We begin our narrative as a Jewish people with deep family brokenness and displacement. Yet in the modern day, we often are afraid to bring our brokenness to light, to speak openly and frankly about the struggles we face, both internally and externally. As a people, we struggle to talk about mental health issues and addiction in our communities and from the bimah, and there are extremely limited treatment services within the Jewish community. Did you know that almost 20% of Americans experienced some form of mental illness in the last year, and almost 9% of Americans experienced substance use disorder. Suicide has overtaken accidents as the leading cause of death for young people, ages 15-24, yet we still find it so difficult to discuss the day to day challenges faced by those struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance use disorders. So many of our lives are impacted personally or through those we love by addiction and mental health issues, yet we often hide in the shadows, afraid to speak openly about these challenges that we wrestle with.
Liberation from Our Personal Mitzrayim
I often speak about the power of Jewish tradition in supporting those on a pathway to recovery. Less often do I share my personal journey, and why I am so passionate about connecting Jewish tradition to mental health and substance use disorder treatment.
In April of my fifteenth year, just before Pesach, my parents enrolled me in a wilderness therapy program in Utah. At 15, I left my parents’ home, a land that I knew and was familiar with and entered into the unknown. For two months, I wandered the deserts of Utah. I learned to build a fire without matches or a lighter, made a backpack out of choke cherry and leather, and cooked over an open fire with eight other young women, who were also struggling at home. I slept in the rain and snow, wrestling with the deep internal brokenness and displacement that I felt defined me. As I wandered through the wilderness, the Midbar, surrounded by the beauty and austerity of the desert, I began to appreciate that my pain, my unanswered questions did not make me weak. They were an essential part of who I was, who I am today, and they are what defined me, though not in the way I had first thought.
While the wilderness therapy program I attended was not in the least bit Jewish, my identity as a Jew was fundamental to what I gained from that program. I was in Utah over Passover, and the correlations were too obvious to ignore. Mitzrayim, Egypt, means “the narrow place.” In each generation, we are supposed to celebrate our liberation from Mitzrayim. We were slaves, but now we are free. In every generation, we are bound; we are held back, by external events and internal beliefs. By depression, trauma, addiction, and immobilizing self-dout or fear of the unknown. And every year, we have the opportunity to explore those obstacles that hold us back and say, “No. I will not let this stop me from living my life to its full potential, living the life I want to lead.”
As I struggled with the death of close friends, the fear of losing a loved one, and my own debilitating depression, and as I celebrated Pesach alone in the desert, away from my family and all that I knew, this concept of self-liberation from Mitzrayim profoundly impacted my journey and experience.
Learning from Our Forefathers
The Jewish tradition provides such powerful guidance, support, and strength as we wrestle with life, and face its challenges. And the Jewish tradition speaks so strongly to individual growth and development facilitated through journeys in the wilderness. As the director of BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, the nation’s only Jewish wilderness program, I get to see students meaningfully engage with Jewish tradition every day, as they explore their perosnal meaning, values, and purpose in the face of mental illness, addiction, and the obstacles life presents.
Throughout the Torah, we see our forefathers face trials. We see them struggle, grapple to find the correct answer, and oftentimes, we see them fail. Does that mean we do not venerate Abraham, who made some seriously questionable parenting decisions, Jacob, who is a deeply flawed and troubled character, or Moses, who may have a bit of an anger problem? No. The Torah presents full characters - their good side and their bad - and shares stories of their struggles, their trials, as they grapple to find their way in the world, and their personal meaning, values, and purpose. Biblical characters are flawed, because, guess what - they’re human. Just as we are.
Karl Marx once said that religion is the opium of the masses. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, sure, maybe some religions, but not Judaism. Judaism, he said, “does not anesthetize us to the pains and appraent injustices of life. It does not reconcile us to suffering. It asks us to play our part n the most daunting undertakng ever asked by God of mankind - to construct relationships, communities, and ultimately a society that will become homes for the Divine presence. And that means wrestling with God and with men and refusing to give up.
Embracing our Challenges
As we see the opioid epidemic grow, and mental illness and substance use disorders impact more and more lives, I hope that we recognize that our trials and challenges are not weaknesses. While it can be hard to see in our darkest hours, they are what help us grow, what allow us to flourish and appreciate joy, and they are what allow us to develop into our best selves. May we all have the opportunity to face our challenges, and come out the other side with a greater sense of self and purpose. And lastly, may we as a community support those who are struggling, be open and inclusive, and not fear the darker parts of life.
Jory Hanselman is the director of BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, the nation’s only Jewish wilderness program. She has dedicated her professional career to engaging youth and emerging adults in meaningful outdoor experiences, and helping them build personal resiliency and the skills necessary to grow and thrive in a complex world. Jory is a Wexner Field Fellow, holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Environmental Studies and Philosophy from Tufts University, and is a Master of Public Administration degree candidate at University of Colorado, Denver’s School of Public Affairs.