What can congregational rabbis do to support youth who are encountering depression, anxiety or other psychological challenges?
On the most basic level, the primary thing rabbis can do is maximize opportunities for contact with all young people in our communities. We can develop trusting relationships beginning when children are young and maintain personal contact post-b’nai mitzvah (whether the child remains active in the congregation or not). We can facilitate teen learning programs, attend youth group activities and reach out on Facebook. The more you know a young person, the more likely it will be that you can be supportive when they are struggling.
Beyond this basic level, what I really want to say is: Love them.
That may sound clinically unsophisticated, but it is meant to point to the deep truth that regardless of what challenges they are experiencing, our young people need to be accepted for who they are without labels or judgment. As an adult authority figure who is not their parent or teacher, a rabbi has the potential to be a compassionate, baggage-free presence in teens’ lives; to be someone who can see through to their neshama (soul) and not care about what too many other people in their lives are caring about, like grades, college, status, sports competition, physical appearance, etc.
We have the potential to be a loving presence, but my sense is that in reality rabbis are at the periphery of most teens’ lives. We are not likely to be the person a teen turns to, nor are we likely to even be aware that a teen is experiencing challenges—until there is a family crisis. And even then, for the vast majority of families, the rabbi may never know, or may not know until the crisis has passed. Ready with our referral list of professional contacts, we are not likely to be consulted. School personnel and parents are on the frontline; rabbis are often at best distant witnesses.
This reality has led me, personally, to do volunteer work with teens at the local high school beyond my work as a congregational rabbi. I understand, though, that most rabbis don’t have the time or energy to do that. I also feel at times that my volunteer work is a feeble, quixotic attempt to face down overwhelming cultural forces. And yet, isn’t that what we as Jews are called to do?
So what else can rabbis do to be supportive of young people going through tough times? We can use every opportunity to challenge unhealthy cultural norms in our communities. We can share Jewish teachings regarding chesed (lovingkindness), b’tselem Elohim (being made in the image of God), etc., and hope that some parents and community leaders are listening. And we can seek out more opportunities for contact with the young people in our communities. You never know when even a brief, loving interaction can have a positive ripple effect in someone’s life—but you can have faith that it will.
Randy Kafka serves as the rabbi of Temple Kol Tikvah in Sharon. She holds a doctoral degree in counseling and consulting psychology from Harvard University and is the author of “Bloom Where You Are Planted: A Spiritual Guide to Putting Down Roots.”
Check out Jewish Family & Children’s Service, which offers in-depth opportunities for connection and support within the Jewish community.