Jewish perspectives to illumine ICS conference on mental illness

Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub
Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub

Depression may often seem like an epidemic in today’s so­­­ciety. Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, a rabbi and licensed therapist, will deliver the first keynote address, “The Dark Night of the Soul: Some Jewish Perspectives on Depression,” at the Interfaith Community Services “Faith Com­munities and Mental Illness” conference on April 25.

As for Jews and depression “there are no serious studies like in the general population, but if we spoke very broadly, the Jewish community is prone to depression. We tend to hold on to more circumstantial depression, maybe because of traumas of the past like the Holocaust,” says Weintraub, who will refer to Jewish texts from different centuries in his keynote.

The conference will be held on Friday, April 25 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the Catalina United Methodist Church, 2700 E. Speedway Blvd.

Weintraub was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1982 and received a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in 1988. “I wanted to deepen my ability to be of help, particularly for couples and families, with a full, holistic approach,” he told the AJP by phone from New York. “I wanted to see what made people tick.”

He does just that as the rabbinic director of the Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services, one of the nation’s largest voluntary mental health and social service agencies, serving more than 60,000 New Yorkers of varied backgrounds.

Weintraub, 60, started his career as a Jewish educator at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan, and also served as the educational director for the Society for Advancement of Judaism. He edited the National Center for Jewish Healing’s first book, “Healing of Soul, Healing of Body” and is the author of “Guide Me Along the Way: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Surgery.”

Mental health treatment in Judaism revolves around two axes, notes Weintraub. One axis involves current participation in spiritual support groups dealing with issues ranging from long-term unemployment to suicide. The other axis is through tradition, reflecting the experiences of the Jewish community across time.

“Maimonides suffered for a year from debilitating depression, which was almost clinical, when his younger brother died in a tragic death as a seagoing merchant,” says Weintraub. “Maimonides comes by his experience honestly, when he speaks of how important it is to maintain balance in life.”

One modern program that Weintraub recommends is JACS, a blending of 12-step recovery and Jewish tradition for Jewish alcoholics, chemically dependent persons and significant others. There is a JACS group in Phoenix but currently there isn’t one in Tucson, although Rabbi Richard Safran is a local contact on the organization’s website (www.jbfcs.org). “Usually family members contact me and I refer them to local resources,” Safran told the AJP.

Sessions at the April 25 conference will include “Understanding Depression and Anxiety” presented by Shoshana Elkins and Barbara Quade, therapists at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona. Other topics, offered by a variety of presenters, will include “Aging and Mental Health Issues,” “Faith Communities as Advocates in Mental Health,” “Veterans, their Families and Mental Health” and “Mental Health First Aid: You Can Help Those with Mental Health Issues.” Two other keynote addresses will be “Nowhere to Go But Up” by author Terrie M. Williams and “Who Is My Neighbor? Combating the Stigma of Mental Illness” by Dr. Nancy Kehoe, RSCJ.

“Everyone knows that the stigma attached to mental health is a major challenge,” says Weintraub. “The wonderful thing about this interfaith conference is that we can’t just help Episcopalians. We have to transform the response [from all people of faith] to transform the whole society.”

The Jewish response does not allow shame to be added to suffering, he says. In the Torah “it seems that King Saul had bipolar depression. He was only comforted by David playing the harp. Mental illness is a normal part of life in the same way as migraines or cancer. It’s part of the human experience. It’s wrong to make it a moral failing or a sin.”

The ICS conference is for faith leaders, lay leaders, chaplains, counselors, health professionals and anyone whose loved ones are affected by mental illness. The cost for the conference is $40; $30 each for two or more registrants. Registration includes breakfast, lunch and a certificate of attendance. For more information, call 297-6049, ext. 233, or visit www.icstucson.org. Presenting sponsors are The David C. and Lura M. Lovell Foundation and the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona. Congregation Anshei Israel is a participating sponsor.