesh  community who worked so hard to put on this conference for their gentility and graciousness.

As I swing into 2019 I have a new sense of vitality, joy, inquisitiveness, spirit of inquiry and commitment to my family, friends and my profession for experiencing Nefesh. As I ate and drank in all the sights, sounds and teachings my heart opened and 2019 called me over.

To all, may your new year be bright. May you take time to breathe. Be curious. Search for understanding. May you be full of laughter, joy and empathy, always look for goodness, strength and be mindful of how complex and diverse we are.

While I came to Nefesh as an invited guest, I trust I left as a new friend.

In the words of Eckert Tolle:
When you deeply accept this moment as it is, no matter what form it takes, you are still, you are at peace.”

~~ Happy New Year

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