The holiday of Purim offers a unique and meaningful metaphor for understanding mental health issues. In partnership with the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, Riverway Project will be hosting a free program called “The Masks We Wear: A Mental Health Convening to Reduce Stigma” on Sunday, March 8.

Almost two decades old, Riverway Project reaches out to Jewish young adults in their 20s and 30s, encouraging them to connect with the Temple Israel community. The March 8 program will feature presentations by Joanne Harpel and Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman. Harpel and Mitelman are siblings who lost a brother to suicide when he was 26. That was 1993, and the trauma drove them to focus on mental health awareness and eventually educate clergy and congregations about related issues.

Joanne and Stephen Rehearsal Dinner July 13, 1991
Stephen, right, and Joanne in 1991, two years before Stephen died by suicide (Courtesy photo)

At the time of her brother’s death, Harpel worked as a corporate lawyer. She was also a director on the national board of the largest suicide prevention group in the world. Her volunteerism led to an invitation to join the senior management team. After 15 years, she left to create her own nonprofit, Rethink the Conversation. Harpel recently told JewishBoston that her mission is to “raise awareness about issues that historically have been tinged by stigma due to misinformation, lack of attention or indifference.”

At the time of his brother’s death, Mitelman was serving as a pulpit rabbi. He left congregational life to found Sinai and Synapses, a nonprofit that explores the links between religion and science. Mitelman told JewishBoston that through his organization, he considers topics such as genetics, environmental science and mental health through the lens of Jewish texts.

“Joanne and I were both impacted by our brother’s death,” he said. “We knew we had value to bring to mental health programs as professionals, as well as brother and sister. In our way, we have tried to make sense of his loss and how we move forward. There are a lot of questions in this world. We’re not necessarily looking for answers, but how to create responses to what’s going on.”

Mitelman said his teachings for the program will point out that on Purim, there is much unpredictability. “Purim is about the randomness and unexpected turns in life,” he said. “We’re not always able to control everything. We don’t want to have a mental illness or anxiety or depression. But we have those things, so how do we deal with them? How do we respond to them?”


Rabbi Jen Gubitz, who directs Riverway Project as part of her responsibilities as an assistant rabbi at Temple Israel, noted the coincidence of “The Masks We Wear” program occurring on Purim. “Young adulthood can be an unanchored time,” she said. “There is a lot of personal exploration happening. To use a Purim image, the holiday is all about being flipped, wearing a disguise, but also about uncovering untruths.”

Gubitz told JewishBoston that she has a personal stake in bringing mental awareness to her congregation and beyond. When she was 11, her aunt died by suicide. She recalled the difficulty she had processing her aunt’s death. “It was hard to talk about at the time,” she said. “There was a deep fear in me that something was wrong with me. It was a self-imposed stigma.”

In rabbinical school, Gubitz wrote her thesis on death education for children. One of her conclusions was that, “Judaism is an amazing framework to help us navigate our lives.” To that end, Gubitz said that an awareness of mental illness, as well as mental health education, has been a “constant” in her pastoral work. “I’ve been doing this work for four years,” she said. “I’ve learned that when major things happen in the world, people seem to turn to ritual or Jewish time to find strength or support in the Jewish community.”

Molly Silver, who directs the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP) at CJP, observed that a growing number of synagogues and clergy have answered the call to “serve congregants facing mental health challenges, crises and recovery.” As proof, Silver said: “Over the past year, we have seen the formation of a dozen mental health initiatives in our RSIP cohort of synagogues. There is a real need for practical advice and a safe space to have meaningful, honest and productive conversations on how to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health.”

She added: “On behalf of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, I am honored to co-sponsor this meaningful program free of charge for the community with Riverway Project. This is our first program that will focus on mental health issues in adults in their 20s and 30s.”

Sharon Shapiro, a trustee and community liaison at the Ruderman Family Foundation, said: “Mental health is a health issue. The more we openly discuss it, the more people will be open to getting help and improving their mental well-being. It’s time to start treating mental health the same as physical health and talking about it. ‘The Masks We Wear’ program is a great way to end the stigma surrounding mental health.”