West Bloomfield synagogue will train Jewish leaders on providing behavioral health support

A new initiative at The Shul seeks to provide more tools for Jewish community leaders to better offer behavioral health support to their community.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

As a Jewish community leader, Rochel Leah finds herself fielding a variety of requests for help from her community – sometimes including providing behavioral health support.

"We're all just out there on the front lines. Getting that support and knowing what we should be thinking about and knowing we aren't alone is very important," Leah says. "The more tools we have, working with so many people at different important times in their life, we want to have what we need to support them in the best possible way."

A new initiative at The Shul in West Bloomfield Township, where Leah works as a youth educator, seeks to provide more tools for Leah and numerous other Jewish leaders to better offer behavioral health support to their community. In August 2023, staff at The Shul (another term for a synagogue or temple) received a $200,000 Michigan Health Endowment Fund grant to create a Behavioral Health Training Initiative (BHTI). The BHTI will provide additional training to leaders throughout 40 of The Shul's partner organizations to better address the behavioral health needs of congregants who turn to their faith leaders for support. In order to extend the reach of this training, staff is planning a retreat for clergy leaders to connect with one another, as well as local behavioral health professionals.

Rabbi Yudi Mann, publications director at The Shul, explains that the initiative's aim is not to turn clergy members into health experts, but to "bring them up to par" when it comes to recognizing behavioral health issues in community members.

"This is to instill a much deeper understanding, throughout our network, of behavioral health," Mann says. "There's a lot of work being put into this and we're very excited."

Staff at The Shul have formed a committee to determine which behavioral health topics to emphasize in the upcoming retreat. They've also connected with local health systems to bring in behavioral health professionals to host panels and provide information on local resources that clergy members can bring back to their own communities. Mann says that bringing religious community leaders together to share one space through the retreat is one way The Shul hopes to "enhance the community's strength."

"We want to be able to ... prevent issues from becoming extremely severe," Mann says. "By training the clergies, we'll be able to better identify and point out issues in the community."

Itty Shemtov, The Shul's director of education, has been working alongside Mann to gauge interest and invite community leaders to the retreat. She explains that a focus of the initiative is to directly impact women in leadership positions throughout the community. Having access to behavioral health information can impact many different populations that Jewish community leaders serve.

"These are community leaders involved in preschool to high school, adult education, [and] religious services. We want to celebrate our opportunities and maximize what we are able to offer," Shemtov says. "Our goal is to help our leaders celebrate their own successes and equip them to take it up a notch."
Itty Shemtov.
Shemtov is particularly excited about the networking element of the initiative. She says she hopes that bringing community leaders together "face-to-face in an upbeat and empowering environment" will not only lead them to bring new skills back to their communities, but also allow those they serve to help others in the same way.

"Our mission as an organization is to foster meaning and purpose for others," Shemtov says. "By getting the right tools, we hope to see a ripple effect of personal connections, growth, purpose, and faith."

Leah is one of the West Bloomfield community members who has received an invitation to the retreat. She says there are "always ways to expand" what she offers to students and their families. 

"When I speak to people and I help them realize they're here in the world for a purpose, it can pull them out of their own funk a bit and help them help others," she says. "I'm looking forward to getting more tools to do that for more people."

Leah hopes that if community leaders have more knowledge and language they can use to discuss behavioral health, community members will feel more comfortable bringing up issues that they don't necessarily feel comfortable sharing with others. 

"There's so many people that open up to us in different ways that the more words I have can only be a good thing," Leah says. "The more support we can get, so we can do our jobs better and help everyone feel a sense of faith and purpose, can really help in such a big way."

Mann and Shemtov agree with this sentiment, recognizing that individuals tend to feel more comfortable seeking help from those in their own community. By connecting community leaders with one another and making them more aware of local support systems, Mann hopes that community members will be more open to sharing their struggles and finding assistance.
Rabbi Yudi Mann.
"The people from the community are always going to be more comfortable talking to people within their own community," he says. 

"A big component of successful mental health intervention and personal resilience is connection," Shemtov adds. "If there's anything that teachers and religious and social community leaders can offer, it's that connection by strengthening a person's faith and helping them find a direction or reminding them that they have a purpose."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

Photos by Nick Hagen.
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