You just can't buy the sort of publicity that the Call of the Shofar program has received in recent weeks within the Chabad community. Many people have come up to me and asked me about it, and I've found myself having to explain what COTS is, and what LGAT is to people who otherwise would not know (or need to know) about either. But while the article itself had some useful analysis and insights into ourselves and at other groups and programs through a lens of 'cult-like markers', that is not the key issue here.
It's not about what specific external programs are or aren't kosher or suitable for us, nor about whether our mashpi'im have been unduly influenced, nor about the knee-jerk reactions of Rabbonim and others, nor about the way this issue has polarised the community and how that may continue to play out.
We need to take a deep breath (no meditation required), step back for a bit, and consider the real issue: the challenge of how we as a community deals with our mental and emotional health.
Unlike other Chassidic/Haredi groups who have a philosophy of remaining insular and protected from outside influences, we are very exposed to the external world. Whether it's someone who is in full-time shlichus or in the commercial world, our lives intersect with Jews and non-Jews who are very different to us. And this approach comes with unique challenges. We require a particularly robust belief-system to balance a chassidish life (even just an aspirational one) with one that lives "in the real world". And it doesn't have to mean living two separate lives; we must reconcile them so it's one consistent life. Mental health simply means being able to function day-to-day - in our relationships, work, and leisure - with a sense of balance and well-being.
Like any community, we face general challenges of mental health - be they in managing our relationships, or dealing with depression and other mental illnesses. And unfortunately, like many frum communities we suffer from the cultural illusion of perfection, which hampers our ability to (publicly) acknowledge and deal with these issues effectively.
Recently I was visited by a meshulach collecting money for a program that sought to treat depression in Yeshivah students in Israel. At first it sounded positive - they were training the Rabbeim to identify the signs of depression in students. But the follow up displayed the same old attitudes. Instead of referring students to a professional therapist for treatment, they had their own program which "treated" depression without actually conveying to the students that anything was wrong with them. Of course, we wouldn't want something like that to affect their chance at a shidduch, would we? Unfortunately, this approach to mental illness is endemic within the frum world.
Two things are abundantly clear from the situation at hand. That our mashpi'im have referred students to a particular program for help with mental health issues shows that (a) there is demand for "Orthodox-friendly" mental health services, and (b) there is a clear lack of internal capacity to deal with it, both from a diagnostic and treatment perspective.
Statements like "everything is in the Torah" (or in our case "everything in is Chabad") are more easily understood at a very high level pertaining to the spiritual energies that power the world, and how we should connect with them. It doesn't mean that contemporary models of mental health treatment are treif, just as it doesn't mean that the solution to a mental health or sholom bayis issue is just to find the right ma'amar to learn.
"An organization starts declining when the rate of change in the external environment surpasses the rate of change in the organization itself". While this sounds quite contentious from an Orthodox Jewish perspective, the fact remains that we are suffering from decline (call it yeridas hadoros if you like), and we are challenged by rate of change in the external environment. At the very least, we need to significantly change our approach to mental and emotional health. We need to:
1. Build bridges between Rabbis/mashpi'im and mental health professionals. Our spiritual leaders need to learn about contemporary practices in mental health, and we need mental health professionals (be they Jewish or non-Jewish) who are across the issues faced by our community, and can be sensitive to the associated cultural and halachic constraints. This journey will certainly identify situations where Jewish/Chabad theology converges with mental health practice, and where it clashes. That will help build our internal capacity to deal with mental health issues. Perhaps some mashpi'im should also be trained as counsellors and psychologists?
2. Improve community education regarding mental health. We need to be proactive in offering services to improve our mental and emotional wellness. People exercise to maintain and improve their state of physical health - it's no different for mental health. Whether it's relationship counselling for families, or more general material and programs that helps us meet the daily challenges we face in the world. As long as it is within a halachic framework (as per item 1), we should not shy away from innovating and adapting what we already have.
3. Break the taboos of dealing with mental health challenges. The Gemoro states (Brochos 60, based on Shmos 21:19) that "the Torah gave permission to the doctor to heal". This was not limited to physical ailments but also those of the mind. Seeking assistance for mental health is not a black mark against someone or their family. The worst thing we can do is to hide from or pretend mental health issues don't exist: not only does this not heal them, but allows them to get worse.
People are already coming together in some cities and talking about how to take these steps. It's important to use this 'crisis' not as an excuse to complain and attack, but to work together to strengthen our communities.