Sense of purpose

Chesed Ve'emuna's print shop in Romema provides a structured lifestyle for haredi men from that sector

Neatly stacked government forms, piles of booklets and packages of invitations line the compact rooms of the Chesed Ve'emuna Rehabilitation Center as printers churn out reading material. In a nearby room, a group of men enjoys a nutritious lunch. Founded in 1989 by Rabbi Binyamin Rosenthal, the Romema hostel and rehabilitation center provides an occupational framework for mentally ill men. A similar framework for women is located in nearby Kiryat Mattersdorf. "When it was founded, it was the first hostel of its kind in Israel," says Chana Rosenthal, Binyamin's wife, as she sensitively and patiently deals with the requests of the residents. "Each person here is given a chance to live," she continues. "Sometimes it [the center] gives structure and supervises treatment and prevents hospitalization. Often people come here after being released from the hospital for follow-up treatment and support while integrating into the community." "In the past 15 years the trend in psychiatric treatment has been to refer patients to community-based rehabilitation facilities," says Dr. David Greenberg, director of the Herzog Community Mental Health Center. "For decades there has been a gradual decrease in the number of beds per head of population. Community-based rehabilitation facilities greatly developed since the introduction in 2000 of the law of rehabilitation of psychiatrically disabled persons in the community, which is implemented by professionals who visit facilities to ensure that they meet standards. They also visit patients in the hospitals to evaluate the suitability of such facilities," he adds. The Rosenthals are originally from Haifa, where Binyamin was involved in educational projects. Binyamin's rabbi, the late Asher Freund, strongly advocated helping the destitute and encouraged Binyamin to open a facility for the mentally ill in Jerusalem. Chana, a special education teacher specializing in learning disabilities, was on sabbatical at the time. "I thought I'd spend the year helping my husband," she recalls. "The year turned into many years as I learned the ropes of creating a non-profit association and more about treating mental illness." Starting from scratch, the Rosenthals visited hospitals and spoke with staff and patients' families about their plans for the center. They also met with the Health Ministry's director-general, to whom they described their mission and professional background. "The director-general noted that my husband has diagnostic abilities," recalls Chana. "My husband told him that he picked up this ability from his method of learning Talmud, which helped him develop understanding and sensitivity to others." Meanwhile, Chana took mental health courses covering illness management and recovery at Bar-Ilan University and Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer. She admits, however, that despite her formal schooling, her self-taught husband is better able to understand the residents' challenges. Initially, a small printing press was established to employ people recently released from psychiatric wards or hospitals. The idea behind the press was to give the center's patients a sense of purpose, says Avraham Verter, a social worker at the center for the past 15 years. "They have what to get up for," he explains. "It [the center] provides a formal structure for them as well as a social situation of a work place." While rehabilitation in the community is not less expensive than hospitalization, it offers the mentally disabled a higher quality of life. "Living in a community framework provides rehabilitation for the patient, not necessarily recovery," explains Greenberg. "In the community he has an alternative place to live with a wider range of opportunities and activities in his daily schedule, instead of remaining in a hospital." Facilities in the community range from highly staffed hostels (like Chesed Ve'emuna) to apartments with supervising counselors, to those who live independently or at home in the supportive environment of their families. "Some mentally ill are employed in protected work environments, while others fit into regular workplaces with supervision," he says. The Rosenthals decided together on the name for their rehabilitation program. "Binyamin chose 'hessed' and I chose 'emuna,'" recalls Chana. "Finally we combined both. The name expresses the fact that every person has a life of his own and can advance." Four social workers, a psychiatrist and various therapists design an individualized therapeutic treatment plan for each patient. "Some people remain here for two years and some for up to five years," says Chana. Residents are referred to the center by hospitals, mental health clinics, physicians and families who cannot or refuse to take care of their needy family member. Although the Health Ministry covers the center's costs, some people apply privately. A need for the hostel arose when the Rosenthals realized that residents would frequently not show up for work at the print shop. "We decided to open a dormitory. The hostel was initially located in the heart of Mea She'arim. Shortly after it opened, the neighbors complained. We were taken to the rabbinical court where I had to appear before the rabbis," says Chana. Chana came to court prepared with relevant photographs and research. In addition, physicians testified that medication alleviated the residents' symptoms so that it was unlikely they would bother the neighbors. The Rosenthals won the case with the rabbis' blessings. In its current Romema location, students from a nearby yeshiva visit on Shabbat and holidays and participate in prayer services at the center's synagogue. Under the supervision of counselors, 25 men live in the Romema hostel and seven women live in a similar hostel in Kiryat Mattersdorf. Each has kitchen duty, prepares supper and learns to develop responsibility for personal hygiene. The more independent female residents live on their own in a sheltered project that has less supervision than the hostel. The women also participate in a workshop where they create greeting cards, hot plates and other handicrafts that they occasionally sell through community centers. Chana considers the most advanced residents in the program to be those who are employed in a traditional workplace, under supervision. "Six people are employed at a nearby supermarket where they arrange the shelves, sort items and take inventory. Some are employed at the print shop." Professional graphic artists and printing experts work together with the center's residents, whose responsibility it is to prepare envelopes and stationery sets and to fold invitations. Prices of the finished product are lower than many invitation centers. Clients include the Tax Authority, the National Insurance Institute, the Health Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality. "Twenty years ago in haredi society, the mentally ill were hidden away," says Verter. "Today, although haredi families don't broadcast that a family member has mental illness, there is more openness to deal with it and families recognize the need for help." "Although there is a stigma in haredi society about mental illness because of shidduch [matchmaking] prospects for siblings, due to its long tradition of hessed, the haredi community has always tried to support and help the mentally ill," says Greenberg. "The community has provided a hostel and daytime rehabilitation work, and outings and religious study for the psychiatrically disabled for over three decades in Jerusalem, long before the wider professional community in Israel was attempting to develop in this direction," he adds.