Enlightenment from Elijah
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Enlightenment from Elijah

Exploring suicide through Jewish texts in effort to raise awareness

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Suicide is not a specifically Jewish problem.

In fact, last week, the spectacular suicide of Richard Shoop, a young man from Teaneck who terrorized an entire huge mall full of people at the Garden State Plaza, put the issue of suicide prevention (as well as gun control, mental illness, and drug addiction) firmly in people’s minds.

Mr. Shoop was not Jewish, but members of the Jewish community are neither more nor less immune to suicide than anyone else. Jews struggle with the urge to kill themselves, and their friends and families struggle with the aftereffects of suicide, just like everyone else does.

But there might be a specifically Jewish way to discuss the issue.

Text study.

That’s what Efrem Epstein, the founder of Elijah’s Journey, will lead on November 23 in Teaneck.

Elijah’s Journey is an organization that advocates for an increased awareness of suicide, and for suicide prevention. November 23 is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s International Survivors of Suicide Day. Coincidentally, it is also Shabbat, and the parashah – the Torah portion – that will be read in synagogues that day is Vayeshev. That’s the one that sees Joseph in prison, along with Pharaoh’s butler and baker.

“It’s one of the most famous stories in the Torah, but there are a couple of lines in there that often get missed,” Mr. Epstein said.

“Joseph is in jail, probably, as far as he knows, for the rest of his life. He notices these two people, and the text says that they looked distressed. So he asks them, ‘Why do you look so sad today?’

“And they say, ‘We have had these dreams.’

“Joseph changes the course of Jewish history – of world history – by having the presence of mind, even in his darkest hour, to notice other people.

“That’s why we say that we all have the presence of mind to look around, and if someone doesn’t look happy, to ask what’s wrong.”

Mr. Epstein, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, will speak at two Teaneck shuls that Shabbat – Netivot Shalom and Congregation Shaare Tefillah. “At each, I will teach a text study,” he said. “We will look at five characters from the Bible, and see how they struggle.

“Moses feels overwhelmed; Chana is in emotional agony, exacerbated by bullying; Elijah feels worthless: Jonah suffers from angst, and Zion, the only non-human character here, is suffering through mourning.”

Through a close look at those characters, whose emotional life is immediately recognizable to us although their stories took place so long ago and their cultural assumptions are not necessarily ours, it is possible get a better emotional understanding on the problems of suicide today.

Perhaps the most telling of all these stories – and the one from which the organization got its name – is the prophet Elijah’s. “He asks God to take his life,” Mr. Epstein said. In I Kings 19, in the Jewish Publication Society translation, Elijah, who had journeyed out alone into the wilderness, sat under a tree, and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.”

“In response, God tells him to go on a 40-day journey, and reassess,” Mr. Epstein said.

Although many people who have been touched by suicide try to keep it quiet, “we lose about 39,000 people to suicide in this country every year,” he said. “That’s confirmed and reported suicides. The suicide/homicide rate is 2 to 1, again confirmed and reported suicides.

“The best estimate is that 13 million people seriously contemplate suicide every year, there are one million attempts, and nearly 40,000 confirmed.” By comparison, there are 17,000 homicides in the United States every year, he said.

Mr. Epstein began Elijah’s Journey after “a tough period” in his own life, he said. “Coming out of it, I knew that I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. I got involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, did a couple of their walks, and then the New York City director invited me to attend World Suicide Prevention Day.”

On that day – which is marked on September 10 but has no connection to the terrorist attacks of September 11 – “I heard about these amazing program initiatives in other communities – elderly, LGBT, people of color, English as a second language, college – but I heard nothing about the Jewish community. When Dr. Donna Barnes, the founder of the community for people of color, talked about how suicide prevention is most effective in people’s own communities, I went to her afterward and asked if she knew if anyone in the Jewish community had started such a group.”

No one had – so Mr. Epstein started it himself, and Dr. Barnes became one of his first board members.

Elijah’s Journey is working on information to send to chesed committees and clergy with advice on what to do when they visit a house where someone is sitting shivah for someone lost to suicide. “Many of the co-authors of that document are people who themselves have been through the experience of sitting shivah for someone who took their own life,” Mr. Epstein said.

The organization also would like to “start a dialogue between rabbis and mental health professionals about how to turn synagogues into safer places,” he said.

“I often struggle in the morning, and I find that one thing that helps is going to minyan. The idea is that perhaps if you are struggling, and somewhere near you there could be a room with 10 friendly people, and someone says, ‘How are you doing this morning?’ and you say, ‘Not so well,’ then someone – maybe the rabbi, maybe not – gives you a card, and says call these people here, and use my name, and if it’s okay with you I will call you to check in and see how you’re doing.’

“This isn’t kiruv,” or outreach, he said. “If the gym works for you, or Starbucks, or talking to a friend on the phone, find. But if those things aren’t working, then consider the fact that somewhere near you there might be a place where you will be welcome. You will be around people. You will be around a rabbi. It could be an option.

“It’s a win-win,” Mr. Epstein continued. “Rabbis and congregations need people to walk through their doors, and people need help. I would love to work more with rabbis and mental health professionals,” he said.

“From what I’ve seen so far, the people who are most drawn to suicide awareness prevention are people who have been touched by suicide, not people who have attempted it,” he said. “People who have tried it haven’t been as comfortable about telling their stories.

“The community’s understanding of cancer and AIDS might look a little different if the only people involved in organizations fighting it were people who are mourning somebody, as opposed to people who have been through it themselves.

“Elijah’s Journey is in a position to give a gift to the Jewish community, and to the world, by raising the profile of the issue in the Jewish community,” he concluded. “We have many people who either have struggled themselves or have lost a family member. It is painful enough to go through the death of someone you love – imagine also having to hide it.

“There are parts of the community that are not very open about it. We have to raise the profile on it. By incorporating a Jewish lens, we help to give people a place to talk about it. People who are struggling – if they are able to say if somebody like Moses struggled, then I can struggle. I am human; it is human to struggle.

“If Elijah, the ultimate symbol of my faith, struggled with it, I can struggle with it too.”

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgott of Netivot Shalom said that he is glad to support Elijah’s Journey “because, if we can help even one person, if we can sensitize even one family in the community,” then it is worth doing. “Doing whatever we can to prevent suicide is a holy and sacred task,” he said.

“Unfortunately, this is a topic to which many of us have a tangential connection through family or friends. Every year you hear a story, and it’s always tragic, whether it’s a child or a teenager who commits suicide because of being bullied, or an adult because they’re overwhelmed by something that happened, or by financial stress, or they’re in a deep depression or great physical pain. There are many situations, but it is always tragic.

“I hope that Efrem will be able to give people information about what they can do, and what support groups and resources are available in both the Jewish and general communities.”

Dena Cohen, a co-president of the sisterhood at Shaare Tefillah, is responsible for bringing Mr. Epstein to speak at that shul.

“I think that Elijah’s Journey is a tremendous service to the Jewish community,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage to speak out about a topic that often is swept under the rug, not only in our community, but in most communities. We push aside both whatever leads up to it and what it leaves in its aftermath, but those are huge issues, and many people are affected by it.

“To talk about suicide in a way that adds Jewish text and learning into the mix is brilliant,” she added. “It is an amazing opportunity for us, because we are already in network and in community, and we have an opportunity to tell people who are facing suicide, and struggling against the feelings that might lead up to it, that they don’t have to be alone in their struggle.

“It is okay for family and friends to speak out. It’s important to have a jumping-off point so we can start to talk about it in our community.”

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