Shaare Emeth brings mental health issues into focus

Rabbi Jim Bennett introduces the panel during a discussion on “Anxiety and Depression in Youth and Young Adults” on March 1 at Shaare Emeth. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff writer

When Jodi Miller heard in September 2014 that Michael Worth, one of her former campers at Congregation Shaare Emeth, had committed suicide, “I literally dropped to my knees,” she recalled.

The 18-year-old had also participated in the Reform congregation’s youth group, and Miller’s older children had babysat for him.

“It was a big deal; I had known the family for a long time” said Miller, who is the director of youth engagement at the synagogue.  

For the last several years, Miller had also seen a significant increase in the number of children with mental health issues listed on their medical forms.


Worth’s death was a tipping point for Miller.

She and other Shaare Emeth leaders have started a mental health initiative that aims to removes the stigma around problems such as depression and anxiety and provide resources for people who could be struggling with a mental illness or concerned about a family member or friend. 

“It’s something that needs to be done. People want to talk, and they don’t want to have to hide” their mental health issues, said Miller. 

In the months after Worth’s suicide, Miller convened a group of lay people — including a psychologist, a pediatrician and a middle school principal — along with rabbis to discuss how to address mental health in the Jewish community. 

The group decided to focus initially on children and young adults. 

The synagogue has since hosted a screening of the documentary “Race to Nowhere,” about the stress and competitive pressures students today face. Last week, it convened a panel discussion featuring a clinical psychologist, a parent, and a representative from CHADS Coalition for Mental Health, an organization that seeks to increase awareness of depression and prevent suicide.

The St. Louis Rabbinical Association also has been focusing on building a coalition within the Jewish community to address mental health issues and is in the process of reaching out to other faith communities and organizations, said Rabbi Jim Bennett of Shaare Emeth, who is serving as president of the association. 

Elsewhere in the Jewish community, Rabbis Susan Talve and James Goodman have held a series of recent programs through the organization Jewish Attention to Mental Health-Mental Illness entitled “Shanda: There is None,” using the Yiddish word for shame, that aimed “to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding mental illness.”

Bennett also delivered a sermon this year on Yom Kippur about what he sees as a problem of “epidemic proportions.”

“To put it bluntly, I have officiated at far too many funerals recently for young people, teens and young adults, and people of all ages, whose lives ended prematurely as a direct or indirect result of these mental health challenges,” said Bennett. 

He and others at Shaare Emeth see stigma as one of the biggest hurdles in dealing with mental health. At the panel discussion, for example, a number of attendees asked that their picture not be taken or their identity published in the Light.

“It’s very telling,” Miller said of the reluctance to have photos taken. She has also connected with leaders at Temple Sinai in Denver, a Reform congregation that started focusing on mental health after some of its members were affected by suicides. “People are afraid to be seen at a program like that, and that’s the stigma that’s attached to it.”

“If you have to hide who you are because you live with depression or anxiety or whatever else, it’s not your fault, and it just makes it worse,” she added.

The mother on the panel was Amy Worth. She had spoken with the Light in depth last year about her son and his struggles with depression and death, but she had not spoken publicly about her loss (read the story online at

“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what we have been through,” said Worth. 

Sometimes she and her husband, Brad, and daughter, Ali, will be watching TV and see something funny and talk to one another about how Michael would have loved it. 

“There’s something always missing. There’s just not a day or an hour that goes by that I don’t think about Michael. It is just difficult every single day,” she said.

About 40 people attended the discussion, where panelists responded to audience questions. They shared information about symptoms of depression, treatment options, and working with pediatricians. Worth talked about the ways she and her husband tried to help her son after he told them that he no longer wanted to live.

When asked what she wished more people knew about mental health issues, Worth said she wanted people to understand that a “mental illness is like any other illness.”

She mentioned how people used to be reluctant to talk about cancer.

“Now they do and they are not embarrassed; they feel comfortable talking about it. Mental illness is not like that,” she said.

Despite the continued stigma, Ryan Kulage, development director for CHADS, said he was encouraged by events like the Shaare Emeth panel.

“Where we are today is light years [ahead] of where we were even 10 years ago,” said Kulage, who has clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. “The fact that we can have an event like this and have 50 people show up from one congregation is truly incredible.”

Worth said she spoke with a handful of parents of teens or children but wished there had been more from that group. When she was struggling with Michael, she said, she didn’t “know who was going through similar circumstances.”

She added, “I just was hoping that people would come who would get some support and know that they are not alone.”`