At his first High Holy Day sermon at his new shul, in 2007, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner told the congregation about his brother Gabriel’s suicide.
Rabbi Kirshner, still in his 30s, new at his job, was standing at the bimah in the big, packed sanctuary at Temple Emanu-El of Closter; there was another, similarly sized congregation, the other part of the Emanu-El community, to whom he’d tell the story the next day. It’s a wealthy, committed, well-educated, self-assured group, and it would have been understandable had Rabbi Kirshner decided to wait for a less high-profile, arguably less risky time to tell his story. He perhaps could have decided never to tell his story.
But that’s not what he did.
Instead, he told them about his oldest brother, who begged his family to be allowed to stay in Baltimore when the family headed to their father’s next stop — his father, Sherman Phillip Kirshner, was a Conservative rabbi, and he had taken a new pulpit in Pennsylvania. His wife and their three younger sons, of course, went with their parents, but Gabriel longed to go to the Orthodox boarding school that had such a good reputation. It offered stability, academic and spiritual growth, and friendship.
Gabriel came home from that first year of school changed, his brother David said. He did not go back. In some ways, he never came back. But eventually he went on with his life, got married, got ordained, had a daughter. Seemed okay.
But he wasn’t. When he was 36, in 1996, he died of suicide. Later, his devastated family learned that the principal of the school he’d gone to was a monster. As Rabbi David Kirshner wrote in an op-ed in the Jewish Standard, “When silence equals death,” on August 3, 2012, his brother “was molested and raped from 1973 to 1975.
“He was not alone. Dozens of his classmates and hundreds of boys before and after Gabriel were sexually molested and raped by the ‘rabbi.’
“Gabe did not tell anyone he was molested. He only acted out. His abuse was one of many facts we learned after his suicide. I also learned that Gabe’s wicked temper, severe homophobia, fear of intimacy and of touching another person, as well as the addictions that plagued him, all came from the abuse, not his DNA. His attendance at this school led to these behaviors and ultimately to his premature death.”
Rabbi Kirshner’s anger practically burned through the newsprint; it still nearly burns through the computer screen. But he harnesses it through action.
When he spoke about his brother’s suicide, he said, “I spoke in the first person, as the brother, the survivor of suicide, and I also spoke as a rabbi who deals every single day with people dealing with mental health issues of all varieties. Depression is the most common, but I also deal with people who have bipolar disorder, anxiety, OCD. It is all prevalent and rampant.”
As a result not only of theoretical understanding but also of experience, “I believe that we have a responsibility to destigmatize mental health issues,” he said.
Not only are mental health issues prevalent, even “rampant, and everywhere, but the number of children between 5 and 18 who have gone to the emergency room with suicidal ideation has doubled in the last eight years,” Rabbi Kirshner said. (That’s according to a report by CNN, which quotes an April 2019 paper in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The startling juxtaposition of 5-year-olds and suicide comes from JAMA.)
“I’m not a physician or scientist, but clearly there is so much more pressure on them that they didn’t feel before,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “It is very significant that social media has poured fuel on the issue.
“There also is a significant dearth of licensed therapists and psychiatrists who focus on kids and adolescents,” he added. “For every 100,000 kids who are diagnosed with a mental health challenge, there are only 17 licensed doctors to work with them.”
And then there’s the stigma. “There isn’t anyone in the synagogue who doesn’t have someone in the family or in the family orbit who has not suffered from cancer or from mental illness,” he said. “The difference is that we talk much more openly and more responsibly about cancer, and we’re still whispering about mental illness.”
To open up the conversation, to destigmatize it, to legitimize it, Rabbi Kirshner and Temple Emanu-El are presenting a conversation between Rabbi Kirshner and Dr. Jennifer Ashton on May 16. (See box.)
Dr. Ashton, who belonged to Temple Emanu-El at one point in her life, is the chief medical correspondent for “Good Morning America” and ABC News. She’s a practicing ob/gyn. She’s also the author of the about-to-be-released memoir “Life After Suicide,” which she wrote because two years ago, her newly ex-husband killed himself. He was a successful physician, and he jumped off the George Washington Bridge, which she could see from her Fort Lee window.
The two will talk about suicide and stigma, Rabbi Kirshner said. “My goal is to destigmatize it so we can talk about it. I want people to be able to talk to their clergy and physicians about it, and to know that good support, good medicine, good therapy can make the situation better.
“I think it’s a Jewish responsibility to be in front of this,” he added. “We choose life. Our community has to be prepared.”
Emanu-El is billing the evening as an “intimate conversation,” and in fact Dr. Ashton and Rabbi Kirshner have much to talk about. Most of Dr. Ashton’s book tells her story, but she also includes interviews with other people who have been affected by the suicides of people close to them. She includes Rabbi Kirshner’s story.
Dr. Ashton’s story, as she tells it in her book, is of a family of super high achievers; both she and her husband were relentless strivers, apparently effortlessly reaching goals and then immediately refocusing on other, harder ones. She has, she points out in the book, two full-time careers, as well as two children, a son now in Columbia and a daughter, an ice hockey player who went to high school as a boarder at Lawrenceville, now headed to Harvard. She and her husband had a once-close relationship that loosened gradually but apparently inexorably. They ended up divorced but still not only co-parents but also tentative friends, apparently about to work out the terms of their new relationship, when he jumped.
The book traces the family’s regrouping, their pain, their resilience, their working together toward new understanding, their fragility, their stumbles, their growth, and over all their love for each other. Dr. Ashton grieves for her marriage as well as for her husband, and her children have to figure out how to redefine themselves.
She talks a bit about spirituality, which some of the other people she interviews find in many places — in churches, in new age understandings of life and death. She tells stories of her ex-husband appearing to her, in dreams, in semi-awake moments, or in the appearance of objects that are connected to him and hadn’t been there before.
She talks about the unexpected difficulties that widowhood brings. Some of them even are tragicomic — how do you get a cremated ex-spouse’s ashes? Who do you bring with you when you pick them up? And how do you dispose of them? (She figured out the answers to the first questions. The disposal one — not yet. There’s no hurry, she’s learned.)
Dr. Ashton had been somewhat public about her husband’s suicide since it happened — as a public figure, she says repeatedly, she really has little choice anyway — but it wasn’t until about a year later, when first Kate Spade and then Anthony Bourdain very publicly killed themselves, that she made the choice to tell her story. At the end of her book, she describes going on “Good Morning America” not as a dispassionate expert but as a bereaved widow, a survivor, the mother of survivors. It is important to tell the story, she has learned over the course of these two years. It can’t bring anyone back to life, but maybe it can keep the next person from climbing over the guard rails, taking a deep breath, and jumping.
Those all are questions that Rabbi Kirshner and Dr. Ashton will explore together.
Who: Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner and Dr. Jennifer Ashton
What: Will talk about her new book, “Life After Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort, and Community After Unthinkable Loss.”
When: On Thursday, May 16, at 7:15 p.m.
Where: At Temple Emanu-El, 180 Piermont Road, Closter.
How much: The evening is free, but reservations are required.
Reservations: go to templeemanu-el.com/drjenniferashton or call (201) 750-9997.