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Meeting of the Minds: A roundtable discussion on mental health in the frum community

Barbara Bensoussan and Eytan Kobre

Fifty years ago, the number of frum people who sought help from a mental health professional was miniscule; today, there are thousands of frum mental health professionals, and many within the community do reach out for help through therapy. But that’s not the only change our community has seen in this area. Four individuals with long and broad experience in addressing the Orthodox world’s mental health needs met recently with Mishpacha for a frank discussion of the changes in this field in recent decades

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

four rabbis walking and discussing Mishpacha: We’ve come together to discuss what the mental health landscape looks like in the frum community today. How has the frumcommunity evolved vis-à-vis treatment for mental health issues?

Rabbi Greenwald: Personally, I see a massive change in how the religious community perceives mental health care. The Jewish Board of Family and Child Services (JBFCS) opened an office in Boro Park in 1968, and a year later Ohel established Kinderheim and a Family Services division a year after that. That was the beginning, albeit a fledgling one, of the frum community’s engagement with mental health services.

The resistance was enormous. In fact, it existed to such a degree that JBFCS had to create an advisory board consisting of distinguishedmechanchim like Rabbi Oscar Ehrenreich of Bais Yaakov and Rabbi Yoel Kramer of Prospect Park, along with other prominent community members. In the first few years, many people questioned whether Jews were even allowed to use social services.


Mishpacha: Why were people so wary of therapy back then?

Rabbi Greenwald: Psychology was suspect because until then it was based on Freud, and everything about it was anti-Torah. I’m older than the rest of you all, but back in those days, if you brought a kid to a therapist, the first thing he did was say the kid should cut back on the learning. He’d relieve the kid of his “heavy burden” of Yiddishkeit. So that was the battle.


Mishpacha: So has the field of psychology changed since then to become more kosher?

The audibly positive reaction around the table indicates that is very much the case.

Dr. Blumenthal: When I was in graduate school, Freudian psychology, which is inherently heretical, was dominant. A lot of the senior people in psychoanalysis had been raised Orthodox themselves and then rebelled against it, so they had an ax to grind. I was tormented in graduate school, constantly lectured about how religion causes mental illness. They’d say things that were blatantly false. That has changed; now there’s all this research that shows overwhelmingly that religion is associated with better mental health across the board. What’s more, these days the Jewish, non-frum psychologists are so far removed from Torah that they’re not bitter. I don’t know if that’s better, but at least today they don’t have that passionate opposition to Orthodoxy.


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