NEFESH International Inspires LA’s Orthodox Mental Health Professionals


Yehudis Litvak

The second NEFESH International West Coast conference took place last Sunday, June 26th, at the Harvey Morse Auditorium of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. NEFESH is an international network of Orthodox mental health professionals, consisting of hundreds of members all over the world. Every year, NEFESH holds a weekend-long conference on the East Coast. Due to the cost and time commitment, many local mental health professionals are unable to attend it. The West Coast conference provides an opportunity to connect to a wide international network of frum therapists without leaving Los Angeles, and to hear from frum experts in different areas, explains Debbie Fox, LCSW, founder and executive director of Magen Yeladim Child Safety Institute and one of the organizers of the local conference.

The conference was chaired Dr. Lizzy Weisinger, a local therapist, with the assistance of Miriam Turk, LCSW, Executive Director of NEFESH International. About thirty people attended. While most of the attendees were mental health professionals, some rabbis, rebbetzins, and teachers from the Greater Los Angeles area also participated. The program included two in-depths presentations by east coast mental health experts and a special rabbinic address.

The first presenter, David Kohn, LCSW, CASAC, spoke about using mindfulness in psychotherapy. He described mindfulness as a state of mind where one is paying attention to what is going on without trying to change anything. He made a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain, whether physical, emotional, or psychological, is something that happens to us. Suffering is the experience we create for ourselves when we resist or deny this pain. Through mindfulness, a person is able to come to acceptance of their painful experience, thus allowing him/herself to heal and move on. Mr. Kohn then showed how mindfulness can be used in treating various conditions, such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and trauma.

The rabbinic address was delivered by Rabbi Dr. David Fox, a board member of NEFESH International, a rav, dayan, and a psychologist in private practice. Rabbi Dr. Fox spoke about free will in personality disorders. He described our own implicit judgment when we see people behaving in inconsiderate ways, and questioned whether patients with personality disorders can be held accountable for their socially unacceptable behavior. The question of human accountability has been debated by philosophers and theologians from ancient times, with convincing arguments offered on both sides. Particularly in cases of personality disorders, the patients exhibit very evident deficiencies in dealing with their environment early on in life. Usually, they don’t come to treatment voluntarily because the symptoms don’t bother them, but they make people around them uncomfortable. Often, those diagnosed with personality disorders experienced complex trauma. “Are they cognizant of what they are doing or are they flooded by trauma?” asked Rabbi Dr. Fox. Moreover, he questioned, if Hakadosh Baruch Hu created people with personality disorders, how can these people receive reward and punishment from Him if they are lacking free will?

Rabbi Dr. Fox explained that while we are required to believe that everyone will receive their reward and punishment, we do not know exactly how the system works. They are given out in the Heavenly court, by Hashem Himself. Human judges are unable to make correct determination on any given person’s culpability. When it comes to courts in this world, the beis din is only able to punish a person when two objective witnesses, unrelated to each other or the accused, testify that they had warned the person before the crime that it was wrong and punishable by beis din, and the person acknowledged their warnings, but committed the crime anyway, within a very short time. In all other cases, the question of free will is not for human beings to answer.

However, said Rabbi Dr. Fox, in the Gemara, people can be held culpable not because they could have known better, but because they could have learned, but didn’t learn. Perhaps people with personality disorders are initially incapable of socially acceptable behavior. However, they are not doomed to live with their disorders. Nowadays, there are many treatments available. “If moral education and psychotherapy is available, and one doesn’t take advantage of it, that’s the culpability,” explained Rabbi Dr. Fox, expressing his hope that NEFESH continues to educate our community on mental health conditions and treatment options.

Another expert, Dr. Hinda Dubin of Baltimore, spoke about practical applications of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), engaging her audience and providing  not only practical guidance, but much needed support and camaraderie.

The attendees feel that they benefited tremendously. “The conference was completely packed,” says Mashi Benzaquen, LCSW. “Not a moment was wasted. I appreciate the opportunity to hear from top-notch clinicians.”

Raizel Rubin, LMFT, adds, “It’s a phenomenal networking opportunity. It retools you.”

NEFESH’ future plans include a West Coast chapter of NEFESH International, with more frequent local events.