"I’m not sure how far over the edge she is, but I think you should see her yourself"
Ms. Kim was a South Korean college student living in Los Angeles and majoring in architecture, and had come to Israel on a sightseeing tour with her local church group. It had been an intense, uplifting trip so far, but when things were getting out of hand, her tour guide decided to give me a call.
“Maybe I’m too good when it comes to inspiring my groups,” joked Yisrael — a popular guide for non-Jewish groups and the brother of a good friend — somewhat nervously. “I need you to help this young lady before she ends up in a mental hospital.”
Yisrael was a veteran tour guide, and Ms. Kim wasn’t the first tourist he’d seen develop what’s commonly known as Jerusalem Syndrome, a type of religious mania in which tourists — or even longtime Jerusalem residents — become so overwhelmed with the spiritual symbols and power of the Holy City that they dissociate from reality and believe themselves to be biblical figures or handpicked emissaries for a Divine redemptive mission.
The characteristic lack of sleep, the intense messianic-religious obsessions, and the grandiose delusions are usually part of a manic or a psychotic episode that requires treatment with mood stabilizers and anti-psychotic medications. Yisrael told me he’d brought several tourists to the emergency room for some variation of the scenario over the past 26 years that he’s been leading groups of all faiths across Eretz Yisrael.
“I’m not sure how far over the edge she is, but I think you should see her yourself and let me know what we should do,” said Yisrael. “Hospital, meds, next flight home? Tell me what you think.”
I made time that afternoon for Ms. Kim — I knew these things can get out of hand quickly, and the sooner it’s brought under control, the better. But by the time we met in my office, Ms. Kim’s situation had deteriorated significantly. The level of her suffering was obvious by the fact that she was the first petite Korean woman in her early twenties that I’d ever seen wearing a tallis and a fez at the same time.
I began to introduce myself but didn’t get very far as she began to explode, “Dr. Jacob-Our-Forefather, it’s amazing to meet you! My name is Israel Kim, and I’m honored to speak with people who can help me to spread the message of love and hope that our Creator brings!”
“I would like to—” I started again before I was immediately cut off by Ms. Kim.
“Don’t you love resurrection, Dr. Jacob-Our-Forefather? I mean, the whole world is ready for these miracles that are happening before our very eyes! I was once an architecture student, and now I am dancing with the Architect of the World. Forget everything you know about Suzy Kim, and get ready for Mrs. Israel Kim, the Wife of G-d!”
While I was excited about techiyas hameisim and had seen many miracles in my own life, I had to doubt her centrality in the process of Geulah. But the idea of recommending a psychiatric hospitalization for a college student in a foreign country was certainly something to avoid if at all possible. And so I began a nonthreatening discussion that would hopefully help her to stay out of the hospital, and wanted to put her on a medication to help her get some sleep at night in order to enjoy the rest of the tour.
“That doesn’t sound like the Dr. Jacob-Our-Forefather that I know,” she snapped. “You don’t need eyes to see this amazing miracle that I am about to show you. Just give me a pair of scissors, and I’ll cut out my own eyes to show you that even I don’t need eyes to show you miracles!”
When she lunged for the scissors on my desk, I had no choice, and told Yisrael in our shared language, “Titkasher lamishtarah miyad (call the police immediately).”
As I grabbed away the scissors, Ms. Kim jumped up in a frenzy and started swinging her tallis over her head. I prepared myself for the end of the nice office plants and the awards and diplomas hanging on the wall, when Ms. Kim had a change of heart and instead of moving toward aggression, chose to wrap her head in the tallis she fashioned as a turban.
For the next four minutes, Yisrael and I stood by the door as we watched Ms. Kim scream Tehillim in English, standing on a chair.
When the police officers came, I let them know that Ms. Kim was a manic, psychotic tourist with Jerusalem Syndrome, handing them a note recommending treatment with antipsychotic medications as well as emergency hospitalization.
I’m not sure any of us knew what to expect from Ms. Kim as she sprung to her feet in order to greet the officers and yelled, “Shalom, Shalom, I have prophecies to share!”
When they showed her the handcuffs to explain that she was going with them one way or another, Ms. Kim surprised us all and decided to go willingly with the three officers.
“They have chosen to listen to the word of G-d!” she shouted as she walked out of the office with a policeman on either side.
“Do you think she’ll be hospitalized or will they just let her go?” Yisrael asked.
“I have found my disciples!” Ms. Kim seemed to answer his question from outside the door.
“So, what’s the pshat on this one?” I asked him as he picked up his backpack and prepared to return to his tour group, which was waiting to visit King David’s Tomb on Har Tzion.
“What do you mean, Dr. Jacob-Our-Forefather?” He laughed, but he was also feeling a little sad. “You think there’s some larger takeaway?”
I thought for a moment and tried to explain. There’s a fine line that separates someone who’s had an authentic religious experience from one who’s lost his grip on reality and needs psychiatric care. One is considered praiseworthy and a true believer in the imminent Geulah, while the other is considered over the edge because he’s had such an overwhelming religious experience that the “voices” tell him he’s actually part of the process. But aren’t we all really hoping for the same thing?
I walked Yisrael out and wished him well. With a few minutes before my next appointment, I figured I’d do some learning in the merit of Ms. Kim and the rest of my patients. I pulled the Rambam off of my bookshelf and opened up to hilchos Malachim in order to brush up on the relevant halachos of Mashiach.
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 802)
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