This post is being dedicated to my friend Helen Brown who wanted to know how being an Orthodox Jewish woman works and is compatible with having a mental illness. How supportive were the Jewish community when I was ill and what does Judaism mean to me?
Let me start by saying that I was born into Judaism and raised Jewish, in a Modern Orthodox, United Synagogue Household- meaning I keep Kosher, rest on the Sabbath and observe all the festivals, learn and pray when I can. I also practise ‘tzniut’- dressing modestly and endeavour to live my life with the positive values of the Torah (Old Testament) bridging modern society . I have a great love for and appreciation of Judaism and I have found that it has kept me going through many difficult times.
Prayer in particular has had a very important resonance in my story. When I was ill in hospital with a bipolar episode two years ago, my friend brought me a tehillim prayer book- the Book of Psalms. Another friend brought me a book of strengthening hopeful quotes from Rabbi Nachman. Every day, I prayed to God to release me from my illness, to give me strength and to give me a full and complete recovery. I prayed that the Doctors and nurses would support and help me, and they did. I found freedom through my religion, even if I couldn’t always understand why this particular test was in my life. My friends also lit candles on the Sabbath with a prayer that I would get better and prayed for me.
The support from the Jewish community during this time was incredible. Rabbis visited me with warm chicken soup, cakes, wisdom, advice and prayers. Friends and family rallied round to visit and bring me food, soft toys, cards and themselves. The kindness was immense and never will be forgotten.
However, there is still a stigma against mental illness in the Jewish community, as there is in most other communities. When I first became ill at 16, I was ridiculed my many who did not understand the meaning of a bipolar manic episode. To this day, I believe there is a woeful misunderstanding and knowledge of psychosis- delusions or hallucinations. There is also a stigma when looking for a marriage partner, if using a matchmaker. I was taught by many to keep quiet about my illness and I still do not readily give the information unless it will help someone else.
Not everyone understands medication or psychotherapy and I am on a mission to educate everyone so the stigma can fall. I am a Modern Orthodox Jewish woman. This means I love God and want to live by His laws, whilst enjoying the modern world of theatre, books, cinema and culture too.
I believe that I was ill for a reason, whether its brain chemistry, a test or both. What I do know is that the community now is changing- there is much more support and kindness.
We only have to look at the new Jami (Jewish Association of Mental Illness) Head Room Café (a social enterprise cafe raising money for the charity) to see that. The funding and support Jami is getting and its new prominence.
There is still more to do, but we as Jews (and non Jews) have a duty to support anyone who is ill- whether its in the mind or the body.