The Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing offers hope and connection

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When Marjie Sokoll founded Jewish Healing Connections in Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JF&CS) in 1998, she made Jewish wisdom about mental health an integral part of the center’s support services. Healing Connections was an outgrowth of the Jewish healing movement, which took root in the early 1990s.

In 2016, Jewish Healing Connections was renamed Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing. Sokoll first met Greenbaum Miller in 2000 when the latter attended a spiritual support group that Sokoll hosted for people and caregivers struggling with chronic illness. Greenbaum Miller had joined the group after a first episode of cancer. She and her husband, Dan, were staunch supporters of Jewish Healing Connections, and Greenbaum Miller served on its advisory board until his death.

Sokoll, a social worker, noted that Jewish teachings are key to her therapeutic approach. “My focus is Jewish healing, ways we can look to our tradition for support when we go through difficult times,” she recently told JewishBoston. “We’re talking about mental well-being or mental health in this context.” Since the pandemic, she has noticed an increase in people turning to JF&CS for mental health support. In response, JF&CS collaborated with CJP to create Mental Health Connection and partnered with McLean Hospital to launch Path to well-being. Sokoll also co-hosts a suicide survivor support group with Rabbi Suzanne Offit.

Marjie Sokoll (courtesy photo)

Upon meeting Sokoll, one immediately feels his positive energy and unwavering dedication to his work. It is not surprising that she works in the various programs of JF&CS. Along with initial support for synagogues from the Ruderman Family Foundation, Sokoll is also JF&CS’ liaison with those congregations, offering mental health workshops to clergy and congregants. Other JF&CS initiatives she is involved in include the Early Relationship Support Center. She has also promoted wellness programs for seniors and maintains four bereavement support groups. “We live in a youth-oriented culture that denies death,” she said. “As a result, many people feel isolated and alone.”

As she considers grief and loneliness in a Jewish context, Sokoll quotes the great Jewish mystic, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart. She reassures her clients: “Judaism always talks about rupture. On the happy occasion of a wedding, a glass is broken. I ask people if they think about what happened to the tablets that Moses broke after seeing the golden calf. The rabbis teach us that these broken tablets were kept alongside the intact ones with which the Israelites traveled in the desert because they were also holy. It is who we are as human beings; we are broken and whole and holy.

Sokoll further observed that there is often shame attached to loneliness, which is why the issue is directly addressed in the mission statement of the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing. The verse in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for people to be alone,” prefaces the center’s goals: “The Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing helps people feel a sense of connection to challenges of illness, loss, or isolation by offering spiritual and community supports to foster hope, comfort, and wholeness guided by Jewish tradition.

Sokoll has also transformed Zoom sessions into safe and inviting spaces. She admits it was difficult to adjust and adapt to Zoom at first, but in the months that followed, Zoom became “a powerful tool. I reached so many more people on Zoom, including people who live far from our offices in Waltham. I’ve acquired clients who live out of state who, for example, found our suicide survivor group through Google. Typing the search term “Jewish suicide” immediately brings up our group. Few places in the country offer this kind of support group. And it’s funded, in part, by CJP.

Sokoll has a personal interest in suicide prevention and loss. “I’m passionate about the subject because my mother made a very serious suicide attempt when I was 19,” she said. “The traumatic incident changed my life. With my mother’s permission, I share the story with people so they know that when they tell me about their suicidal ideation or suicidal ideation in others they love, I am telling them that I experienced these feelings. Sokoll noted that the number of people experiencing suicidal feelings or who have attempted suicide has continued during the pandemic.

Sokoll’s Zoom sessions are special for how she brings a variety of symbols. She rings a Tibetan bell, which soothes and centers, and creates connection and community for participants. A facsimile of Miriam’s tambourine represents hope. “Shaking Miriam’s tambourine is the perfect way to signal that we are going to be discussing hope and possibility,” she said. “Miriam and the other Israelite women thought they would bring musical instruments with them when they fled Egypt. It’s amazing to realize that they had hopes of playing music again.

On behalf of the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing, Sokoll has compiled a small anthology titled “Prayers, psalms and Jewish readings for comfort, hope and support.” The readings are intended for sick people as well as their relatives and caregivers. Additionally, Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller contributed an urgent prayer, “MY GOD! OUR GOD!”, which reads, in part:

Will you continue to bless me with the community that
pray for me, take care of me and celebrate life with me?

OH MY GOD! O OUR GOD! I AM GRATEFUL FOR
BLESSINGS THAT CONTINUE… AND FOR
THOSE WHO ARE STILL POSSIBLE.

Could you please add to my blessings?

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