April 23, 2019

Recycling & Spaceships

Yesterday morning as I headed out to the farmer’s market, I came across a man rummaging through my garbage. He looked up as I approached, made direct eye contact, and said good morning. I said good morning in return, and kept walking. It was a little awkward and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I carried on. When I got in my car I noticed a water bottle in my cup holder, so I grabbed it and went back to the trash. I approached the man and gave him the bottle for his recycling.

He thanked me for the bottle, told me I was a nice lady, and said he hoped I had a good day. I felt an odd need to speak with him, so I asked if he was having a profitable morning. He explained he had been out collecting for a couple hours and was doing fine. He said he believed in recycling, but appreciated when people forgot to recycle and he came across a lot of bottles. He said he was surprised people don’t recycle better, seeing as we were in the state of California.

We ended up speaking for about ten minutes and it was really interesting. We talked about the weather, the president, cruelty to animals, and how important a good pillow is for your neck. It was a little strange, but also lovely. At the end of the day we were the same. Two people who work hard, have opinions, and have value. It was enlightening and I felt connected to a stranger, which doesn’t happen often, but is always a possibility. Our time together somehow felt important.

I told him it was nice speaking with him and asked if I could give him some money to get something to eat. The question immediately changed his demeanor and I felt that he was now irritated. I panicked a bit and told him I didn’t mean to offend him in any way, and was sorry. He looked confused and closed his eyes. I was now a little frightened and told him it was okay and de didn’t need to take the money. He then thanked me for the offer and asked if he could save the money.

I told him he could do whatever he wanted with it. I explained it was a gift and he could spend it, save it, or give it away, because it was his money. I reached out and passed him $10.00. He thanked me with sincerity, smiled, and was relaxed again. He then told me he would save it and eat on his next visit because he didn’t have time to eat as he was worried he would miss the spaceship that was coming to pick him up. I smiled in return and wished him well with his work and his travels.

I haven’t stopped thinking about him since we met. I’m glad we spoke and even though in retrospect it was perhaps dangerous to have engaged, if I’m scared to talk to strangers, my life would be very different. I like people. I particularly like people with stories, so I will always talk to strangers and always try to help those less fortunate. It is who I am, and who I have always been. We are all just one space ship ride away from crazy, so we should just be kind and keep the faith.

Making Teen Mental Health a Priority

Three years ago, Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas received an out-of-the-blue text from one of his young congregants, a 13-year-old girl. The two met soon thereafter. The rabbi discovered she was in trouble despite having a loving and supportive family. She was suffering from severe depression and contemplating suicide. She needed help.

Fortunately, that girl, Dani Pattiz — now 16 and, in her words, doing “great” — got the help she needed. And her struggles, at least in part, inspired what Kipnes called a “transformation” at the temple.

“Every synagogue says they are youth friendly,” Kipnes said. “But it’s a different thing to say we are going to make sure these kids remain in front of our eyes and their families’ too, and we are going to be intensely aware of their needs, their moods and stresses.”

In the past couple of years, employees at the Reform synagogue — from teachers to the bookkeeper to the school registrar — have received extensive training on how to listen to teens and their parents and what questions to ask. All gatherings of preteens and teens at the temple now typically begin with some kind of stress-reduction exercise, whether a few minutes of meditation or calming coloring, or going around in a circle and sharing “joys and oys.”

In addition, the temple has hosted several events designed to support this population, including a Parent-Teen Mental Health & Wellness Summit in February, spearheaded by rabbinic intern Julie Bressler. The half-day gathering, co-hosted by the Caring Community Foundation, a nonprofit that Kipnes started in 2000, drew more than 100 people, primarily parents and therapists — some temple members, many not — as well as a smattering of young people.

“I did have a strong support group. Yet at the same time, I was still threatened by the stigma of whatever imagined consequences might come to bite me if I managed to speak up and ask for help.” — Dani Pattiz

Dani Pattiz, her mother, Debby, and psychologist Gia Marson led a workshop at the event. Its title, “Talk Loudly and Talk a Lot,” was courtesy of Dani Pattiz. She shares that message in her outreach efforts with students, teachers and staff at middle schools, with the goal of removing the stigma of mental health struggles. (She was in middle school when her own descent began.)

“My greatest regret in life is not getting help sooner,” Dani Pattiz said. “I did have a strong support group. Yet at the same time, I was still threatened by the stigma of whatever imagined consequences might come to bite me if I managed to speak up and ask for help.” Consequently, throughout her middle-school years, she suffered silently, maintaining good grades and doing her best to hide her pain. It wasn’t until a close friend from URJ Camp Newman, a Jewish residential camp in Northern California, privately contacted Dani’s parents and told them that Dani wasn’t doing well, that Dani’s mom realized her daughter needed help.

Debby Pattiz, too, while admitting the topic is still emotional for her, has become an outspoken advocate for talking about mental health. She is also refreshingly frank about the factors that contributed to her not recognizing that her daughter was in crisis, starting with the popular parental notion that when girls become teenagers they are going to be “mopey and manipulative.” Consequently, Debby assumed Dani was exhibiting “normal teenage-girl behavior.”

“I wish I had gotten Dani’s own advice: talk loudly and talk a lot,” Debby Pattiz said. “I wish that we had been able to talk about mental health and that there had been a societal conversation about it before it happened.

“Like when my kids were 9 and 10, I started talking with them about sex. The idea was, let’s talk about this before it’s embarrassing.

“What if we did the same thing as a society with mental health? What if we talked to fourth- and fifth-graders — not in huge, gory detail and not necessarily about themselves or their particular issues, but this is a thing that happens. … Just have that be a conversation that people have at their dinner tables, in their classrooms, so when it does happen, it’s not this big, terrifying thing that then makes you go into your shell.”

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children and young people from age 10 to 24. Rabbi Kipnes said 1 in 5 students in the Las Virgenes School District, the school system of many Or Ami families, talk about having suicidal ideation.

Jewish teens may face particular pressures.

“Children of a people whose survival and flourishing has historically depended on our ability to excel, particularly in scholarship and business … are taught explicitly that success in whatever endeavor they pursue is non-negotiable,” Kipnes said.

“Al achat kama v’kama (how much the more so) for Jewish youth today, when our achievements and failures, our talents and our flaws, and whether we are keeping up with the Steins next door, are publicized daily on social media.”

Is My Teen Depressed?

How do you know if your child or a friend of your child is struggling and might need help? Psychologist Gia Marson, who has a private practice in Santa Monica and Calabasas, offered these tips.

Of course, it’s best to err on the side of getting help if you aren’t sure.

• Distinguishing between sadness and depression, and stress and anxiety, is difficult.

• Look for impairment and changes in functioning. For example, is your child, who used to love going out with their friends no longer doing that? Have they stopped finding pleasure in activities they used to enjoy? Are they quitting a once-beloved team or avoiding things you think they normally would not avoid?

• Notice your own biases about mental health.

• Ask the question: Are you OK? And: Would you tell me if you aren’t OK?

• Talk to other adults in your child’s life. Parents of busy teenagers start seeing them less and less. A coach, counselor or teacher might be able to offer additional insight.

• If your teen does open up about his or her struggles, your job is to listen, not to jump in and fix things, but to listen and understand, and together devise a plan.

Hate crimes, bomb threats, anxiety and people with disabilities


As we all are aware, recently there has been a significant increase in hate crimes and bomb threats across the United States. Minorities, including people with disabilities, are especially at risk, not only for attacks and threats but also for the stress and anxiety that can result from seeing what is happening around us. People with multiple minority status (i.e. people of color + disability, LBGTQ + disability, Jewish or Muslim + disability, immigrant + disability) are particularly vulnerable.

Following more than 90 recent bomb threats and 140 separate recent incidents of anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has issued a security advisory. It is asking people to review the Bomb Threat Guidance provided by the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security; refer to the chapter on Explosive Threat Response Planning in ADL’s Security Manual Protecting Your Jewish Institution, which assists institutions in creating welcoming environments while keeping them safe; and to refer to ADL’s list of 18 Best Practices for Jewish Institutional Security. However, while the ADL’s excellent guidance can be helpful to people of all faiths, it does not cover issues that are vital for the 56 million Americans who have a disability.

When Jewish institutions do not have inclusion committees or policies, issues of life and death that impact people with disabilities can be seriously neglected. Fully 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, and the Jewish community, due to genetic disorders and advanced paternal ages, is disproportionately impacted by disabilities.

Can you imagine if an alarm goes off at a Jewish community center or day school and someone cannot hear it and there is not a plan in place? Or if someone who is blind or has low vision isn’t properly helped when the alarms are simply flashing lights? Or if people who need to take medications at regular intervals are evacuated but their medicines are left behind? Or what happens to a child with autism or adult with mental health issues if the staff is not properly trained and no system is in place?

Every Jewish institution needs to take disability inclusion seriously. Our nonprofit organization, RespectAbility, has compiled the free tools and resources listed below to help.

The 1 in 5 people in America who have a disability need proactive and systematic planning in order to ensure they have the same safety and security as everyone else. Key issues and steps include:

Anxiety, Addiction and Emotional Health: Even for people who do not have ongoing mental health issues and who are located nowhere near bomb threats or hate crimes, the content of social and other media can be extremely frightening. Emotional reactions can include feeling physically and mentally drained, having difficulty making decisions or staying focused on topics, becoming easily frustrated on a more frequent basis, arguing more with family and friends, feeling tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried, and experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Most of these reactions are temporary and will go away over time. It is important to try to accept whatever reactions you may have and to look for ways to take one step at a time and focus on taking care of your needs and those of your family. Keep a particularly close eye on children and people with addiction issues (including internet addiction) who may need extra means of support.

Some of the things that can significantly help your mental health include limiting your exposure to the sights and sounds of stress, especially on television and radio, in newspapers and on social media, as well as to eat a healthy diet, get ample sleep and stay personally connected to family and friends. Stay positive. Remind yourself of how you’ve successfully gotten through difficult times in the past. Reach out when you need support and help others when they need it.

Most major cities have a Jewish social services agency, which will help people of all faiths. Additionally, the Red Cross Disaster Distress Helpline is free and available around the clock for counseling or support. You can call 1-800-985-5990, text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746 or utilize www.redcross.org/news/article/Red-Cross-Mental-Health-Teams-Help.

Another resource is the American Counseling Association. It has fact sheets you can download on mental health services, including post-traumatic stress disorder and crisis counseling. Moreover, if you are feeling suicidal, you should go immediately to the website www.suicide.org.

Create Your Evacuation Plan and Support System: Have you been in touch with your local police station and fire department? If not, do it now. A part of the services they provide is to keep track of the needs of residents with disabilities in times of threat or disaster. For example, if you use a wheelchair and live or work in a high-rise building, the fire department will come out for free to meet with you and create an individual plan for you in the case of a fire or other emergency.

If you have sensory, cognitive or other issues, it is vital for the police and fire department to know how to support you in a time of crisis. Hundreds of Americans with disabilities are killed by police each year because the police have not been trained to recognize and address mental health or other disability issues. The time to have those conversations and training is before a disaster strikes. Because this issue is so important, RespectAbility has conducted a free webinar, which you can find on our website: Special Conversation with Special Olympics about Violence, Police Training and People with Disabilities.

When it comes to evacuating people with disabilities, you must plan in advance. See the National Fire Protection Association’s terrific Emergency Evacuation Planning for People with Disabilities (June 2016) at http://www.nfpa.org/public-education/by-topic/people-at-risk/people-with-disabilities.

Have a “To Go” Kit Ready: If your building is evacuated, you will want to have several things handy. For example, you will want to have any medications you may need to take as well as your phone and charger, glasses, hearing aids and extra batteries if you use them, supplies for a service animal you may have and more. You also will want to let your loved ones, who might worry if they see a threat on the news, know you are OK. You can do that through phone, email or social media. There are terrific resources available through FEMA at https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1440775166124-c0fadbb53eb55116746e811f258efb10/FEMA-ReadySpNeeds_web_v3.pdf.

If you use a communication device, mobility aid or service animal, what will you do if these are not available? If you require life-sustaining equipment or treatment such as a dialysis machine, map out the location and availability of more than one facility. For every aspect of your daily routine, plan an alternative procedure. Make a plan, write it down and print it out. Keep a copy of your plan in your emergency supply kit and put a list of important information and contacts in your wallet.

Create a Personal Support Network: If you anticipate needing assistance, make a list of family, friends and others who will be part of your plan. Talk to these people now and ask them to be part of your support network. Share each aspect of your crisis/emergency plan with everyone in your group, including a friend or relative in another area who would not be impacted by the same emergency who can help if necessary.

If you have a cognitive or intellectual disability, or are deaf of blind, be sure to work with your employer and other key contacts to determine how to best notify you of an emergency and what instruction methods are easiest for you to follow. Always participate in exercises, training sessions and emergency drills offered by your employer or landlord.

Our nation is at its best when we are welcoming, respectful and inclusive of all. As many people are, or feel, at risk, we must show exceptional love and friendship to those around us.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who has a disability and is the mother of a child with disabilities, is the president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She can be reached at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.

Special thanks to Elliot Harkavy for ideas and contacts that were used in this piece. 

The failure of L.A.’s mental health system

On a Thursday afternoon in March, Laurie Ritz, 44, sat on a sun-drenched patio in the heart of Long Beach. His piercing, blue eyes were slightly cloudy and framed by deep lines that hinted at his exhaustion. Ritz’s brown, shoulder-length curls were topped by a yarmulke, and he was in the midst of sharing a lunch of tuna wraps and fresh fruit with his older brother, Jonny Ritz. It was Purim, so Jonny had brought along a small gift box filled with snacks, which Laurie perused as the two talked about topics ranging from family to books, the Torah to gun control. They even paused to snap a smiling photo together.

The only indications this reunion was anything short of conventional were the barbed wire and locked gates that separated Laurie and the rest of the patients at La Casa Psychiatric Health Facility from the free world. Over the past decade, various doctors have diagnosed Laurie with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, two mental illnesses that can be difficult to distinguish because of their often-similar symptoms. For Laurie, a tumultuous three years of homelessness, court hearings and jail time, as well as a court-mandated conservatorship, landed him in this locked mental health facility.

“Whenever he got into trouble in Los Angeles, all they ever did was throw him in jail,” said Jonny, 52, a jeweler by trade who lives in Beverlywood. “Seventy-two hours, [then] out of jail, onto the street.”

Laurie has been arrested at least six times in the past two years, on various misdemeanor charges, according to police records. The crimes include violating a restraining order and trespassing, Jonny said. The majority of Laurie’s arrests took place within what the Los Angeles Police Department designates as West L.A., near to the homes of Laurie’s family and friends, their synagogues and kosher restaurants, Jonny said.

Although the specifics of each arrest aren’t public, family and friends describe Laurie’s behavior when he’s not on medication as violent and unpredictable. They recall him throwing punches (and a can of open tuna) in shul, as well as pushing over a flowerpot and leaving odd items such as tomatoes or cauliflowers in loved ones’ mailboxes. Even Jonny, Laurie’s staunchest advocate, said he filed a restraining order against his brother about three years ago, during a bout of Laurie’s psychotic behavior. 

L.A. County’s mental health system’s limited resources, coupled with a societal stigma surrounding mental illness and an overwhelmed public defender’s office facilitated a downward spiral for Laurie, Jonny said. Within the L.A. Jewish community, specifically, there are “almost zero” resources, he said. This is despite research that suggests Jews suffer disproportionately from mental health issues. 

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, L.A. is home to nearly 9,000 homeless people with mental illnesses. In L.A. County jails, there were more than 4,000 inmates with mental illness as of May 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported last month. Without access to proper treatment, housing or legal guidance, it’s all too easy for people to fall between the cracks or simply get lost amid the bureaucracy. In fact, Laurie himself was a casualty of this overloaded system, and without his brother’s diligence, he would have ended up standing trial instead of being recognized by the court as mentally ill and being placed under a conservatorship.

Indeed, Laurie Ritz’s story exemplifies the inadequacies of L.A.’s mental health system, in  which even someone with a zealously dedicated, educated brother advocating continuously on his behalf, can spend years cycling from the streets to jails and temporary treatment facilities. 

Jonny Ritz said in one of many interviews over recent weeks that his deep commitment to his brother’s well-being came from their father, who taught his sons to live selflessly in accordance with the Tribe of Levi, one of the tribes of Israel. 

“I am from the tribe of Levi, and the Levites are the tribe that cares deeply for other people, and it’s inherently in my nature,” Jonny said.

Laurie Ritz received his first diagnosis of mental illness almost a decade ago, when he was in his mid-30s and living in his native country of South Africa. In the United States, more than 18 percent of adults suffer from some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the leading federal mental health agency. More than 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population is believed to be living with bipolar disorder, specifically. And a 2013 study found Ashkenazi Jews are 15 percent more likely to suffer from bipolar and related disorders than the general population. 

Bipolar disorder causes dramatic mood changes, which often swing from overexcited mania to hopeless depression and result in drastic behavioral alterations, as well, according to the NIMH. It can cause people to act impulsively, experience racing thoughts and engage in high-risk behavior. When the pendulum swings the other way, sufferers often feel tired or sluggish, find it difficult to concentrate and can experience suicidal thoughts. This type of mood disorder is highly treatable, experts say, with the right regimen of medication and therapy, supplemented by a stable lifestyle that includes restful sleep and regular exercise. 

Greg Spiegel is the director of strategic initiatives at the Inner City Law Center on Skid Row. For more than 35 years, this nonprofit law firm has been helping protect low-income families from eviction, developing strategies to end homelessness and placing veterans, the homeless and the disabled into secure, affordable housing. 

“Over the last 10, 15, 20 years, we’ve learned that the way to end somebody’s homelessness is housing first,” Spiegel told the Journal in an interview. 

It’s difficult for people to get clean or consistently take medication while living on the street, Spiegel said, so for individuals like Laurie Ritz with a serious mental illness, and/or those with drug addiction, the best first step on the road to recovery is permanent supportive housing. Such stable, long-term accommodations include built-in support systems that many homeless need, including doctors and counselors. 

But in this, Los Angeles is behind the curve, having only just started to invest in and provide permanent supportive housing over the last decade. In contrast, New York City and New York State have had an agreement to fund permanent supportive housing since the mid-1990s, Spiegel wrote in an email to the Journal. Today, the city of Los Angeles is about 10,000 units short of having enough permanent supportive housing to meet the current demand. This means people like Laurie remain stuck in cycles of incarceration and homelessness.

“I need a stable home. I need a living facility,” Laurie said. “If I have that, then slowly I’ll be able to start building up again.” 

Laurie Ritz (front), at age 10, poses with his parents, his 15-year-old sister and Jonny, then 18, in South Africa in 1982.

Given L.A.’s housing shortage and lack of other stabilizing resources, many individuals with mental illnesses end up in L.A. County’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility, making it one of the largest mental health facilities in the United States. In just the past few years, Laurie has been sent to the decrepit downtown L.A. jail on multiple occasions, for up to six months. Much of this time was spent waiting for a judge to decide whether he was competent to stand trial. 

“Each time is one too many,” said Laurie, who agreed to share his story with the Journal in an effort to help others avoid his same fate. “It’s not the kind of place anyone wants to go to, and certainly not go back to again.”

L.A. County’s inadequate treatment of its mentally ill inmates has been widely criticized by mental health advocates and the federal government alike. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice, which had been monitoring conditions within the jails for more than a decade, concluded “serious deficiencies” remain in the mental health care system. These are made worse by “inadequate supervision and deplorable environmental conditions,” such as insufficient cleaning of “feces-smeared cells,” depriving inmates of their constitutional right to mental health care. 

So, in 2015, after years of contentious debate over the size, scope and needs of a new men’s jail slated for downtown Los Angeles, the County Board of Supervisors approved a $2 billion jail plan prioritizing mental health care and substance abuse treatment in the new facility. Approved in September, the new jail will have 3,885 beds — fewer than recommended by consultants, but a reflection of the county’s plan to send more low-level offenders with serious mental illness into community-based treatment centers, instead of keeping them behind bars. 

In order to accomplish this, the county also approved an ordinance earmarking $30 million to create an Office of Diversion and Re-entry. Aimed at funneling homeless or those at-risk of becoming homeless into appropriate treatment programs in lieu of jail, this office strives to treat the individuals with the intention of stopping the cycle of mentally ill individuals rotating in and out of hospitals and jails.

“Diversion is humane and cost-effective, putting taxpayer dollars to much better use than incarceration does,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in a statement.

Despite these progressive plans on paper, the number of mentally ill inmates in L.A. jails has continued to grow. According to a June L.A. Times story, the average number of mentally ill incarcerated has grown 34 percent between 2013 and mid-May of this year. 

Like many people with bipolar disorder, Laurie’s symptoms developed in early adulthood. As a kid growing up in South Africa, he was a “very normal, sweet, very, very bright individual,” Jonny said, and it wasn’t until their father died of brain cancer in 1992, when Laurie was 20, that Laurie’s behavior began to change. 

“We didn’t really see really clear signs of mental illness, but we started to notice signs that Laurie was lost, that he was very withdrawn, yet he was still very functional,” Jonny said.

It wasn’t until six or seven years after his father’s death that Laurie had his first psychotic episode, Jonny said. Meanwhile, in the mid-’90s, Laurie had moved to Los Angeles to be close to his brother. He took some classes at Santa Monica City College and eventually transferred to UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in business. He quickly landed a job but was laid off in the early 2000s when the tech bubble burst, Jonny recalled. Laurie became depressed, withdrawn and very religious. Working only intermittently, he bounced among New York, South Africa and Los Angeles, as well as Israel, where, for a brief time, he studied at Mir Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish seminary that’s one of the largest in the world. 

When family friend and lawyer Craig Ackermann first met the Laurie in 2010, the younger Ritz was on medications and “doing very well,” Ackermann said. He hosted Laurie at multiple Shabbat dinners, where Ackermann described him as funny, helpful and overall a “delightful guest.” So charming in fact, that other guests tried to set him up on dates with their friends. 

“At that point, I felt very comfortable having him in my home and around my kids and wife,” Ackermann said.

At the time, Laurie was taking medication that managed the symptoms of his mental illness. However, the often-prohibitive cost of the drugs, his lack of access to continued medical counseling and side effects such as weight gain and excessive drooling made it hard for him to stick to the medication regimen, Laurie admitted. While cost varies greatly from prescription to prescription, the antipsychotic Invega Sustenna, which Laurie is currently on, costs about $2,000 per injection, and he needs the shot once a month, Jonny said. This hefty price tag doesn’t include the additional costs of drugs needed to manage the many side effects.

These are all reasons why Laurie recognizes his need for long-term housing with built-in infrastructure to help him continue to improve.

“If the medication is available and affordable, I’d be a fool not to take it,” Laurie added.

Ackermann visited Laurie during his most recent stay at La Casa, and emphasized that since he’s been consistently medicated, he’s been coherent and apologetic. 

“He can remember everything that he’s done,” Ackermann said. “It’s really heartwarming to see my old friend is back.”

Far from La Casa on one recent Monday evening, a group of about 15 Jewish community leaders, mental health professionals and legal experts gathered in Jonny Ritz’s living room to discuss and debate how to collaborate in creating a mental health service provider for the Jewish community.

While establishing a long-term housing facility is its ultimate goal, the group is hoping first to start a crisis center, hotline or even simply a collection of resources for families with loved ones who have mental illness. In the meantime, Jonny has been gathering inspiration from various models of mental health care from throughout the country. In June, Jonny, along with Ackermann and a psychologist, visited the Chesed Home in San Diego, a residential care community that aims “to provide a safe and nurturing environment with Jewish Values for adults with mental illness.” Jonny said he was impressed by the facility, including how well maintained the space was, the quality of the staff and clinicians and the “delicious” kosher food that was provided by a kosher kitchen. 

“The Los Angeles Jewish community needs better care for their mentally ill patients,” Jonny wrote in an email to the Journal. “Many require a kosher diet, Sabbath observance and other religious practices. Our Los Angeles Jewish community must provide a dedicated crisis center as well as care facilities for their mentally ill.”

But until this happens, the fight for Laurie Ritz’s health and safety continues on a daily basis. Because of lengthy waitlists caused by a severe shortage of housing options, Laurie was stuck at La Casa for about four months. After an arduous process to get him transferred, Laurie is now living at the Meadowbrook Behavioral Health Center, a residential facility that’s only 15 minutes from Jonny’s home. It’s still a locked space and Laurie is barred from leaving — “it’s not a hotel,” Jonny emphasized — but they anticipate his stay will be temporary and should be the last step before he’s released back into the general population. 

Laurie is expected to stay at Meadowbrook for three to six months, Jonny said, after which he’ll likely head to a “step-down” facility, a place that provides patients with freedom to come and go as they please but with a built-in support system of counselors and/or mental health professionals who will help ensure Laurie stays on track.

Jonny is “cautiously optimistic,” about Laurie’s future, he said, but no matter what happens, he’s going to continue to fight for him. 

“When my brother hurts, I hurt more,” Jonny said. “This being my biological brother makes it a lot closer to home for me. And I will never turn my back on a brother.” 


Two time Academy Award nominee Rick Goldsmith was looking for his next project when he came across Chamique Holdsclaw in the newspaper.  After some conversations and moments of self-reflection, WNBA legend and Olympic Gold Medalist Chamique Holdsclaw agreed to allow Goldsmith to turn her life-story into a documentary.

The resulting project is MIND/GAME: THE UNQUIET MIND OF CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW which addresses Holdsclaw’s difficult childhood as well as her struggles with bipolar disorder.

The documentary manages to transcend the typical sports crowd by making Holdsclaw’s life a tale of overcoming adversity.

Chamique Holdsclaw took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about what it was like watching such an intimate portrait of herself, her more memorable fan encounter and much more.

Take a look below for the full interview and when you’re through, leave me a message in the comments below to tell me if you plan on seeing the documentary!

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Passover: Faith and freedom

My local Ralphs has begun stocking its shelves with Passover goodies. The resonant voice of Charlton Heston can be heard on t.v. This can only mean one thing: the Jewish holiday of Passover is coming. Again, as every year, Jews around the world are instructed to personalize the Exodus story, “as though we ourselves were slaves in Egypt.”    

Judging from the therapy clients coming through the doors of my office, there is plenty of resonance to be found. These days, few of us are actually physically enslaved.  Yet we are often trapped internally. We lives our lives in restricted, confined routines because we are afraid of making changes without any guarantee. 

Many people feel stuck internally, and don’t realize that they can empower themselves to change.  Although it is not a conscious choice, we often choose the safety and familiarity of routine.  But we  disengage from our daily lives in subtle ways.  We stay busy.  We lower our expectations.  We become slaves to our internal inertia.        

I never realized this, but the Hebrew word for Egypt, mizrayim,  can be translated as tight place. Place of constriction.  The Israelites were physically constricted.  Yet even when Moses offered them instant freedom, they hesitated. They weren’t sure that they wanted to exchange the familiar for danger and uncertainty. 

When the Israelites approached the Red Sea, G-d had not yet parted the waters.  According to the Rabbinic Midrash, a man named Nachson ben Aminadav responded by jumping into the sea without hesitation.  Only after he was up to his nose in the water, did the sea part so that the Israelites could cross in safety. He had to take a leap of faith in order to go forward. 

In a way, the therapeutic process requires that same leap of faith.  Many of us have difficulty imagining that lasting change can be possible. One of the best parts of being a therapist is that I am blessed with the chance to offer my clients the idea that change is possible. That often leads to a sense of hopefulness that can lead to significant shifts. 

Often, people engage in magical thinking. “I could leave my current circumstances and start all over again.”  Unfortunately, it is never that simple. The grass is rarely, if ever, greener on the other side.  It is not enough to move to a new physical destination–we need to work on our internal landscape.   Part of that process involves being able to be compassionate to ourselves.  To accept our imperfections and flawed selves. Only then can we become truly free.

Roni Blau is a licensed clinical therapist practicing in Santa Monica.  She can be reached at roniblausw@gmail.com.

Torn-up sick notes show crash pilot should have been grounded

German authorities found torn-up sick notes showing that the pilot who crashed a plane into the French Alps was suffering from an illness that should have grounded him on the day of the tragedy, which he apparently hid from the airline.

French prosecutors believe Andreas Lubitz, 27, locked himself alone in the cockpit of the Germanwings Airbus A320 on Tuesday and deliberately steered it into a mountain, killing all 150 people on board.

“Documents with medical contents were confiscated that point towards an existing illness and corresponding treatment by doctors,” said the prosecutors' office in Duesseldorf, where the co-pilot lived and where the doomed flight from Barcelona was heading.

“The fact there are sick notes saying he was unable to work, among other things, that were found torn up, which were recent and even from the day of the crime, support the assumption based on the preliminary examination that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and his professional colleagues,” the German prosecutors said.

They found no suicide note or confession, “nor was there any evidence of a political or religious background to what happened”, they added.

Lubitz's mental health – and what Germanwings and parent company Lufthansa knew about it – could become central questions in any future legal case over the crash. Under German law, employees are required to inform their employers immediately if they are unable to work.

Reports in German media suggested that Lubitz had suffered from depression in the past, and that Lufthansa would have been aware of at least some of that history.

Germany's Bild newspaper reported on Friday that Lubitz had suffered from depression during a period when he broke off his training six years ago. It said he spent over a year in psychiatric treatment.

Israeli crash victim’s family blames airline for letting allegedly suicidal co-pilot fly

The family of the Israeli feared killed in the crash of Germanwings flight 4U 9525 accused the airline of failing to monitor its staff.

French and German officials are investigating why co-pilot Andreas Lubitz on Tuesday flew the Airbus 320 into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.

The family of Eyal Baum, who is believed to have died in the crash, leveled the accusation in interviews on Thursday to Israeli media, including the news site ynet.co.il.

“We want to know how come the airline failed to screen and check the co-pilot,” Ronny Baum, Eyal Baum’s brother, told Israeli media. The family’s attorney told the news site news.walla.co.il that the family “has enormous anger at the airline.”

Following the crash, some airlines are set to change their rules to ensure two crew members are in plane cockpits at all times, The Guardian reported Thursday.

Lubitz, 28, appears to have kept the senior pilot out of the cockpit after the first officer left the cabin mid-flight.

Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin, who briefed the media on the cockpit black box recording’s contents, said he could hear the pilot pounding on the door as his junior colleague started the descent into the Alps. Lubitz can be heard breathing normally on the recording as the plane barrels towards the rocky mountainside, Robin said, adding it was clear Lubitz “wanted to destroy the plane” and had done so “intentionally.”

Prosecutors said they found no evidence linking Lubitz to terrorist groups or activities.

A Mishkan for all: A communal approach to mental illness

I grew up with my younger brother, Zack Thomas, who has struggled with bipolar disorder since he was a very young child. 

What it has taught me is that as individuals, and as a community, encountering mental illness is a blessing and a challenge — and one that we need to do a much better job of talking about.

I say blessing because I am who I am today because of the empathy, humility and strength that my experiences have cultivated within me. I say challenge because struggling with mortality, whether of the mind, body or soul, is perhaps the greatest challenge we know in this life. Mental illness exists in my nuclear and extended family, as well as among many of my close friends, two of whom tragically committed suicide during my high school and college years. I hold their memory in my heart today.

There is a brokenness that reaches into our hearts and our minds. A brokenness that causes alienation and disrupts our plans and our dreams. It is a brokenness that breeds loneliness, guilt, despair and anger. I am speaking of the brokenness that comes from the suffering and stigma of mental illness, a brokenness I have known in my personal and professional life.

As Zack’s sibling, I learned how to differentiate between my brother and his disorder. I learned that empathy and forgiveness, instead of anger, fear and blame, are crucial in speaking with someone who struggles with manic highs and lows. For much of my life, I have lived in terror, trying to prepare myself for the worst, while still trying to live as though everything is “fine” and “normal.” I have tiptoed, compensated and shed many tears. I am familiar with what Rebbe Nachman poignantly names “יונפה‭ ‬ללח,” (hallal hapanui) an emptiness that arises in the face of suffering. I have learned and continued to learn that mental illness for many is a wave, ebbing and flowing, with good days, better days, bad days and worse days, and that healing is a matter of perspective.

But I have also learned kindness from my brother, Zack. I have learned sensitivity from his Betzalel-like artistic talents and his literary brilliance. I have learned love from his willingness to greet and accept anyone he meets. My brother, who as a child always gave away his toys to his friends, quite clearly embodies what the Torah describes as the בל‭ ‬בידנ‭ ‬(nadiv lev)‭ ‬and‭ ‬בל‭ ‬תמכח‭ ‬(hachmat lev), the generous heart and wise heart. My brother is my role model in living both in his brokenness and in his wholeness.

Today the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health estimates that one in four Americans has a diagnosable mental illness. One in four people in our families. That is an astounding figure, especially given how much stigma exists around mental illness and how little psychiatric care and psychological care we seek out as a country. Mental illness does not affect “other people,” “them” or “the disenfranchised.” Mental illness affects everyone, and has no boundaries or awareness of financial, religious or cultural differences.

Diagnosable disorders include but are not limited to anxiety disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, dementias, intellectual disabilities and eating disorders. Many of these diagnoses also have a high comorbidity with addiction and substance abuse. And some tragically include suicidal ideation. Although suicide is a much larger topic, I want to mention that statistically, those who attempt suicide do not want to die, but instead want to stop their pain. These are disorders with which many of us live and, perhaps despite of or even because of, have deeply meaningful lives. 

My prayer is that we will begin a conversation that will continue to evolve. We must educate ourselves about mental illness to reduce stigma and create a safe space, and to empower us in providing support to each other. In seeking to better understand and empathize with those living with mental illness, we have the ability as a community to decrease the suffering and shame that come from stigma and to even encourage comfort and dignity. For example, when we say the misheberach, the prayer for the sick, we can pray for a friend fighting cancer or heart disease as well as for a friend struggling with depression or anorexia. Or we may be able to sit with a mother or father who is worrying and praying for normalcy in the face of a child’s recent mental-illness diagnosis.

On the other hand, given how stigmatized mental illness is, it is crucial to respect and honor others’ privacy and boundaries, as we are not always ready or in need of sharing our suffering publicly. Even the language of “mental illness” and “disorder” can feel like labels that alienate and isolate. I encourage us to be creative and rethink our language with informed empathy.

In the Gemara, Masechet Bava Batra 14b, we learn that the ark in the Temple contained both the first set of broken tablets, תוחול‭ ‬(luhot), and the second set of whole tablets. Why do we keep the broken tablets? We have all experienced brokenness, we have all known fragility, and it is not something about which to feel ashamed. It is an inevitable part of being human. We do not seek it out. Yet through our breaks, cracks and fissures, we have the opportunity to allow more light in. At times, our brokenness is part of our wholeness. 

As a chaplain specializing in psychiatric care and suicidal ideation, I have learned this Gemara of the broken and whole tablets with patients of varying cultures, backgrounds and faiths, and it resonates. Each time, the same themes arise: guilt at having broken the tablets in our own lives, anger at ourselves and others for that brokenness, pain and longing in learning how to forgive ourselves, and comfort in knowing that brokenness and wholeness can coexist.

God does not ask us to be “fixed,” but instead to recognize all of the raw, broken parts of ourselves. The ark, the center of God’s holy home, holds our broken selves and whole selves. We need the presence of the broken tablets to remind us to be patient when we are fragile and to help us value and not shy away from the shared human experience of brokenness. 

Alissa Thomas-Newborn is the Kehilla intern at B’nai David-Judea Congregation. She is also a chaplain specializing in palliative care, end-of-life care and psychiatric care. She is a writer for Metropolitan Jewish Health System’s Center for Jewish End of Life Care. Thomas-Newborn is completing her final year of studies at Yeshivat Maharat.

Jews and disabilities: What still must be done

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month.  In thinking about Judaism and disability, most might start with the teaching in Leviticus “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind.”  This is certainly sage advice, and in a sense offers a disability-specific version of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you.  This is a lesson that even children can and should relate to: mocking or denigrating someone with a disability, or intentionally making their lives difficult by putting objects (physical or otherwise) in their path, is mean and hurtful.  All of us – with or without visible disabilities – are made in G-d’s image, and we disrespect our common humanity by such actions.

But I believe that a true understanding of Leviticus’s teachings, and our responsibilities as Jews and Americans, requires us to think differently and do much more.  First, we must acknowledge that our country, like others, has an unfortunate history regarding disability.  In the 1920s, the Supreme Court of the United States condoned forced sterilization of people with mental disabilities, opining that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”  Until the 1970s, people with disabilities were kept out of public view and warehoused in institutions.  The conditions were often deplorable; torture and death were all too common.  And through this period, children with disabilities were blatantly and expressly excluded from public schools.  Policies like these, and others, created and reinforced a sense of “otherness” regarding disability, and allowed prejudice and stigma to flourish.

As a country, we have come a long way in a relatively short period of time.  Starting in the 1970s, and continuing through today, the civil rights era for people with disabilities was born.  Part of the ideological foundation for this movement is the social model of disability.  Under this view, disability itself is a social construct, the product of the interaction of an individual’s impairment and how society responds to that impairment.  Someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility is “disabled” not only because of anything medically different about him or her, but because we have allowed a physical environment to be built where only steps and stairs are available.  If there were ramps, the “disability” would be greatly diminished.  Similarly, with adequate social supports and proper therapies, someone with autism can thrive, not being limited in their life prospects by a world which only recognizes their medical-based inabilities.  Thus, we must all pay careful attention to what “stumbling blocks” we place in the way of people with disabilities: our assumptions about what they can and cannot do are just as limiting as actual physical barriers.

And there is work for the Jewish community to do.  First, we need to take a broad view of who is a person with a “disability.”  It is the one minority group we can all joint at any time.  In recent years, through programs like Temple Sinai’s Beit Bracha religious school, awareness of autism has grown.  We need to build on those gains and embrace and advocate for all people with disabilities.  People with different disabilities have different life experiences, our disability civil rights laws have occurred because people with diverse disabilities – people who are blind, deaf, with mobility impairments, mental, and psychosocial disabilities – have all banded together and formed coalitions to get laws passed.  In the words of Dr. King, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

We can start by making sure our places of worship are as accommodating as possible to people with diverse disabilities.  Often, as religious institutions, we are exempted from certain laws requiring nondiscrimination.  But we must go beyond what the law requires to provide auxiliary aids when needed, have disability-appropriate religious programming, and have physical spaces that allow for the full participation of people with disabilities (which also, incidentally, works well for families with small children with strollers!).

In addition to a sense of social justice, the Jewish community is fortunate to have political power.   We must harness it to concentrate on the world beyond our temple and synagogue walls.  There are several state and local initiatives we should support.  We should continue advocacy for extended health care coverage.  Traditionally, our health insurance system has poorly served people with disabilities: if they attempt to work, they run the risk of losing their public health insurance, despite the fact that they could be and were discriminated against in the private insurance market.  Laws like the Affordable Care Act will help, but they are politically vulnerable, and as state budgets contract, we should ensure that people with disabilities have access to quality health care that supports their decisions to attempt to work.  We have a historic influx of veterans with disabilities who served our country bravely, but too often they return to an underfunded Veterans Administration and lack of job training options.

This advocacy can and should extend beyond our national borders.  The United Nations just passed the first ever human rights treaty on the rights of people with disabilities, but so far the United States has not ratified it (Israel has).  A handful of senators blocked ratification, based on meritless concerns that it would limit the rights of parents to home school their children.  The world expects more leadership from the United States on disability, and we should provide it.  As a community, we should pressure our elected officials to ratify this treaty and restore the United States position as a worldwide leader on disability human rights.  Finally, those of us who are employers and run businesses should make sure we comply with laws requiring nondiscrimination on the basis of disability and access, not begrudgingly but because it is the right and moral thing to do.  We should look for customers and qualified employees with disabilities; often, their life experiences make them ideally situated for the tough challenges the workplace brings.

For over a decade, I have had the privilege of teaching disability law and policy to law students.  Through their efforts, and the work of advocates before them, the hard work of building a more just world for people with disabilities is underway.  Just as our community stood with predecessor civil rights movement involving racial minorities and women, we should support the disability rights movement.  Disability is the one minority group we could all join at any time.  Jewish Disability Awareness Month, and all of the programming happening across Los Angeles and other cities this month, is important in getting us to think about these issues.  But we must use our collective resources and voices to continue to lobby for change at the local and federal levels.  Judaism’s tradition of respect for human difference and social justice requires no less.

Michael Waterstone is an Associate Dean and Professor of Law at Loyola Law School Los Angeles.  He is a member of Sinai Temple.

Jewish parent power tools can help kids cope with the tragedy at Sandy Hook and beyond

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about what to say to children about the massacre at Sandy Hook.  A steady stream of experts attempting to provide some sort of parental protocol for addressing this unimaginable tragedy with our kids: Find out what our child knows before divulging too many details. Limit our kids’ exposure to scary news reports. Reassure them that they are safe and that the adults in their lives know how to keep them from harm’s way. But even the best advice seems to fall short in this case as it’s ultimately impossible for anyone – our children or ourselves – to make sense of that which doesn’t. 

Thankfully, our rich Jewish tradition offers a unique set of resources to help us find our way over this most daunting of parental hurdles.  The following Jewish Parent Power Tools – when embraced for all their worth – can help our children cope with the harsh realities of Sandy Hook while gearing them with strength, courage and compassion for the uncertain road ahead.

The Shema.  “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The Shema is considered the most important prayer in the Jewish religion as it perfectly and succinctly reaffirms of our faith and connection with God twice a day. The news out of Newtown that our kids might have seen on the TV, Internet, and social media can make their world feel frightening and out of control.  By saying the Shema, this sense of powerless is replaced by spirituality and belief in a higher power that will help guide and sustain them through good times and bad.

The Haggadah.  The word haggadah means a storytelling.  Sharing tales of overcoming hardship is part of our religion by design.  The Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) at Emory University has shown this premise on a more scientific level.  A long-term study by MARIAL’s found that children whose parents told family stories at the dinner table had significantly better coping skills than those whose parents did not.  From Passover to Purim and everything in between, our Jewish narrative reassures our children of the power of perseverance and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).  Senseless acts of violence like that which occurred in Newtown confirm that our world is indeed in need of repair.  Joining forces with our children to pick up litter in a park, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or doing other acts of Tikkun Olam can feel like our own little triumph over evil – a tiny step toward restoring that which was broken and tilting the balance scales toward good.

Tzedakah and Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness).   There’s no doubt that the school shootings in Newtown shake us to the core.  But rather than focusing on the horror of what’s transpired, we should encourage our children (and ourselves) to channel our energies into feeling compassion for the families that were affected by this tragedies. Collecting Tzedakah or making cards for the students at Sandy Hook school can help facilitate this cognitive shift from fear to a much healthier compassion.

Jewish Courage.  There is a beautiful Hebrew song based on the sage words of Rav Nachman of Breslov. Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’fahed klal.  The world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear. “Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the overcoming of fear,” writes Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World.  This is not to suggest that we encourage our kids to throw caution to the wind altogether.  They should, of course, be sensible and vigilant. But then it’s time to move forward: Skipping into their classrooms, laughing with friends on the schoolyard, walking that inevitably narrow bridge with a zest for life and faith in the world’s ultimate goodness.  Enjoy the journey together.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” (Random House). Her parenting articles appear in over 100 publications including Parents, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Huffington Post and the Jerusalem Post. Her four children give her an endless supply of parenting fodder.

I. E. D.

Shatner Horse Trek; Four of a Kind; Star Bright; Mayor Meets Mayor; Social Justice? Here I Am

Horse Trek

William and Elizabeth Shatner made their first U.S. public appearance on behalf of the William and Elizabeth Shatner-Jewish National Fund Therapeutic Riding Consortium Endowment for Israel last week at “An Evening of Magical Information.”

The $10 million endowment will support therapeutic riding programs for the disabled throughout Israel so that more individuals can benefit from the essential contribution equine therapy makes to the overall well-being of the disabled. The long-term hope is to forge cooperative networks between Israel and neighboring countries in support of therapeutic riding for the disabled.

Four of a Kind

The San Fernando Valley Council of Na’amat USA (formerly Pioneer Women) honored two local couples Sept. 10 with its 2006 Distinguished Community Award. Marilyn and Jerry Bristol and Trudy and Lou Kestenbuam were recognized for their decades of philanthropy and public service. The lunch at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana raised $75,000 for the Petach Tikvah MultiPurpose Center in Israel. Middle East expert Yoav Ben-Horin gave a thoughtful speech on the current situation in Israel and reminded everyone that events in the Middle East never turn out predictably. Phil Blazer served as master of ceremonies for the evening.

Star Bright

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Mayor Meets Mayor

Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts hosted Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Mayor Yona Yahav of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, on Yom Kippur. The Israeli city was recently shut down for more than a month during the destructive Hezbollah missile attacks.
“Mayor Yahav is a symbol of resiliency” said Baron. “This is a recurring theme of Yom Kippur — that the Jewish people will endure hatred and violence to pray for peace.”

The vision of Temple of the Arts, which was founded by Baron, is “to reconnect fellow Jews and all people seeking spiritual enlightenment with the beliefs and traditions of Judaism through the arts.”

For further information, or to attend the services, call (323) 658-4900 or visit


Coping With Cancer Proves Family Affair

In the first moments after Lori Marx-Rubiner was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, several fears ran through her head. The Jewish community social worker, who was 35 at the time, wondered about her mortality and worried about the prospect of pain and nausea induced by treatment. However, her deepest concern centered on her then 3-year-old son, Zachary.

Telling her son about her illness was "by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life," Marx-Rubiner said. In the five days between undergoing a biopsy and receiving the results, Marx-Rubiner and her attorney husband of 15 years, John, agonized over how to appropriately share such news with their son.

After fruitless searches for age-appropriate books, Marx-Rubiner finally found one that described cancer as a weed growing out of control. Because her son had been spending a lot of time in the garden, she seized on the metaphor to explain her illness and the ways her doctors planned to get rid of it.

"I told him it would take time, but as a family, we were all going to try and get me healthy. And his dad had the good sense to explain that cancer isn’t contagious," she said.

The candid, hopeful tone that Marx-Rubiner took is exactly the approach that mental health professionals recommend. "The more information children have, the less frightened they’re going to be," said Sally Weber, director of community programs at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and a licensed clinical social worker.

For example, Weber said it’s natural for children to worry about a parent dying, but parents are often hesitant to discuss the topic.

"Saying [scary] words doesn’t mean they’ll happen," Weber said, noting that parents can respond to the child’s concern by saying something like, "I’m not planning on dying."

"You can be very positive with your children even if you’re feeling very frightened," Weber said. "You can say, ‘Sometimes this scares me, but I’m doing everything I can to get well.’"

From diagnosis through treatment and beyond, communication is crucial not only with children but between spouses as well.

"In families, we all cope differently with crisis and trauma," Weber said.

Couples have to recognize one another’s communication styles and develop their own approach as a couple before the family can cope in a healthy way. For the Marx-Rubiners, "our roles were reversed immediately," the wife said. "All of a sudden, I was the one who needed to be cared for, and I needed to accept that, which was a challenge."

At the same time, she continued, "the spouse is supposed to be strong and supportive and become the caretaker and deal with their issues by themselves…. The challenge for me was to help my husband find ways to communicate with me and to know that he didn’t have to protect me from his fears and anger."

One of the places where the family explored these issues was at The Safe Spot, a one-day camp program for Jewish families with children, where a parent is afflicted with cancer. As a follow-up to this program — which was founded by Weber; Rabbi Ed Feinstein, of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; and Carol Koransky, senior vice-president of policy, planning and community development for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — a series of evening workshops for parents with cancer will be offered next year.

When cancer occurs, "all that used to be normal feels like it’s ended," Weber said. Routines are disrupted. Housekeeping, cooking and other care-giving responsibilities are shifted. The family structure changes. "Now there’s a new normal, and … families learn to adjust to the new normal," she said.

For Marx-Rubiner, that meant hiring a nanny to do light housekeeping, pick her son up from preschool, prepare his dinner and give him a bath. Marx-Rubiner also looked for ways to stay connected with her son, even when she wasn’t feeling well, for example, by inviting Zach to crawl into bed and watch a movie with her.

"And he had a lot more daddy time, which was a real blessing," Marx-Rubiner added.

While there’s a tendency to focus on the patient, "cancer metastasizes to everybody in the family," said Valley Beth Shalom’s Feinstein, who has battled colon cancer twice. In fact, he said, cancer’s impact reaches far beyond the immediate family.

"I watched this ripple effect go through the whole community around me, my wife, my kids, my parents, my brothers, my friends, my kids’ friends and their parents," Feinstein said. "It shakes everyone’s sense that the world is safe."

For both Feinstein and Marx-Rubiner, community support was crucial. Parents from the Adat Ari El Early Childhood Center, where Marx-Rubiner’s son attended preschool, coordinated a schedule to provide daily meals for her family. Others drove her son to school, took him to Tot Shabbat services and invited him over for dinner.

Her husband took her to treatments in the morning, but friends would drive her home and stay with her until the nanny arrived.

"That’s God at work as far as I’m concerned," she said.

Feinstein also received "tremendous love and support" from his community.

"It’s important for the community to take responsibility … and to recognize that it’s not just the patient, it’s everybody in the family [who needs support]," he said.

Looking back on their experiences, both Feinstein and Marx-Rubiner found that cancer brought unexpected gifts.

"[My family has] a keen appreciation for each day," Marx-Rubiner said. "We take nothing for granted. I’m able to recognize that a piece of grass or a weed growing in a concrete block is a


"I gave up the idea that I have to be invulnerable," Feinstein said. "I gave up being Superman. I realized I have to share my agony and my struggles with my family."

Both Marx-Rubiner and Feinstein mentioned gaining a stronger spiritual connection.

"The things I believed in before in an abstract way, I believe in now from a much deeper place," Feinstein said.

"I don’t struggle with God anymore," Marx-Rubiner noted.

Feinstein’s advice to those dealing with cancer:

"Don’t give up. Even if you only have a little time left, you have time to do what’s important and to live big in the time you’ve got. If you don’t surrender, you will leave behind a legacy to your children of living with courage and light and humor and wisdom — and that’s why we’re here."

"I think there are tremendous blessings in all this," Marx-Rubiner stressed.

Despite all the challenges she’s faced, Marx-Rubiner is quite adamant about her experience with cancer: "I wouldn’t give it back."

For a list of resources designed for families dealing with cancer, call Jewish Family Service, (323) 761-8800, ext. 1255 .

No Longer Alone

Murray Cohen and his wife of 52 years, Lillian, were both Holocaust survivors. Since Lillian’s death nine months ago, Murray spends most of his days inside. Without the attention of his daughter Barbara, Murray would hardly eat, shower or speak.

Murray is a fictional character who might resemble an elderly neighbor, parent or relative you know. His story is not uncommon from many unwritten stories unfolding behind locked doors throughout the Los Angles area. For individuals like Murray, who are suffering from loss, and for those like Barbara, who care for them, The Maple Counseling Center (TMCC) in Beverly Hills provides a service that hopes to unlock the hearts of these pained individuals.

“The Senior Peer Program aims to diminish the stigma and sense of shame associated with seeking mental health services later in life, through the use of senior peer counselors,” said Carol Katz, coordinator of the program. “Someone their own age is available to these individuals on an emotional level, and helps the individual feel less lonely in their experience of loss. Those who felt alienated in their experiences of loss and nearing the end of life are able to feel more understood and self-accepting after talking with senior peer counselors.”

The Senior Peer Program was created in response to a request by the Beverly Hills City Council to aid its substantial population of seniors; the program is available to all seniors residing in the Los Angeles area. Each counselor is required to be 55 years old and up, and the clients are a minimum of 62 years of age. In addition to one-on-one peer counseling sessions, bereavement groups are available throughout the year, as are senior adult support groups. The program also provides counseling for homebound seniors in Beverly Hills.

“We were approached by the City Council to provide a low-fee counseling program for the senior community,” said Astrid Schwartz, an MFCC with the center. “In the beginning, we were supported by both city and federal funding. Today, the only funding is given by the city, and TMCC absorbs the difference of the cost.”

A sliding-scale fee, starting at $10, is charged for each individual counseling session. The fee is based on each person’s ability to pay.

Those seeking to set the highly confidential and personal counseling process in motion should begin with a phone call to TMCC, at (310) 271-9999. Before counseling can begin, an intake session is required to establish the preferences of the individual seeking assistance as well as collect information about patient history for the counselor. Individuals may request male or female counselors and may also request counselors of similar faith and background. The counseling sessions begin once this information has been processed and a fee has been established. This entire process takes about seven to 10 days.

Schwartz, who is also the supervisor of the Senior Peer Counselors, has witnessed the transformation of some of those in need over the past 13 years.

“In dealing with loss, the individual is thrown back to unresolved losses. The issues of aging, death, grieving and loneliness come out. Seniors need to know that they don’t have to go through this process alone,” said Schwartz.

“It is never too late to change,” said Katz. “We all have things to work through, and we all struggle to embrace the end of life. The process of being heard by someone who cares and someone who can empathize has a tremendous value to the individual, no matter what their age.”

The Maple Counseling Center is located at 9107 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. Carol Katz is in charge of coordinating intake appointments for Senior Peer Counseling and can be reached at (310) 271-9999.