Jerusalem psychologist Baruch Shulem Uses Chassidic Stories
and Humor to Heal Lives.
Joel Rebibo

Dr. Shulem is not the kind of psychologist who sits back and listens passively a his patients unload their problems.

He believes that his job as a therapist is to make people aware of the power they have to change their lives to ‘loosen them up and make them think of alternatives,’ and he uses Chassidic stories and humor to get his message across.

Therapy, he says, is simply an exchange of stories, the patient tells his stories of depression and failure, and Shulem responds with his stories of hope and potential for change.

The story that best sums up is philosophy is that of the eaglet that falls from its nest, rolls down a hill and lands in a chicken coop. Not knowing otherwise, the young eaglet grows up thinking it is a chicken. It walks like a chicken, smells like chicken and clucks like a chicken. One day, a loud startles the chickens and they begin flapping their wings. All the other chickens fly just a couple of feet into the air, and come down. The eagle flaps his wings and flies higher and higher, soaring into the sky.

“Patients come to me thinking they are chickens,” says Shulem, an American immigrant. “My job is to remind them that they are eagles.” Shulem uses stories to remind patients of what they already know, to confuse them so that they will let go of some of their preconceived notions, and sometimes, just to lighten the atmosphere.

In therapy, people know the solution to their problems, but they are unable to put them into action because of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘can’ts.’ “I have never met a couple with marital problems who don’t know what has to be done, but each spouse waiting for the other to make the first move,” he observes.

When they sit in Shulems office blaming each other for their marital misery, Shulem interrupts their counterproductive pattern of mutual recrimination with an innocent, “That reminds me of a story.”

He might tell them the tale of a righteous man, who nearing death, asks and angel to give him a sneak preview of heaven and hell.

First he is taken to hell, where, to his surprise, he sees lush green fields, bubbling streams, spacious homes and a large banquet hall filled with tables laden with the finest meats, breads and delicacies. The door to the banquet hall opens and the residents walk in, starved and emaciated. They proceed to the tables of plenty and sit down to eat. But they don’t have elbows; so the food remains at arm’s length.

The next stop is heaven, and the tzadik sees the exact same setting: lush fields, steams, home and the large banquet hall. But the residents who enter are plump and happy. They sit down to eat and they too have not elbows, but they are able to eat because they feed one another.

Most couple who come to him for help are starving, Shulem says, and the only way for them to solve their problems is to “feed” one another.

“The key task of the therapist is to remind the patient of what he already knows,” he explains. “The story’s purpose is to tease out a latent idea.”

By placing the story in some far off setting, Shulem forces the patient to listen more carefully and this leads to the ‘internal search’ that is necessary for recovery.

His stories have three elements: they contain an indirect message, they have a certain element of confusion and they keep the listener curious enough to dig for an answer.

Take the story of two partners who come to a rebbe for a blessing for their new business. The rebbe tells them to wrap a quarter at the end of their tzizit garments. As they leave, one partner turns to the other and says, “What can he be talking about: I don’t even wear tzizit!”

The story has an indirect message - wear tzizit, it creates confusion and holds the attention of the listener.

Shulem has some 200 stories stored in his computer. He made up some of them to fit the needs of patients, but the vast majority are culled for the master like the Dubno Maggid and the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Stories, however, can’t be used indiscriminately. “They must be tailored to the need of the individual,” he explains. At times, he’ll spend hours looking for the right story, and at the next session will ‘spontaneously’ slip it in with, ‘that reminds me of a story.’

Shulem, despite his secular training - a B.S.W. from Hebrew University and a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis Missouri - believes that the Chassidic rebbes had some over many present day psychotherapists: Truth. “All secular ideas about psychology are partially true, but no have found the depth and breadth of Jewish understanding of human nature and functioning,” he says. “The beautiful part about their stories is that you know they are either true stories or parables reflecting human wisdom and experience.”

Chassidic tales are always about human dilemmas. They are simple, because they were meant for the common man, and they are full of hope and faith. The rebbes understood human suffering, and when they help court they were using their power to focus attention on their disciples.

“The archetypical Chassidic rebbe had all the potential of being a great hypno-therapist,” Shulem notes. “he understood the essence of human nature.”

His favorite is the Kutzker, a 19th century rebbe who went of into seclusion for 20 years, and who was uncompromising (the middle of the road he used to say, was for donkey). “He had a razor-sharp tongue and his one-liners were devastating, “ Shulem say. “You went to him frightened that he would tell you the truth, but drawn to him because you knew he would tell the truth.”

Shulem’s brand of story telling and humor is gaining popularity among psychotherapists. An article he wrote in the International Journal of Systemic and Strategic Therapy called ‘Humor and Psychotherapy’ led to an invitation to lead a three day workshop for psychotherapists in Finland.

Shulem has secular as well as religious patients, but they all must understand, he says, that ultimately no therapist can solve their problems for them. Which, not surprisingly, reminds him of a story.

Two Chassidim visited their rebbe every year, and stopped along the way at the same hotel. Each year, they tried to persuade the non-observant hotel owner to come along with them to see the rebbe. Surely, there was something he needed, they argued, and the rebbe could provide it for him.

Year after year, the hotel owner turned them down, insisting that he had everything he needed. But one year, he confessed that he lacked the one thing that could make him truly happy: a son.

The Chassidim convinced him that the rebbe could help him and so he joined them on their pilgrimage. The rebbe greeted the visitor, heard his request, and told him to go home and wait because, “a year from today you will celebrate the bris of a son.”

The next year, the Chassidim set off again to visit the rebbe and approached the hotel with trepidation. Had the blessing been fulfilled? Sure enough they entered to find the preparations for the bris milah for the hotel keeper’s son. The hotel keeper, now observant, begged the Chassidim to convey his thanks to the rebbe.

The Chassidim continued on their way and informed the rebbe of the good news. He listened with satisfaction and nodded “Amen.”

The two left the room, and a short time while later one of them snuck back in to see the rebbe. “Rebbe, do you know why I’ve come to you?”

“Yes,” the rebbe answered.

“I don’t have a son. Why did you bless him and not me?”

“I did bless you,” the rebbe said.

“But I don’t have a son.”

“Yes,” the rebbe answered. “You know why his blessing came true? Because he went out and built a crib.”


Baruch Shulem was born in San Francisco, California, USA in 1941. He was raised in California (that is a state of mind on the west coast of America) and in 1960 came to Israel on a one year program for Zionist youth. He fell in love with Jerusalem and decided to stay. He served in the army, lived on kibbutz for two years, and later went to the Hebrew University School of Social Work and received his B.S.W. in 1. He worked in the welfare system, youth probation, and later supervised at the School of Social work. In 1973 he went back to the states to work on a doctorate in psychology and social work. He received his Ph.D. in 1978 and immediately returned to Israel.

His wife Yehudith, raised in Jerusalem, is also a social worker. She became ‘interested’ in religion in the late 1970’s and started her ‘return’ - becoming religious. Baruch soon followed and through the work of ‘Torah Ve’Emuna’ institutions ( a religious outreach program) they became practicing Orthodox Jews.

They have five boys, the oldest two are married with four children, while the younger three study in Yeshivot and religious institutions. They live in Har Nof, an orthodox community in Jerusalem.

Yehudith Shulem as a private practice in Jerusalem and works with women's groups on issues of Chinuch (Education), self awareness, and marital issues.

Baruch Shulem as a private practice in Jerusalem and supervises and teaches throughout Israel on issues of Torah and short term solution oriented therapy, family functioning, Chinuch, and conducts workshops throughout Israel, Europe and the US on these issues.

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