“Eric is one of us and will remain one of us. All of those who will find solace and support will be able to pay tribute to an individual who had so much to contribute. Through the efforts of his family and a lot of friends who offered financial support, his name will be long remembered. It will not be forgotten,” said Rabbi Solomon Rybak at the June 28 dedication ceremony of the Eric Eliezer Levenson Center for Hope.
The center was dedicated in memory of Eric Levenson, a former Clifton resident who took his own life in 2016 after a hard-fought 14-year battle with mental illness. Located at the Jewish Family Services of Clifton-Passaic facility on Allwood Road in Clifton, the center provides vocational counseling, case management, psychiatric services, mentoring programs and community education.
Rabbi Rybak is the rabbi of Congregation Adas Israel in Passaic, the shul in which Eric grew up and where the dedication ceremony took place.
Eric’s mother, Eta Levenson, thanked everyone who came out to honor and memorialize her oldest son. She told of her family’s background in the neighborhood and how it had always seemed that the children were thriving, until 2001, Eric’s freshman year in high school, when he suffered a serious emotional breakdown.
Eta said: “There were no overt warning signs because, until that moment, he was a good student, did well in most of his classes, had many friends, was a cooperative son and usually even a good brother. Nothing gave us a hint he was suffering for so long inside.” She continued, “For the next 14 years, half his life, Eric and we struggled against the insidious disease of mental illness.”
She told of his many goals and how his disease ended up winning in the end. She emphasized that his “story will not end with his life.” She pointed out the lessons that Eric’s struggle can offer to anyone with mental illness, and she emphasized that there should be no shame and that everyone should receive the proper education, treatment and support when it comes to mental illness.
Eta then introduced the guest speaker, Randi Silverman, co-founder of the Youth Mental Health Project, whose own son also grappled with mental illness since first grade. He is now 21 years old and progressing because of good treatment.
Silverman spoke about how unfortunate it is that mental illness is not supported in the same way as physical illness. She told the story of her son’s struggle, and his ultimate diagnoses of anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. She described how the community seemed “to be stripped away from us.” She felt alone but has come to realize that one in five children (15 million in the U.S.) struggles with mental illness, and she knows now that she is not alone. She spoke about the misconception that mental illness is the fault of the parents and emphasized that “it is 80 percent genetic.”
“We live in a society and a culture of blame, shame, fear, misunderstanding and silence,” added Silverman. “I want to live in a world where my son and his siblings are not ashamed of the fact that he has a condition, one that he can’t help any more than if he had diabetes or asthma. The shame is what keeps us quiet, silent and prevents us from seeking help.”
The Eric Eliezer Levenson Center for Hope of JFS Clifton is an important and all-too-rare resource. Silverman encouraged everyone to make this center and its program well-known, so that all people who need assistance can avail themselves of these essential services.
The center is open to anyone between 18 and 30 years old, and ability to pay is not an obstacle.