#headstogether: #oktosay in Synagogue too

We’re in the middle of the journey from Pesach to Shavuot, the semi-mourning period known as the Omer, and the leaving of a life of slavery to the arrival at covenantal responsibility. I was thinking about this journey when reading a document which Nic Schlagman our Head of Social Action and Interfaith had prepared about our monthly Drop-In (which falls this Sunday). We work with people who have left everything behind in search of safety and security for themselves and their families. Their Exodus is never-ending it seems.

Caught up in a system that effectively inflicts destitution on them because the British Government for several years now has made people in the middle of Asylum claims unable to receive full benefit entitlement, limited rights to work or full access to the NHS. They usually live off something like £35 per week and are housed wherever they can be put if not in detention. There are something like 25000 people in the middle of their asylum claim in the UK as of December 2016 – that’s awaiting a final decision not an initial decision.

Now listen to one case study from the document Nic shared with me, which reflects some of the hidden work we do, above the incredible donations of food, clothing, toys and volunteer time etc:

“Mrs R has been attending the Drop-In for the past three years with her two children. She is originally from Africa…She also reported domestic abuse to us. She suffers from depression, which was significantly exacerbated postpartum. With our help she has a regular mental health worker through her local authority. Her eldest daughter is a vivacious and bright child. She enjoys school and is keen to learn and participate. With our help she has been able to attend school trips. We have been able to advocate on her behalf with the local authority to ensure they receive support, and also with the Home Office to get them to remove rats from their flat.”

It’s a pattern repeated time and again. The obvious face of poverty hides the deep trauma and difficulty faced by never being able to put down roots in one place, being moved around, having restricted access to stable education, leaving a world and family behind and so on. This is the hidden face of mental health that you will not hear about but is real and a risk to so many families – increasing as the global refugee crisis continues to be ignored by the world’s governments.

Reading this and hearing the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s campaign for challenging mental health problems ‘Heads Together’ made me want to share with you some reflections on the #oktosay campaign.

I’ve been a rabbi for ten years and during that time I’ve been witness to many people’s emotions and struggles with mental health. The young person on the verge of a relationship breakdown. The new mum struggling to keep up the mask that she is coping when deep down she and partner are gasping for air trying to hold off panic. The family coping with visiting a relative in a psychiatric unit. The mixed up range of emotions of a family grieving after a suicide. The young person struggling with self harm or eating disorders.

In one way, my role is often to allow people to be open with me and unjudged. It is my job to be ‘professional’ even as you confront all manner of life’s challenges. But that’s also at risk of presenting you with a very strange view of the rabbi. Some argue we wear the robes to de-sex us – perhaps the robes also dehumanise us too. We become a functionary of the community and empty of our own human experience in order to reflect yours back safely.

So allow me, for a moment to disrobe. To be just a another person before you. Without the safety of the canonicals or the Torah. You may not look on me again the same way as your rabbi. I am taking a risk. Because there never is a safe space, not a really safe space. There is just now.

I have a degree in psychology and I’m not here to pathologise emotions. I first wrote part of this sermon some months ago thinking about Joseph’s tears but it seemed wrong then to turn expressions of feelings into questions about mental health – though as Prince William said on Radio 1 to the DJ Scott Mills just yesterday (as I attempt to force up further the listening demographic of Radio 1) – we all have emotions. But now let me tell you something of my inner world. It won’t change the stigma completely and I know it’s not as easy as a conversation.

When I was in my early 20s, having just graduated from university, I probably had the darkest time in my life. I have vivid memories of the dark thoughts I had. It never manifested itself as something that meant I couldn’t get out of bed. I just quietly got on with life as the world took on a very grey, unlit quality. I forced myself to be sociable or wear the mask of happiness in public, but hidden away I was tormented. I wasn’t good enough. I would never be loved or successful.

No matter that none of this was true, objectively at least. It was how I saw the world. And how I thought it saw me.

There was no magic cure. A couple of years ago a wonderfully kind and thoughtful young man, also experiencing some challenges, sat in my office and asked if I thought religion was a means to prevent mental health problems. I can confidently say it is not, though community and certain religious beliefs may help in building resilience. There are plenty of deeply spiritual people who struggle with mental health problems and religion occasionally is part of the problem – at least the draw to aspects of fervent religiousness seems to occupy a particular space in certain types of mental illness.

These days I’m more aware of how my mood changes. I’ve learnt to spot the beginnings of depression and to take steps to double up those things that make me resilient. I am blessed with the most amazing wife and children who I would give anything for. I try and go to the gym regularly. I have found a space in my spiritual practices for quietening the irrational tendencies and drawing a deep strength from my tradition. And most importantly, I’ve learnt to shrug off the hurtful things that people say, sometimes by accident, and not get over burdened with my own perfectionist streak and the pressure that places on my expectations. In some respects, I probably understand myself a bit better.

We do not have to suffer ‘major’ trauma of becoming a refugee or witnessing terror or being a victim of violence. Most of us will encounter things that affect us in explicably significant ways that are just ‘part of life’: When family members suffer serious illness, a job feels insecure and money problems rear their heads – I know how easy it is to slip almost without spotting the change.

Recent statistics show that nearly 1 in 6 people in the last week think they had a mental health problem. 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem each year in the UK. Perhaps 10% or more of people will have some kind of anxiety or depressive episode. And in a life time nearly 17% of people will have suicidal thoughts and for men between the ages of 20-49 suicie is the most common cause of death. And by the way, mental health problems possible account for 1 in 5 work days lost in the UK.

It is utterly invisible to you. I wear my mask or my robe. But this week I wondered if I could do my job if I never admit to you my own experience of life and how hard life for many can sometimes feel. This is my #oktosay moment, my contribution to the Heads Together conversation.

But it is only a small contribution. The truth is, and here is the unspoken reality – the risk to me is that you view me differently or in some way less, or use my openness against me, or feel this to be indulgent. But I remain privileged in a position to protect myself, in a good job with a good education and I have the resources to support myself if ever needed. I’m no prince or popstar but the challenge of the #oktosay campaign is reaching the most vulnerable in society and caring for them.

The people who you won’t hear are Mrs R, impoverished, unprotected by full benefits of the state, in insecure housing without substantial social networks, those without supportive communities, the homeless, the veteran. They are the people for whom we say it is #oktosay too. And by the way, we know also that the young are at even more risk today than ever.

In Chapter 5 of the Shemonah Perakim, Maimonides the philosopher, physician and rabbi writes:

“If a person develops depression, he should eliminate it by listening to music and songs, by strolling in gardens and amongst beautiful buildings, and by sitting amongst beautiful images, and other ways of broadening the mind, and then he will remove the distress of his melancholy.”

I rather think that although this is simplistic, our tradition has been mindful always of the ‘Marah Shechorah’ (Black Bitterness). Listen to the psalmist in his poetic plea (Psalm 102):

A prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the Lord.

1 Hear my prayer, O Lord;

let my cry come to you.

2 Do not hide your face from me

in the day of my distress…

4 My heart is stricken and withered like grass;

I am too wasted to eat my bread.

We know the scars of trauma run deep, our marking of Yom Hashoah tomorrow night at Westminster Synagogue reveals how two and three generations later the scars are still there and often manifest in mental health problems.

It never used to be a stigma to speak of distress and stricken hearts. In this period when we move in the semi-darkened days of the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot, we too should take courage and walk amongst our friends and perhaps speak not only of our mental health but of the silent voices that may very well be in our midst and our demand that they too are cared for by society, even when they feel all is lost. We confront the darkness and pledge to do more as a community. We can help bring back the colour to the gloom and beauty to life. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.[1]

[1] I read a wonderful Davar Torah for Leo Baeck College by Student Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen after finishing most of this sermon. It highlights similar issues in a different way focusing on Aaron’s response to the death of his sons for this week’s Torah reading. I wanted to avoid reading too strong psychology into the narratives in the text but Robyn’s point is powerfully and importantly made.


Shabbat Hagadol: Why do we care so much about refugees – what does Pesach have to do with it?

At our Melton class on Monday night with the Lyons Learning Project (which we are starting to recruit for a class next year – you should join me!), I was part of a recent discussion that focused on the question, why is it that the Jewish community is overwhelmingly engaged in issues of asylum seekers and refugees? And why was the end of the Dubs amendment, safeguarding children fleeing for safety, such a devastating blow to our hopes for protecting the most vulnerable refugees in the world? With the news of the chemical attacks this week and what looks like an escalation of rhetoric, if not on-going military power, in Syria this question is once again high up on the agenda. Why do Jews, probably disproportionately, care so much about these issues of social justice?
The answer to this can be found in the story told in Jewish households all over the world next week – the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt commemorated in the festival of Pesach. The festival of Pesach falls, this year, on the evening of 10 April 2017. Jews of all denominations and none, will find themselves sitting down to eat a festive meal and reciting the two most memorable phrases of Jewish liturgy. The first a universal invitation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” and the second which captures an essential quality of Jewish identity, “In every generation, one is obligated to regard themselves as though they personally came out of Egypt.”
For many Jews, it is these twin imperatives which drive our interest in aiding the plight of others who are suffering. And, for the record, it’s not just the refugee issue but charitable work like that of World Jewish Relief in the Ukraine and East Africa. But let us focus our attention for a moment on one issue.
Not only do we regard ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt, but a very many of us will actually have refugees sitting around our tables at the festive meal; whether that is refugees from Nazi Europe, the Soviet era, Arab lands or other conflicts. We do not need our imaginations to know what it is like to be oppressed and to taste freedom – both the freedom from hardship, bigotry and antisemitism, and freedom to practice our faith, and the freedom of being in a sovereign State of Israel. Sitting down around my table alone will be descendants from at least two or three mass migrations of Jewish refugees from the 20th century. And instead of hardening our hearts – it’s not unheard of one immigrant group to be positively racist about any other immigrants – when we see human suffering our first response is ‘what can we do?’.
The call to invite all who are hungry to our table is an ethical imperative that we cannot ignore. Thirty-six times, the sages of the Talmud (one of our ancient texts) tell us, the Hebrew Bible exhorts us not to oppress the stranger, to love the stranger, to protect them. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. From our personal experience, we are commanded to think of the plight of others like us because they are not just ‘like’ us, they are us.
The Pesach festive meal has become a meal like no other, certainly in all of Judaism and, from my experience and knowledge, in any faith. It is a remarkable pedagogical re-enactment of the Exodus. In this experience, it absorbs the ethical issues of its time – be it antisemitism, labour rights, ethical production of food, anti-racism, the inclusion of the LGBTQ community or peace between Palestinians and Israelis. At the same time, it demands an inward journey, to recognise that we carry around with us the leaven in our hearts that makes us unmoved by the plight of fellow humans or impervious to a sense of the sacred. Perhaps everyone should, if not live the Exodus, ritually simulate and commemorate hardship to avoid a hardened heart?
In my work as part of this community’s rabbinic voice for social action, I have heard over and over again from Jews about their desire to make a difference and often it comes back to our Pesach story. Our programmes run at some cost and are completely dependent on the generosity of volunteer time and donations. Yet we are not reducing our involvement but expanding. Our call to say ‘Refugees Welcome’ on our banner is no lip-service. We are now seeking to be a partner in community sponsorship of a refugee family and to grow a refugee employment mentoring programme. At every turn, we have found individuals and partners in other communities, faith groups and organisations, with whom we can partner. We are not alone and we continue to learn how much stronger we are when we work together. And that is necessary because there are some enormous problems we face, like housing, the cost of programming for the most vulnerable in society, making systemic changes not just ‘sticking plaster’ solutions.
Pesach is a strong reminder for the Jewish community that in the midst of the greatest darkness, within a world that is changing at a rate faster than any of us can keep up with, there is hope. As we band together to work towards that hope, I have discovered that we carry that message of human goodness within us. The world may feel chaotic, but there is no need for despair. Every year, we sit down and invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Once again, this year, we will conclude our meal with the Jewish yearning that next year there will be no hungry and all of humanity will be free, safe and redeemed from the forces which oppress us. We know that will not happen by accident and it is our responsibility to be part of the change.