From the day he was born, he brought nachas to his parents with his sharp mind and astounding academic achievements. Success followed him wherever he went – in high school, in college, and even in yeshiva, which he attended after college, when his interest in yiddishkeit deepened. His learning soared so high that he traveled to Israel to attend the Mirrer Yeshiva.
At age twenty, he lost his father to brain cancer. The whole family was devastated, but he was especially heartbroken. When the family members slowly returned to the demands of everyday life, they noticed that he remained withdrawn and disconnected. However, he continued his studies, seemingly successfully.
Several years later, his rebbeim noticed that he was behaving in an extreme manner. Then he had his first psychotic episode, which abruptly transformed his status in the community from a rising star to a psychiatric patient, to be kept as far away as possible.
That is the story of Laurie Ritz. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he spent many years tossed from one psychiatric ward to another, from jail to courtroom to living on the streets. Thanks to his devoted older brother, Jonny Ritz, who lives in the Pico/Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, Laurie is currently being cared for in a local live-in facility, where he is receiving proper treatment. His family and friends see him improving every day, getting back to his old self. But it took much time, effort, and dedication to get him to this point.
Unfortunately, many people with stories similar to Laurie’s still await their happy endings. They are stuck in the vicious cycle of homelessness, lack of proper care and medication, destructive or illegal behavior due to mental illness and/or addiction, arrest and incarceration, release, and then back to square one of homelessness. On their own, these people are unable to break out of the cycle. It is only with the care and involvement of their families and communities that they can hope to recover and lead meaningful, productive lives.
The Jewish community, however, is ill-equipped to handle serious mental illness. “When Laurie became mentally unstable,” says Jonny, “I spoke to many community members. Some were caring, but the majority stepped back and disconnected. People don’t know how to deal with this illness, so they don’t deal at all.”
By hashgacha pratis, Jonny got in touch with the Aleph Institute. “They have done an abundance of chessed,” says Jonny. In Laurie’s case, they helped navigate the complicated court system and advocated within the judicial system to get Laurie out of jail and into a psychiatric ward, where his recovery began. They also assisted in finding and appointing a private conservator – a community member with prior experience in caring for a person with severe mental illness – who assumed the responsibility of overseeing Laurie’s medical care and making medical decisions for him. In the midst of a psychiatric episode, Laurie was in no condition to make his own medical decisions, but it was illegal to treat him against his will. With the involvement of the conservator, Laurie can now be treated even when he is unable to give his consent, and he is no longer at risk of arrest and incarceration.
Project Tikvah at Aleph Institute
Founded in 1981 by Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, at the directive of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Aleph Institute is a Jewish nation-wide non-profit organization which provides outreach, education, and support for individuals who are separated from their families, such as members of the military, as well as prisoners and mental health patients. Their motto is, “No one alone. No one forgotten.” Aleph Institute’s headquarters are located in Florida, with branches in New York and Los Angeles.
Among Aleph Institute’s various divisions is Project Tikvah, which helps young adults who are either currently in prison or facing prison due to mental illness or addiction. “We go to court and fight to get them into rehab,” says Leah Perl, Director of Project Tikvah. It is no simple matter – rehabs are hard to get into and expensive, and sometimes the young adult doesn’t have insurance. Project Tikvah helps the family with all the necessary steps towards securing a bed in a rehab or mental institution.
Along with Laurie Ritz, Project Tikvah has helped 25 young adults to date. About half of them suffer from both severe mental illness and addiction. “This means that they are essentially self-medicating,” explains Mrs. Perl. Another 25% suffer from a mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, while the other 25% suffer from severe addiction, which sometimes develops in response to trauma or abuse.
In all cases, the young adult’s struggles affect the entire family. Mental illness, explains Mrs. Perl, usually surfaces at ages 18-22. “No one sees it coming,” she says. It happens in the most loving and stable families. The parents often feel embarrassed and don’t know where to turn. “These kids are very spiritual, very sensitive, and very deep,” explains Mrs. Perl. Project Tikvah provides information and support and a weekly webinar for parents whose children were incarcerated or are facing prison due to mental illness and addiction.
Recently, Project Tikvah received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation for its innovative program. “The Foundation’s trailblazing support will, please G-d, translate into countless precious young lives being transformed in a very meaningful way,” says Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, Director of Advocacy at Aleph Institute. The grant money will be used to take on more cases, as well as raise community awareness.
Jewish Mental Health Center
As a result of his family’s experience, Jonny Ritz is determined to improve the lot of community members suffering from severe mental illness. When Jonny visited Laurie in the mental health facility where he was transferred from jail, he told the staff that his brother needed kosher food. They replied that they were not equipped to accommodate his needs. Jonny relates, “The Hispanic woman in charge looked at me and asked, ‘Doesn’t your community have any facilities for the mentally ill?’ I felt a pain in my guf. I felt that we failed. When I got home I called a parlor meeting.”
Jonny’s vision is “to build the biggest mental health hospital in L.A., where Jews can come from all over.” The hospital will meet all the religious needs of its Jewish patients. “When you do a kiddush Hashem, everything is possible,” says Jonny. Currently, he is researching the practical issues involved and is seeking a partner who would work together with him.
“I told my brother,” says Jonny, “that after all those years of suffering I realized that Hakadosh Baruch Hu had come to me and said to me, ‘It is time to go into the darkness of mental illness.’” Jonny is on a mission to bring his vision to fruition.