Quiet Heroes; Orthodox Mental Health Professionals in Los Angeles


By Yehudis Litvak

Many crises in the Jewish community don’t become newspaper headlines. The drama takes place in the privacy of people’s homes, but can destroy families, relationships, and lives with misunderstanding and secrecy. Families and individuals struggle with shalom bayis, abuse, trauma, addictions, and various kinds of mental health issues. Those who respond to these crises do so without sirens, flashing lights, or fanfare. The quiet heroes who are involved in saving and repairing shattered lives are the mental health professionals who work within the Jewish community.
There are over fifty Orthodox mental health professionals in the greater Los Angeles area. They all share a passion for helping people achieve wellbeing. They also share Torah values, which are sometimes at odds with the secular worldview. As Orthodox mental health professionals, they face the unique challenge of putting their secular training into practice while at the same time remaining true to their values. They need the support of local rabbis, as well as colleagues, in order to succeed in their mission of providing quality psychological care to the Jewish community within the framework of Torah and Halacha.

Five years ago, therapists Natalie Zangan and Irine Schweitzer founded the Los Angeles Frum Therapist Network. At their meetings, as well as through their email list, the members are able to discuss issues of particular concern to the frum community. They network, and get answers to questions ranging from starting a private practice to handling a particularly difficult case. The network is volunteer run and there are no fees to join.

Recently, local Orthodox mental health professionals had the opportunity to join forces with a larger organization. On May 4th, over twenty Orthodox mental health professionals in Los Angeles gathered together for the first west coast conference organized by Nefesh, the international network of Orthodox mental health professionals. Nefesh was founded twenty two years ago by two mental health professionals in New York. Its mission is “to bring Orthodox Jewish professionals and rabbis together to address mental health issues that we deal with daily on a professional and communal level.” Over the years, the organization has expanded greatly and now includes approximately 750 members from all around the world, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Israel, Brazil, Belgium and Argentina. Nefesh holds an annual conference in the New York area every winter, but the west coast conference brought a taste of the inspiring Nefesh conferences to Los Angeles.

The conference was held at the Harvey Moss Auditorium at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. It offered professional training, with continuing education credits for the mental health professionals, as well as a talk by Rabbi Avrohom Union, head of the Beis Din of the Rabbinical Council of California, who spoke about how rabbis and mental health professionals can work together for the benefit of the frum community.

“The conference is incredible,” says Rabbi Dr. Baruch Amiri, a therapist and Nefesh member. “It re-energizes my work and gives me chizzuk. It helps me clarify for myself what I do and why.” Irine Schweitzer agreed, “The educational piece is great. It gives me something to take away and use in my private practice.” She explained that a therapist in private practice is very much on his or her own and that the conference is a great resource for networking and for getting support from other therapists who share her values. “We always learn from each other,” she said. Rabbi Dr. Amiri also appreciated the networking opportunities, as well as the chance to meet face to face the people with whom he has been corresponding through the Nefesh listserve.
Several rabbis and rebbetzins also attended the event. Some attendees juggle both roles. Rebbetzin Debbie Summers, of Congregation Anshe Emes, is currently completing her training as a therapist. She says that her role as a rebbetzin and her involvement in the community naturally led to an interest in psychology. “Rabbis and rebbetzins are often in the front line,” says Rebbetzin Summers. Congregants struggling with mental health or relationship issues often come to us first,” she explained, “because we are free and people trust us.” She warned that it is important for rabbis and rebbetzins to be aware of their limitations, as well as of their power. It is important to recognize when the congregant should be referred to a mental health professional. As a rebbetzin, Mrs. Summers cannot provide therapy to a congregant as that would constitute a dual relationship. Instead, she refers to other therapists.
Rabbi Dr. Amiri also finds himself in both roles. He says that even though he tells his clients to call him “Doctor,” they often call him “Rabbi.” He is the first rabbi psychologist in the Persian community, and he finds that members of his community feel much more comfortable consulting a therapist who is also a rabbi. He explains that his clients are wary of psychology and afraid of encountering kefira, and being a rabbi helps him assuage such fears and reach those who need help.

Rebbetzin Summers says that overall, the local rabbis and rebbetzins are very aware of mental health issues and are open to and accepting of those who find themselves struggling. For example, as a kallah teacher, she attended a workshop on recognizing abuse in marriages. Since new kallos often turn to their kallah teachers when they encounter problems, the local kallah teachers felt it was important to undergo this training.

Local Orthodox schools also embrace the idea of psychological help, arrange for evaluations, and provide support for students with particular trauma or special needs.
Rabbi Union addressed the relationship between rabbis and therapists in his talk. He explained that sometimes rabbis and therapists don’t get along because they use different models to approach the issues they encounter. While therapists focus on obtaining the correct diagnosis and applying psychological tools to treat the client, rabbis view problems as moral struggles and apply the tools of mussar and chassidus. Depending on the situation, either one or the other approach is appropriate, and in theory, there shouldn’t be any conflict. In practice, however, it is not always clear if the problem at hand is a clinical or a moral one. And sometimes, unfortunately, due to lack of information or understanding, a rabbi might view a clinical problem through a moral lens, and consequently, fail to solve the problem.

Rabbi Union went on to say that rabbis and therapists can work in partnership. He gave an example of a young woman who experienced abuse as a child, G-d forbid, and who thought that it was a punishment for her sins. The young woman’s therapist encouraged her to contact a rabbi she trusted, anonymously, and ask him if the abuse was a punishment. The rabbi explained to her that what she experienced could not have possibly been a punishment for anything she could have done. This email exchange moved on to discuss the reasons that bad things happen to good people. The young woman found the rabbi’s words tremendously helpful, and the therapist felt that they contributed significantly to her healing. In this way, by providing a proper Torah perspective, a rabbi can become an ally in the therapeutic process.

Rabbi Union’s talk was met with enthusiasm. “We need more rabbis like this,” was the sentiment heard around the conference room. Rabbi Union mentioned that a number of rabbis in Los Angeles are familiar with mental health issues and can be consulted by therapists who feel that they would benefit from rabbinical input.
Debbie Fox, LCSW, says that there is an informal referral system in Los Angeles, and that it goes both ways. Sometimes a rabbi seeks a referral to a therapist for a congregant, and other times a therapist seeks a referral for a client to a rabbi who is psychologically astute. There are also “frum-friendly or frum-aware” therapists who have experience working with Orthodox clients. “Most people can find what they need,” says Mrs. Fox.

With the west coast Nefesh conference proving to be a resounding success, plans are underway for future events. In addition, Nefesh is planning to hold webinars for its members, providing further training and networking opportunities for Orthodox mental health professionals wherever they are located.
As the conference came to a close, I was overcome with tremendous admiration for the dedicated mental health professionals who attended and who expressed a sincere desire to incorporate what they learned in their own work so they could provide a better service to their clients. The problems they deal with on an everyday basis, the crises they witness and diffuse, are of tremendous significance. When one of the speakers, Dr. Abe Worenklein, spoke about the parental alienation syndrome, his examples nearly brought me to tears. And yet, those quiet heroes, the local Orthodox mental health professionals, take on these heartbreaking cases and work hard to bring relief to all kinds of families in crisis. May Hashem bless them with much success in all their endeavors!
Resources for the frum community:
Frum Therapist Network
Founders: Natalie Zangan — nataliezangan@gmail.com or 818-906-4852 and Irine Schweitzer — irine@pacbell.net

Nefesh International — international network of Orthodox mental health professionals
Website: http://www.nefesh.org
Nefesh maintains a searchable member database, available through the web site, where potential clients can find an Orthodox mental health professional in California.

Aleinu –Orthodox division of the Jewish Family Service; provides therapy for adults, children, and couples for a sliding scale fee; also offers support groups.

Clients in need of other services can contact Aleinu to be connected with the appropriate resources. Phone: 310-247-0534 X 284.