Jewish Journal

High Holidays 2013:  May We Welcome More Open and Honest Dialogue

by Lia Mandelbaum

August 21, 2013 | 11:57 am

Just a few days ago, I found out that a very brilliant and genuine friend of mine took her life.  Like a lot of incredibly creative people, she suffered from depression and felt that she could no longer trudge through her darkness.  Her death impacts me greatly, especially since I have also gone to dark places and can understand where she is coming from.  

My parents spent many painful years feeling powerless and alone over my situation, and kept a lot of their struggles with me to themselves, largely out the fear of being judged and misunderstood.   I am incredibly blessed today with a life filled with passion and purpose.  Like all human beings, I still have my struggles from time to time, but I am incredibly strong today and with a solid support system and foundation.  Although I am stronger, I have come to find myself feeling very raw at times.  I spend a lot time feeling vulnerable, and walking through those fears and finding transendence.  I truly believe that I will never go anywhere close to that level of darkness again.  

My life took a complete turn in 2007, when I moved out to Los Angeles to live at Beit T’Shuvah, which is a Jewish residential treatment center for addiction located in Culver City.  There are 120 beds that are always full, and there is always a waiting list.  Beit T’Shuvah, which means House of Return, is a very special non-profit that uses Judaism, psychotherapy and the 12-step program as a means to finding healing.  One of their programs is their Recovery in Music program, and through it was the creation of the musical Freedom Song, which has been played at Jewish Institutions around the nation.   I was very fortunate to be a part of such a powerful project.  Not only was I a cast member, but also its coordinator, and orchestrated tours around the nation. I had an incredibly powerful experience getting the chance to take Freedom Song to the synagogue I grew up in.

The play has 24 cast members, which are made up of the residents and alumni of the Beit T’Shuvah program.  It is a powerful and original musical workshop, which highlights the historic universality of the struggle to free oneself from external oppression and internal bondage.  Using contemporary music, Freedom Song juxtaposes personal stories of internal conflict and family dysfunction with the story of Passover.  There is always a discussion between the cast and the audience following the play.  Stu Robinson, Cantor Rebekah Mirsky, James Fuchs and some of the residents wrote the original production.  Craig Taubman, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, and Harriet Rossetto produced it.  The residents get to incorporate their own personal experiences into the script, and therefore the script is dynamic and changing.

We took Freedom Song all over the nation to different places such as synagogues, clergy conferences, camp programs, schools and youth groups.  What I found was that part of the reason why it’s so important to take Freedom Song out into the Jewish community is because of the lack of open, supportive and safe spaces to discuss these types of issues.  These issues often deal with addiction, criminal behavior and mental illness.  I found time and time again that there is a denial about this happening within the Jewish community.  This denial does not just happen in the Jewish community, but in all sorts of communities.  While at Beit T’Shuvah I lived with Jews that come from all denominations.  I went through the program with Rabbi’s, doctors, lawyers, and professors.  There were a lot of young adults who come from the most prominent families in Los Angeles.

There is a fear that I totally understand, about being judged and potentially ostracized for the crises that may be going on in our lives.  I can’t tell you how many times we had people come up to us after a show, telling us thank you and praising us for the open and honest discussion we brought to their community.  Many people would share with us how these sorts of issues also impact their own family, and that they don’t get the chance to talk about it with anyone out of the fear of being judged. 

I will soon be speaking to the confirmation class at the religious school and synagogue I grew up in.  I am going to share with them about my experience, strength and hope.   The confirmation class is presently doing a program about marriage and parenting, and on the day I will be speaking, they will be covering the topic of how to develop morals and values into their children.  I think that one of the most important messages for me to give these kids is the importance of raising their children in a loving, open and trusting home, and encouraging the same climate in the community around them.  They live in a new time and era, and can change society into a more transparent world, where people don’t have to hide their issues and pain.  It’s easy to get lost when we hide, and are not able to fully address and heal our struggles.  I think that what helped me the most while at Beit T’Shuvah was having the ability to be open and show my “wounds.”  I was able to fully see and understand myself, without the fear of being judged.  I see it like a physical wound, where if it’s always covered by a bandaid and isn’t getting air, it will lack the chance to heal.

It is so important to be educated about these issues, aware of how our own behavior may contribute to the situation, seek professional guidance and have a community of other people who you can trust and support you during times of crises.  Many of you may know that this takes a lot of work.  Easier said then done.  There is a level of vulnerability, and it takes a lot of courage and faith to take the steps to developing a support system, resilience, faith, balance and clarity.  

This high holidays is an excellent chance to open the doors towards change, and taking the positive actions to transform our lives.  This is for all of us, regardless of how tough or minor our challenges are.  It’s a chance to live a more authentic and positive life, where we can take the steps towards having greater support and understanding within our communities.  May we have more open and honest dialogues within both the community and ourselves. 

This blog is dedicated to my friend.  May she rest in peace.

To check out Beit T'Shuvah's Jewish Journal blog Addicted to Redemption please click {HERE}.

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Lia Mandelbaum is currently at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles as their Director of Programming and Engagement.  She has a master’s and bachelor’s in social work from CSULA, and...

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