“I started to lose interest in all things. Eating was no longer pleasurable; I ate simply because I realized I had to in order to function. I lost ten pounds…As I grew more anxious, I began feeling incapable of being able to teach or effectively communicate an idea to anyone else ever again.”
Almost twenty years after first publishing his powerful and brave essay, we asked Rabbi Helfgot to reflect upon the aftermath of sharing his battle with mental illness publicly.
In the fall of 1996, I returned to New York after having spent a year sabbatical as a Jerusalem Fellow under the auspices of the Mandel Center of Jewish Education. During that extraordinary year, I had the chance to live in Jerusalem’s San Simon neighborhood, do significant research in areas of my educational interest, take great courses at Hebrew University, and have the opportunity to once again learn on weekly basis at the feet of my revered teacher and mentor, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory. In addition, I met a whole new group of twenty and thirty somethings in Jerusalem, some of whom, have remained dear friends and colleagues. During that year I also had the amazing opportunity to experience life in Jerusalem and Israel in a different way than I had as a young student coming out of high school in the early 1980’s. The year was an intense one and was magnified by the great polarization that gripped Israeli society then in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords.
This culminated in the traumatic events of the murder of Prime Minister Rabin z”l. The subsequent months also brought with them the trauma of repeated suicide bus bombings and terror attacks carried out by Hamas and other groups that jolted the Israeli psyche and left a lasting impact on Israeli society as a whole. Despite these difficult experiences, leaving Israel in the summer of 1997, I looked back on the year as one of personal growth and vibrancy, full of meaningful experiences, new bonds and a revived spirit to tackle new vistas and challenges. On a personal level, I had lost a good amount of weight after years of being overweight, felt healthy, and was leading an active lifestyle. During the course of the year I received a number of wonderful professional opportunities. I returned to the US to serve as curriculum coordinator of Ma’ayanot, the new yeshiva high school for girls that was to open that fall in Teaneck, NJ, full of hope and energy and excitement.
Alas, those eager feelings and exciting weeks of anticipation were soon shattered by the painful reality of the clinical depression that I fell into a short few weeks after I began my new position. For the next few months I experienced tremendous mental anguish and pain eventually leading to my having to take a medical leave of absence for a number of months. In those months, I began a slow and challenging process of recovery involving therapy, medication, and the support of family, good and empathetic friends, and understanding employers all of whom helped me emerge from that experience whole and able to return to function and enjoy life once again. Over the next two years, I experienced another two episodes of depression and again, with God’s help and intensive therapy and the blessings of modern pharmacology, I was able to return to work and experience the beauty and richness of normal life. In those two years I also was blessed to find my soul mate, Rachel, marry and bring our first child, into the world. In the aftermath of those searing experiences I detailed my experiences and my emergence from that personal abyss in an article that I published in the Fall 2001 edition of Jewish Action. During those years, I also organized two very well attended public conferences, sponsored by YCT Rabbinical School on Mental Illness and the Orthodox Community, which brought together rabbis, mental health professionals, and other people in our community who courageously shared their personal stories.
Over the years, many people asked me why I wrote the essay and chose to share my story with the broader public and speak about my life and struggles in such an open fashion. In short, my reasons were very straightforward. In the course of discussing what I was going through with others, I became aware that many, many people in our community had experience with mental illness themselves or had a brush with it in their nuclear and extended family or with close friends. And yet, no one was openly speaking about their experiences and stigma was still part of our communal and personal conversations. I thought and believed, and continue to believe, that if I and others would speak about this openly, people would feel less isolated, more willing to get help, and better understand what their loved ones and friends were going through. This would help lower the stigmas in our communities and let those who needed to get professional help find a welcoming and supportive community to ease their burdens.
In the aftermath of publishing my essay and the public conferences, I was inundated with phone calls, emails, and personal encounters from people across the board of our community asking for advice, wanting to speak about their personal situations, inviting me to speak in their shuls or schools about the issues, and just being an ear to hear their familial challenges. It was an exhausting but rewarding time in that I felt that I had made an impact. I felt that I was contributing to move the needle in a positive direction to help more people and our community as a whole, move to a healthier, more honest conversation about mental illness. Hopefully, out of this experience we would increase our sense of empathy and support for each other and create a more beloved covenantal community.
Throughout my experience and in the subsequent aftermath of publishing my essay, I received only positive encouragement and support from lay people, rabbis, family, and friends. I found a high degree of receptivity to the messages that I was trying to convey. I did not experience any pushback or sense that this public sharing in any way “hurt” my career or made me a less effective educator in the classroom, whether with teens or adults. Indeed, I do not recall any negative comments except one that stands out in my mind, for it was unique. One middle age educator asked me:
“Nati, are you sure you should have published it? Aren’t you concerned with career advancement?”
I don’t recall what response I gave her at the time, but I do know that what I wanted to say to her:
It is comments like these which are exactly part of the problem! It is precisely why I wrote this essay, specifically because of attitudes like this that somehow perpetuate the fear and stigma that doesn’t appreciate that mental health and physical health should be treated with the same empathy and concern and recognition of its “normalcy” and as part of the vicissitudes of the human condition.
Indeed, as the years have passed, I have continued to only have positive responses to the essay by those who encounter it anew. It has been incorporated into the curricula of some rabbinical school pastoral training classes, used as a discussion piece at Orthodox mental health conferences, and discussed by Modern-Orthodox college kids in various sessions. I continue to be asked to speak about my experiences and help spur conversations about these issues in various communities.
On a professional level, my experiences with serious depression and anxiety made me more acutely aware about some of the struggles that students in my class, friends in my orbit, and colleagues in my workplace were going through. Given my personal experiences, I sometimes had a better sensitivity – or in other words, a better “radar” – to see the symptoms of depression in students. This has led me to sometimes be able to help or empathize more quickly than some others in reaching out to a colleague or student. Each person is, of course, an olam maleh, a world unto themselves, and experiences their challenges and pain in their own unique way, and not every experience is transferable. However, my experiences have, I hope, made me a better, more empathetic and understanding teacher, spouse, parent, and colleague.
I recall many decades ago, hearing a comment in the name of the Rav zt”l as to how when he reaches the olam ha-emet (heaven) and will be asked to give a din ve-heshbon (account), he will declare that he is proud that he was able to have accomplished important things in a number of areas, including the establishment of the Maimonides School.
With humility, I feel that when I come before the beit din shel maalah (heavenly court), I will be able to present similar words before the Borei Olam (Creator of the World). I will share my feelings of some sense of accomplishment and good works that I was given the opportunity to transform the pain and anguish I experienced to potentially help others. I will take pride in the small contribution that I made in publishing my article, sharing my story, and holding public events to help break down some stigmas and help our community grow in its empathy and concern and understanding of the challenges we all face – ve-zeh yihyeh sekhari (and that will be my merit).
by Nathaniel Helfgot
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is Chair of the Department of Torah She Baal Peh at SAR High School in New York City and rabbi at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ. R. Helfgot has taught in various yeshiva high schools throughout the NY metropolitan area over the last thirty years. He is also involved in adult education and is on the boards of a number of Jewish educational and rabbinic organizations. He is the author of a number of volumes in both English and Hebrew, most recently Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation.