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Broken, but Still Beloved

Rachel Ginsberg

For the past thirty-five years, Rabbi Moshe Lerer has been witnessing hopeless people transformed: mental-hospital patients who have been institutionalized for the better part of their lives, thinking they have utterly failed in deserving Divine mercy, finally finding some solace in the realization that they are still beloved in G-d’s eyes.

Monday, September 26, 2011

r_lererSome residents have been living there for decades.

Closed off in the wards of psychiatric facilities, trapped in the web of overwhelming guilt,
shame, trauma, or emotional or organic mental imbalances, can these people find
a way out of the personal churban that has become the entire scope of
their lives?

Rabbi Moshe Lerer, the Jewish chaplain at Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital
in New York, believes there is always a way to touch the Jewish soul, no matter how twisted
or tortured the mind has become. Not too many rabbis have the personal
satisfaction of revealing that spark of G-dliness in the most broken of
“clients” (as residents are referred to in psychiatric facilities), but then
again, not too many rabbis would choose their mission in the corridors of a
mental hospital.

Rabbi Lerer, who reached retirement age almost two decades ago (“retirement is the curse of
the generation,” he says ruefully), has been at it for thirty-five years,
witnessing hopeless people transformed: indigents who have been
institutionalized for five or six decades, thinking they have utterly failed in
deserving a crumb of Divine mercy, finally finding some solace in the
realization that they are still beloved in G-d’s eyes.

Not everyone admitted to a psychiatric facility is in for life; some have a stay of two or
three weeks until medication can be balanced and the client can resume
functioning on the outside. But Pilgrim is a long-term care facility, and that
means that many of Rabbi Lerer’s clients, like Chaim, have spent the better
part of their lives on the inside.

“Chaim was an extremely bright fellow, who graduated at the top of his class of 400 with
another Jewish boy,” Rabbi Lerer recounts. Chaim had received a scholarship to
an Ivy League college, but something happened that summer that sent his plans
into a nosedive. “His friend, the valedictorian, had a rich father, who bought
him a boat for his graduation. But on the boat’s first voyage, on which for
some reason Chaim didn’t participate, there was an accident — the bodies were
never recovered. Chaim was overwrought with guilt. He was a strong swimmer and
felt that had he gone along, he could have saved his friend. Most people have
internal resources for dealing with such guilt, but with Chaim, it just
devoured him. He spent one semester in university and then quit. He couldn’t
concentrate and started hearing voices. Soon after he was institutionalized.”

That was over fifty years ago.
“I befriended him years ago,” continues Rabbi Lerer. “He had dropped much of his connection
to Yiddishkeit, but eventually he began to put on tefillin. He loved tefillin.
So I trained him to make the rounds with me putting tefillin on others, and he
felt so productive, successful, and needed. At our model Seder, he would say
the Kiddush, on Rosh HaShanah he would call out the tkiyos, and he’d set
up the candles on Chanukah. I bought him tzitzis and he wore them every day.
About a year ago, I got him out of the hospital and into an assisted living
facility, where he’s finally found some measure of comfort. ‘Rabbi,’ he once
said to me, looking back on his wasted life, ‘where were you fifty years ago?’ ”

Rabbi Lerer, who is currently the longest-serving rabbi in the mental-health chaplaincy in New York State, says that the uniqueness of his
department — shared by a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a nun, and a
Greek Orthodox cleric — is in its confidentiality. “Clients tell us things they
would never tell their doctor or therapist. We are nonjudgmental. We never take
notes. And we can’t be subpoenaed.”


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