How important is it for you as an observant Jewish person to seek counseling from an observant Jewish therapist? The truth is that while any competent therapist ought to be able to help you with the issues you are facing – whether it is depression or marriage counseling or anything else – there are certainly benefits to working with someone who is on the inside of your cultural circle. Research in fact bears out that people tend to see the most success in their therapy when they are matched with therapists from their own cultural background. Here are some of the reasons you might be better off with a therapist from an Orthodox background.
You don’t have to explain as much.
Even the best and most understanding counselor, if not already quite familiar with Orthodox practices, will need explanation about the many ways in which what we do is different from what the rest of the world does. Think about trying to explain Shabbos to someone who has never heard of the concept before. “We don’t work on Saturday. Every Saturday. Except I don’t mean work like you think of work. I mean all kinds of things that are considered, uh, creative labor, like cooking or driving or turning on lights. Which I know is not really labor, but that’s the definition of it. Also, Saturday really starts on Friday, at sundown, and goes until sundown on Saturday. Except not really sundown, actually, when three stars come out. Medium-sized stars.” Hopefully, if you have a good therapist, they won’t start looking at you funny just because you are describing a religious system different from theirs – but it still is a lot to explain before you can get to the point of what you even wanted to talk to them about it. With a frum therapist, all that is already understood and taken for granted. It’s a lot of time and effort saved.
You aren’t judged on your religious beliefs or behaviors.
Theoretically a therapist is never supposed to being judging you, but one can imagine it might be difficult for someone totally ensconced in Western values to be fully accepting of some of the things we do. You’re struggling with stress and anxiety and you’re thinking about having more kids? You’re having trouble with your non-frum parents and you still refuse to eat at their house? There are certain values we maintain in the Orthodox world that need to be taken as given; trying to negotiate on whether you really need to eat kosher is probably not a helpful route to take for you. (Note that I am not advocating shutting out one’s parents over kashrus; of course there are many ways to appropriately address the problem(s) described above – but ditching kashrus is probably not one of them for you.)
You don’t have to worry about getting advice that runs counter to halacha.
This also relates to the question of what kind of advice you might get from a non-Orthodox counselor. This can arise in many different areas – such as a suggestion for an anxious person to be more lax on their halachic standards (which may or may not be appropriate – I am not saying that be lenient is automatically a bad idea), or a recommendation to watch a certain show or movie that may not be appropriate. One topic where this is especially relevant is around issues related to intimacy, where that which is common practice in secular society might be completely forbidden in the Orthodox world. (This is a very delicate topic and requires specific personal guidance, from a rav as well as the right counselor.)
Your therapist just gets it.
Culture is a broad concept that comprises many facets – religion, language, shared history, music, and values, to name just a few. Nobody can fully understand another culture unless they live it. And while that level of understanding may not be strictly necessary for a therapist to be able to help you, it sure makes it easier. It also usually makes it more comfortable for clients when they know their therapist has a solid understanding of the issues they are conversing about rather than trying to learn it on the fly. It’s hard to explain the many shades of meaning and feelings generated by one’s child going off the derech, by a broken engagement, or by a frum person showing up in the news as a criminal. Sharing these experiences with a counselor who understands the nuances of these situations is an added relief and comfort.
There are certainly more advantages to working with a frum therapist; I’ve only mentioned a few. This is not to say that working with someone outside the frum world is necessarily a bad idea. Everything has pluses and minuses, and you have to make the decision that’s best for you. If you think you’d like to work with a frum therapist – from the comfort of your own home, no less! – feel free to be in touch with me to see if I can be of help in your situation.