Mental health – the pandemic behind the pandemic
In addition to the health pandemic we are, unsurprisingly, in the midst of a global mental-health pandemic. Instead of hiding behind whispers and closed doors, mental health has, unfortunately and out of necessity, become a pervasive hot topic. The stigma has, in part, been eroded, as we have a sense that the uncertainty and huge challenge of our times effects all of us, albeit in different ways.
Mental health isn’t just the absence of mental illness, it also refers to functionality, resilience, and ability to cope and self-regulate at least most of the time. Of course, there are bad days, but generally, if functioning at work, at home, or in regard to other relationships isn’t impaired, we experience “normal” reactions to an unprecedented, abnormal global situation.
Having said this, the pandemic has served as an incubator, with high levels of depression and anxiety launched by loss and uncertainty.
Initially, I resented the term “new normal” and would talk only about “now normal”, which encompassed the belief that we wouldn’t be forced to settle for this, and that our world mostly as we knew it was awaiting us on the horizon.
What has transpired, however, is that the horizon is being extended and in addition to the anxiety, sadness, and fear that spills out everywhere, there’s also an identifiable unnamed feeling precipitated by the extent and duration of unfamiliar and scary ways of being.
The losses and feelings are expected and obvious. Fear of contracting the virus, fear of isolation, uncertainty about the future, and loss of control. The losses are unprecedented. Unquestionably, most of all is the loss of life without the capacity or necessary rituals associated with severe illness, death, and mourning. Beloved family members are on their own at a time when they need us most.
Often, there is the lack of closure and the inability to pay our respects according to our culturally comforting way. Then there is the overwhelming sadness and anger because “it’s just not fair!”
There are also job losses, which generate a lack of purpose and money, fuelling fear of survival. All of this is in an environment of loss of predictability, certainty, routine, physical contact, and some degree of emotional connectedness.
Boundaries have become blurred. We don’t work “from home”, we work “with home”, parents becoming teachers, children online, limited socialisation, adults having no transitional time, teenagers skipping milestones and rituals concerned with the development of their identity. All of this has required courageous conversation, task negotiation, and often an unsuccessful attempt at establishing any kind of personal boundaries or appropriate self-compassion.
Often, our clients are embarrassed to step forward as what they’re feeling may be unnamed. “It’s just a lack of motivation and energy” they say, a lethargy, a tiredness, and an inability to flourish, a sense of resignation.
In this way, so many of us feel dissociated and de-personalised, not connected enough with “my life as I knew it” and with the outside world. “Who am I?” is a regular question.
These feelings are usually associated with diagnosable mental illness but at these times, appear societally contagious. All you need to do is state your case with openness, vulnerability, and authenticity, and you will open a floodgate, if not an echo chamber, of people who tell you they know exactly what you are talking about because they’re feeling the same thing.
So what do we do?
First, to tame it you have to name it. It’s counterproductive to try to dismiss or deny your personal reality. If you don’t own the story, the story will own you, and will manifest through disassociation withdrawal, or prolonged sadness that can become depression, irritation, low frustration tolerance, and the inability to self-regulate. There may also be physical symptoms like headaches, lower back pain, and appetite and sleep disturbances.
Now, more than ever, we need to experience the immeasurable power of empathic support. This means to develop trust in the people who “have your back”, who will listen to understand, who will really “get it”, and won’t pre-empt you with their own story, at least not initially.
Your tribe, and it can be a tribe of one, will check in, show genuine interest, and understand that love and care are verbs – doing things, not just talking about things. And, usually the “doing thing” is being there and listening. You feel recognised, validated, understood, and not crazy!
Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it’s essential. You cannot be available for anyone else unless you feel worthy of your own compassion and self-care. This starts with the basics. Good nutrition, enough sleep, and understanding the importance of exercise – which should never be underestimated in relation to mental health. Take care of your children’s parent, of your parents’ child, and of your boss’s employee.
Conflict often manifests when you have time and space in your head, and unresolved issues and relationships emerge and become toxic. It’s difficult to remember that it’s always more important to be happy than to win.
The pandemic has made us realise that life can change in a heartbeat, and what we thought was under our control might not be. It also has resulted in a priority shift. Mostly, a new priority of relationships and gratitude for connection that we now realise is more important than anything. So take a risk, and make the first move, even without a guarantee. People can’t hear what you don’t say.
And please, cut yourself some slack. Recognise the resilience that you have displayed, the obstacles that you have overcome, and the value that is uniquely you.
We move on by remembering the past, using our experiences and memories, and reimagining and creating a better future – the horizon is getting closer!
We will navigate the journey together.
- Dorianne Weil (Dr D) is a clinical psychologist.
Digging up memories among Parliament’s charred embers
When the fires swept through the Houses of Parliament on 2 January, I had many thoughts, both historical and personal.
First, I thought back on other great legislatures put to the match.
The most notorious, of course, was the Reichstag Fire in Berlin in February 1933 at the seat of the German Parliament. This act of arson by a Dutch communist (though unproved suggestions of Nazi involvement persist), Marinus van der Lubbe. The fire, which gutted the legislature, provided Hitler with the excuse to rule via decree, abolish most civil liberties, and entrench his party with an artificial majority in Parliament through the proscription of its communist members. The rest, as the following 12 years bore rueful witness, is history.
Across in Britain, its famous House of Commons, “the Mother of Parliaments” or the Palace of Westminster was largely decimated by fire in October 1834 after an act of carelessness by officials who decided to burn obsolete pieces of wood, tally sticks, in a furnace unsuited for such purpose. The resulting chimney fire ignited the woodwork, and, in quick succession, the House of Lords and St Stephen’s Chapel were destroyed, and the House of Commons devastated. And then during the war unleashed by Hitler, more than a century later, the House of Commons was set on fire by incendiary bombing, one of 14 such air raids which hit Parliament.
Of the personal, I thought back to all the history I had witnessed from the football-stadium like National Assembly: the FW de Klerk speech of February 1990; the Mandela presidential election in May 1994; and the link between those two epic events: the enactment of the Constitution two years later in 1996. Before I joined the chamber, there was, of course, the assassination in the Old Assembly in September 1996 of HF Verwoerd and back in September 1939, the fateful and narrow decision to enter World War II. The ghosts of history loomed large over the place.
My very first day in Parliament, having been elected MP for Houghton the previous September, was in fact on 2 February 1990, the day De Klerk turned South African history, and the National Party’s (NP’s) 46-year argument against it, on its head. Many other addresses followed in its wake, but few had the thermo nuclear intensity of that single 40-minute opening address.
Ironically, my last visit to Parliament, just two weeks before the fire gutted its premises, was on 12 December last year to its visitors’ centre to receive accreditation for the memorial service for De Klerk who died in November. I had no idea that 120 years of institutional and architectural history would end so soon in the fury of fire.
The editor asked for some memories, for that is what remains from the embers of Parliament’s immolation, of some of the Jewish MPs who served there. Today, South African Jews have practically disappeared from public life in the country, the fine example of veteran Gauteng MPL Jack Bloom notwithstanding, and there are likely no more than two national MPs from the tribe.
Back at the dawn of democracy here, and before then at the time of the De Klerk speech, there were many more. I was the only Jewish MP who served as leader of the opposition, but the liberal opposition cause was exceptionally well served by stand-out legislators Helen Suzman and Harry Schwarz and before the current era by Bertha Solomon and Morris Kentridge, for example.
Before the African National Congress’s advent to power, which resulted in several Jewish originating members – Joe Slovo and Ronnie Kasrils – obtaining cabinet rank and Gill Marcus being appointed a deputy minister, there were only two Jewish members of cabinet ever appointed: Henry Gluckman for the United Party before the war, and Louis Shill in the dying days of the NP government. Shill was also emblematic of an under reported aspect of the apartheid era: the fact that the Jewish community generally voted against the NP government didn’t prevent some leading members from its ranks serving as NP Members of Parliament.
If the official version, or what passes for it here amid a welter of contradictory and half-baked explanations for the fire which gutted our own Parliament, is to be believed, a single Cape Town vagrant put the National Assembly to the torch.
John Maytham, the talk radio host on Cape Talk, precisely demarcated the twin tracks on which the current catastrophe should be railed: the first is who did it and why? Was the ever-handy alibi of some destructive “third force” or “counter revolutionary” element operating as a sinister hidden hand behind the blaze?
The second track is how could it be that a national key point, the structure which houses our democratic legislature and pinnacle of our constitutional order, was so open to attack: where were the guards? Why did the fire alarm not operate? Why did no sprinklers activate to douse the flames and cauterise their spread? Why did the fire doors, recently installed, not close?
There are no ready answers to these essential questions. Or the answers to hand suggest that the immolation of Parliament is simply the latest, most destructive example of an incapacitated state, peopled by absentee incompetents, and littered with negligent disdain by the officials charged with safeguarding our vital institutions.
In a strictly political sense, our invertebrate president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is guilty of some culpability. He, either deliberately, or more likely with utter carelessness, simply allows one underperforming or grossly negligent minister or another to hopscotch from one portfolio to the next, heedless of the destruction which follows in their wake. Lacking the will or the courage to fire ministerial miscreants, he allows them to continue to re-enact their incompetence or worse at a different site of power. More concerned with retaining power than using it for the public good, Ramaphosa bares considerable blame for the decimation of the state and its finest institutions, such as the 120-year-old seat of Parliament in Cape Town.
The key figure in the parliamentary fire saga is of course the speaker of Parliament. She is charged directly with superintendence of the institution. According to Parliament’s own website, she is both the “custodian” and the preserver of “the integrity of Parliament”. The destruction of literally the bodily integrity of the legislature might on any reading be high on the list of a failure of core function for the speaker. She simply shrugged off any accountability.
History offers a voice from the past relevant to the smouldering ashes from our latest site of ruin. In 1790, reflecting on the French Revolution and its men of zeal and their destructiveness, Edmund Burke suggested: “You had all these advantages … but you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society and had to begin everything anew. You began ill because you despised everything that once belonged to you. You set up your trade without capital.”
In our case this includes the Houses of Parliament, now a burnt-out memory.
- Tony Leon was a Member of Parliament from 1989 to 2009, and served as leader of the official opposition from 1999 to 2007, the only Jewish South African to occupy this office. He was leader of the Democratic Alliance and Democratic Party from 1994 to 2007.
No bigger wake-up call than the Chaim Walder debacle
We’re heartbroken and devastated at the state of our community when it comes to sexual abuse, and the Chaim Walder debacle has had a deep impact.
We easily fall prey to making this issue of sexual abuse all about Israel and not us. We have a lot to say about how the religious leadership should be handling these types of cases. While these points may be valid, the danger is that it lets our community off the hook.
Abuse in our community
Hardly a day goes by where there isn’t a call relating to abuse in our community to Koleinu’s helpline. The cases relate to a range of issues from child-on-child sexual abuse, teenager on younger child sexual abuse, date rape, physical violence in our schools against children, domestic violence which includes emotional, verbal, physical, financial and sexual abuse, as well as authority abuse.
We get calls about extra-lesson teachers, doctors, religious leaders, and coaches.
Reluctance to report
In most of these cases, we find ourselves up against an invisible wall in which the victim refuses to report the perpetrator to the authorities. The reasons for this are varied, and we understand the difficulties that victims face when considering reporting the perpetrator.
They have to break through deep shame, humiliation, and fear. At times, it’s just too hard for a victim to take this step. We never judge victims for their decisions, and we never pressurise them.
However, where our frustration lies is in the strongly rooted belief that our police system is useless and ineffective. While we understand the reasons for this thinking, we also know that it’s counterproductive in cases of sexual abuse.
Our community cuts itself off from any recourse to justice, and the perpetrator gets a message that there are no consequences for their crimes.
The South African justice system – friend or foe?
It’s clear from international research, where perpetrators have been interviewed, that the only thing that will deter them is the fear of being caught and severely punished.
And yet, our community has a shocking track record when it comes to reporting perpetrators. Though there have been cases in which Jewish perpetrators have been prosecuted, these are few and far between.
A further frustration lies in the view that sending someone to jail in South Africa is an automatic death sentence. Captain Colin Morris, a retired captain from the family violence, child protection, and sexual investigative unit of the South African Police Services, with more than 30 years of experience, refutes this belief.
He says that while prison obviously isn’t an easy place to be, when it comes to Jewish prisoners, there are many preventative measures to keep them safe. There are kosher food programmes, regular visits with monitoring by a Jewish chaplain, psychosocial services which can be arranged through the Jewish community, and often financial resources provided by the Jewish community to offer competent legal representation.
Our view is that though these measures are helpful, a perpetrator who offends in South Africa has to know that they face jail time if they are found guilty. We believe that possible imprisonment should not be a deterring factor in reporting these criminals.
This is the system we have, and we need to use it if we are ever going to reduce the amount of abuse in our community significantly.
We understand that the community has very little confidence in regular police services. However, we would like to offer some reassurance that we have access to professional and committed legal professionals within our community. They are in a position to handle these cases extremely effectively and take on pro bono cases where necessary.
One of the lawyers in our community who is passionate about bringing sexual offenders to book had this to say, “We are specialists who assist in guiding and accompanying victims through the process of laying criminal charges against their perpetrators, either where no charges have been brought before or where an inadequate investigation was previously conducted. Using our expertise and support, we ensure that the process is followed correctly from the beginning so that all victims receive the justice and closure they deserve.”
In addition to this, it’s important for victims to know that their identity will be protected and they will remain anonymous. When it comes to children giving evidence, excellent programmes have been developed, such as using therapy dogs to prepare and support them through the court process.
Over and above all this, Koleinu is able to facilitate this process, and work behind the scenes with the victim to ease the way through. At no point will a victim, adult, or child, feel alone.
Further barriers to reporting
Religious barriers which have bearing on the paucity of reporting are the issues of lashon hara and mesira (handing a Jew over to the secular authorities such as the police).
There has been a plethora of instruction coming from rabbinic leadership locally and Internationally that the prohibitions of lashon hara and mesira fall away completely when it comes to protecting the community from a sexual predator. The protection of the vulnerable is an absolute priority in Jewish law.
In fact, failure to report means that any further acts of abuse by that perpetrator on future victims can be attributed to the community’s silence.
In South African law, it’s a criminal offence not to report suspected or actual child abuse, and failure to do so is punishable by serving time in jail. This is the level of seriousness our justice system gives to reporting these crimes. If we fail to protect children and the vulnerable in our community from these heinous acts, who will? Where can they turn?
We approach all victims of abuse with absolute humility and the greatest of admiration. Our hearts bleed for the victims of Chaim Walder, who had the courage to report him but unfortunately, justice was cruelly snatched from them when he committed suicide.
What was lost to the victims was their day in court, their opportunity to look their abuser the eye and hold him accountable. It adds yet another tragic element to their story.
We know, as victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a medical doctor in our community, how immensely difficult it must have been for these women to overcome their resistance and fear and speak out against a man held in such high esteem.
We also know, from our personal experience, how empowering it is to take one’s power back from a perpetrator and hold them to account. There is great meaning and healing to be found on this journey. We hope and pray that the Chaim Walder story will elicit major change in the way that Jewish communities worldwide deal with abuse.
How impactful and comforting would it be for Walder’s victims to know about the positive changes to world Jewry brought about by their suffering and their courage.
Koleinu is about to embark on a campaign to encourage the reporting of abuse. Our aim is to make reporting the norm, not the exception, and in so doing, to ensure the safety of our precious community and make the world of the perpetrator smaller and smaller.
- Rozanne Sack and Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler are the co-founders and directors of Koleinu, the helpline for victims of abuse in the South African Jewish community. The helpline number is 011 264 0341, operating on Monday and Wednesday from 09:00 to 24:00, and Tuesday and Thursday from 07:00 to 22:00.
He was a hero until he was a monster
עַל אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם (For this I weep – tears stream from my eyes.) (Eicha/Lamentations 1:16)
It’s this verse, that for so many years I have sung while sitting on the floor in mourning on Tisha B’Av, that came to my mind when reading about the horrific crimes of Chaim Walder and the way in which he caused such harm to so many people.
The background, for those who don’t know, is that he was one of the most important children’s authors in the religious Jewish world of this generation. His books filled bookshelves in much the same way as Julia Donaldson’s books do now, or Dr Seuss or Roald Dahl’s once did.
He was a therapist who specialised in working with children who have suffered trauma and abuse. He was a popular columnist, radio personality, and an example to many of how to help children express themselves and their emotions, to understand and to be understood.
I read his books to my own young children, and was so impressed by the way in which he was able to show the world from a child’s perspective.
He even received the Magen LeYeled/Defender of the Child award from the Israel National Council for the Child in 2003.
Although his work primarily focused on the Haredi community, it went far beyond that. Translated into eight languages and with readers in virtually every Jewish community, he was a hero, a role-model, and a powerful example of how children could be empowered and respected.
Until it was discovered that Walder was a monster. From November last year, increasingly disturbing allegations began to emerge about his sexual abuse of women and children, abuse purportedly going back decades.
The chief rabbi of Tzfat, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, initiated Beth Din proceedings and received damning testimony that uncovered a pattern of such abuse going back decades.
It turned out that he had consistently and systematically abused his access to and position of power and influence with children to assault them in the most terrible way.
Behind the mask of the Defender of the Child was a manipulative predator seeking to harm the most vulnerable among us. Around the same time, Israeli police opened investigations into his wrongdoings. At this point, Walder took his own life to escape the net closing around him.
The way in which all this unfolded was shocking, confusing, and so tragic. First, we must think of his many, many victims, the terrible pain and shame he inflicted upon them, and the way in which their lives were so profoundly affected.
The mental and emotional scars can last a lifetime. One of his victims, Shifra Yocheved Horovitz – only 24 years old – committed suicide a few days ago. Many others will have to come to terms with what was done to them in crimes for which they aren’t guilty and bear no responsibility. However, they so often, nonetheless, hold onto feelings of profound humiliation and guilt. It’s for them that I weep when I think of this terrible affair.
Second, for many – myself included – it has taken a while to truly understand and wrap my head around this. We are living through a time of crisis in trust, when trust in governments, news agencies, and authorities are at a record low.
When hearing these worrying reports, I had to wonder whether it was actually true or whether it had been sensationalised – even fabricated – as he and his defenders claimed?
How could I reconcile the sensitive, understanding, and compassionate voice of Walder’s books with testimony about a serial predator and abuser?
And even if the most terrible thing turned out to be true, what could I do about it anyway?
There are many who were far quicker than I, many who immediately realised the gravity of the situation, who publicly criticised Walder for his crimes and expressed support for his victims and victims of abuse generally. To those I say, thank you.
There are others who are still figuring this out, and others still who remain in support of Walder.
As I said, I believe this is an issue of trust. Do they trust Rabbi Eliyahu and his Beth Din? The many victims and witnesses who have come forward, or those who defend him and believe the case to be libel?
Although more and more rabbonim and leaders in the Jewish world are coming out against Walder and his actions, it’s difficult to tell someone who to trust. However, I do want to address the dynamic around trust, openness, and lashon hara.
In my years as a community rabbi, I have had to deal with several instances of abuse. Although I’m not an expert in this area and careful not to go beyond the limits of my knowledge, I’m grateful to have been able to direct such people towards our community organisations and professionals who deal with such cases.
We are, indeed, blessed with men and women who can handle such cases with the appropriate seriousness and sensitivity, and they should always be our first port of call. They can guide us towards appropriate police reporting and whatever else needs to be done in such situations.
I won’t deny that I’ve also heard accusations about people and organisations which have turned out not to be abuse but the sorts of two-sided conflict that are an unfortunate but prevalent part of human life and interaction.
Nonetheless, when one believes that there is abuse, the first and most important step is to report it. Similarly, if a friend confides that there has been such abuse, one has an obligation to share it with those who can help and who can take action, even if it means breaking that confidence.
But is it not the case that trust, confidentiality, and respect for human dignity are cornerstones of Judaism, and that such reporting can undermine these?
There are a few answers to this question. First, there is nothing more important than the value of life. The Torah tells us, “לֹא תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ אֲנִי ה” (Do not go as a talebearer amongst your people, and do not stand by while the blood of your fellow is shed – I am Hashem.) (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:16)
The same verse that warns us against lashon hara warns us against standing by when someone is in danger, and as we see from the late Shifra Yocheved Horovitz of blessed memory as well as far too many others, abuse kills.
It’s our duty to protect and help people, even when that means losing the trust of victims who feel too ashamed to speak out, or challenging the reputations of the highly respected. As a friend of mine said, “The laws of lashon hara weren’t given to protect criminals.”
The verse with which I began this article, the sadness and the weeping, continues. “כִּי רָחַק מִמֶּנּי מְנַחֵם” (For the comforter is far from me.) Who can comfort us in the wake of such a tragedy? How can we find meaning or consolation? That’s beyond me.
I have removed Walder’s books from my shul and my home, but it seems like a small gesture.
I speak to my children about appropriate and inappropriate touching. At home, we have a “no-secrets” policy – there’s no such thing as a secret that you cannot tell mom and dad. I do these things, as I was taught by professionals who deal in these matters, in the same way that I teach them about crossing the road – with all due seriousness, but without panic. And I write this article.
Perhaps we can find some measure of comfort in creating a healthier community dynamic and conversation about abuse, one in which the victims are empowered to speak and to act, and one in which we take them very seriously indeed.
Hashem yerachem – may Hashem have compassion upon His children.
- Rabbi Sam Thurgood is the rabbi at Beit Midrash Morasha @ Arthur’s Road.
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