Me and my Mind: My Mental Health Journey

I have a complicated relationship with my mental health.

Though I have never made a secret of this, some of you who know me may still be a little surprised at this post. However the last few days have been particularly difficult and so I thought this would be a helpful way for me to process my feelings.

Each person will experience depression and anxiety differently, but this in brief is my story.

As a primary school aged child, I remember my teachers being concerned about some of the behaviors I exhibited. I was a loud and somewhat unruly child, fond of my independence and weary of authority. Too much of these traits in young people often frighten and cause alarm and so my school suggested to my parents that they seek out a professional opinion as to the cause of my rebelliousness.

Between the ages of eight and fourteen I recall visiting a series of doctors, psychologists and other mental health professionals and hearing them frequently mention terms like “Dyslexia,”  and “ADHD”. They prescribed me with medication such as Ritalin –  a drug used to treat deficit hyperactivity disorder and also suggested my diet be altered and so, for a short period, I was not allowed to consume any products containing sugar or artificial colours. I still recall the pain I felt watching all the other school children eating their desserts in the school cafeteria whilst I was unable too. I graduated primary school exhausted, upset and prone to extreme mood swings; one moment being overjoyed and the next being angry and aggressive. Indeed, this continued through my time at secondary school and beyond.

It was only once I got to university that I began to take control over my own mental health. On campus there was a lot more awareness amongst students and staff about psychological and emotional well-being. In my first year I recall sitting with some fellow-students and having each person share their own struggles with mental health. I felt encouraged to talk more openly about my feelings, particularly my mood swings. In my second year a girlfriend suggested that I should visit the university’s health centre and speak with one of the doctors there about managing these feelings. I remember explaining to the doctor that whilst I felt intellectually aware that things were going well in life, my emotions did not always match this reality. I described how often, for no apparent reason, a cloud of depression would descend upon me; smothering my positive feelings with pain and anxiety. After several appointments the doctor prescribed me with the antidepressant Citalopram. We experimented with the dose and after some trial and error eventually settled on 20mg a day. Citalopram greatly reduced my mood swings and my anxiety began to subside. I was fortunate – medication is not right for everyone – and experienced only mild side effects.

Whilst the medication has been extremely helpful I do not think of it as having ‘cured’ my mental health problems. It has certainly made them more manageable but this relationship still has its rough patches. There are days when it is difficult to get out of bed, let alone motivate myself to do something productive. On some level I still fear that the low feelings I experienced as a child will one day return.

That said, I am extremely motivated and, though it might sound strange, an optimist! I know life to be highly rewarding, meaningful and enjoyable. This knowledge helps me to continually move forward and has given me wonderful friends, family and children; a great education and wonderful colleagues.

I want to conclude by sharing some of my coping strategies that others struggling with mental health might find useful.

Managing Change

A key to sustaining good mental health involves carefully managing changes to my environment. Sudden changes and big decisions can unsettle my mental equilibrium and so I try to keep a measured day-to-day pace. If I know I might have to make a big change – for example, starting a new job – I will try to think ahead about some of the different possible scenarios that I might be faced with and, in doing this, reduce the sense of change should any of them occur.

Family and Friends

I have found my friends and family extremely supportive, and talking to them has often been the first step in identifying longer term strategies to cope with my depression and anxiety. It is good to have a small group of people you trust to share your concerns or feelings with and who can support you whether times are good or bad.

Professional Help and Charities  

Just over a decade ago I was in the United States and feeling extremely low. It was 3am in the morning and for several weeks I had been too anxious to get a proper night’s sleep. In desperation I called the 24 hour helpline of a local mental health charity and spoke to one of their volunteers. Even though my mind still ached after the call, it did help my get some perspective on how I was feeling that evening. A simple internet-search provides  a range of UK based numbers that a person can call if they are having a mental health crisis.

Additionally, as an adult, I have found mental health professionals to be very important in helping me to manage my mental health. Your local GP should be able to advise you of a reputable counselling service, psychiatrist or other mental health professional.

Managing one’s mental health is not always easy; on the contrary it can often be really difficult. It is however important and only in doing so can we live well rounded lives and reach our full potential. I actually feel my own struggles have helped me to develop an awareness and understanding towards other people wrestling with their mental health, particularly the children and teenagers I encounter through my work.  I hope that by sharing my own mental health experiences, other people will feel encouraged to share their own struggles and seek the help they need.

Parashat Beha’alotecha: Trusting Trust

This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotecha which can be translated as “when you mount” or “when you step up”. In this part of our narrative the Israelites are still wandering through the desert and are again quite dissatisfied with the experience. In fact, within one chapter of our portion they complain not once, but twice! During their wanderings in the desert the Israelites complain so much that it is easy to dismiss their questions and concerns.

Renowned Torah commentators such as Rashi, writing in twelfth century France, have pointed out that this journeying in the wilderness marks a distinct change in habit for the Israelites who just prior had spent two years stationed at the foot of Mount Sinai. Now, exhausted and disorientated, they are quick to raise their voices in frustration at their new situation.

Ramban, writing in thirteenth century Spain, agrees, arguing that the Israelites complaints were indeed justified and that they simply reacted, “like others under duress and compulsion”. Harvey J Fields, a contemporary American Reform rabbi, points out, however, that Ramban did not offer this explanation to excuse the Israelites’ behaviour. Instead Ramban criticises the Israelites’ disloyalty towards God and Moses as well as their petty gripes and exaggerations over both their situation as free people in the desert as well as their time as slaves in Egypt.

I would like to consider the tension this discussion highlights between leaders and the people under their care. What faith (or loyalty) must we have in our leaders if they are to succeed in promoting our own interests and welfare? When is it appropriate to call them out, and if so, what is the appropriate way of doing so? Conversely, what responsibilities do our leaders have to us when it comes to managing the concerns of those under their care? How would we like them to balance the required day-to-day tasks of leadership with their duty to explain to us the thoughts behind these processes?

In short, was Moses so focused on bringing the Israelites through the wilderness that he fell short in managing the day-to-day concerns of the Israelites? And were the Israelites so distrusting of Moses that he could all but fail time and time again in their eyes?

Describing a basic responsibility of people to their leaders, the sixteenth century Italian scholar Ovadia Sforno compares them to a parent and child. He explains that in such a relationship it is to be expected that there will be, “differences of opinions among them” but the only way a parent (or leader) can be successful is if “all his children know that they love them all and has their best interests at heart”. For Sforno, the Israelites failed to give Moses even a basic level of trust, instead choosing to constantly provoke him to see what he would do.

And what of a leader’s responsibilities towards their people? As Jonathan Sacks has explained, “leadership means believing in the people you lead”. When Moses encounters God for the first time he is told to go to the Children of Israel and to declare himself to them as God’s representative. God assures Moses that “they will listen to you” yet just a few verses later Moses cries out in fear saying, “What if they do not believe me?!”. God goes onto demonstrate three signs for Moses that he can perform for the Israelites should they doubt his genuineness. For the second of these signs Moses is instructed to put his hand into his bosom and upon removing his hand finds it to be “encrusted with snowy scales”. Rashi explains that these snowy scales are “tzaraat” – a skin ailment sometimes translated as leprosy. In afflicting Moses in such a way, Rashi suggests that God was hinting to him that he spoke slanderously [of the Israelites] when he said, “What if they do not believe me”. Tzaraat appears later in our Torah portion, when Miriam is stricken with it for speaking slanderously about her brother Moses.

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2018, “reveal a flatline in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs in the UK”. Likewise, a recent survey by the American-based Pew Research Centre concluded that, “public trust in Government remains near historic lows”. Amongst British Jews, one need only look at social media feeds, blogs and newspapers to see that on this level that we too have difficulty trusting each other’s intentions.

Trust is a vital component of a healthy society. While it makes sense to encounter new ideas with caution we should try not to approach them, or the people saying them, with distrust. We need to create environments, spaces and institutions where trust can flourish, where ideas are frequently questioned but not the intentions of the people who suggest them. We may feel that distrust offers us a certain level of protection from those who wish to harm us but the cost is high; in part a constant sense of paranoia that can impede our ability as leaders and members of society to progress. For trust to be truly effective it must be two-ways; between leaders and the people they represent. Let us work together to build relationships that are built on believing in the good intentions of the diverse people who are part of our society and communities.

Breaking My Silence: A ‘Just’ Position on Israel’s Recent Actions

I can longer keep silent. Strange words to those who know me but the recent community ‘discussions’ promoted by events in Israel and Gaza are too distressing for me to not finally put finger to keyboard.

When it comes to Israel, UK Jews hold a wide variety of positions . For some Zionism might be a core component of their identity, whilst for others Zionism may play little or no role in their lives. Some Jews may see the actions of Israel as necessary and praiseworthy whilst others may see them as inexcusable and cruel.

Whatever your opinion of Israel there are at least some things we share in common; a Jewish identity and a sense of justice. Much of the arguments, debates and trolling regarding recent events stem from this sense of justice. Indeed, just like the concept of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) justice is also a central component of Judaism. Sometimes we may use the word tzedek to refer to justice or the notion of ‘being just’.  

Sometimes I am really hurt when my sense of justice and that of others do not align, particular when it comes to the actions of Israel’s government and military.

Take the recent ‘Jewish Protest Against the Massacre in Gaza’ that took place in Parliament Square. Those who attended recited Kaddish (the Jewish mourning prayer) over all those who recently died along the Gaza/Israel Border, the majority of whom may have been members of Hamas. (The only current source of information for this claim is Hamas itself and has not been independently verified). This protest has invoked strong reactions by some members of the Jewish community who have labeled those who supported the event as ‘traitors and ‘kapos’. As I said, it hurts us when we feel fellow-members of the tribe do not share our sense of justice.  

However, even the strongest supporter of Israel need only look at the names and faces of those who attended or supported the protest in Parliament Square to see that these people are engaged Jews who are voicing a genuine expression of their Judaism and indeed, their sense of justice. As an author of one recent ‘name and shame’ blog acknowledged, of those who attended, “many are in leadership positions” [within the Jewish community].

It is also worth acknowledging that people’s identity is never one-dimensional. Those who supported the protest will also be community workers, chaplains, youth movement leaders and musicians (to name a few) and will have other passions and concerns within (and outside) of the Jewish community and, with regard to these, we may have much in common. Likewise those who vocally criticised those who attended the protest.

Just like you, I want peace for Israelis and Palestinians. No one believes the status quo to be ideal or sustainable. Likewise we both probably believe that peace in Israel will only absolutely be achieved through engagement, compassion, torrelance, compromise and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. The same goes for us Jews in the UK. I believe nothing is gained by publically trolling those with different opinions on Israel to oneself, naming and shaming them on blogs or aggressive forms of dialogue during protests or marches. Only by seeing the humanity in those who express opinions on Israel and then engaging with them meaningful dialogue can lasting progress be made.

Whether you felt recent events in Israel have been just or unjust I will try my best to remember that you are a caring person, part of my community and you have a right to your opinion. Only then will we sit down and discuss the Middle East.

Yad Vashem: A Place to Celebrate Jewish life

On top a mountain, adjacent to a forest and overlooking the beautiful hills of Jerusalem stands the campus of The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre – Yad Vashem. It is the second most visited site in Israel welcoming around one million people a year to its Research, Archiving and Education Centres, Memorials and Museum. Here, myself and twenty other London-based educators spent a week grappling with the challenges associated with the Holocaust and Jewish Identity.   

In our first session the seminar leader instructed us to close our eyes and asked us to describe the images that came to mind when we thought of the Holocaust. For most of the group, the dominant image was that of gaunt figures wearing striped rags, leaning against fences lined with barbed wire. In our minds these people were nameless, devoid of identity. Yad Vashem wants to change this!

A key tenet of Yad Vashem’s work is to celebrate the lives of the victims and the Jewish communities that existed before the War. The driving force behind this is the re-humanisation of those whose lives were destroyed by the Holocaust. From the powerful Yiddish plays of I.L. Peretz to the insightful realist paintings of Maurycy Gottlieb; from the wealth of newspapers, poetry, and folk songs of the Jews in Salonika, Greece to the rich political life as exemplified by parties such as the Zionists and the Bund across Poland. In fact, it is through talking about this thriving tapestry of prewar European Jewish life that we are able to bring meaning and identity — to restore the humanity — to this lost world.

All modern Jewish Communities must wrestle with the complex task of placing the Shoah within the much broader landscape of Jewish life. Yad Vashem places the human being at the centre and emphasises that, “The story of the Holocaust is first and foremost a human story.” Perhaps this approach provides a good model of how we can balance commemorating the Holocaust with celebrating Jewish identity.

As the Holocaust shifts from memory to history, not only must we learn about the acts of the perpetrators, we must also ensure that the individual lives of pre-War Jews are also celebrated.

It’s Rosh Hashanah! Wake Up!

Each Rosh Hashanah Jews participate in a most fascinating and perhaps unusual act; the very public (and very loud) blowing of a ram’s horn. The shofar is blown every day during the month of Elul (except on Shabbat), then on Rosh Hashanah itself and finally at the end of Yom Kippur. What are the origins of this strange practice?

The Torah describes many different instances on which the shofar was to be blown. In the book of Vayikra, we are told that the shofar was used to announce the beginning of festivals, whilst the book of BaMidbar tells us that the sound of the shofar signalled the start of a war. Finally, Isaiah tells us that the sound of the shofar will usher in the age of redemption. The Torah offers us still other examples of when the shofar is to be sounded. Yet, what links all these occasions together?

Rabbi Nissan Mindel, recounts the following parable;

A long time ago, before the introduction of the fire brigade and when most houses were built of wood, a small fire could quickly spread leading to the destruction of an entire village. The ensure that this did not happen, tall watchtowers were erected and, when a fire broke out, they would sound an alarm which signalled to all the townspeople to stop whatever they were doing to help put out the fire.

One day a boy visited such a village for the first time. He stopped to rest at a nearby inn when suddenly he heard the sound of a trumpet. Confused, he asked the innkeeper what it meant. The innkeeper explained that, “Whenever we have a fire we sound a trumpet, and the fire is quickly put out”.

The boy left the inn in wonder and amazement; “A trumpet that can put out fires!” he thought to himself, “How wonderful! I must go and buy one for my village”.

The boy returned home, a trumpet in hand, and called all the villagers together. Excitedly he explained, “We no longer need to be afraid of fire. Just watch me, and see how quickly I will put out a fire!” The boy then went to the nearest house and set fire to its straw roof. As the fire spread the villagers looked alarmed but the boy said, “Do not be afraid. When I blow this trumpet the fire will be extinguished!” The villagers watched as the boy raised the trumpet to his lips and blew. A loud sound emitted from the trumpet but the fire continued to burn and soon the whole village was up in flames.

The villagers, angry with the boys foolishness, yelled at him. “You fool,” they cried. “Did you think that the mere blowing of the trumpet will put the fire out? It is only the call of an alarm, to wake up the people, if they are asleep, or to break them away from their business and work, and send them to help put out the fire!”

We all need a wake-up call every now and again; something that grabs our attention and help us to realise we need to take action to change a situation. In our lives and the lives of our families we are constantly balancing so many activities, thoughts and commitments that is is easy to lose track of our priorities. The Torah calls Rosh Hashanah ‘Yom Teruah’ – ‘the day of shouting’. The medieval philosopher Maimonides says that it is as if the shofar is saying to each of us, “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers from your slumber and ponder your deeds”.

The Yom Noraim and the sound of the shofar are a call to us to wake-up, step away from the distractions of everyday life and to refocus on the things that matter most to us. My wife, Robin and my daughters, Aviva and Ora, join me in wishing you and your family SHANA TOVA UMETUKAH – a good and sweet year.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah Magazine 2016

Pesach: A Story to be Lived!

The Passover Seder requires us to do something quite special; rather than simply learning about the Exodus we are instructed to experience the freedom felt by the Israelites as they journeyed out of Egypt all those years ago.

It is this experience – the idea that “in every generation a person is obligated to see himself or herself as though they had actually come out of Egypt” – that elevates the Seder from mere words and lessons into a personal journey.

On the surface the story of the Exodus appears quite simple, but embedded within it are a series of provocative explorations around ideas of belonging and peoplehood and the commemoration and reliving of our shared history. The Seder guides us through its insights by invoking our intellect, but just as importantly, our senses and emotions. Each year we experience the bitterness of slavery with each taste of horseradish, the sense of urgency in which the Israelites had to leave Egypt with each bite of Matzah and the desire for a place to call home as we sing out “לשנה הבאה בירושלים” (Next year in Jerusalem!).

In creating the Seder our Rabbis knew that true understanding comes from igniting all our senses. Each year as I sit round the Pesach table with my family and friends I am reminded that many methods, approaches and activities are necessary in order to inspire people to connect to what it means to be Jewish.

So far this year, NLS’s superb team of educators and assistants have led the children in a range of activities including building a Sukkah, exploring Tefillah (prayer) through meditation, making a Mezuzah, opening up a Torah Scroll, baking bourekas and latkes, making and lighting their own Chanukiot and singing a special Adon Olam in front of the community at Shabbat Shirah. The goal here is simple, rather than telling children a story we want to make them a part of one.

Now that I am over halfway through my first year at NLS – being both more settled in my role as Head of Youth and also having had the pleasure of getting to know many of you a little better – I look forward to working together to find new and dynamic ways of bringing the story of the Jewish people, our story, alive. Pesach is a reminder that this story is already a living, breathing journey. In order for it to remain fresh and relevant we need to ensure our tradition, so grounded in text, springs to life and is able to live outside the pages of a book.

As we move forward as a community I will be reaching out to you so we can look at new and unique ways of igniting both the intellect and imagination of NLS’s children. My wife, Robin, and daughters, Aviva and Ora, join me in wishing you and your family CHAG SAMEACH.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Pesach Magazine 2016

What’s New about Rosh Hashanah?

Another year has come and gone and soon we will be celebrating the festival of Rosh Hashanah, a day which marks the start of the Jewish New Year. But as we prepare to repeat this annual event, I am led to question exactly what is so ‘new’ about Jewish New Year? Is it simply the marking of the start of another calendar year? How are we supposed to feel and think on Rosh Hashanah when the coming of a new year can feel so old and familiar?

The word ‘new’ is not actually a part of the Hebrew name for Rosh Hashanah, which can most accurately be translated as ‘Head of the Year’. This name is similar to the monthly festival of Rosh Chodesh which translates as ‘Head of the Month’. Rosh Chodesh is the marking of the birth of a new moon and indeed, the word chodesh itself comes from the root chadash, which means new. Interestingly, Rosh Hashanah is also a Rosh Chodesh, however we do little to mark it as such. For example, Rosh Chodesh Tishrei is the only month where the custom of Shabbat Mevarekhim – the public declaration announcing the start date of the new month – is ignored. In fact, Rosh Chodesh is barely mentioned during any of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy at all.

So why this absence of chadash in the Jewish New Year? Many explanations and interpretations have been put forward, and here I will add my own thoughts. Rather than a time of ‘newness’, Rosh Hashanah is a moment for renewal, transition and continuation. It is the point in the year where we pause and take stock of our lives, our values and passions and think about how we would like to take these things forward over the next twelve months. In this sense Rosh Hashanah is not about newness at all, but about beginning again.

This idea is beautifully illustrated in the Talmud (Niddah 30b), which tells us that when a child is in the womb they are taught the entire Torah. However, at the moment that child is born, an angel touches the baby on the mouth which causes that child to forget all that was learnt. A reason for this is that the study of Torah should always feel familiar, a relearning of that which is already known. On Rosh Hashanah we learn from the past so that we can live a more fruitful and enjoyable future.

As Head of Youth, I look forward to building on the success of the previous year, and working together to create an even stronger future. My wife, Robin and my daughter, Aviva, join me in wishing you and your family SHANA TOVA UMETUKAH – “[a] good and sweet year”, full of hope and renewal.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah Magazine 2015