Photo Credit: CBH
Left to right: Rav Yuval Cherlow; Gadi Rappaport, assistant director of Merchavim Hospital; Rav Avner, rav of the hospital; Vered Aviad; and Na’ama Grossman.

What happens when one of your children suffers from mental illness, G-d forbid? According to Vered Aviad, you suffer a lot.

But there’s also something else you can do – you can campaign to alleviate the suffering of others and that’s just what Aviad did.

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Ten years ago, Vered’s daughter was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, soon after her bat mitzvah. She herself asked to be hospitalized when she felt something was very wrong.

A bright, popular, pretty, and successful girl, lauded by her teachers, her 7th grade Ulpana class entertained some very damaging politics and she was ostracized from her class – put in cherem. The cruelty of it, instigated by petty jealousy, triggered her episode and began a journey of mental health issues which has landed her so far 16 times in the hospital, which Aviad describes as hell. (A cautionary tale about not preventing bullying in schools).

If that wasn’t enough to contend with, although regular hospitals allow constant visitors and allowances are made for religious observance, Geha Hospital in which she was a patient did not. Her mother was forced to leave her alone on Shabbat and holidays and so for her daughter, at the tender age of 12, there was no comforting parental presence, no Shabbat, no chagim.

Vered and her husband and their other three children are a functional middle class religious family. The family supported and helped their daughter. And she needed them.

There are about 3,500 mental hospital patients in Israel among 20 hospitals. Now, the situation is worse with rising PTSD from the war.

Left to right: Nitzanit Riklin; Efrat Shapira Rozenberg; Michal Herzog, wife of President Isaag Herzog; an unidentified woman; Rav Yuval Cherlow.

Because of her negative experiences with the mental health system, Aviad started a campaign two years ago, once she had some breathing space, and formed the Coalition of Religious Organizations for Mental Health. She is the director and Rav Yuval Cherlow, a rosh yeshiva and head of Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, is the chair. Rav Cherlow also has a granddaughter who is coping with mental illness. Rav Cherlow says that Aviad is the driving and unstoppable force behind the non-profit.

Among her achievements to date has been getting hospitals to allow family and volunteers to be with patients overnight and during Shabbat and holidays, introducing activities for the holidays, and starting a Carlebach minyan at Geha. She travels from Beer Sheva to Tzfat, advocating for change in the hospital policies and consequently the quality of life for religious patients. The project is called Fireflies after a song by Esther Shamir, with the idea of bringing light to places enveloped in darkness, or like the song says, “To build with them a ladder of stars.”

Aviad is also working with Beit Daniella to create a religious dormitory. “There are 20 secular post-hospitalization dormitories (hostels) and not one overnight dormitory for religious transitioning patients,” she says. When religious outpatients go to stay at these dorms, they do so at the most vulnerable time of their lives, and many of them leave religion as a result.

Aviad wants to open a hostel in Gush Etzion specifically for the religious sector with a staff that will meet their unique needs.

Another one of her projects is Call Hanefesh – a call center that helps families dealing with mental illness from noon to midnight. Another is a social club for kids 20-30 who have not been able to return to their social groups because of the stigma of their mental illness.

Rav Cherlow points out that although the original purpose of the organization was to help the religious sector, everyone benefits in the end because the policy changes help everyone. “There is no one-dimensional religious family anymore. Every family has someone who has become chareidi, someone who is secular, someone who is dati le’umi.” There is a religious continuum and everyone finds themselves somewhere on it.

The Call-Center is operative 24/6, but Rav Cherlow said that he was approached by a prominent rav to make it 24/7. “The hardest times for families are on Shabbat. There’s no Internet, there’s no WhatsApp and it’s the time when families are most together.”

At a meeting.

As The Religious Coalition builds its programs and support systems, the entire mental health community, both patients and staff, both religious and non-religious, and everyone in between, reaps the benefits. None of the programs or activities exclude the participation of non-formally religious patients.

These efforts are also bringing the psychiatric hospitals out of isolation and more into the public consciousness, and hopefully their patients as well.

Although Aviad’s daughter suffered terribly, she has completed her matriculation exams. She even tried to do her National Religious Service, but after a Bipolar episode, she was not allowed to return, being ostracized once again. She faced the same situation at a midrasha she attended. But she is very proud of her mother, who is making significant inroads into the way Israeli society views and treats mental illness. She herself dreams of becoming a psychiatrist, to one day help others in her situation.

Aviad, Rav Cherlow and their cadre of volunteers are working to create a change in Israeli society and they have gained the support of the Ministry of Health and members of Knesset. This is especially important with the increase in PTSD and the consequential fallout expected due to the months of war being experienced both on the battlefield and on the home front.

Aviad’s newest project is called Soul Incubator, for which she is raising half a million dollars to fund startups at NIS 30,000 shekels each. Each project is geared to help mental health patients in specific, creative, and unique ways.

Aviad is in the United States, in New York and Los Angeles, until February 22, collecting money for the many projects the Coalition is heading. She will be available during that time (and after) to field questions and accept donations. You can call her directly at 972-52-8694015.

You can also make a donation at cbh.org.il.

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