March 24, 2023

A few months ago, I noticed that the CCAR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, my professional organization (of which I am honored to serve as Vice President of Program and Member Support) was offering a Youth Mental Health First Aid certification course. For two days this week, over 3 hours each day – on Zoom, I participated with fellow Reform Rabbis in this course. There was two hours of preparation in advance of the course plus a short follow up after.

I chose to take the course because I am often called on to be a support person to our young people and families. To become a Mental Health First Aider, one is encouraged to notice things and not diagnose but to be present when there are challenges. We were trained to use the ALGEE method: to Assess for risk of further harm; to Listen non-judgmentally; Give reassurance and information; Encourage appropriate professional help; Encourage self-help and other strategies. I recall years ago that I found myself regularly attending sessions at my annual convention on teen mental health. In recent years, I have only seen the challenges our teens have faced grow.

Being in a setting where this training was provided to rabbis, gave us the opportunity to study some Jewish text related to mental health. There were two that stood out to me:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom…When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ~Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Whenever I read Frankl’s words, I really think about the lesson he is trying to teach. As a Holocaust survivor and a psychologist who lived through Auschwitz, Frankl knew the worst that a human being can face. He gives us the opportunity to think about the choices we make and helps us recognize that there are moments in our lives beyond our control, but the one thing we can control or even change is ourselves. There are many lessons here. From the perspective of facing life, often we see the world spiraling out of control, when someone gets louder, we do too. It is like we mirror the energy of someone else. But with a sense of consciousness, we can change what we do, we can change ourselves. From the perspective of a Mental Health First Aid responder, when situations get out of hand, it is best to remember to be a non-anxious presence. This takes effort, practice, and training.

“A bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.” ~Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi

Some people attribute this quote to Albus Dumbledore, the great Wizard and head of Hogwarts in Harry Potter. Though I suppose Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi likely said it first. There are times in our lives when we are consumed by darkness. Metaphorically, these could be so many different challenges – loneliness, depression, work stress, family stress. We are reminded of the plague of darkness in Egypt, in which it was so dark Egyptians could not even see their neighbor. Light then is the hope and holiness we might bring to a darkened world. Whether that is something we might do or say, or perhaps merely our presence, we have the potential to be a light in a time of darkness. This is both, an incredible honor and responsibility, but also a daunting task. To know that we have the power to change someone’s life is something we cannot take lightly.

As the month of Nisan and the season of Spring are now upon us, we think about that which can grow from barrenness and slumber, and that which can return to us and sing. I am honored to do this work and to be a supportive presence in the lives of our congregants. Please know that I am here for you in times of crisis.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rick Kellner