Last month the Orthodox Union held an inaugural conference in Stamford to assist the work of rebbetzins and kallah teachers, as well as female kiruv and chinuch professionals. Recognizing that the stress of caring for others in a communal fashion places many burdens on the women of our communities, the conference sought to provide not only instruction, best practices and collaboration opportunities, but also rejuvenation. The conference included women who were part of the OU’s initial Mental Health Foundations fellowship program.
“Women in leadership roles have adopted a culture that we can do it all. Our roles grow and grow, and failing at one [role] implies failing at all,” said Debbie Fox, a keynote speaker. “A healing thought: We are grateful to be able to be on the giving end, but let’s find ways to let other people help too. Who can be there for us so we can be there for others?”
Rebbetzin Adina Shmidman, director of the OU Women’s Initiative, said the conference welcomed over 120 women serving in communal roles across North America, including 27 OU Mental Health Foundations fellows. “These are women from diverse communities, serving in diverse roles, gathering together for a common goal: to unite, learn, connect and impact,” she said.
Rebbetzin Shmidman opened the conference by noting an insight by Malbim on a well-known verse in Mishlei 3:17. דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכׇל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths peaceful.)
“Malbim compares roads and pathways,” she said. “Large road systems like interstates highways are well-paved, well-designed but often traffic-filled while smaller byways can be more scenic but often not well-designed and sometimes unsafe. Hashem assures us that our travels on large roads will be pleasant, avoiding traffic and congestion while our travels on smaller roads will be peaceful and safe. He continues by saying that large roads represent communal goals and obligations which sometimes are not easy.
“Hence, the hope is that these ways will be pleasant while the by-ways or smaller back roads represent our individual missions and expectations, needs and desires. These can often fly in the face of others and thus, we are blessed with peace. When we join together at a conference with so many from such diverse backgrounds, we ask Hashem to grant us pleasantness in our collective mission and peace in our own individual goals and expectations.”
Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the OU’s executive vice president, acknowledged the capacity of the women who attended the conference and the power they hold. “The real change is going to happen, not from a national platform, but from each one of you, in your communities making a difference to the people around you. The hope is that everyone will emerge from here with a greater sense of confidence, with greater skills and with a sense of not being in their very important work alone.”
The conference’s first keynote was given by Debbie Fox, Los Angeles-based licensed clinical social worker and the creator of the “Safety Kid” program, a comprehensive child abuse prevention program for school staff, parents and children. She spoke about the importance of women’s roles in communities to promote good mental health. In another talk, she specifically addressed the important role that kallah teachers can play in helping identify mental health issues in brides or concerns to work on before marriage.
“There is a lack of understanding around mental health issues, and the frum world is less conversant with these issues,” Fox explained. “There is societal stigma around mental health and people are struggling, often alone. While mental health is a more common conversation these days, stigma still affects people on a private level and holds people back from reaching out.”
Fox recommended that rebbetzins and others talk about therapy and accommodations for those with special needs as normative. “It’s important to develop personal responsibility to hear people’s struggles, and find out how people can be accommodated, so they don’t feel rejected or excluded. They want to know their struggle matters to you.”
A beautiful example, Fox noted, was that a rebbetzin she knew learned that a young man in her community with special needs had a passion for baking, yet struggled in traditional shul activities, despite wanting to participate very much. After some insightful forethought, a sign was created to be placed at kiddush with the young man’s name on it, showing that he had made the desserts that week in honor of Shabbat. “It’s about making a place to accommodate others, to think creatively in finding people’s strengths,” Fox said.
She also recommended that communal professionals should “let people know you are open to discussing issues,” related to eating disorders, mental illness, physical abuse and substance abuse, as well as other common topics addressed by communal professionals.
Other sessions included helping communal professionals do their jobs better, including a fascinating session given by OU’s legal counsel Rachel Sims, Arnold & Porter partner Debra Schreck, and Jessica Kalmar, PhD, a Milkwaukee-based rebbetzin who also serves as a clinical lab director studying mental health stigma. Their talk focused on the legal parameters for serving as rebbetzins or mental health professionals, explaining the legalities of disclosure and confidentiality as it applies to rebbetzin or “spiritual counselor” work. They touched on a 2015 case in Portland, Oregon, which found that two women working as rebbetzins at a kollel were protected from having to testify in a secular court case due to their status as spiritual counselors. The panel also addressed how providing evidence to a beit din has both similarities and differences to secular law courts, and while women do not serve as eidim (witnesses), they can be called upon to provide information or evidence.
Additional topics at the conference addressed how to help others through grief and trauma, how to provide communal support to those fighting substance use and addiction, and community leader perspectives on domestic abuse. Rabbi Ari Sytner, PsyD, spoke about recent trends in couples therapy, both in preventative counseling and during crisis. Lianne Forman, founder of CCSA (Communities Confronting Substance Use and Addiction), spoke about how to recognize when someone is struggling, how to express concern and when to seek help. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, PsyD, spoke on situations where mental health struggles can impede spiritual observances. Melissa Rosen, Sharsheret’s director of training and education, presented on meeting the needs of community members facing cancer.
Other sessions included Rebbetzins Efrat Sobolofsky, Shoshana Sturm and Alexandra Fleksher, speaking on a panel on how to support singles and their families. There were separate tracks and opportunities for those working with kallahs and those working specifically in the mental health space. A certificate training program was provided by Shana Frydman, PhD, executive director of Shalom Task Force, on “what every community leader should know about domestic abuse.”
A fascinating aspect of the conference could have been called “Who helps the helpers?” These sessions focused on helping the participants themselves to stay strong and effective in the face of increasing pressure of public roles and a very real ailment called “compassion fatigue,” which threatens the work of communal professionals facing burnout.
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs addressed a rarely discussed topic of “occupational exhaustion,” by rabbis and associated communal professionals, explaining the issues that can come with shouldering too much of a communal burden without enough
attention paid to establish boundaries and time to relax, de-stress or rejuvenate. He said these issues can arise from having a high level of initial idealism, the seven-day work week, constant communal scrutiny, economic instability, frequent moves, loneliness and lack of feedback. He recommended setting physical parameters for communication with those in need, noting that when you “say yes” to one commitment, you are invariably saying no to something else. His views were echoed in an earlier presentation by Fox, who poignantly shared examples of the sometimes-negative effect of her work on her children. She said that her children knew “too much, too early,” and that many vacations or special days for her children were derailed by her or her husband’s communal commitments or work emergencies.
Rabbi Rothwachs provided some tips and tricks to creating privacy and parameters and to promote family togetherness over communal commitments, to guard from compassion fatigue and burnout. He recommended unplugging (or setting personal parameters for phone use), taking vacations and making sure to prioritize one’s own family whenever faced with a choice.
The “Understanding Our Communities” Conference is one of multiple events sponsored by the OU Women’s Initiative, which includes programs for lay leadership, advanced learning and wellness. Learn more about it and its programs here: https://www.ou.org/women/
By Elizabeth Kratz