Last month, Relief Resources of Baltimore sponsored One Crucial Night to Raise Mental Health Awareness.Before the program started, Zahava List, with a smile that could light up a room, stood behind a table in BJSZ’s foyer, displaying brochures for Chazkeinu and a sample gift for women with postpartum depression. She’s the president and cofounder of this two-and-a-half-year-old peer group of Jewish women. Chazkeinu’s aim is to provide empathetic support and positive connections to Jewish women coping with mental illness and to help dispel the stigma of mental illness. Zahava knows firsthand about that stigma. That’s why she readily shares her story.
In Israel, in 2005, at 23 years old, Zahava experienced more than postpartum depression. She had postpartum psychosis, which left her unable to care for her newborn. “Going from a state of severe psychosis, where I was completely out of reality, into a deep depression, I couldn’t even smile at my baby,” she said. “My husband had to care for the baby and me.” She shared that she had a psychiatrist and therapist but needed support from others as well. “People looked at me so differently because I acted differently,” she said. It shocked her that people had such a lack of awareness.
Back in the States, Zahava, who had never experienced mental illness, saw her psychosis turn into bipolar disorder. At the same time, she was battling an eating disorder. Through medication and the 12 steps of Overeaters Anonymous, she came to terms with her illness and realized it was nothing to be ashamed of. At OA, she talked with others on the phone and discovered that other women were struggling with mental issues, as she was, and needed peer encouragement. “Once I saw that I could help another person,” Zahava said, “It gave me courage and strength.”
In 2016, Zahava wanted to empower others. She felt that if phone meetings were available for Jewish women with infertility and other challenges, there could be phone meetings for Jewish women with mental illness. Impressed by the work of Samcheinu, a support for widows, she chose the name Chazkeinu, meaning “grant us strength,” to give strength to women who feel they have no hope. Zahava found a cofounder, Naomi Schulman, and later Tamar Mishkin, suggested by Rabbi Dr. Jerry Lob. Rabbi Yisroel Grossberg, principal of Bnot Chaya Academy in Brooklyn, became Chazkeinu’s rabbinic advisor.
The main reason they formed Chazkeinu is because they felt that they needed support from those who understand. “There is no one who understands more than those who are going through this,” said Zahava. She added that mental illness is something that many people feel ashamed of and aren’t able to talk about. Zahava stresses that “living with the pain of mental illness is unavoidable, but living with stigma is avoidable.”
Although Zahava is open about her experience, she does not impose openness on others. “Anonymity is so vital in Chazkeinu,” she said. The organization doesn’t record any information shared on the phone. Only if women want to sign up for a program does Chazkeinu request more information. Chazkeinu’s brochure, which is available online, gives a list of programs and tells the story of how “a group of women contributed their talents and passions to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness in the Jewish world and help those affected to end their isolation.”
This isolation was mentioned by Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro at the Mental Health Awareness night. “In this crucial night, let’s remove darkness,” said Rabbi Shapiro. “No person should ever be made to feel alone – that has got to be a thing of the past.”
At a lecture on shidduchim Sunday evening, the night before the Mental Health Awareness event, Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson said that when it comes to mental health, we should have open conversations. “Everyone has issues,” he said. Zahava agrees, and believes there is no reason a person should be afraid that he or she won’t find a shidduch and therefore have to hide their illness.
Chazkeinu, with its flagship program of worldwide phone meetings, is bringing mental illness into the light. The first phone meeting in March, 2016, had 12 participants. One held recently had 90 women on the line.
The meeting begins with an introduction shared by a member, professional, or spiritual leader. This starts an open discussion where women use their first names (or can remain anonymous). Those who prefer can email or text their input and have it read by a moderator. Other programs offered include a Chat Club to “shmooze” on the conference line half an hour before each meeting, a partner program, inspirational emails, and an online forum. The organization also sends out a quarterly newsletter and, on request, shares Hebrew names to daven for. Its newest endeavor is Empowered, a non-emergency support hotline led by a team of licensed clinicians during specific hours.
On December 14, Chazkeinu held its first Shabbaton in Passaic, New Jersey. About 100 women from age 18 to senior citizens attended. They came together from all over the United States, Canada, and London. “Women left their challenges to be together with people who value each other,” said Zahava.
They were in different stages of life and religious observance. Chassidic, Modern Orthodox, and unaffiliated sat side by side with no judgments. “Mental illness is so common, and no one should have to feel judged or stigmatized for an illness that doesn’t define them,” said Zahava.
The program at the Shabbaton was light and inspiring. Some were nervous at first about who might see them. Others shared personal stories and experiences. All went away with a sense of acceptance and love. Here’s one women’s impression of Chazkeinu after the Shabbaton:
At Chazkeinu, I know I can show my true colors without any guilt or shame. It has really brought out certain strengths in me that I had no idea I possessed. I’ve gained so much insight and tools for life from both the speakers and fellow participants. You’ve changed the course of my life. Nowadays, when I look at myself in the mirror, I can say with a lot more conviction, yes, you may be mentally ill and that’s hard to accept, but that’s not what defines you. Mental illness is a challenge that was given to me, but what really defines me is the choices that I make with my own free will. I feel like I’ve found myself after discovering Chazkeinu. So, thank you!!!!
“Thank G-d, we have psychologists and therapists,” Zahava said, “but we have to have a family of peers, too.” That’s what Chazkeinu is all about.
For more information about Chazkeinu, call 314-346-7414, email [email protected], or visit the website: www.chazkeinu.org. To contact Relief Resources, call 443-448-8356.
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