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The Rabbi As First Responder


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Ohel is well known in the New York area for the foster care programming it has been providing for over 40 years, along with its mental health services to individuals and families, and its services to the developmentally disabled through its Bais Ezra programs. Ohel also provides substantial training to professionals, and workshops and seminars to the community at large.

 

Over the last few years, Ohel has been concentrating some of its efforts on a group of perfectly healthy adults – rabbis. “The rav of a community is often the first person who congregants approach,” said Ohel’s chief operating officer Manny Wertman, referring to a person with an emotional or psychological issue. “They are in a unique position to be successful in a sophisticated way.” Wertman explains the need for the Rabbinic Training programs currently being run for students of Yeshiva University (YU) and Lander College, as well as for the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI). Derek Saker, Ohel’s director of communications and marketing, goes further. “We want pulpit rabbis to have a good understanding [of mental illness], to at least know when there is a problem.”

 

 

 

Manny Wertman, COO of Ohel, delivering a lecture to pulpit rabbis as part of a 12- month health-training workshop series in pastoral counseling. The series was organized with the National Council of Young Israel and Touro College. (Photos courtesy of Ohel.)

 

 

The training seminars focus on teaching basic information about mental health topics. Post-partum depression, sexual abuse, and addiction are just some of the subjects covered. Rabbis are trained to identify these issues and how to react to their constituents when approached for help. While many rabbis are intelligent and talented when it comes to congregants seeking counsel, Ohel wants to be sure that they recognize the limitations of their counseling abilities. Wertman stresses that rabbis can be great resources for congregants but need to know “how far their own counseling should go, and when to call in a professional.” With tools learned through the training institute and other informational sessions, the hope is that rabbis will not mistakenly ignore a greater issue than what they think they’re observing.

 

Rabbi Binyamin Hammer, director of rabbinic services at the NCYI, has been organizing rabbinic training programs for close to 15 years. Each of the first 13 years of the training programs consisted of 16 classes. “A small percentage of the classes were given by the staff at Ohel. There was a need to run deeper programs on mental health training,” said Rabbi Hammer. He met with noted author, lecturer, and therapist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, who gave his full support to the idea and told him that if they started the program, he would be a presenter.

 

In September 2008, Rabbi Hammer sent a letter inviting participation in this new program. “In today’s Torah leadership, the esteemed role of mara d’atra is increasingly challenged by the psychological and social issues of bale’batim. The pressures and demands of the mara d’atra require that the rav develop knowledge of counseling and an understanding of how to make proper referrals. The program will enhance the ability of a mara d’atra to understand the needs of his kehillah, and to enable him to make appropriate and helpful suggestions – whether halachic or personal.”

 

(L-R) Five YU semicha students attending mental health training session at Ohel; Rabbi Menachem Penner, director of Professional Rabbinic Education at YU; Manny Wertman, COO of Ohel; and Dr. Hindie Klein, director of Tikvah at Ohel.

 

The letter included a tentative schedule of topics to be covered, including two extended laylot iyun that were also open to rebbetzins. “We were hoping that 12-15 rabbis would participate,” said Rabbi Hammer, “but we consistently had 40 rabbanim at every session, and they usually kept the presenters for an extra hour after the seminar, asking them questions.”

 

Rabbi Dov Schreier, a Yeshiva University musmach and rabbi of the Young Israel of North Bellmore in New York, attended the yearlong training. “The speakers were top of the line in their fields,” he said. Although Rabbi Schreier has been a rabbi for almost 10 years, he explained that, “The topics being covered were items that I wished I had been able to handle differently in the past.”

 

Rabbi Hammer felt that although Yeshiva University-ordained rabbis received some mental health training in recent years, including some by Ohel, most other rabbinic students did not have any training. The NCYI program’s participants included rabbis from all walks of the yeshiva world, with only five from YU. Based on both this program’s success and the YU sessions, Ohel has recently launched a similar program for rabbinic students attending the Beis Medrash L’Talmud of Lander College, provided by The Mel and Phyllis Zachter Institute for Professional Training at Ohel.

 

Wertman also stresses that a goal of these programs is to help “remove the stigma of mental illness and other conditions,” as well as the stigma of receiving help from a mental health professional. “By training rabbis who can educate their communities, we can reach more people to the end of reaching this goal,” he said.

 

For more information about rabbinic training programs, or programs for parents and lay people, please visit www.ohelfamily.org.

 

Amy Dubitsky is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona. 

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