Rabbi helps others help themselves

Di Piazza
Rabbi James Stone Goodman


Rabbi James Stone Goodman came to town soon after graduation from Hebrew Union College. 

“I was ordained in 1981,” said Goodman, 69, a Detroit native. “This was my first stop.”

It has been a long one. Beginning at Congregation Shaare Emeth and later at Kol Am, Goodman, known for his poetry and music as much as his preaching, would eventually go on to lead Neve Shalom, the congregation from which he recently retired. Now he has taken on duties at Central Reform Congregation, which is led by his wife, Rabbi Susan Talve.

But some of the most important contributions Goodman has made haven’t come from the pulpit. Shortly after arriving in St. Louis, he helped create a support group for people dealing with substance abuse. A decade ago, he created a group to assist those dealing with mental illness.

“[My wife and I] felt that the problem of mental health was a lot like the problem of substance abuse when we first started talking about it in the early ’80s,” he said. “It felt the same to me except we hadn’t gotten anywhere on it with mental health/mental illness. It was time to open the door as we had done with addictions.” 

I understand a social worker named Rose Mass recruited you initially after you came to St. Louis. Tell me about her.

After her children grew up, she went back to school. She got all her degrees after her children were raised, and she got [a master’s degree in social work]. Her teacher at the school of social work, a woman named Laura Root, was a pioneer in the field of addictions. She said to Rose, “You’ve got to get your workers to your community. Your community is waiting for you to do this work.” 

When I came to town in 1981, Rose called me and said, “You’re the one I’ve been waiting for. We’ve got to start this thing up.” Rose and I got started as soon as I got here. The first group was called SLICHA, which means forgiveness in Hebrew.  

What kinds of addictions did the group address? 

All kinds. We didn’t separate anybody out. Not only that, we had family members. We had children. Sometimes we had three generations in one room in one family. We didn’t separate people who were suffering from the problem from people who were living with people suffering from the problem. We all just met together. Everybody said to us, “That’s a crazy thing. That’s against all the wisdom.” But it worked for us, and we’re still doing that, by the way.

Does the group still operate?

It is called Shalvah (“serenity” in Hebrew) today. It changed names because during the ’90s, I went on sabbatical, and when I got back it had folded up. 

What are the meetings like?

We practice a safe space for people to talk and relate to each other in compassionate and respectful ways. By now, the meetings are pretty much self-regulating. They run really well. We have a group of about five people who take responsibility for the meetings so there is not just one leader. The meeting is kind of remarkable in the sense that people continue to come because they get such strength from it. It is the only meeting I’ve ever been to that often ends with applause. 

How did you become a rabbi?

I had taken a master’s degree in classics, and I had a teacher who taught me to study. He really taught me how to learn. He was just a great teacher. He was a priest. Through him, I was studying the classical Greek tragedies and the philosophers of the ancient Greek world. Then I started studying Hebrew the same way that he had taught me in Greek. By the time I finished my degree with him, instead of going on to a Ph.D., I said “Well, you know, I’m going to study my own business,” so I went off to Jerusalem.

How did your work with mental health begin?

There was a lot of intersection in the addiction stuff. There were people coming (with) dual diagnoses, so a lot of people were being treated for mental health problems as well as substance abuse problems. There was just such a mix of that, it seemed ridiculous for me to separate them out. 

On the other hand, there were a lot of people who were not coming to the addictions group because their mental health stories were unique. My wife and I were in touch with these people because the word got around that we were doing this kind of thing. We started this program by ourselves, and we felt there was a big empty place in the community on this subject. 

So, your work with mental illness grew out of Shalvah?

Yeah, but one is a lot slower than the other. Everyone knows how to talk about drug and alcohol abuse, but about mental illness, we’re way behind.

What is the goal of your group’s work with mental illness?

We demystify it. Our group works really well by just a few basic rules. It is really important that people who come to our meetings feel that here is a safe place for people to talk about mental health and mental illness. 

Also, they come to think of mental illness as part of a continuum of mental health. We don’t just talk about illness. We talk about health and we teach strategies for living with diagnoses of different kinds.

Is Judaism an important component of your groups?

Not everybody who comes to the groups is Jewish. In fact, you might even ask that question if you attended a few of the groups. You might say what’s Jewish about this? I would have to say that the only thing that’s Jewish about it is that sometimes I give a teaching based on the tradition. Not all the time, but sometimes. 

To learn more about either group, contact Goodman at Central Reform Congregation at 314-361-3919.