Mental Health

Tackling mental illness, one shul at a time


With mental health at the forefront of social issues propelled by the coronavirus pandemic, two Five Towns-based organizations — Nafshenu Alenu and the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC — have partnered to present 13 programs exploring those issues with a focus on the Orthodox community.

The Tuesday evening programs began Nov. 29 and will continue through March 28.

The goal of Nafshenu Alenu, founded by Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Septimus, senior rabbi at the Young Israel of North Woodmere, and Stuart Katz, a mental health advocate and former president of his shul, is to promote mental well-being. The Hebrew expression, “nafshenu alenu,” translates to “spirits united.”

“There are a lot of resources for physical illness, and people talk about mental illness, but they talk about it very hush-hush quietly,” Katz said. “We are trying to change that through educational programs.”

As a volunteer mental health first aid instructor, Katz is involved with global organizations as well as local institutions such as the Five Towns Community Council, HAFTR, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island. Rabbo Septimus has training in treating life challenges and trauma. 

In collaboration with the Gural JCC, the pair launched the educational program with guest speakers addressing such topics as anxiety, eating disorders, depression, domestic abuse, suicide, and substance abuse.

“Recognizing mental health is for everyone, and not just for people who struggle with mental health diagnosis,” Rabbi Septimus said. “This educational initiative is a great way of starting that. It’s a start of a long journey.”

Nafshenu Alenu’s slogan is, “Because the mental health of every one of us belongs to all of us.”

The inaugural speaker, last week at the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst, was Zak Williams, a global mental health advocate and son of the late comedian and actor Robin Williams. The elder Williams died by suicide in 2014, and was said to have struggled with depression.

Zak Williams’s mental health challenges began not after the death of his father, but as a 12-year-old boy, after a cousin and close friend died by suicide at 13.

“I didn’t know how to manage it,” Williams said. “I didn’t know who to talk to. I didn’t know how to connect with my family during this major issue.”

Several years later, Williams was traumatized when, during the first week of his freshman year at New York University, the World Trade Center was attacked. These challenges, coupled with new problems such as his alcohol use, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and suicidal thoughts, set Williams on a dark path. After his father’s death, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

But, Williams said, he has transformed his trauma into something that is useful for sharing: his journey from suffering to having a purpose.

“I need to share my story, and I need to understand why our mental health system functions the way that it does,” he said, questioning the disparities in care he sees when he speaks in communities around the country. “Why in some communities there are no psychologists at all, and in other communities one for several thousand?” he asked.

Williams called for Five Towns residents to look after one another, but also, most important, to look after themselves because what does it mean to be there for people you love and care for if you aren’t doing the same for yourself?

“I had to prioritize my mental health every single day,” he said.

The second presentation, focusing on Self-Definition, was scheduled for Dec. 6 at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, featuring Brian Cuban, younger brother of Dallas Mavericks owner and “Shark Tank” star Mark Cuban. He is aughor of the best-selling book, “The Addicted Lawyer, Tales of The Bar, Booze Blow and Redemption.”

Here’s a schedule of upcoming presentations in the Five Towns area (all are on Tuesdays beginning at 7:45 pm):

Dec. 13: Yitzchak Schecter at Congregation Shaaray Tefila

Dec. 27: Lisa Septimus and Dvorah Levy at Young Israel of North Woodmere

Jan. 3: Rabbi Saul Haimoff at Young Israel of Woodmere 

Jan. 10: Panel Discussion at Kulanu 

Jan. 31: Reggie Walker at HAFTR High School

Feb. 7: Rabbi Yehuda Sarna at Young Israel of North Woodmere

Feb. 14: Rabbi Menachem Penner and Gedlayah Penner at Congregation Beit Tefilah

Feb. 28: Josh Rivedal at Marion & Aaron Gural JCC

March 14: Panel Discussion at Congregation Aish Kodesh 

March 21: Michael Sweetney at Young Israel of Hewlett

March 28: Kevin Hines, location to be announced