By Rabbi Levi Welton
Just last month, seven NFL players made a trip to Israel where they toured the land and visited the Kotel for Friday night services. Here in the US, football is a popular sport with many of my friends venerating “Super Bowl Sunday” as if it was a national holiday. As a kid, I remember admiring these athletes as ironclad gladiators sculpted with impenetrable machismo.
So imagine my surprise hearing that Joe Barksdale, a 6 foot 5 inch and 325 pound offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers, had the gall to admit that even NFL players aren’t always on top of their emotional game.“I can’t hide my skin color. I can’t mask my voice. And my struggle with depression is just as much a part of me as these things.”
My first reaction was “Well, if an NFL player can admit that, maybe I don’t have to feel so bad about my own insecurities.” I was particularly moved as I am a mental health clinician for Revived Soul Medical, a psychiatric outpatient clinic where I work weekly with patients as they process through the stigmata attached with emotional disorders. Even in our modern society, there is still a cultural taboo intimidating people suffering from depression into silence.
And that silence is deadly.
In the past few years, for many complicated reasons, the second leading cause of death amongst young people has been suicide, with the most common underlying disorder being depression. As Efrem Epstein, Founder of “Elijah’s Journey” – a 501c3 focused on mental health and suicide awareness in the Jewish community, says “Emotional safety should be every bit as important as physical safety, in fact emotional safety IS physical safety”. Dan Witters, research director of the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, recently went on record saying that depression in the United States is worsening like “nothing we’ve ever seen before”. With all of our technological & societal progressiveness, last year saw an increase of 17 million more people with depressive symptoms than in the year before.
The good news is that we’re seeing a growing trend of people who are done staying quiet and are going public as mental health advocates. One of my friends, Aryanna Garber, just won the Weston New Musical Award for her mental-health themed musical, “Borderline”. And, as Barksdale confided in me, “If I can speak my truth, maybe I can save another person going through this”. Discussing mental health issues should be easier, and thankfully it’s getting easier. But there is still much to be done to make it more commonplace.
The more I got to know Joe, the more interesting he became. But isn’t that case with most, if not all people? Consider the fact that within four years of teaching himself how to play guitar, Joe released his debut album, “Butterflies, Rainbows & Moonbeams” in January of this year. Although the NFL has a quirky relationship with football players players who went on to become musicians, Barksdale admitted to me that it wasn’t football but “music that has always been my first love.” Actually, it was his former coach Jeff Fisher who encouraged Barksdale to play the guitar and his music sessions provided a safe escape from his depression. “When I play my guitar — not all the time but if I’m soloing or if I just let go and play — I feel like I’m flying.” As he spent more time practicing guitar, it developed into something much more.“It was intended to be an outlet, but when I got down to it and started applying myself, and getting better, it became a voice and a way of communicating with people. Because you know being depressed, you get kind of introverted, and you don’t trust people. And if you don’t trust people, you’re not really around people that much. So you don’t really learn sometimes how to communicate with people. And I think the guitar is a great way for me to communicate.”
As a Rabbi, I was deeply moved by Joe’s sincere commitment to his faith and, of course, should have guessed that his favorite Biblical personality would be Joseph. “Joseph went from being in prison to being the second in command to the Pharaoh. Although his early years were marred with dysfunction, he continued to try to do the right thing and kept on pushing on. It’s stories like Joseph that help me occupy my mental space with things that really matter and that will enact change.” Flashing a smile, Joe quickly added ”After all, if there’s no Joseph, there’s no Moses.”
As we spoke more about theology and spirituality, I discovered Joe’s unlikely friendship with a young Chassidic menswear entrepreneur, Mordy Babayov. “I go to church with an employee of Mordy’s who initially made the introduction because he thought I’d like the bespoke suits they make. Now, people assume that if you’re in the NFL you want to pay 5K for a suit, but Mordy never tried to upsell me. That impressed me right away as he’s always looking out for me plus I’ve gotten tons of compliments on the suits he’s made me.” Joe’s only criticism: “I wish they made other clothing!”
But Joe quickly realized that they had more in common than just a mutual passion for stylish suits. “For example, we both start our morning with spirituality. For me, its using an app on my smartphone but for Mordy, its putting on his Tefillin and praying!” As a Chassidic Jew, Mordy has a very focused spiritual lifestyle replete with “davening’ (praying) three times a day and guidelines that inform every aspect of his life from how he eats to how he conducts business. Joe laughed as he recalled the first time his wife Bianca met Mordy who politely declined to shake her hand and explained that he only engages in physical contact with women he is intimately related to. “At first, I was like “what’s the deal with that? But the more I found out about it, the more I respected the modesty and safe space that law creates.”
I called Mordy to find out more and yet this successful entrepreneur, who went from $7000 in sales to over $3M in just a few years, shied away from being interviewed. But inspired by Joe, who credits his successes to “G-d & perseverance,” I persevered and finally got Mordy on the phone. We began the conversation by talking about Joe’s mental health advocacy and a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, that the most effective way to overcome depression is by changing the way we think. The Baal Shem Tov noted that this idea is hinted to in the ancient Hebrew word for “thought” (machshava) where the letters can be rearranged to spell the Hebrew word for “happiness” (bsimcha).
Our conversation then took a twist when Mordy said that one of the ways society could alleviate the rise in depression would be to talk more openly about failure. In a calm and soft spoken manner, Mordy candidly shared all the times he had failed miserably in his career and personal life. Then he went on to credit his successes to being educated through the Yeshiva system, attending both the Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon in Los Angeles and the Chabad Yeshiva in Morristown, N.J. “I remember being taught that the [Chabad] Rebbe wanted us to memorize the ‘12 Pesukim’ (a collection of various sayings from the Torah and Talmud). One of them is ‘If someone says they have worked hard but I have not been successful,’ don’t believe him. If someone says: ‘I have not worked hard and I have been successful,’ don’t believe him. If someone says: ‘I have worked hard and I have been successful,’ believe him!” (Talmud Megillah 6B). It was this teaching that gave me the most important tool for my successes – embracing failure. In other words, you should never consider yourself a failure until you’ve exhausted every available option. As long as you can come up with a way to try it differently, you’re not a failure.”
Another example of how his Chassidic upbringing has impacted his business success is the spiritual sensitivity or, as Mordy puts it, the “essential goodness, within each person” that is part and parcel of the Baal Shem Tov’s legacy. “I try to marry my ruchnius (spiritual life) with my gashmius (day-to-day life) and so I’m always on the lookout for ways to contribute goodness to the society around me. The [Chabad] Rebbe said ‘when two people meet, the result of their interaction should be goodness for a third.’” This motivated Mordy to host an annual coat drive for the homeless, support educational excellence at public high schools, and even partner with Barksdale to hand out hundreds of fully-stocked bookbags to needy families in Detroit. Although only 26 years old, this Chassidic Jew definitely practices what he preaches.
When I asked him if his spiritual values had ever brought him financial gain, Mordy laughed and recalled the time a senior citizen marched into The Suit Depot demanding to speak to the owner. Instead of delegating the job to one of his assistants, Mordy came out of his office and politely asked the man how he could be of service. Upon seeing Mordy approach with his Yarmulka on his head and Tzizis proudly swinging by his sides, the senior citizen burst into tears and clasped Mordys hands into his own. “I’m Jewish and I even have a son in this neighborhood in the same business as you. But I’m coming here today because I heard you stay closed on Shabbos (the weekly Sabbath) even though it’d be very profitable for you to remain open on the weekends. I’m not even religious but when I heard about you staying true to your values, I felt an overwhelming sense of Jewish pride! So I want to buy a suit from you to show you my support.”
As I thought about the unique friendship between Joe and Mordy, I asked myself “What shared value is there between this football player bravely advocating for mental health awareness and a Chassidic entrepreneur advocating for a more spiritually responsible marketplace?” As if on cue, the image of my father stroking his majestic beard illuminated my mind as he intoned “Do not look at the vessel rather at what it contains” (Talmud, Avos 4:27). I realized that both Joe and Mordy were helping me see past classic racial, cultural, and societal stereotypes. Both men exemplify the truth that it shouldn’t matter to us how we (literally!) suit up each morning or how we might be judged. All that matters is those moments when we empower the authentic goodness of our heavenly souls to touch the day-to-day grind of our earthly experience. Or, as they say on the field, ”Making a touchdown”!!