I had the great pleasure of catching up with an old friend the other day. It’s been years since we’ve spoken, but, like it goes with people you feel connected to, our phone call felt as comfortable as if we’d never lost touch. This friend is an intelligent, kind, warm woman with an infectious optimism and welcoming smile. She also struggles with mental illness.
Thankfully, the stigma associated with mental illness has begun to subside, and what was once kept quiet is now something that our community acknowledges and is taking steps to address. My friend is a pioneer in creating a safe space for people whose lives are touched by mental illness, and I am so impressed by her vision, drive and courage.
My friend connected with the three other Jewish women who also live with mental illness, and together they have created an extraordinary peer-led support group, Chazkeinu. Chazkeinu is not only for women with mental health challenges, but also for family and friends of family members with mental illness. The group’s tagline is “The Stigma Stops Here,” and this is reinforced through the attitude that mental illness is just like any other illness, any other nisayon (challenge).
Like many challenges, the burden feels lighter when you are not bearing it alone. Chazkeinu provides a number of ways that women living with mental illness can benefit from having a community.
There are two phone meetings a week, Mondays at 9pm EST and Wednesdays at 1pm EST. There is a speaker who shares a personal story, and mental health professionals and Rabbanim who share information and encouragement. If someone missed the call and wants to hear the speakers, there are recordings available for listening. On Wednesday calls there are topic meetings and panel discussions in addition to the speaker.
After the speaker, the calls are opened up to the women on the line, and this is not only a place for venting frustrations, but also an opportunity to gain empathy for others who have different challenges, and to see how others cope. Some people on the call might be having a hard time, but others might be doing better and can offer encouragement. It’s a place where women can share their experiences, their struggles, their successes and feel free to speak in a supportive, non-judgmental environment
The calls are structured and moderated to ensure that anyone who wants will have a chance to share. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable speaking in on the call, there are options to text or send an email, which can be read by the moderators.
Another mode of support is the Partner Program. It’s an equal-footing partnership, not one with someone in a sponsor or a mentor position. Instead, it pairs up women to check in with each other and give each other support when needed. Partners are generally women who are going through similar difficulties, and my friend noted that they have had tremendous hatzlacha in matching people together. Partners communicate through phone calls, texting, WhatsApp – whatever works best for them.
In addition to all those options, there is also a contact list for anyone who wants to share their information, to send and receive calls once a month. About this, my friend said, “if I’m having a bad day and I call someone else, I snap out of it a little bit.” I’ve found the same thing works for me, too!
The organization had grown exponentially since it started in March. The first call started with just 15 women; there were 71 women on the call a couple weeks ago. This is an amazing resource for our community, and they have hopes of creating opportunities like live speaker events, and Shabbatons, face-to-face meeting and workshops.
Chazkeinu is completely non-profit and free to join. It’s been adopted as a project of Shabbat.com, and has some seriously impressive haskamos (approbations), including Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst, Rabbi Zecharia Greenwald, Rabbi Baruch Smith, Rabbi Yona Reiss, Rabbi Dr. Jerry Lob, Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, and Ahava Winston (of NITZA in Israel).
I am so in awe of the way my friend and the other co-founders took a personal challenge they experienced and out of their pain and difficulty, created something beautiful and constructive for all Jewish women who need support in this area. Bringing mental health into the open will provide so many women with an opportunity to connect and heal and move forward. Mi K’amcha Israel. To sign up for or to donate to Chazkeinu, go to their website, Chazkeinu.org
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On a different note, I had a piece up last week on Hevria, in case you missed it, here it is.