July 19, 2024
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HP Orthodox Forum Takes on Stigma

To bring attention to many issues in the Jewish community that were previously considered taboo, the Orthodox Forum of Highland Park/Edison presented “A Conversation on Stigma: Personal and Communal Challenges within the Orthodox World” on February 13. More than 50 people viewed the Zoom session to hear a discussion about changing the dialogue around stigmatized topics.

Mark Abraham, chair of the Orthodox Forum, introduced the main speaker, Shira Lankin Sheps, a writer, photographer and clinically trained therapist who is the creator and publisher of The Layers Project Magazine, an online magazine that explores the challenges and triumphs of the lives of Jewish women. She is the author of “Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth From Jewish Women,” published by Toby Press in 2021. She grew up in Highland Park, and now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children.

Moderator Merri Ukraincik of Edison, a widely published writer whose essays and columns cover a wide range of topics, began the discussion by commenting on the importance of being able to discuss sensitive issues to thereby destigmatize them. Her personal experience with miscarriage at a time when such topics were not spoken about in the Jewish community led to years of feelings of vulnerability.

Sheps described an illness that she suffered as the genesis of The Layers Project. Seeing the lives of other people conveyed as perfect in social media and within the community, she sensed she was the only person struggling. She decided the only way to make headway was to publish her feelings on her blog, and was stunned with the overwhelming response from the community. Particularly within the Jewish community, issues of infertility, miscarriage, cancer or other serious illness, eating disorders, domestic abuse/violence and mental illness are suppressed and kept silence for fear of causing harm to other family members when shidduchim were discussed.

She stated that “closed” communities, within Orthodoxy, “create their own rules and narratives with specific definitions of success and failure.” The community definition of typical and/or acceptable norms and behaviors leaves those outside the lines with a sense of “otherness” that leads them to withdraw from the community, and the community to pull away from them. The silence and secrecy mean that others cannot help, the isolation increases, and the affected individual feels more alone, misunderstood, ashamed and stigmatized.

Ignorance of “taboo topics in the community is a recipe for disaster,” said Sheps, noting that while one in eight couples experiences infertility, the narrative is to “misconstrue the truth to avoid the reality.” Opening the discussion of such topics with thoughtfulness can support those in need of healing.

Ukraincik added that many topics considered difficult to discuss involve women’s issues. For modesty reasons the actual names of medical conditions such as breast cancer were not previously discussed in the Orthodox community because the words could not be said. Such sublimation only added to the anxiety and stigmatization of the victim. Only fairly recently have organizations, such as Sharsheret, opened the topic to the community.

Sheps added that change is not done rapidly, but rather in “baby steps” that lead to change. Destigmatization happens when issues come out in the open, are no longer hidden, and are shared by the community. Initially, someone needing help should approach someone they trust and speak to them one-to-one. They should find someone they believe will keep their secret while listening, supporting and validating the person needing help. The next step involves opening up to a group, giving people a chance to understand what is happening and what they can do to help. The third step is to become an activist for the cause and publicly make people aware of the issue. Sheps noted the courage needed to undertake the third step. It is hard to stand up and speak about what had previously been hidden, but the ultimate results of the transformation are immeasurable.

The onus isn’t only on the individual; the community also has the responsibility to create the places where individuals can share safely and experience empathy. The ripple effect of community empathy is tremendously empowering. Small steps lead to larger ones, in the same way as mitzvah goreret mitzvah. “Sharing and breaking stigma, while encouraging other stigma breaking, makes everyone within the community stronger,” Sheps said.

While some stigmas have lessened, others are at the forefront within the Jewish community. Sheps said that some of the major issues presently are get refusal, domestic violence and LGBTQ within the Orthodox community. Each issue presents cases of a “sense of otherness” and isolation.

Communities and individuals can help by watching what they say to others and creating a sense of empathy. For example, asking a couple when they plan to have children may seem to be a benign question, but it can be devastating if they are experiencing infertility. Sheps added that, for people experiencing a very difficult situation, “dropping off a freshly made challah is nice, but being available to listen and support is even better.” If you see someone who may need help, be supportive. There is no definitive timeline of when they will be ready to talk, but it is important that they know there are people who care.

More information about the voices working to combat stigma can be found at https://thelayersprojectmagazine.com/.

The Orthodox Forum gladly accepts season sponsorships as well as program sponsorships. https://jewishforum.dreamhosters.com/hpedison/

By Deborah Melman

 

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