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Ultra-Orthodox address mental illness in Israel

Bayit Cham battles against the attitude still prevalent among many ultra-Orthodox families that mental illness is something that needs hiding.
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of Rabbi Shalom Cohen, influential spiritual leader of Israel's largest ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Jerusalem, Aug. 22, 2022.

Ultra-Orthodox charity groups often launch donation campaigns ahead of the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur. The campaign recently launched by Bayit Cham (Warm Home), a group assisting ultra-Orthodox families of children with mental illness, has attracted special attention.

“We touch on the most painful stories, deal with human and family tragedies we are supposed to respond to, and still, all of this activity is done under a cloak of secrecy,” Bayit Cham Director Arie Munk told Al-Monitor.  

Founded in 1997, the organization contended at the beginning with an attitude of disregard and total mistrust. “In those years, the view was that there are no cases of mental illness [among the ultra-Orthodox]. A family that dealt with mental illness invested all its energies to sweeping it under the rug and burying it. The goal was that no one would know or hear of it.” 

Individuals who were left untreated often developed more severe mental health struggles, but the idea of treatment wasn’t in the ultra-Orthodox lexicon because of the concern that it would hurt potential matchmaking.

“The fate of an entire family could be decided once it became known a member of that family had suffered a mental breakdown. No one would want to be matched with them due to concerns that the problem could be hereditary,” a rabbi of a large community who currently uses the services of the group told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Bayit Cham, in its very founding, put up a mirror to the public and said that among the ultra-Orthodox, as in any community, mental illness is present but that the individuals can be treated. Thus today, rabbis from all ultra-Orthodox sects attend conferences organized by Bayit Cham, where they learn about mental illness, struggles, diagnoses and treatments, and through them the messages get to the community. 

Munk himself has become a figure identified with the mental health field, as he is interviewed and expresses his position often, and especially in regular columns that deal with the topic including in the ultra-Orthodox press.

“Today, regular yeshiva students know how to recognize something worrisome, and they know there is a way to solve the problem,” the rabbi said. “In the past, a yeshiva student who would wash his hands 20 times a day would think of himself as scrupulous in his adherence to Jewish law. Today, he would understand that he suffers from compulsiveness, and he could come to me or to any other rabbi and say that he has a problem. And we too, unlike in the past, would know where to send him.” 

The public information campaigns run by Bayit Cham for the past three decades have a lot to do with the change the ultra-Orthodox society underwent and is still undergoing in its approach to mental illness. Nowadays, when professional intervention is needed — whether following a tragedy, mental breakdown, or a family or financial crisis — most rabbis know where to seek help. 

The increased demand for the services of Bayit Cham has resulted in the organization’s expansion, as it now operates more than 100 clinics across the country and employs more than 350 professionals. Still, despite this growth and although there is no doubt treatment is needed, the organization still contends with many families who prefer to keep these issues as discreet and even secretive as possible.

Munk noted, "In a radio interview once I described a situation of a home where a parent collapsed and had a mental crisis. The children, I said, are actually living orphans. Maybe even worse, as the suffering continues. After I made these comments, parents involved with Bayit Cham asked whether this is how we talk about them — that they cause suffering to their children.”

He concluded, “That was several years ago. But today I can say such things more freely, because the parents learn at the very first meeting to recognize the suffering of their children, and they get the tools that help them manage. Still, if we really want to help these families, we must stay silent, and speak little of what we do. That's why we show in our campaign a muted shofar. We feel the pain and hear the [distress] call, but must choke back and not sound the call ourselves publicly.” 

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