In the heart of Mormon Utah

A look at how one Chabad rabbi is helping Jewish families confront mental health issues.

A RUSTIC sign expresses a heartfelt welcome to the Chabad House in Utah (photo credit: HOWARD BLAS)
A RUSTIC sign expresses a heartfelt welcome to the Chabad House in Utah
(photo credit: HOWARD BLAS)
It was 12:46 on Shabbat afternoon at the Chabad House in Salt Lake City Utah. Rabbi Benny Zippel glanced at his watch, looked at his son, Rabbi Avremi, and looked around the lunchroom. He counted several women and exactly 10 men.
“In 14 minutes, if you stick around, we can daven minha [the afternoon prayer] with a minyan and Torah reading,” Zippel said. “Let’s first hear from our two guests – one from Israel and one from New York – about what they do and what brought them here today.”
In many ways, it was a typical Shabbat for Zippel, who is responsible – along with wife Sharonne, Avremi and daughter- in-law Sheina, for all aspects of religious life at the Chabad House and essentially in all of Salt Lake City. It was not a surprise that Zippel was looking for an opportunity to daven minha with a minyan. He is a Chabad rabbi, always in search of opportunities to help people perform just one more mitzva.
By the time of the communal kiddush lunch on this particularly cold, snowy day, Zippel had already led all davening (prayers), greeted all male and female worshipers by name (and hugged a few), reminded the crowd of the upcoming megila reading and Purim bash later in the week, asked for volunteers to deliver Passover matza, and apologized for the unusually small crowed, noting, “It seems a lot of people stayed home today due to the snow and ice.” Snow is not an unusual occurrence in Salt Lake City, which on the average gets 27 cm.
of snow in February.
Zippel’s somewhat unconventional sermon during services and his speech at the kiddush lunch offered a clue to the uniqueness of his work as a Chabad rabbi in the heart of Mormon Utah.
Both times, the rabbi asked the congregation to pray for Devora, a teen from the East Coast who tried to commit suicide by strangulation. He shared the sad, moving story of this young woman who was participating in one of Utah’s many wilderness treatment programs for children and young adults with mental illness and addiction issues. She was experiencing difficulties on this wilderness program and needed to be transferred to an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Salt Lake City. Just after her mother and sister left for home, Devora tried to kill herself.
As Zippel explained, for safety reasons, she was not allowed to have any possessions or fabric clothing. She was now required to wear paper pants and shirt. “If she tried to kill herself, the paper would rip.”
He told the moving story of visiting her in the very small isolation room where there was only a mattress. He sat with her for 45 minutes and spoke about the happy month of Adar, and told the story of Purim, where events miraculously changed from sad to happy.
“When she heard the story, she smiled for the first time in weeks.”
Just another typical day for Benny Zippel.
WHEN HE left his home in Milan to pursue rabbinic studies in the United States, Zippel was excited to serve as a Chabad shaliah (emissary). His posting in Utah was blessed by the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, just before a stroke in 1992 left him unable to speak. Zippel could never have imagined what his daily and weekly “to do” list would come to look like.
On Shabbatot and holidays, he looks and functions like most Chabad emissaries from Boston to Brisbane to Barcelona, serving tens of thousands of Jewish locals and travelers.
Even on Shabbat, the day of rest, Zippel never stops thinking of the 300 to 500 Jewish children like Devora – from Israel, the Far East, Europe and “from everywhere” – who he estimates attend wilderness therapy and residential treatment programs each year across the state of Utah. He speaks knowledgeably about the goals and structure of these programs and effortlessly rattles off “outdoorsy” names of wilderness treatment programs such as Aspira Adventure, Evoke Therapy, Second Nature, Outback, and Red Cliff Ascent.
“Wilderness therapy is eight to 12 weeks in the wilderness. Then they go to residential treatment centers for nine to 18 months to apply life-coping skills taught in wilderness therapy to everyday life,” he explained.
These young Jewish imports make up nearly 10% of Utah’s Jewish population, estimated to be between 3,000 and 5,000.
“When I came in July 1992, I wasn’t aware of residential treatment centers or wilderness treatment programs. I had no advance warning or knowledge.
I had to hit the ground running and deal with it,” reported Zippel. “When I got the first phone call, in December 1992, from a father who said his son was in therapy in Provo, Utah, and wanted his son to have a chance to celebrate Hanukka, I just had to go visit this boy.”
He quickly realized that this boy was only one of dozens of Jews in the school, and that there were many more Jewish children in similar nearby programs.
According to the Utah Department of Human Services, there were 116 licensed private residential youth treatment centers and 11 outdoor treatment programs throughout the state in 2016.
It makes perfect sense to Zippel why Utah has more than triple the national average in the number of such programs.
“The legislature in Utah saw what an impact it has on the financial infrastructure. In the state of Utah, you can bring a young man or young woman suffering from all kinds of mental health-related issues for therapy, provided they are under age 18, and it does not require their consent. There are programs on the east coast, but they require his or her consent to be taken there.”
WHEN I first reached out to Zippel by phone, he was unable to speak. “I am on three calls at once – please call back later,” he said.
When we connected, he elaborated.
“Every day of the week, I am on the phone with potential parents, current parents, past parents, and/or their kid or their therapists. For example, they may tell me they just discovered their child had been molested, and they are clueless about how to overcome the trauma.
I try to guide them.”
When not on the phone, Zippel traverses Utah to offer support, teach and bring Jewish ritual objects and kosher food to Jewish residents of these intensive, long-term therapy programs, which cost between $10,000 and $12,000 a month.
“I have a route. Some days I go north to Ogden, Brigham City and Logan. I go south to Utah County – to Springville, Spanish Fork, Mapleton and Birdseye.
And I go east and west. I try to go out and visit as many treatment centers as I can,” he said.
Not only has Zippel learned more about the geography of Utah than nearly every Jew on the planet, he has learned that “the spiritual component is fundamental.” He elaborated: “I have come to notice, over the course of 25 years, that the average teenager today is totally unaware of his or her inherent meaning and purpose – meaning, the fact that they were created is not a random occurrence. I remind them that if Hashem [God] created them, there is a reason for it. In most cases, this is a complete novelty to them!” Zippel calls his program Project HEART, which stands for Hebrew Education for At-Risk Teens.
He described three different levels of openness to his work on the part of the schools. “Some are really supportive of the Jewish component of the rehab; they are very encouraging, let me come every week and be an advocate for all Jewishness – Shabbat, kosher, mishloah manot, Purim meal. Others are neutral – they are not supportive but don’t fight me coming. And two in Utah are very adamant I not come and visit; they feel very uncomfortable with me visiting.
I tell parents – if you want your kid to have a Jewish connection, choose the right program.”
Fortunately for the Loren family of Westchester, New York, an observant family with five boys under 15, their son’s program is very open to Zippel’s visits. They met Zippel when their oldest son graduated from a treatment program in Idaho and relocated to a program in Heber City, Utah, about an hour from Salt Lake City.
“Since arriving in Heber City,” reported mother Miriam, “Matt has met with Rabbi Zippel several times, including a Hanukka party.... Matt had fun with Rabbi Zippel, and Matt’s therapy team believes that the absence of his religious community is very deeply missed by him and can be a big part of his healing and therapy program. For us parents, it’s been a relief to know that in this environment, Matt can still be a part of the greater Jewish community.”
While in Idaho, the Lorens found Boise’s Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, to be a great source of general and Jewish support. “Rabbi Lifschitz made it a point to come to Cherry Gulch out in Emmett, Idaho, at least every two weeks to visit the 40% of the student body that was Jewish. Having Matt across the country from age 12 was supremely difficult on all of us. Not having a strong Jewish community made it in many ways even more difficult. Rabbi Lifshitz lessened this significantly by hosting the boys and us for hagim [Jewish holidays] and Shabbatot, and he emphasized the joy in Judaism for these boys,” Miriam Loren said.
She noted that her son was not the only Shabbat- and kosher-observant student at his school in Idaho. “He and another boy from Brooklyn put on tefillin every day after his bar mitzva.”
And she noted there are Jewish children there as young as 10 with extreme anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
The journey for the Lorens has not always been smooth. While the treatment centers are generally supportive and accommodating of the religious needs of Jewish children, they don’t always understand the nuances and minutiae of Jewish observance. The program in Idaho facilitated Matt’s weekly Skype meetings with his bar mitzva teacher in White Plains, New York.
“He and a Muslim friend from Dubai motivated each other. The friend said, ‘I will pray, and you practice for bar mitzva!” Loren related.
A school trip was planned to Zion National Park in southwest Utah – on Yom Kippur. “They hadn’t realized it was the holiest day of the year,” reported Loren, who was proud of her son, and flew out to be with him and attend a shul with him in Utah. “At times, Matt has felt isolated, homesick, and so far removed from the Jewish world.”
While Zippel feels there has been some progress in the Jewish world in acknowledging and speaking about mental illness, he was quick to emphasize: “some but not enough. A lot of work still needs to be done.”
Mental illness is not a topic discussed often around the Shabbat table, at a shul kiddush, or from the pulpit of most synagogues.
Zippel lives this issue every day and strongly encourages the Jewish world to be more aware and active in addressing the issue of mental illness in the Jewish community. “My No. 1 message is: Quit being in denial! More and more, I notice a lot of parents and educators and rabbis are in total denial and think that if we don’t address it, it will go away – like with a bad dream. We wouldn’t dare say that about a physical ailment. If a 13-, 14- or 15-year-old were screaming with excruciating head, leg or stomach pain, we would never not deal with it. We would take them to a doctor to have it properly assessed – they made need surgery, medication or some other treatment.”
WHILE DENIAL continues to be an important issue, there are efforts across Jewish denominations – at conferences and at synagogue gatherings – to speak more openly about mental illness. At the January 2017 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference in New York City, women, men, and high school and college students packed a large classroom at Columbia University’s Lerner Hall for a session titled “De-stigmatizing Mental Illness in the Orthodox Community.”
Dr. Esther Altmann, a New York-based clinical psychologist and director of pastoral education at Yeshivat Maharat, shared useful insights and incidence data on mental illness. She framed the conversation by noting, “Mental illness is known as mahalat hanefesh, illness of the soul. It [the term “mahalat hanefesh”] doesn’t reflect our understanding of the brain, but it captures the essence of what it means to struggle with mental illness for the person or the family. It reminds us that psychological suffering happens to each of us at some junctures, just as we experience mahalat haguf, illness of the body.”
Altmann shared the following data on mental illness, which was followed by a discussion of innovative programs that exist to address these issues in the Jewish community. In any given year in the United States: • Approximately 20% of adults experience some form of mental illness.
• Approximately 4% experience a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits their functioning in one or more major life activities.
• 1% of adults live with schizophrenia.
• 2.6% of adults live with bipolar disorder.
• 7% of adults have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
• 6% of the adult population reported heavy drinking.
• In 2014, the surgeon-general stated that the growing number of deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses is an urgent and growing health concern.
• Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24.
Altmann’s fellow panelists at the JOFA conference – Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles, and Dr.
Erin Leib Smokler, director of spiritual development at Yeshivat Maharat, are doing their part to support and educate congregants and professionals on issues of mental illness.
In 2015, Thomas-Newborn, who is a board-certified chaplain, noticed that no conversations were taking place in her synagogue on mental health. That changed when she organized a well-attended mental health awareness Shabbaton, where people shared their experiences.
“People who knew each other for 25 years realized for the first time that they each had relatives with schizophrenia,” she said.
That Shabbat, Thomas-Newborn spoke about her brother’s mental health issues, and there was a professional panel.
Next steps for the synagogue included a Shabbat focused on the issues of postpartum depression and anxiety; suicide prevention training; mental health first-aid treatment; a mental health support group; a session for teens on body image and eating disorders; and an interfaith clergy roundtable.
There are also programs around the country for Jews dealing with addiction issues. Some examples include: • Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.
JACS also offers a Sober Birthright Israel trip.
• Beit T’Shuva, based in Los Angeles, also serves people with addiction issues.
Its website notes, “Our mission is to guide individuals and families toward a path of living well, so that wrestling souls can recover from addiction and learn how to properly heal. The Beit T’Shuvah faith-based model, founded on authenticity and wholeness, integrates spirituality, psychotherapy, Jewish teachings, the 12 Steps, and the creative arts.”
• Camp Ramah in the Rockies (Colorado) recently started BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, a wilderness-based recovery and treatment program for Jewish young adults.
Dr. Andres Martin, the Riva Ariella Ritvo Professor in the Child Study Center and professor of psychiatry at Yale University, is pleased such programs exist and sees an important role for rabbis and Jewish communal professionals. He stressed that “mental health treatment is not at odds with religion, and that forging alliances with culturally competent and informed providers can be a huge help not only to the identified patients, but to them [rabbis], so that they can do best what they do.”
Martin, who this past summer completed a cross-country bike ride to raise awareness of mental illness in children, further suggests, “It behooves rabbis and other community leaders, who are held in such esteem and respect, to become familiar with common mental health issues, challenges and illnesses – depression, anxiety and substance abuse (to name just three) are very common, and early identification and treatment can be key to long-term recovery.”
He is unaware of reliable current data on mental illness in the Jewish population, but suspects overall rates (like the ones cited above by Altmann) are similar to the general population.
Back in Utah, it is another regular day for Zippel, teaching, counseling and supporting children, young adults with mental illness, and their families.
“People should know that help is available,” he stressed.
Rabbi Benny Zippel can be reached at
Jewish Utah
The State of Utah is best known for its natural beauty and its Mormon heritage.
Popular national parks in The Beehive State include Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches. The Great Salt Lake – second only to the Dead Sea in salt content – is near the capital, Salt Lake City. An ad campaign at the Salt Lake City airport boasts, “Only 35 minutes from baggage claim to slopes,” as the ski resorts of Park City, Deer Valley, Alta and Snowbird are a quick drive from the airport.
Mormons, also known as followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, make up 63% of Utah’s population of just over three million. Mormonism was started by Joseph Smith in upstate New York during the 1820s. After Smith’s death in 1844, the Mormons followed Brigham Young to what would become the Utah Territory.
By some reports, Jewish ties to Utah go back even further. Jewish trappers reportedly traversed the territory in 1826, and the Jewish daguerreotypist Solomon Nunes Carvalho captured images of the young Mormon community during an 1854 mapmaking expedition. That same year, Julius and Fannie Brooks became Utah’s first Jewish family. Other Jewish settlers followed, setting up various shops and businesses.
Utah’s early Jewish population was comprised of educated Germans who came between 1857 and 1874. More traditional Eastern European Jews joined them between 1890 and 1920. There were reportedly 100 Jewish-owned businesses in the downtown Salt Lake City area by 1930.
Very few signs of these businesses and synagogues still exist, but the careful observer may see treasures such as the Henriksen/Butler Design Group at 249 South 400 East Street. The Romanesque Revival building was built in 1890-91 and served until the 1970s as the second location for Congregation B’nai Israel.
A quick peek inside reveals still-intact stained glass windows on the lobby and balcony levels.
Rabbi Benny Zippel, the director of Chabad of Utah, has endeared himself to the local Mormon community, which is supportive of his work, including erecting hanukkiot in public spaces. Zippel has traveled to Israel with the governor and local leaders as part of various trade missions.
Zippel’s Chabad colleague, Rabbi Yehudi Steiger, and his wife, Devori Steiger, serve as co-directors of Chabad Lubavitch of Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival and the Deer Valley and Park City ski resorts.
Park City Mountain Resort is the largest single ski and snowboard resort in the US. The Canyons Resort is home to Bistro Kosher Deli, the only kosher restaurant in the state of Utah.
The gregarious food and beverage manager Heath Blackerby, who is from Chicago and describes himself as “Jewish on my mother’s side,” keeps the seasonal (November through March) kosher restaurant running smoothly, assisting the wait staff to deliver food to hungry skiers, and helping the Chabad rabbi (a Bistro regular) identify potential participants for impromptu ma’ariv (evening) prayer services.
“Some 95% of my business is from the 917 area code,” Blackerby playfully comments about his New York-area visitors. – H.B.