A 12-year-old girl at home with her sexual abuser. An orphan with no family in the country to attend his wedding. A recovering alcoholic. A thirty-year-old suicidal man stuck in lockdown on the brink of doing something drastic. An Israeli who required urgent cancer treatment in America…
One year ago today, we were living what we would surely consider today to be charmed lives. We all had our individual worries and concerns that had us furrowing our collective brows, but everything was so much simpler back then. Schools, businesses, stores and shuls were open regularly, and no one required permission to visit friends, relatives or even pick up and fly abroad on the spur of the moment. There were no masks, no lockdowns; there were no lives torn away abruptly by an invisible crown shaped monster.
Last March, when COVID-19 changed the world as we’d known it, who would have believed that a full year later, we’d still be living this crazed reality? A reality in which we’ve witnessed grave loss of life, lingering health problems, and financial and emotional crises that have left many scarred and hurting. Simultaneously, the last year has also revealed some of the most beautiful and touching aspects of humanity. We’ve seen, for example, recovered patients volunteering in hospital wards, reaching out to people who would otherwise be in isolation.
Despite widespread financial loss, we were awed by huge charity efforts and distributions of every imaginable item and service to individuals, families and sectors in need. And we’ve witnessed individuals and organizations worldwide collaborate to support those with physical, mental, emotional and financial woes along their personal journeys to surmounting adversity. Even amidst the bleakness of COVID-19, there has been much positive change as the Jewish community rose to the occasion, addressing issues of bereavement, unemployment and hunger, orchestrating and performing mind-blowing acts of kindness and charity.
The challenges are many and continue cropping up in new, unpredictable ways, notes Rabbi Zvi Gluck, CEO and director of Amudim, a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive clinical case management to people in the Jewish Orthodox community who struggle with addiction, abuse and severe mental health issues. Amudim is headquartered on Broadway in New York and has an office in downtown Jerusalem.
Gluck is a longtime community activist, Hatzolah paramedic, police chaplain and NYPD liaison with experience aiding children at risk and abuse victims. In 2014, he collaborated with Moshe Wolfson and the inimitable Mendy Klein of Cleveland, who invested heart, soul and wealth into helping struggling adolescents neglected by the Jewish community. They established Amudim, a grassroots organization that in the six years since its inception has gone international, recruited thousands of supporters and assisted hundreds of thousands of individuals.
Gluck and his colleagues are the first to admit that it wasn’t long ago when the Orthodox world was unwilling to acknowledge, let alone publicly address and battle, mental health and sensitive issues as sexual and substance abuse and addictions on a community level. Yet after a core group of individuals agreed that the time had come to face problems in the Jewish community that had previously been ignored or shoved under the table, Amudim was created to address those needs and the tide began to turn, albeit slowly. Since then, Amudim has run hundreds of awareness events, helped tens of thousands of clients, and opened multiple offices in the United States as well as one in Israel, steadily chipping away at the stigmas that prevented so many from seeking help for far too long.
Fast forward six years and Amudim has become a household name and the go-to address for organizations, institutions and individuals handling difficult cases, logging upwards of 83,500 calls for help this year alone as the many facets of the pandemic sparked an unprecedented mental health crisis.
Amudim works hard to foster public awareness and eliminate stigmas that prevent many from seeking vital treatment. Five PSA videos, two music videos, hundreds of public awareness events, op-eds, articles, and help-lines in America and Israel have opened dialogue on abuse, addiction and mental health topics that were once taboo in the insular, family-centered Orthodox Jewish community. Expanding its efforts into prevention, Amudim has also introduced school-based programs to empower and educate students in grades five through twelve using social and emotional competency learning programs.
Amudim fundraises extensively across the global community. Dr. Akiva Perlman, a member of the Amudim Clinical Advisory Board, opines that this, in itself, demonstrates a communal shift in perspective. Referring to Unite to Heal, a recent 36-hour mass campaign featuring over 100 well-known rabbis, mental health professionals, educators, Jewish VIPs and celebrities and 10,319 donors who dug deep into their hearts and wallets to benefit Amudim and enabled the organization to top its $5 million fundraising goal, he expressed: “We are no longer a community that relies on isolated individuals to solely carry the burden of our people’s suffering, we have become a people who feels a responsibility to one another, even if it is a few dollars at a time. Amudim has become a household name, and we are all better off as a result.”
While the entire world endured similar challenges and isolation, the Orthodox Jewish community faced its own set of unique challenges, such as prayers with a minyan on weekdays, Sabbaths and festivals, postponing weddings despite the strong custom to avoid doing so, and burial and shiva. Especially at the start of the crisis, Amudim worked hand-in-hand with community leaders to discourage public gatherings, including synagogues and small minyanim, while remaining in close contact with local authorities to ensure that lines of communication remained open in order promote understanding and sensitivity during these trying times.
Moreover, while corona-induced challenges and lockdowns were tough on everyone, for those abused by someone within their own homes, it was an untenable situation. Sexual and domestic abuse cases soared with everyone home, underfoot and anxious; and quarantines and lockdowns compelled abusers and victims to remain in the same house for extended periods of time.
“The numbers were – and remain – off the charts,” declares Rabbi Gluck. “In 2020, we noted a total caseload increase of 81% compared to 2019. Drug, alcohol, sex and gambling addictions; eating disorders, sexual abuse and domestic violence have all surged alarmingly. There’s been a whopping 102.5% increase in mental health cases, 110% surge in anxiety and depression, and 42% increase in suicidal ideation.”
The increased need for services, including hiring additional staff to handle the rising case volume, helping those who could not afford the cost of therapy or treatment, and finding housing or instituting safety measures for those who could not remain at home, all added to the burden.
Yet while it certainly wasn’t easy keeping up with the deluge of pleas for help, especially with Amudim’s financial base hard hit, its case managers rose to the challenge, even as they worked remotely and often under less-than ideal conditions. In the course of the 10 months since the start of the pandemic, the organization launched multiple new initiatives to help people weather the storm, including a free COVID support line staffed by more than 100 mental health professionals and a coronavirus page on its website which provided a wealth of information including a full video library of newly created content for both adults and children that addressed the pandemic and resulting needs in a meaningful way.
“It’s heartbreaking that the need even exists, but Am Yisrael is blessed to have such a group of individuals with this level of compassion, empathy and ahavas Yisrael that permeates the entire organization. Only with qualities like these, can we provide delicately-customized care to individuals while simultaneously addressing global issues, such as breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and doing our utmost to eradicate future suffering and tragedy,” says Shmully Halpern, a member of Amudim’s board of governors.
More than usual
Beyond the general case overload effected by the crisis, Amudim’s office received thousands of calls relevant to the pandemic, but not necessarily to its services. Notwithstanding, despite the time consuming efforts entailed, the faculty strove to meet the unusual needs of the time, refer callers to relevant parties or, when there was no one else to do the job, to simply do it, and do it right.
Sari*, who answers calls for Amudim, shares that there was one case of an orphan who was learning in yeshiva in Israel and got engaged to a fellow Anglo a month before the outbreak of COVID-19. “They’d planned a large May wedding, never dreaming that their carefully-laid plans would disappear in a poof of smoke. With none of the orphan’s family members holding Israeli passports, they were officially barred from entering the country and attending the wedding, yet Amudim pulled out all the stops to arrange for the [groom’s] mother to be able to walk her son down the aisle and have two siblings in attendance.”
In another operation seemingly unrelated to its mission statement, Amudim assisted an Israeli teenager with American grandparents who had never been registered as a US citizen acquire the documents and funding he required in order to fly him abroad, obtain American citizenship, medical insurance and the cancer treatment he required to save his life.
Moreover, while drug rehab institutions were mostly functioning even during lockdowns, there were numerous complications involved, and finding beds was harder than ever. Moreover, all facilities required 14 days of prior quarantine in a hotel, a massive expense which, obviously, was not covered by insurance.
In addition, when several facilities suffered Covid outbreaks, Amudim was forced to scramble to find suitable accommodations for clients who were forced to leave their current rehab center and find alternate arrangements, which required prior quarantine and also posed a massive risk of relapse.
Yet despite the tremendous challenges, Gluck notes that there were many beautiful lessons gained from the experience. The pandemic opened the community’s eyes to the struggles that Amudim’s clients face on a daily basis. Lengthy quarantines sparked feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety, despondency and
depression for many, and all this was compounded by fear that there was no end in the sight to the darkness that engulfed our world.
“Now that it’s been close to a year since we’ve discovered what it means to live in crisis, we have greater ability to understand the fear and inner chaos that Amudim’s clients suffer, even in a small way. Thank God, we’ve seen stigmas that prevented people from seeking help eradicated, watched as communities began embracing those in pain instead of pushing them aside, and been overjoyed to mark a growing awareness of abuse, addiction and mental health issues.”
On the other hand, he observes, people confronting mental health issues, domestic violence and challenges of recovery have yet to be fully embraced by the mainstream. Yet Amudim will perpetuate its mission as trailblazers, seeking and finding solutions to the problems still facing the Orthodox community.■