Rabbi Naftali Lavenda, Director of Online Rabbinic Programming at the CJF, who has been running courses for rabbis online for six years, recently launched a course in confronting mental health issues, the 7th in his online series. With over fifty rabbis from five countries participating from around the world, the objective in this course is to try and provide the participating rabbis with a great appreciation and understanding of what their role is as rabbis. Though the course is not trying to make rabbis into therapists, it is providing them with a basic understanding of mental health issues, the terminology, what their role is in dealing with these issues, how to recognize them when confronted with them, how to refer congregants when necessary, how to encourage people to go for referrals, and how to figuratively hold the hands of the congregants throughout the whole process, which sometimes can be lifelong. The course strives to recognize the challenge rabbis are faced with of walking the tightrope of assisting their community members as much as possible and being cognizant of halacha and how that plays into their plan and counseling.

To give you a flavor of these courses, in the last session of the course, Rabbi Glasser, the David Mitzner Dean of the CJF moderated a discussion with Rabbi Willig and Rabbi Neuberger. The panel started with more general questions, such as how halacha deals with mental health, and then went into more specifics about issues rabbis might be faced with such as suicide, addictions, eating disorders, and others.

The course aims to recognize the importance of rabbis being able to confront mental health issues. RIETS, in their training of new rabbis, is dealing with these same issues on a parallel levels in their smicha classes. These online courses provide a new angle for this education; the continuing education courses not only provide support for the already established rabbis, but also provide support for communities through training the rabbis. In addition, such a course connects rabbis, and thereby communities, with experts in the mental health field. From speaking with community rabbis, it becomes clear how quickly these courses have directly helped the rabbis in dealing with issues in the community and the courses have had trickle down effects in providing benefit and support for the community.

Since all lessons are pre-recorded and posted once a week, rabbis can log in and watch the recordings at their convenience. Throughout the course, there is an email and internet forum where rabbis can discuss the sessions and ask questions they may have about the sessions. Every rabbi has had different experiences, so the pooling of ideas in these discussions can be very impactful and insightful. The course run for 9 weeks, with 1 session per week; each session includes multiple presenters, with a total of 20 presenters in the whole course. This way, the course positively exposes the rabbis to as many professionals in this area as possible in order to connect them with the resources and tools they need when they are confronting these delicate issues.

Though rabbis get some pastoral training in their smicha classes, those theoretical issues that are raised in school, are sometimes incomparable to their experiences when are out in the field and actually dealing with them. Thus, this program was visualized after many conversations with different rabbis and recognizing that this is an area rabbis are constantly dealing with, involved in, struggling with, and could use additional support in.

Credit goes to Rabbi Lavenda for putting the program together, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Shwartz, the course coordinator who is also the rabbi of a shul and a psychologist who specializes in OCD, and Dr. Pelcovitz, the course advisor.

Feedback from the course been extremely positive. In a recent email, one rabbi who participated in the course related that he experienced a suicide in his community of someone close to a family member of his. Because he just heard the online session regarding suicide, he felt much better prepared and equipped to deal with the situation and to provide guidance and pastoral care to his community and his family member. He noted that what he learned from the course was invaluable. Another rabbi, after hearing a session on bipolar, had a congregant come to him who was dealing with this issue, and because the rabbi had just watched the session, he felt more confident in being able to guide the congregant and get them to the right place for help. In essence these courses are providing “real time information” for “real time stories”.

In his vision for the future, Rabbi Lavenda hopes to make the past courses available online for rabbis so that those that weren’t able to take them when they were originally offered, can take them on their own time; essentially making the courses available “on demand”.


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