Covenant Award recipient Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is working hard to build a Jewish space for serious talk about mental health.
As Chief Program Officer of Jewish Learning Venture (JLV) in Philadelphia, she has done pioneering work to promote inclusion in the Jewish community and ensure that Judaism is accessible to all young people, particularly those with disabilities. This season, JLV’s Whole Community Inclusion initiative, which Kaplan-Mayer directs, will expand its efforts to focus on mental health as well as physical, learning, and developmental disabilities, and chronic illness.
“The mental health component is a bit of a deeper dive this year,” Kaplan-Mayer said.
She and her colleagues have been thinking about people living with mental illnesses that impact their daily lives as well as those with other disabilities who are facing enormous stress, social stigma, and isolation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we are coming back from the pandemic—or as we are still living with the pandemic—we see there’s a lot of anxiety and depression in kids and teens,” Kaplan-Mayer said. She explained that research done during the lockdown period showed an increase in mental health issues among young people. The educators she works with reported that as kids returned to classes last year, their developmental and emotional skills were not on track. The fact that they hadn’t been socializing was problematic, as that is key to emotional development. Educators, Kaplan-Mayer said, need to learn more about anxiety and depression, the most common expressions of mental struggles.
In October, JLV is hosting “Jewish Approaches to Mental Wellness: An Exploration of Jewish Values and Prayer,” a community forum for educators and community leaders, through The Blue Dove Foundation. In the interactive workshop, a group of 30 participants will explore middot, or Jewish values, and the misheberach, or healing prayer, as it relates to mental health and addiction. Follow-up programs, open to larger audiences, are in the works as well.
“The more we make this an ongoing part of our conversation, the more we can make a dramatic shift in reducing the stigma,” Kaplan-Mayer said.
She added that it is helpful for community members who may be suffering, even if they are not yet comfortable opening up to others, to hear that their synagogues and community centers are hosting speakers on mental illness or establishing support groups.
Through the JLV Teen Assistant Program (TAP), Kaplan-Mayer and her colleagues have been training and mentoring a select group of high school students, drawn from congregations across denominations and across the city, since 2002. These students support other students in congregational schools who have a range of disabilities. JLV is also expanding its focus on this program, with additional training so that the TAP students can further support their peers’ social and emotional needs.
One student wrote in the group’s blog about a program TAP had with comedian and inclusion advocate Pamela Rae Schuller. On her website, Schuller describes herself as making “brutally honest confessions about what it’s like being 4 foot 6 (and a half) and having a whole lot of Tourette Syndrome.” During the program, Schuller detailed her work and how failure helped her grow as a person. According to the student who then blogged about it, “This was so interesting to listen to because in life you grow every time you overcome something difficult.”
Later, the students spoke together about issues that they were facing as madrichim, or counselors. A member of the group would describe an issue in their school and the others would listen and then offer ideas and suggestions. The student wrote, “I learned so much about mental health and how to help someone in the moment.”
After a session about autism, another TAP participant shared, “I learned that autism comes in various forms and differs from person to person, thus being flexible rather than having one concrete method of interacting is key to connecting and making each person feel comfortable. Through the rest of my TAP experience, I hope to further my understanding of the way that mental disabilities affect individuals and how I can be the best supporter I can be.”
Kaplan-Mayer also facilitates the Inclusion Specialist Network. This year’s theme is “Social-Emotional Skills + Mental Health Awareness in Our Schools,” and discussion topics include addressing anxiety, supporting students who are questioning or changing gender identity, and facing cliques and loneliness in Jewish spaces.
Kaplan-Mayer explained that for the younger generation, mental health may not have the same stigma as it does for adults. Many young people are used to hearing celebrities speaking openly about mental health and therapy.
As a parent of a 19-year-old and a 17-year-old, Kaplan-Mayer has an understanding of the world that kids are living in today, “when a lot of systems are falling apart,” with gun violence, hate speech, climate change, and war coloring young people’s perspectives.
“We don’t have research yet on how this is all impacting kids. We know that one of our Jewish values is pikuah nefesh, saving lives. These kids are under so much mental stress. We want to make sure that we are getting in there and providing tools for not only living with mental illness but living with mental wellness. We need to ask what are the proactive tools that we can give kids to recognize their mental health needs.”
Kaplan-Mayer is full of passion and creativity for the work she does; she is always thinking of new ideas and how to do things better. Often, her language is infused with Jewish teachings and values.
“Gabby shifts communal and individual mindsets toward disability and mental health Jewish inclusion. She puts people with lived experiences at the very center of her work, elevating Jewish values as the basis for inclusion and belonging,” said Shelly Cristensen, Senior Director of Faith Inclusion and Belonging at the national organization RespectAbility, in an email.
She added, “Gabby teaches that there is no place for ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking. There is only ‘us.’”
Inspired in part by her experiences as the mother of a child with autism, Kaplan-Mayer sought to expand her role as a Jewish educator to ensure that all children had opportunities to participate in synagogue and communal life and to receive a Jewish education.
She has long been involved in her Philadelphia synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, and also pursues her own writing and teaches creative writing. Her classes and workshops are more about spiritual expression—tapping into inner wisdom—than the craft of writing. She is the author of plays and several books including, most recently, The Little Gate-Crasher, which is the true story of her great-uncle, who overcame much prejudice about dwarfism to lead an extraordinary life. Kaplan-Mayer is now working on a memoir about her own journey through spiritual transformations.
For Kaplan-Mayer, there’s a strong spiritual component to the work she does.
“When you really do the work in disability inclusion and realize that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, as stated in the Book of Genesis, it’s not about anyone being better. Disabilities can scare people—it’s related to vulnerability. If you need help to see, walk, communicate, there’s a vulnerability. That’s what we want to lean into. Each of us have vulnerabilities. That’s what being human is.
“In terms of mental health struggles, what human being hasn’t had them? Of course, there’s a spectrum. Every human being has struggled at times in life. The more we can understand that’s part of the human condition, the more we grow in our connection to the divine sources.”
In an ELI talk about her work several years ago, Kaplan-Mayer quoted the Talmudic dictum that when you show up for the sick or those suffering in any way, you take away 1/60th of their pain. Bikur cholim, or visiting the sick, also relates to emotional wellbeing, she said, encouraging people to simply say something like, “I know this is really hard and I’m here with you.”
“We have to get over own discomfort with disability and move into lovingkindness,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “Growth and holiness come from valuing each heart.”
By Sandee Brawarsky, for The Covenant Foundation