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by Susan Schnur

Analyze THIS

Why Do Therapy and Jewish Women Go Together?

The Tikkun Olam of Kitty Genovese

Nechama Liss-Levinson, psychologist/psychoanalyst, Great Neck, NY*

I’m a traditional Jew, so Judaism is the prism through which I see life, like eyeglasses I wear wherever I am. When I meet a new client, I’m grounded in the knowledge that we’re all created with the divine spark, so I believe everyone is worthwhile. You may not believe it, with depression or low self-esteem, but I do.

If a client’s depressed, I integrate tikkun olam into our work, encouraging them to volunteer, offering websites and resources. There is a tremendous benefit, not only in terms of developing empathy, but in developing a healthier sense of self and a perspective on your own troubles. In Judaism there’s also the idea that even poor people should give tzedakah — you are never too poor to help someone else. Tzedakah develops self-empowerment and worth, you still have the ability to improve the life of someone else. Giving tzedakah can be a very successful intervention.

The Talmud says that “a dream that is not understood is like a letter that is not opened.” I love to work with dreams, they extend the meaning that the client and I create together. In fact, there’s a prayer that asks God to help us interpret our dreams.

When I was a girl, a phrase in the morning prayers particularly spoke to me: “These are the things whose fruits a person enjoys in this world and the interest is in the world-to-come: honoring your mother and father, acts of kindness, attendance at a house of study…and bringing peace between an individual and their friend.” I had wanted to do something grand to help the world — make peace between Israel and the Arabs — and it felt to me that it was maybe bigger than I could handle. I kind of had to downsize. I could, though, “bring peace between an individual and their friend.” I could be a therapist.

When I was 12, in 1964, right after Kitty Genovese had been murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens (while 38 people watched and did nothing), my parents, who always emphasized making the world a better place, went to Manhattan and stumbled on a crime scene — a man was dead and another man was running from the scene. They ran after him for many blocks until they found a police officer and shouted, “This man left the scene of a crime!”

The next day The New York Times wrote my parents up as the “anti-Genovese couple.” The man they’d chased had committed a murder. It was a pivotal story for me as a child, knowing this about my parents. You should never look away, you should always step forward. As a teenager, I became more religiously observant and I still am.

Judaism offers me an existential anchor in life; it says there is meaning to the way you live it. Therapy is about making meaning, too…and becoming a clinician involves healing some sadness of your own.

I love the work I do.

  • Karen Koffler

    I was so disappointed to see Kew Gardens, Queens unfairly maligned in your piece “The Tikkun Olam of Kitty Genovese” on pages 22 and 23 of the Winter 2012/2013 issue. The murder of Ms. Genovese was a horrible tragedy. For decades, the residents of Kew Gardens have been unfairly accused of watching and doing nothing during the crime. This misinformation has found its way into social psychology text books and many articles over the years.

    The New York Times debunked myth of the callousness of the residents of Kew Gardens in 2004: “Kitty, 40 years later.” The author could have easily found it if she had done a simple search.

    Ironically, the day after I read the piece in Lilith, the topic was once again covered in the January 30, 2013 issue New York Times: “Timeless book may require
    some timely fact checking.” The article addresses a reissue of A.M. Rosenthal’s nonfiction account of the murder and the question of how changes in interpretation of fact should be handled. I recognize that this particular article appeared after the issue went to press, but it helps to clear the good name of Kew Gardens residents.

    I expect Lilith to engage in fact checking. In a piece about repairing the world, I am especially disheartened to see Kew Gardens denigrated carelessly.

    Note that I am a Jewish woman, a psychologist by training and a former resident of Kew Gardens, where many Austrian and German Jews made their homes after fleeing Europe.

    Karen Perlmutter Koffler