Rosh Hashanah 5783: Der Shiker is Nisht a Goy: Der Shiker Iz a Yid

Watch the Sermon Here. It starts at 3:16.

Over the summer I read a wonderful book. It’s called Undelivered: the Never-Heard Speeches That Would Have Rewritten History. The speeches are divided into categories. The first group were speeches that went undelivered because they were thankfully unnecessary. General Dwight Eisenhower prepared a speech apologizing for the failure of D-day: Thank God, it was never delivered. Richard Nixon’s aide drafted a speech swearing he would never, ever resign from the presidency: that too was unnecessary. I then tried looking through the book for an unnecessary Jewish speech: But all I came across were the words of historian Simon Schama. There are no Jewish unnecessary speeches. He writes, “Jews essentially communicate through agreed mutual interruption.”

But there is one category of undelivered speech that looms large above all others in the book. These are speeches that had words that were too hot for the times, where the politics of the moment made them impossible to deliver. And so the speeches were relegated to the dustbin of history.

The sermon that I am going to deliver this morning was when I first wrote it to be an undelivered speech. But as we come out of the pandemic, I am reminded of the words of a colleague who told me that it is the job of the rabbi on the holy days not only to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict those who have become too comfortable.

That is why this morning we must talk about the great mental health crisis taking place right now in this country. That is why we are going to take this day to say ganuk, enough is enough. It is why we are going to declare that having a conversation about mental health does not make us weak. It makes us strong: and on Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the birthday of the world, this conversation is critical if we want our world to continue to endure for another year.

Over my years as a rabbi, I’ve heard the following: why should mental health be a Jewish problem? Isn’t mental health a private matter? I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us share this attitude, because for generations this was the Jewish attitude to mental health. A private matter. Only I know sadly, from personal experience, what can happen when this is the way that we think. My grandfather of blessed memory, Emanuel Dorsch, had a mental health challenge that our family struggled over the years, before I was even born, to handle. At the time no one knew what it was called. Today, we can give it a name: bipolar schizophrenia. For decades this was our family secret, divided us, and was never talked about. I met my grandfather once when I was young. But my only true memory is helping to bury him and the secret of his suffering at his funeral.

Growing up, I suspect that at least some of us were raised in homes that believed that mental health was not a Jewish community concern. Or even worse, not even a Jewish concern at all. We heard the misguided Yiddish expression: Der Shiker is a Goy. The expression literally means only non-Jews become alcoholics. And yes, while this expression is offensive to non-Jews, you and I know what it really insinuates. It is a deep-seeded denial that a Jew could suffer from an “ordinary mental health problem. “ After all, how could a member of an Am Segulah, a treasured nation, a Jew, suffer from a “non-Jewish problem” like alcoholism or drug abuse?

Friends, this attitude continues to be pervasive today. The first Jew by Choice I ever worked with told me that she went on JDate to find a Jewish husband. Why? Because her parents told her that Jewish men did not beat their wives. That was her way of saying Der Shikkur is a Goy. Emil Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, a Jew, reported in his 1897 foundational work Suicide, that Jews took their lives in significantly fewer numbers than other religious groups. Because in a religion as communal as ours, how could suicide be possible? Der Shiker is a Goy. When I was growing up Adam Sandler famously crooned: OJ Simpson Not a Jew: and every young Jew at Camp Ramah in the Poconos cheered when listening to the Chanukkah song. Because, for all of the fantastical elements of the OJ trial, a Jew would never be capable of having a mental breakdown like OJ! Der Shiker is a Goy.

Only now, let’s look at real life. Der Shiker is Nisht a Goy: Der Shiker Iz a Yid, a Jew. Folks, the number one pastoral care packet on the wall outside my office, the one that always runs out within a week or two of restocking it, is the one entitled: “Coping with Stress.” We’ve always been a people that has struggled. Go back to the Torah. King Saul, the first Israelite king, suffered from such tremendous mental anguish that he hired a young harpist named David. The writer of the book of Psalms had mental health challenges: sabuni kidevorim, “look, how they surround me, like bees,” like the walls are closing in. During the Unetane Tokef we will say mi yeshaket u-mi yetoraf. Who this year will be serene and who will struggle with mental health, a recognition that there are Jews who yes, are tormented, and struggle with mental health every day.

British Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote that “Jews are like everyone else, only more so.” As early as 1992, a NIMH study found that “the overall lifetime rate of psychiatric disorder did not differ among Jews as compared to non-Jews.” And further that Jews suffer from certain mental illnesses like major depression and schizophrenia in greater numbers than the general population. This year, the Jewish Federation will release a study on mental health among Jewish Atlanta. Here is a copy. According to CDC data, today, in light of the pandemic 4 in 10 teens report feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” and 1 in 5 say they have contemplated taking their own lives. Among U.S. adults aged 18-29, rates of anxiety nationwide have increased over 60%. The Lancet Medical journal reports the pandemic caused an additional 53.2 million cases of major depressive disorder and 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorder globally. And what is frightening is that the research team conducting the Federation study concluded that Atlantans, of all the cities surveyed, hold the greatest stigma against seeking mental health treatment in comparison to any other American city. This despite the fact that as people have turned to unhealthy ways of coping, HAMSA, Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse at JF&CS, received 632 calls last year. That is nearly two calls per day…and these 632 calls are from folks who specifically turn to the Jewish community, not including the many who seek treatment elsewhere. And yes, folks, in my first few years at Etz Chaim, I officiated over more funerals than I could’ve imagined for young people who after years of courageous struggle, lost their battle with mental illness. No less deserving of our love or compassion than someone dying of cancer. Der Shiker is Nisht a Goy: Der Shiker Iz a Yid.

Following the tragic shooting at the school in Uvalde, Texas, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman put it best when she wrote, “Everything hurts / It’s a hard time to be alive, / And even harder to stay that way. / We’re burned to live out these days / While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.” The pandemic took loved ones from us, wreaked havoc onto our lives, our marriages, and family relationships. Even prior to the pandemic we placed pressure on ourselves and our spouses. We told them that they didn’t make enough money, that they needed to lose weight, or to dress a certain way. We put pressure on our kids to be perfect in school, for them to come home and be bullied online. I suspect there are more kids today on medications at Jewish summer camp than there are without. Today, all of us as parents compound our own mental health problems by escaping into unhealthy social media platforms where we get a distorted picture of life, wondering why we aren’t having as much fun as the person next door. Is it any wonder that Jews are in this moment of crisis? Let’s say it. Der Shiker is Nisht a Goy: Der Shiker Iz a Yid.

So now what do we do? Now that we who have grown too comfortable have grown afflicted, how do we see those who are afflicted and bring them comfort? Certainly, we must call on our elected officials and look to our own wallets to find ways to dedicate more resources to helping those with mental health challenges. We are facing a critical shortage in mental health providers in Georgia. 150 out of 159 counties are deemed mental health counselor shortage areas.

But change also begins with each of us in the room and in our homes and the world we hope to see. Three years of isolation has led to a catastrophic byproduct. We’ve stopped caring in the way that we should. Instead, we must dream of a world where if and when the stigma against seeking treatment is broken, Jews may talk openly about their struggles with rabbis, friends, and family members and get the help they need rather than being shunned. We must build a world where we acknowledge, in the words of the dayan Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, known as the Tzitz Eliezer, that “there are times when emotional pain and suffering can be even greater than physical pain and suffering.” And yes, we must have a city where we break the stigma against seeking treatment. Because as I told you earlier, I’ve seen in my own family the tragic consequences of what happens when people have no place to turn.

Friends, what is our job? It is not to be like Shammai who shooed away someone with a builder’s cubit. It is to be like Hillel who embraced and taught a person Torah even if it meant standing on one foot. On Yom HaDin, the day of judgment we must declare that God can judge peoples’ struggles but it is not our place to judge others. Our job is to saythank you for telling me, I believe you, you’ve done nothing wrong, and I will get you help. That’s what true friends do. A true friend does not try to take you out of the hole. They stand in it with you until you can pull yourself out. And yes, friends speak out and give a controversial sermon instead of relegating it to the dustbin of history.

I want to conclude this sermon by asking everyone here in just a moment, to please rise, as we recite together a communal Mi Shebeyrach. I want to pray not only for those in need of healing of the guf, the body, but those in need of healing of ruach, of the spirit. So that we can make it clear that this is an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up and knowing they will be given help. So we will bring visibility to those who are made to feel invisible. To you, me, and our families as we live out these days together. I may have this morning, afflicted those of us who felt comfortable, now together, as a community, let us pledge to always comfort the afflicted.

*In memory of my grandfather Emanuel Dorsch (z”l), who I wish I could’ve gotten to know better.

**I want to acknowledge Gabby Spatt from the Blue Dove Foundation and Jori Mendel from the Jewish Foundation of Greater Atlanta for their help in garnering information about our local community

Rabbi Daniel Dorsch

Now, more than ever, Jews around the world need madrichim, spiritual mentors, to guide them through the challenges of twenty-first-century life.  Rabbi Dorsch inspires our community through helping us to understand how living a life of Torah, Jewish values, and sacred choices can help us to meet these challenges.  He enjoys teaching Torah while “standing on one foot,” is relatable and accessible, and takes great pride in the meaningful relationships he has developed with members of our community.

After earning his B.A. degrees from Columbia University and the Albert A. List College at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Dorsch received his rabbinical ordination and M.A. in Education from JTS. After being awarded the Reverend Zvi Hirsch Masliansky Prize for Homiletics, he served as an associate rabbi for six years in Livingston, New Jersey.

Beyond his role as rabbi at Etz Chaim, Rabbi Dorsch is proud to serve as a member of USCJ’s Teen Engagement Committee.  He also serves as the secretary of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association, and sits on the Boards of Trustees for the Jewish National Fund and the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta.  He recently completed eight years as Vice President of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement, and is a past fellow in Hazon’s Clergy Leadership Incubator Program.

Rabbi Dorsch can’t wait to meet you for coffee (although he will have the iced tea) and tell you about the new and exciting things taking place at Etz Chaim. Rabbi Dorsch and his wife Amy, an educator at the Epstein School, are the proud parents of Zev and Haley.

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