Jewish community prepares for Mental Health Awareness Shabbat this weekend
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Jewish community prepares for Mental Health Awareness Shabbat this weekend

Synagogue movements, schools, care homes and community groups will focus on wellbeing after ten months of lockdown restrictions

Mental health topped the agenda across Jewish communities this week as shuls, schools, old folks’ homes, and community organisations prepared to share a special awareness-raising Shabbat.

After ten months of full and partial lockdowns radically altering jobs and work-life routines, with many taking a financial hit, experts are warning that the cumulative effect of the pandemic is now taking a heavy toll on mental wellbeing.

This weekend’s Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, coordinated by the Jewish charity JAMI, follows ‘Blue Monday’ on 18 January, so named as it is “traditionally the most depressing day of the year”.

As a counter-measure, Mitzvah Day organised a “virtual cuppa”, which it called ‘Brew Monday’. “We know how important it is to talk openly about mental health and to reach out to others,” said the charity’s chief executive Georgine Bye.

A total of 15 Reform shuls, including an unprecedented 13 from the north of England, plus Coventry Reform Jewish Community and Southend Reform Synagogue, are marking this weekend’s special Shabbat, with participants said was timely.

“Everyone’s mental health has been impacted negatively over the past year as we struggle with the impacts of isolation, financial worries and the stress of home-schooling,” said Reform Judaism’s Sarita Robinson.

“The benefit of being able to pray together as one large community is an opportunity to bring joy and strength from being together.”

Representatives from each shul will have a role in the online service exploring themes of mental health through readings and new prayers written for the occasion. There will also be two children’s services, with RSY-Netzer running one for teens.

“It’s an opportunity to dismantle taboos and increase the number of potentially lifesaving conversations,” said RSY-Netzer’s Gabriel Lester. “Talking about things like stress, anxiety and other factors which influence the mental health of teenagers is crucial. We are proud to be participating.”

A service for younger children, called ‘Butterflies in my Belly’, will use stories and games to discuss anxiety and low mood, led by Alison Branitsky of Manchester Reform Synagogue and Rum Samuel of Sheffield Reform Jewish Congregation.

Meanwhile Jewish Care also set about marking the special Shabbat, including talks from mental health advocates and wellbeing coaches outlining “positive [mental] health strategies”.

Residents also joined Alyth Synagogue congregants for their regular Kabbalat Shabbat online gatherings with residents across Jewish Care homes, in a session led by Rabbi Junik, Jewish Care’s pastoral and spiritual lead.

Earlier this week the Board of Deputies convened a panel of experts “to raise the profile of mental health in the Jewish community”.

Board vice president Edwin Shuker said the goal was “to raise the profile of mental health in the Jewish community,” adding: “We hope the conversation will play a part in removing the stigma and discrimination which is preventing too many people from seeking much needed support.”

Next week Jewish schools will be taking part in the country’s first “mental health festival” aimed at pupils, parents, and teachers, with the two organisers – Jonny Benjamin and Louisa Rose – both active in the Jewish community.

Concurrently there is a major drive to help Jewish schools afford counselling services which have been shown to help children at an early stage, with a new fund being launched by Benjamin.

Jo Holmes from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy said: “Professionally delivered school counselling is not cheap and nor should it be. School counsellors are highly trained, experienced, and skilled practitioners, often working with complex need and trauma linked to psychological distress.”

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