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Another Good Doctor

He wasn’t so sure about the wisdom of having a “group discussion with a psychiatrist” 

 

I’ve known Kalman for over four years now, and I’m proud to count him among my friends.

I’d initially met him on my first visit to his yeshivah back in 2016 shortly after I made aliyah. As I stood outside the door of a run-down building in an Israeli neighborhood, I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I entered, or how the bochurim and hanhalah would take to the discussion I wanted to introduce.

But Kalman, who was the dorm counselor at the time, had heard about me and invited me to come down. He was cheerful and enthusiastic when he introduced himself and showed me around before bringing me in to meet with the mashgiach. This place wasn’t exactly Brisk — it was a place for boys who’d been struggling with their Yiddishkeit and wanted a turnaround, and while not all the bochurim here were beis medrash regulars, they were all clean; the no-drug, no-alcohol rule was strictly enforced.

So what was I doing here? Well, I’d heard a rumor from several patients — bochurim from a few different yeshivos — that one of the boys here was selling prescription Adderall to kids at other programs. With the mashgiach’s permission, Kalman invited me for an initial meeting to discuss speaking with the bochurim, but the mashgiach, who did agree to meet me, was a bit more hesitant.

While the rav was grateful for my help, he wasn’t so sure about the wisdom of having a “group discussion with a psychiatrist.” That was after I had suggested the need for a formal discussion on substance abuse for the bochurim, as there were certainly going to be questions. But while the mashgiach was running a program for kids who had already been long past the “at-risk” phase for half a decade, he was reluctant to stigmatize his boys with a lecture on addiction and substance abuse. His boys were good bochurim and this dealer wasn’t typical of them. He didn’t want to “do a mental health thing” he told me, “because we aren’t a rehab, we’re a yeshivah.”

We put our discussion on hold, and meanwhile I went to find a Minchah minyan in the shul across the street. By the time I walked out of the shul, there were three missed calls on my phone from the mashgiach.

“Dr. Freedman, let’s talk tachlis. True, I don’t want to drag my boys down or make them feel like they’re in a second-rate institution, but we do need to get to the bottom of this. So you’re welcome to come in and do your thing.”

We decided on a pizza mishmar schmooze for the following evening, and I was grateful for the mashgiach’s change of heart. I knew the boys would be engaged — some had been users in the past, and they understood very well, and remembered quite clearly, the trap anyone could fall into. Because addiction doesn’t discriminate between “top boys” and those struggling to get back into the mainstream. And it doesn’t play fair, either — it grabs you unsuspectingly and soon has you in a chokehold.

Kalman found me as I was about to leave the building and asked if he could walk me out.

“I know some people think shrinks just mess with your brains,” he told me, “but I love psychiatrists, I think they’re the best. Not the ones who just push meds on kids, but the ones who really want to help, like you, taking the time to come here and really connect with the guys for their own good. You know, Dr. Freedman, I have a very close friend who was suffering from substance abuse and depression, and a psychiatrist went out on a limb to save his life after a bad suicide attempt one time when he was really sick. I just wanted to say I really respect everything you’re doing.”

I arrived the following evening for a schmooze entitled: “Hey, Doc, Do I Have a Problem?” Kalman was waiting at the door for me with a big smile on his face.

“Hi, Dr. Freedman! Remember me?”

It was almost over the top having a one-man cheerleading squad, but Kalman was obviously excited when it came to having me back at the yeshivah. I was a bit surprised though, when he stood up to introduce me in place of the mashgiach, who was sitting quietly in the corner.

“Dr. Freedman is a psychiatrist, but not the type who gives everyone a three-month prescription for Xanax just because they ask for it,” Kalman announced as I stood behind him. “He really cares about us and wants to make sure that people with addictions and mental health problems get the help they need. He’s also smarter than most of us, so listen up and let’s not waste his time looking at our phones or whatever! Dr. Freedman!”

I was honored by his praise, but at the beginning it was hard to read the crowd — these boys had been through a lot and seen a lot. That being said, I gave a leibedig talk with a few jokes thrown in for good measure. We covered the important topics of recognizing signs of addictive behaviors and how to discuss the topic with a peer who might be struggling.

In the end, the boys were happy — they got a bit of good information in addition to the pizza. I ended the talk by thanking the mashgiach, who in turn said he was grateful for the discussion and surprised me by publicly thanking Kalman for raising the funds to get the food and putting the evening together.

As I walked toward the door, fielding questions from a number of bochurim on a variety of topics, Kalman was politely waiting his turn and finally got through as I walked out.

“Can I keep you company for a few minutes?” he asked as I walked to my car.

“Of course you can!” I gave him a well-deserved fist pump. “Yasher koyach on putting this together, Kalman — you’re a superstar.”

“Dr. Freedman, remember I told you about my friend who was pulled back from the brink by a good doctor? Well, that friend was me.” He blushed as he spoke, but forged ahead. “Yah, you look at me today and see a regular frum bochur from Lakewood, but I just want to say I’m thankful, and I know what a good doctor can do.”

At first I was a bit taken aback by his openness and honesty, but I was also grateful — as it happened, this wouldn’t be our last encounter.

Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.

Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 818)

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