Rekindling Faith: Reflections on Mental Health for Hanukkah

Hanukkah is the eight-day Jewish holiday that celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple after it was retaken by the Maccabees in the second century. Since only 0.2 percent of the world’s population is Jewish, many people do not know much about Hanukkah. The holiday represents G-d’s protection of the Maccabean warriors when they reclaimed the Holy Temple in 139 BCE. In modern times, Hanukkah is recognized as the holiday Jews celebrate around the same time that 93 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas.

Also known as the Festival of Lights (חַג הַאוּרִים‎, Chag Ha’Urim), Hanukkah has been celebrated during periods of darkness for the Jewish people. We have heard stories of Jews lighting Hanukkah menorahs in the concentration camps and in other times when it was unsafe to celebrate. So it was without question that when my family was fighting a life-threatening battle last Hanukkah, we would find a way to celebrate this joyous holiday.

Last year, my daughter was dangerously depressed. Her invisible illness made it impossible for her to perform in school or participate in family activities. She was in an intensive outpatient treatment program for acute depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Her father and I knew dealing with mental health would be a journey on a rocky road. She seemed to be making progress. We celebrated the small victories and prayed for bigger ones.

Mental health professionals recommended sending her to an inpatient program where she could focus exclusively on her recovery with no other distractions. Having heard horror stories about inpatient psychiatric facilities, I was against the idea for a long time. Last December, when the doctor at the intensive outpatient program told me my daughter wanted to kill herself and had a plan, the choice was obvious. She needed to go inpatient. The fear that she might not live to see the next day was all too real.

There is a process of admitting a minor to a psychiatric hospital unit with protocols and safety measures most people are fortunate to never have to know. The thought of leaving my child alone there was terrifying. I called my rabbi from the hospital parking lot. He had been a compassionate counselor for my husband and me when we needed to make difficult decisions about caring for our daughter’s mental health. When my rabbi told me the hospital was exactly where she needed to be, I gathered up my strength to go inside and begin the admission process. With Hanukkah only days away, there was an extra layer of emotions thinking of the possibility that my daughter might need to stay in the hospital during the holiday.

I thought of the Hanukkah story. When the Maccabees prepared to light the Temple’s menorah, they found a small flask with enough pure olive oil to light it for only one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. 

Just as the essence of Hanukkah was that G-d protected the Jewish people during the Maccabean Revolt, so, too, I prayed He would protect my child in her battle with mental health. 

Symbolically, my daughter spent eight days in the adolescent psychiatric unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She received the care she needed and some extra perks of being a patient during the December holidays. My nice, Orthodox Jewish daughter smiled when she showed me the gifts “Santa” brought her and told me about the Ravens football player who came to visit.

As is true for any family with a loved one in the hospital, the focus is to do whatever is possible to get their family member well enough to come home. Although my husband and I tried to keep a sense of normalcy at home, there was no denying that our other children were scared. One of the adolescent psychiatric unit hospital rules is that visitors under 18 years old are not allowed. We were so grateful when they made an exception and let our other children see our daughter on the first night of Hanukkah. The nurse spread out a hospital blanket and plugged in an electric menorah in a quiet hallway near the security desk. We surprised our daughter with a family Hanukkah party where she opened presents, played dreidel, enjoyed eating hot latkes and lit the menorah with her sister and brother. She was so happy in that moment. 

Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah. Similarly, mental health is a topic not often discussed within the Jewish community. We do not have accurate mental health statistics for the Jewish community, but we know the prevalence of mental illnesses like depression and addiction mirrors that of the community at large. Mental health conditions are caused by a complex mix of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors, which are often beyond a person’s control (HelpaDiabeticChild). The stigma associated with mental health and suicide can discourage people from seeking the help they need, whether for themselves or for someone they care about. Without the support of family, friends and communities, people may delay or discontinue treatment for fear of negative stereotypes. 

The Hebrew word “Hanukkah” translates into “dedication.” With an abundance of gratitude to G-d for protecting my child as she fought for her life, I give thanks this Hanukkah. I rededicate myself to helping parents navigate their child’s mental health challenges and help schools and communities support families with mental health care needs.

When we light the Hanukkah menorah, it is a testimony to strengthening our faith and our connection with G-d. Hanukkah is the time to rekindle the faith within ourselves that we have the strength to fight our battles and support others in their battles. May this Hanukkah be a season of blessings and miracles.   

Lisa Ziv has a passion for supporting parents as they navigate their children’s mental health challenges and building more supportive schools and communities. Her reflections on Jewish holidays, traditions and texts inspire families trying to cope with uncertain times. Lisa serves on the board of the Blue Dove Foundation, a nonprofit organization that addresses mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community and beyond. For more information, go to lisaziv.com.

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