By Rabbi Matt Shapiro, Director of Youth Learning & Engagement at Temple Beth Am in LA
A few months ago, the Jewish Federation in New York shared results from an in-depth, wide ranging survey of Jews in the greater New York area. They looked into a number of topics from poverty to religious observance to substance abuse. Two specific points I’ll highlight this morning- first, they found that one in five adults in Jewish homes experienced anxiety and/or depression during the pandemic. Second, the survey reports that “feeling like part of the local Jewish community is associated with a 25% reduction in an individual’s odds of anxiety/depression…attending Jewish programs reduced the chance of having anxiety/depression by about half…similarly, attending religious services is associated with the likelihood of anxiety/depression being reduced by 75%.”
Now, don’t get me wrong- this is, of course, not to say that coming to synagogue will cure your depression. We don’t know what’s correlation or causation- does coming to shul help with anxiety and depression, or are people who are experiencing these challenges just less likely to show up? Whatever the link, there’s clearly some type of relationship between community connection and overall mental health.
These conclusions might seem intuitive- we’ve known this from the very beginning. Upon seeing the first person in the world, God notes lo tov heyot adam l’vado, that it’s not good for man to be alone. Our religious civilization is built upon the role of community- we pray together, we celebrate together, we mourn together. Of course, it’s not only Jews who need community and relationship in our lives- all people do. In his recent book, Lost Connections, which explores both sources of and responses to anxiety and depression, Johann Hari sees this idea through an anthropological lens. He points out that, in the earliest days of humanity, we were only able to survive because of how we worked together- it makes good biological sense that we experience higher rates of anxiety and depression when we’re lonely. “Every human instinct,” he writes, “is honed not for life on your own, but for life in a tribe.”
So, it’s no surprise that those of us who are consistently a part of a community show signs of greater well-being- briefly returning to the survey, it was also reported that “respondents with no social network to depend on for help report mental health problems at a rate five times higher than those with a social network of 10 or more persons.” This data provides a particularly poignant focus on how challenging the past two-plus years have been. No matter how nimble we’ve pivoted for the umpteenth time, no matter how compelling our various Zoom offerings have been, there’s still no substitute for, well, this: being together, in person, sharing time, building relationships, and celebrating together, as a community. We’ve been scattered, and we’ve only recently, finally, been able to consistently join together.
This challenge, of finding our tribe, of knowing our place, isn’t a new one. There’s a construct within our tradition that’s mentioned in this week’s parsha (and explored in greater depth in last week’s parsha) that offers a solution, inviting us to go one step deeper than enjoying the deep benefits of coming here to schmooze during musaf: the yovel, or jubilee, year. We read about the seven year cycle of shmitah, the sabbatical year, when the land rests. After seven shmitah cycles, the fiftieth year is a yovel, a jubilee year. In this year, there’s the noteworthy commandment that all land holdings return to their original owners. In Vayikra 25:10, we’re told
וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃
each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.
In other words, in that 50th year, everyone goes back to the property, the land that was originally theirs to begin with. The yovel is a complete reset.
The logistics of this would, obviously, be complicated- I’m neither a farmer nor a land use attorney, so I’m limited in my understanding of exactly how that would work. I’d invite you instead to look at this from the vantage point of relationship and community: everyone, every person, no matter who they are or what has happened over the years, has a place, and everyone has a right to return to that place. What does it mean to return to your home? What would this world look like if each of us, truly, knew that we always had a place?
That might feel complicated- family isn’t always easy. In fact, for some of us, considering a return to family may be uncomfortable or even scary. So, if your family of origin was not a place of safety, please envision this as a return to a place that truly does feel like home to you, whatever or wherever that may be.
Yovel is the great equalizer, an ultimate reminder that we each have inherent value and infinite worth, with our own unique place; as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote, “each human being is put in charge of a certain portion of God’s garden, to work it and to keep it.”
Now presumably, if you’re coming back after 50 years (or even, say, 2), you’re a different person than you were when you left- and, it’s still your portion. This concept calls to us to ensure that we establish and sustain our homes, that our communities are welcoming spaces, appreciating and honoring people for who they are, wherever they’re been, and whatever they’re experiencing.
I’m offering these thoughts specifically today, since May is mental health awareness month. I’ll share three reflections in a brief exploration of that phrase, mental health, specifically. First of all: mental health is health. Our physical health impacts our mental health; our mental wellness informs our spiritual connection. It’s not so easy to tease apart one part from the other; it can even be counterproductive and unhelpful to take an isolated perspective on our wellness, rather than an integrated one.
Second- health and wellness is a spectrum, not a binary. Just like most of us are neither in perfect physical health nor completely lacking it, so too with our mental health. Many of us (though if the survey is any indication, no more than roughly 80%) fortunately, have moderate to pretty good mental health, which still requires attention and maintenance, just like physical health (InternationalEpilepsyDay). As with physical health too, there may be times when we’re less well, and we can, hopefully, find strategies to address that need.
And third, while it’s true that, perhaps, synagogue life might be one component of those strategies, being in community and relationship isn’t a cure all. Doctors and professional practitioners can also be vital resources- it’s important to have an accurate sense of what you’re experiencing to address an issue that may very well be multi-faceted.
No amount of community building or resource development or loving, caring relationships fully eliminates the possibility of tragedies occurring. They have happened even in situations where families and friends and communities have done everything they possibly could. All we can do, and what we must do, is support each other and care for each other to minimize that possibility, and to hold each other if, God forbid, a tragedy does occur.
So what are we supposed to do? How could we get to a place where we can both create and be a part of this type of community? The Ishbitzer Rebbe offers us a counter-intuitive approach in his teachings on the cycles of shmita and yovel, the sabbatical and jubillee, years- he points out that first we need to have the shmita year, when the land rests, and then we can have the jubilee year, when we can all return. First, we need to release, to let go, and only then can we go back to our place, can we return home.
This might seem to be unhelpful- what does one have to do with the other? I’ll remind you, and myself, both how much in life is out of our control, and how easy it is to get stuck, to grasp, to try to gain back perceived control. At least for me, when I get into that pattern, I can get lost within myself instead of connecting with others or reaching out for help- as I read in another study I looked at, “isolation is both a cause of mental unwellness and a response to it.” What the Ishbitzer succinctly and wisely guides us to is a simple two step plan- first, let go and second, return. Let go and return. That plan can help us to reconnect.
So much of our time in general, especially but not exclusively over the course of Covid, is lived reactively, navigating whatever the current moment is throwing at us. But yovel is something that happens over decades, not days- communities are built and sustained over the long term. This is a push for us to consider how to create and build spaces proactively, with intention, to sustain the ways in which we help people feel at home and to seek out the ways in which we can do that even better.
This is a complicated, potentially fraught topic- if I said something today that you find challenging or uncomfortable, I hope you’ll reach out so that we can explore it together. After all, only through honest communication can we create the type of community I’m describing and hoping for.
I don’t know that I have the words to describe how I felt on Tuesday after the horrific events in Texas. I felt so sad. So scared. I don’t think anything could have changed that. But I do know that having family and friends and colleagues that I could turn to for words of comfort and support and hugs- I could surrender the desire to ‘just get through it’ and be in the moment. This didn’t eliminate the pain, or the fear, or the sadness- but it did help me move through it. I’m under no illusion that this will always be the case, for me or for anyone. But it can help. And it often does. Not always, but often, and ‘often’ matters, especially in times when it feels like there’s just so much to navigate.
In the moments when you’re struggling with whatever it may be- sadness, stress, pain- please remember that you’re not the only one experiencing that. You don’t need to control it or deal with it alone, and I hope you know that I’m here- please find me at kiddush, send an email, give me a call- that we’re all here, so that you can reach out if and when you need it. Together, we can take a deep breath, let go, and return.
It’s OK to be anxious. It’s OK to be depressed. It’s OK to have any number of formal mental health diagnoses (after all, mental health challenges aren’t limited to anxiety and depression), and it’s OK to just need to have a moment or two or three when things feel difficult and you need a little help- I’ve been there. I think pretty much everyone has. Through all of this, none of us are alone, and we’re here together. Being in community opens up the opportunity for all of us to let go a bit, and then to remember that, no matter what, you can return. You always, always have a home.
Rabbi Shapiro previously served as TBA’s interim associate rabbi after six years of working full time at Beit T’shuvah. In his work at BTS, Rabbi Shapiro worked as a spiritual counselor, educator, and pulpit presence, bringing out his interests and skills as a teacher and pastor. He has worked in a variety of rabbinic and educational settings, including BCI, Mosaic Law Congregation, and Los Angeles Hebrew High School. Rabbi Shapiro looks forward to continuing to enhance and develop the wide variety of opportunities within the broad spectrum of YLE at TBA through building relationships, joy, and ruach!