Photo: Dana Kopel
Rabbis Shlomo Sobol (R), David Fine and Liad Orian
Photo: Dana Kopel
Putting an end to the suicide taboo in amongst religious Jews
Thanks to an NGO working to prevent suicide in religious society, rabbis are no longer afraid to directly ask members of their congregation if they are having suicidal thoughts.
H. did not expect the question or the look, definitely from the rabbi of all people. But Rabbi Liad Orian looked up at her and asked if she had thought of hurting herself, God forbid. H., who was in the middle of a personal crisis, did not respond, but following the question she shared her distress with the rabbi and eventually began going to therapy. Only later did she find the courage to visit the rabbi again and tell him that she had indeed planned on doing something irreversible that day.



"I felt that H. was on the edge, even though she did not say anything," says Rabbi Orian, a congregation rabbi in the city of Modi'in. "This is a classic case of someone whose life was going very well and all of a sudden everything was shaken up. I got the courage to ask her a straightforward question—if she had any suicidal thoughts—following a training session of the Path to Life NGO."


The NGO was founded by mental health professionals and family members of those who had committed suicide. Alongside offering support for families whose loved ones have committed suicide, it also works to reduce the amount of suicides through "gatekeepers"—educators and counselors trained to detect the signs of suicidal distress and save lives.


On September 8, the organization will hold a march from the Beit Ariela public library in Tel Aviv to mark World Suicide Prevention Day.


Rabbis Shlomo Sobol (R), David Fine and Liad Orian (Photo: Dana Kopel)
Rabbis Shlomo Sobol (R), David Fine and Liad Orian (Photo: Dana Kopel)

"Our goal is to reach different audiences, and especially audiences where this sensitive subject is still hushed," said the NGO's chairman, Dr. Avshalom Aderet, a professor of education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Kibbutzim College, whose son Eran committed suicide during his military service. "In the religious society, the issue is more silenced and hidden, so we were very happy when the Barkai Center for Rabbinic Training approached us and expressed desire to learn about the issue."


It was not easy for Aderet to stand in front of 20 rabbis and convince them that it is right to discuss the issue openly, and it was certainly not easy to convince them that they need to directly address the person in distress. "I believe that if I had known at the time how to ask Eran the direct question, I may have been able to prevent the disaster," Aderet says.


"When I first heard this idea, to directly ask a person if he is considering harming himself, I laughed. Why would someone answer that? But reality is different. People in distress are waiting for someone to ask them and give an honest answer. Therefore, we define this question as a life saving-question.


"It's very difficult for people to ask this question. As part of the rabbis' training, we actually conducted a simulation of how to do it. Even then, when we sat a rabbi down next to another rabbi playing the part of a person in distress, people went about it in a roundabout matter before daring to ask the explicit question."


At first, the rabbis rejected not only the possibility of presenting the question, but also the idea that the issue should be opened up as part of sermons or lessons in the synagogue.


"There were rabbis who found it difficult to understand," say Rabbi Shlomo Sobol and Rabbi David Fine, who are in charge of the Barkai program. "They argued and asked why should the issue be discussed with the entire community: What if there was someone in the audience who had never even considered it, and a conversation about suicide would only put ideas into his head.


"There was a profound argument, but after Aderet shared his personal story and presented us with studies showing that the number of suicides was reduced in every place where the issue had been discussed—people opened up to it."


Breaking out of the comfort zone

Indeed, as opposed to the myth, studies conducted in the world and in Israel in the past decade show that talking about suicide reduces the phenomenon. The IDF, for example, has recorded a drastic drop in the number of suicides following activity aimed at raising awareness to the issue.


"I became convinced that I must not keep the information I learned to myself," says Rabbi Orian. "It says in the Shulchan Aruch (a compilation of Jewish law) that a rabbi who is asked if one is allowed to drive to the hospital on Shabbat in order to save a life should be condemned. Why? Because he failed to make it clear to his congregation that in the case of mortal danger, Shabbat can be desecrated, and there is no need to ask.


"The soul is even more sensitive than the body. If people see a person drowning, they will jump into the pool. But with the soul it's different, for some reason. Perhaps because there is no blood dripping, perhaps because it doesn’t seem as urgent, but it's much more dangerous.


"I mustered the courage and gave a lesson on the issue to the congregation. I spoke about the fact that we are living with a stigma, thinking that if we don’t talk about (suicide), it won’t happen. I said that anyone can reach a situation which might shake them up and that we, as a community, have a responsibility.


"I felt they were listening to me with rapt attention. At the end, one of the members approached me and thanked me for the courage to raise complicated issues. People are afraid to touch this issues, but we must break out of the passive comfort zone and take responsibility."


M., a congregation rabbi in northern Israel who took part in the training, became convinced as well that the issue should be discussed with the community, but has yet to do so.


"It's complicated," he sighs. "About two years ago, one of our congregation members committed suicide. He had been in therapy for a long time. I supported him and his family during the crises, but despite the psychiatric treatment, he ended his life. How will I address the issue with his family sitting in the audience? The problem is that the family has decided to keep the affair a secret. Only few in the congregation know that it was suicide; the rest think it was a car accident. I object to this silencing, but the family members insist. If I discuss the issue, it may expose them against their will. In the meantime, I have delivered a sermon on the issue just to youth rather than to the entire audience."


Religious society softening

In most religious communities, certainly the ultra-Orthodox ones, suicide is still considered a sort of taboo. The Halacha is actually lenient towards those who commit suicide and sees them in retrospect as people who changed their mind a moment before their death and became newly religious, and therefore, in most cases, the person who committed suicide is not buried outside the cemetery fence.


Nonetheless, so as not to encourager suicide, it is defined as an explicit Torah prohibition of murder. On the social level, a family member's suicide could affect the family's status in the community and its children's matchmaking.


"We find that as the stigmas surrounding the issue disappear, the ability to prevent suicide increases. In addition, the ability to have a process of fixing and healing among the family members and community of the person who committed suicide—is higher," says clinical psychologist Hanna Bar Joseph, who volunteers with the Path to Life NGO.


"In recent years, we have been seeing the religious society softening and opening up. It's a natural process, but the NGO seeks to speed it up in order to save lives. The rabbis' training is a significant step in this process. As part of the training, the rabbis met with religious parents whose sons had committed suicide; the parents told them how critical it was for the community and the rabbi to address the issue, and it was very important."


To what extent do rabbis encounter situations in which people talk about suicide? According to Rabbi Fine, there is not a single rabbi who has not come across such a situation.


"When I was a congregation rabbi in the United States, I encountered several cases. There was a particularly difficult case in which I felt it was my duty to turn to professionals, and a member of the community underwent forced hospitalization. I continued to support him and his family despite his anger towards me. He recently contacted me and thanked me for my support. I believe that every congregation rabbi must receive training on this issue.


"I was involved in a case of a teenager from the neighborhood who would often state that there is no point in living," says Rabbi Sobol, who serves as a congregation rabbi in Modi'in. "The parents were uncertain whether this was just a case of an adolescent seeking attention or whether the thought that could turn into action. I met with the boy and referred him to therapy. The therapy helped; the child recovered and is today serving in a combat unit."


Does the rabbi have a bigger role than other gatekeepers, such as a teacher or an instructor?


"Yes. In the first stage in these cases, the rabbi must take off the hat of the preacher and the authoritative figure, and just listen," says Rabbi Sobol. "The moment one listens properly, it already solves most of the problems. The actual act of sharing is a relief which takes a load off one's heart.


"Later on, the rabbi has a spiritual role too. Many times, the despair felt by religious people—particularly youth—stems from questions of faith, such as what is the meaning of the world, and here the rabbi can create a spiritual level while at the same time referring the person to mental treatment."


Sometimes the rabbi must also make it clear that spiritual repairs are not an alternative to professional treatment. "I was approached by a community member who asked me to check the mezuzot in another family's home," says Rabbi Orian. "I asked what had happened, and she told me that the family's daughter was saying that she wanted to commit suicide. I immediately made it clear that I would only check the mezuzot if the daughter contacted a psychiatrist.


"I have no problem with spiritual repairs, but cancer patients are not treated with amulets and epilepsy patients are not treated with Tefillin. It may help, but it cannot replace conventional treatment. Such things must not be covered up. I sometimes feel that in the religious public, and perhaps not only there, there is a greater understanding of body-related hardships than of soul-related hardships."


Authorities' negligence

Rabbi Orion's first encounter with the suicide issue was when he was studying to be ordained as a rabbi. "It was 10 years ago," he says. "I went to Gush Katif to support the residents before the uprooting, and then a phone call arrived from an unidentified number of a guy who sounded like he was in great distress. He would not give me his phone number or any other detail.


"I realized that it was an emergency and decided to go back home and deal with it properly. Saving a life overrides supporting Gush Katif's residents. I made it clear to the guy that I was dropping everything to help him, and it made him trust me and give me his phone number later on.


"The things he told me left me with no other choice, and I reported his case to the authorities. He came from am ultra-Orthodox background, and the authorities did not act properly. They demanded that I meet with him and sort of ambush him, and that's what happened. It was terrible. I met with him, we got on a bus, and when we got off at the bus stop they jumped him and forcibly hospitalized him."


After he was discharged from the hospital, the guy called the rabbi in anger and made it clear that he would cut all ties with him so that next time no one would stop him from committing suicide.


"I later managed to build trust again, but in my opinion the authorities acted negligently in this case, like a bull in a china shop," says Rabbi Orian. "Following our training at Barkai, I decided to organize a meeting of congregation rabbis in Modi'in with the city's welfare officials to discuss cooperation. I sometimes feel that our relationship is one-sided. The authorities and the law demand that the rabbi report the cases to the professionals, but the professionals disregard the rabbi and don't see him as part of the recovery process.


"I believe that the rabbi can continue to help with the rehabilitation, help the person find meaning and organize support for him in the community. It's not just about putting on a Band-Aid and that's it. It's a person's soul, it's much more sensitive. After the hospitalizations and the pills, there is a need for rehabilitation too. Many times, the professionals think about the urgency but don't think about the future, about how to introduce mental patients back into the family and community."


And what is the rabbi's role in case a member of his congregation puts an end to his life? "In this case, the rabbi faces a serious dilemma," Rabbi Sobol admits. "He must tell the public that it is a serious act defined as murder, but he certainly must not tell the family that their son is a murderer. He must support the family, alleviate the anger and the feelings of guilt and help commemorate the person who committed suicide. The most important thing is to help the family apply meaning to this death and translate the grief into public action."


Rabbi Orian, on the other hand, believes that in the case of suicide one must be careful not to make any judgmental comments when talking to the community. "That is actually what the Halacha does as well," he says. "The person who ended his life was a tormented person whose free choice was limited. If a person in the community was involved in a car accident and killed someone, will we ostracize him? Ostracism has no place in our generation.


"Instead of a judgmental stance, we must criticize ourselves and ask where have we been and could we have done more. Is there enough sensitivity in our community for people who are facing a financial, professional or family crisis? Our Sages of Blessed Memory said, 'Don't judge your fellowman until you reach his place.' But we will never reach his place, so we will never judge either."


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