The second time Asher Lovy tried to kill himself, it looked a lot like the first time: Severely depressed from years of abuse at the hand of his mentally ill single mother—who didn’t take her medication as prescribed—Lovy walked into a busy street to meet an oncoming city bus head on.
“I was at the end of my rope, and I just thought, ‘Would it be so bad if this all ended?’ ” asked Lovy, 22, an Orthodox Jew from Borough Park, Brooklyn, whose attempts to kill himself failed both times when the bus swerved out of his way. He never told the family members who had, for years, dismissed his pleas for help regarding his abusive home life; they were concerned about how the community would respond and how it might affect potential marital matches for Lovy and his relatives.
It’s people like Lovy whom Efrem Epstein had in mind in 2009 when he conceived Elijah’s Journey: A Jewish Response to Suicide, a nonprofit raising awareness in the Jewish community about suicide and its connection to mental illness. The inspiration came to Epstein—who went through a tough period for which he got professional help almost a decade ago—while attending World Suicide Awareness Day hosted at the United Nations. “I saw a lot of different communities, like people of color and LGBT people, discussing their communities’ responses to suicide and mental illness, but there was no Jewish presence,” explained Epstein, 45. “I knew I had to change that.”
Five years later, Epstein said, a conversation has started, but it’s not nearly as loud or prominent as he would like. Despite initiatives like offering lectures and programming for synagogues; Jewish events and retreats; and developing text studies using relevant biblical characters to explore emotional disturbances through a Jewish lens (including a reading for the Passover Seder that connects opening the door for Elijah to greater suicide awareness), it’s been an uphill battle to make significant headway in the Jewish community.
And in a sea of major national organizations dedicated to suicide awareness and prevention—like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, SAVE, and the Jed Foundation—this sole Jewish-oriented nonprofit, according to Epstein, is still sorely needed. “One of the things I learned that day at the U.N. was that suicide prevention and awareness is most effective within one’s own community,” he said. “As Jews, we have specific concerns and issues that other communities might not have.”
Epstein points to anecdotes regarding mental health and suicide within religious texts as authentic Jewish precedence for the existence of these issues. There’s Hannah, who faced depression after she had difficulty conceiving a child; her story is in the Haftarah recited on Rosh Hashanah. There’s also Elijah (after whom the organization is named) and Jonah—whose story is read on Yom Kippur; both asked God to take their lives rather than fulfill their daunting prophetic ministry.
More than that, Epstein suggested, the work of Elijah’s Journey is grounded in several mitzvot, or commandments. “The mission of Elijah’s Journey is based on pikuach nefesh, saving a life, kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name, and the mitzvah of simcha [being joyful],” said Epstein.
But Lovy—who hadn’t heard of Elijah’s Journey before I interviewed him last month—is skeptical that real change is anywhere near imminent. “No one talks about suicide in the observant Jewish community, and that makes it hard to prove that there even exists a problem,” said Lovy. “My family would let my mother deteriorate mentally until she did something violent and even then, they were hesitant to have her committed. ‘What would the neighbors say?’ and ‘What about shidduchim [matchmaking]?’ they said. My family, and many other more observant Jews, are products of a culture that keeps its problems in the closet.”
This lack of disclosure makes it difficult to accurately assess rates of suicide attempts and completed suicides. “The associated stigma and reluctance to report suicide impede us from getting any kind of real numbers in the Jewish community,” explained Dr. Chaim Nissel, who, as dean of students at Yeshiva University, oversees its counseling center in addition to his clinical work. But national statistics for all groups are frightening: 40,000 total reported suicides in the United States each year, almost twice the reported number of homicides. It’s one of the few causes of death that’s rising. And worldwide, almost 1 million people commit suicide each year.
Both Epstein and Nissel, who sits on the advisory board of Elijah’s Journey, offered anecdotal experiences with encountering suicides in the Jewish community. Many of these suicides are covered up and never accurately reported, they said, with other excuses offered for the cause of death.
Not so for Rella Kaplowitz’s family. Kaplowitz lost her brother, Eytan, to suicide in 2010 after he battled with mental-health issues for years, and her family was very open about it. And Kaplowitz quickly discovered that their tragedy was more common in her Baltimore Jewish community than she might have thought. “A number of people who paid shiva calls said how brave my family was for being honest about how Eytan died, and then shared stories of a relative or loved one who they had also lost to suicide,” she said, “yet these same people were still not willing to be open to talking about mental illness and suicide outside our house. That disconnect struck me, and I started thinking about what I could do to change the way the Jewish community deals with this issue.”
Working with Elijah’s Journey, she said, is one of those steps. Since she connected with Epstein not long after her brother died, she’s spoken about suicide awareness and is one of the co-authors of a forthcoming shiva document, a detailed guide of helpful tips and talking points for those visiting a shiva home because of suicide. Kaplowitz spoke at her synagogue in Washington, D.C., on July 12, when the haftorah focused on Elijah and his depression and thoughts of ending his life—a passage that, by a fluke of the Jewish calendar, won’t be read as part of a regular Shabbat service in this country for another 21 years.
“After I spoke, several congregants told me, in confidence, about their own struggles—themselves, or family or friends of theirs,” said Kaplowitz. “I made them feel less alone by speaking out, and I hope I’m doing something to change that cycle so asking for help or discussing your mental health doesn’t have some big scary stigma attached to it.”
Part of that stigma undoubtedly stems from the widespread misunderstanding about what the Jewish laws are on suicide. With very few exceptions, Jewish law strictly forbids the taking of one’s own life. “Historically, people viewed suicide as one of the greatest acts of rebellion against God, and the person who committed suicide wasn’t buried in a Jewish cemetery, and his family didn’t sit shiva for him,” explained Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. But now, Dratch explained, it is better understood that suicide is often a result of mental illness—and this makes a difference in Jewish law. “As the understanding of mental-health issues evolved, there was a realization that people don’t generally commit suicide as a religious act of defiance but as a function of mental discuses beyond their control. Someone [who’s mentally ill] dying of suicide isn’t different than someone dying of cancer.”
Dratch, who was a pulpit and community rabbi for over 22 years in Stamford, Toronto, and other Jewish communities before assuming his RCA post, has seen communal shame surrounding mental-health issues on numerous occasions. His 2005 initiative to address issues of domestic violence and child abuse in the community, JSafe, tried to change that, and he is encouraged by the many Jewish communal agencies with mental health services.
But Dratch isn’t sure it’s enough. “To some extent, someone who’s suicidal can find the help they need in the larger community, but of course there will be some cultural barriers,” he said. “We as Jews can be doing more to both normalize issues of mental health in our community so people aren’t afraid to seek help and offer more specific resources to those with mental-health issues and suicidal tendencies.”
While community organizations and hotlines like Ohel, Achiezer, and Shalom Task Force offer assistance to those in distress, a quick glance at their websites shows that the word suicide isn’t mentioned once. When I called Ohel, and then Achiezer, to ask what the process was of referring someone with suicidal thoughts to the appropriate point of assistance, I was told each time that someone would get back to me. I’m still waiting, weeks later. Whether they eventually respond or not, it’s obvious that the person on the other end of the phone likely doesn’t have suicide-specific training—a matter of some urgency, especially considering that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recently estimated that 30 percent of those who die by suicide had seen a mental-health professional in the last year of their life, while 19 percent had seen one within the last month. That is, greater suicide-specific training could reach a lot of at-risk people whose needs aren’t currently being met.
“Suicide prevention-training is crucial for all mental-health professionals and organizations,” said Nissel. “It’s not enough to group everyone with mental health issues in the same, single box. Clinicians need to be trained to properly understand each individual’s specific risk factors.”
The Manhattan-based Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services is thus an exception. Included in its listing of support groups is one for Jewish survivors of a loved one’s suicide. M’kom Shalom—Place of Peace—meets monthly on the sixth floor of JBFCS. Run by Simcha Weintraub, a rabbi and social worker, the group draws Jews from Hasidic to completely unaffiliated. But Weintraub noted that the group was for those who have lost someone to suicide, not a preventative or awareness-raising measure for those considering suicide themselves.
“Many people at our meetings have a story to tell about a rabbi who wasn’t responsive, or a Jewish agency that didn’t understand their experience or needs,” said Weintraub, who, as an adjunct professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, teaches a course to future clergy on behavioral health. “Knowing that many people considering suicide often turn to spiritual leaders for help but don’t always say the word suicide, I try and help my students learn to pick up on some of the tip-offs. But book learning or a list of behaviors is not enough.”
Lovy has received therapy and found some support in online forums. But it was blogging and penning anonymous articles in some Jewish publications about his experiences that really helped him feel like he’s contributing to dismantling some of the myths about mental health and suicide. Still, Lovy is in a lonely position. “Suicide isn’t seen as a pressing problem by the Jewish community,” he said grimly. “It’s seen as a one-off.” Yet Epstein sees every person who struggles emotionally as a priority. “I want to see a Jewish community that is doing its fair share to make the world better and safer for everyone,” he said.
On Yom Kippur, we read the story of Jonah during mincha. It’s just a few hours before the end to the Days of Awe, the period of time in which we undertake serious reflection on how we might better our behavior in the year ahead. For many of us, this time of intense introspection on past, present, and future is a daunting mission, made eerier by the reading of Unetaneh Tokef, part of the liturgy of the High Holidays that contemplates who will live and who will die in the coming year: Who by fire and who by water? Who by sword, and who by beast? Who by hunger, and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by drowning? Who by strangling and who by stoning?
The text doesn’t ask: Who by self-inflicted harm? For Epstein, it’s an obvious question.
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Tova Ross is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Huffington Post, and she is also a contributing blogger to Kveller.com. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Follow her on Twitter @tovamos
Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.