Breaking the silence on Jewish suicide
Among Orthodox Jews, a self-inflicted death is seen as a serious sin which brings shame on the family. But a couple who have lost two sons to suicide believe more needs to be done to prevent such deaths, and help families grieve after they occur.
In 1995, a young man from one of the kibbutz communities of the Beit She'an Valley in eastern Israel died by his own hand. It was the first recorded suicide in these kibbutzim since they were founded in the 1930s.
Amit Alexander was on military service with the Golani Brigade, an elite unit of the Israeli Defence Forces when he took a gun and shot himself. But to begin with Esther and Gil Alexander were told he had died in an accident while training.
"I felt a ton of concrete fall on my shoulders and that my world was ruined," says Esther Alexander. "I don't have any more words to say. Every mother whose son joins the army has a fear that something might happen, but when it does it is terrible."
The brigade's failure to tell the Alexanders the real cause of their son's death was no mistake. It was deliberate, as Assaf Banitt, who had been serving alongside Amit, recalls.
"When we went to the funeral, the commander told us, 'Listen. We're not going to mention the word 'suicide'. It's a religious family and no-one talks about it. They shouldn't know - it's a gun accident as far as anyone's concerned,'" he says.
But Gil and Esther kept asking questions and learned the truth.
On the day of his death, Amit had been on a tough stretcher march when he had become dizzy and passed out. He was told to get in the stretcher and his comrades carried him the rest of the way. Later on, he confided in another recruit that while he had recovered physically, he felt emotionally terrible about the incident. He volunteered to go on guard duty and when more soldiers came to relieve him they found his body. He had been shot in the mouth.
What drove their upbeat, sociable son to kill himself remains a mystery to Esther and Gil, but they have no doubt that it was suicide.
On the second or third day of shiva - the week of mourning in which members of a bereaved family stay at home, say prayers and receive well-wishers - the kibbutz's head administrator and social worker paid a visit to the couple and asked to speak with them in private. They had a suggestion. Amit's death, they said, should be described as an accident; they felt sure that in time a report from the army would confirm this as the cause of death.
"They asked us not to speak about suicide," recalls Esther. "And that didn't suit us. We said that if we think what happened was suicide then we will talk about suicide. We didn't want everyone outside to be talking about suicide, but for it to be forbidden to mention that word in our home.
"It takes enough energy to deal with what has happened to us, and we have none to waste trying to keep a secret."
Almost certainly, Amit's suicide was not the first in their kibbutz community. It's likely there had been cases before - but that these had also been portrayed as accidents.
Find out more
- Esther Alexander and Assaf Banitt spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service
- Listen to the interview on iPlayer or get the Outlook podcast
The prohibition against suicide in Judaism is strict. By tradition, people who kill themselves are buried separately and not commemorated by a family sitting shiva. The stigma attaching to a suicide can even affect the marriage prospects of siblings - and Amit left behind six younger brothers and sisters.
"In the surrounding community there was a great shock, people didn't believe what happened," says Esther. "They started to fear for their own children, because they said if it could happen to Amit, such a gifted and good boy, it could happen to anyone and how could they protect their kids?"
Assaf Banitt had personal experience of suicide in the family but came from a less religious background where there was no expectation of secrecy. The atmosphere of denial and deception that attended Amit's death stayed with him. Six years later he wrote a short story about the funeral, which was featured in an anthology and eventually found its way to Gil and Esther.
In July 2008, he received a call from the couple. They told him that four months earlier their lives had been wracked by a second tragedy - another son, Yotam, had also taken his own life.
Yotam had been a gifted and devout student who studied at a yeshiva in Otniel, near Hebron. Since the school was located on a settlement in the West Bank it had an armed guard. One day, while the guards joined the students in saying the Amidah prayer, Yotam got up, took one of the weapons and shot himself in the yard outside the synagogue.
In this case, the kibbutz authorities made no attempt to cover up the real cause of death.
But in spite of the rules against burying suicide victims with the rest of the dead, Yotam was laid to rest alongside his brother Amit in the kibbutz's cemetery, in an emotional ceremony that contained a number of passionate speeches. Afterwards, the rabbis in the area issued an instruction forbidding eulogies at ceremonies of suicides, and demanding that such funerals be kept small and low-key in the future.
At the local school on the kibbutz, which both boys attended and where Esther worked for 20 years, Amit is commemorated on the annual Memorial Day, but not Yotam.
A week after Yotam's death a special lesson was read out at his yeshiva about why suicide went against the Jewish faith. It didn't mention Yotam by name - in fact, Esther says, her son has never been mentioned there again. As a school counsellor herself, Esther told the yeshiva that such evasion made it harder for Yotam's friends to grieve. She has also told them that just saying suicide was prohibited, and not addressing issues like depression and anxiety, meant other students would be inclined to keep their problems to themselves rather than taking them to the school's rabbis.
In October 2008, Banitt began to make a film with Esther and Gil, charting the couple's grief and crisis of faith, as well as their efforts to raise suicide awareness among rabbis, army recruits and community leaders. In one scene, the couple are seen running a workshop about mental health in yeshivas, and making a case for employing counsellors within these famously demanding schools. The response from the yeshiva administrators taking part is sympathetic but the meeting is not well attended and little has changed since.
The documentary, Against Your Will, was broadcast on Israeli TV last week. Assaf Banitt held a special screening at the kibbutz where Yotam lived with his wife. After the screening a prominent religious figure, who had once known Amit very well, approached Banitt and told him that he took the film as a personal insult - but thanked him for making it all the same. "The bottom line is, I think they're not dealing with it," says Banitt. "Gil and Esther, they do it very gently - but they say hard things."
Banitt and the Alexanders are not the only people trying to break the silence on suicide within Orthodox Jewish communities. In 2009, Efrem Epstein was attending a US conference on suicide prevention, having recently emerged from a bout of depression. "I heard all these amazing presentations that day about suicide awareness prevention initiatives in various communities, whether it be the immigrant community, the elderly community, the college-age community, the LGBT community - and I remember thinking, 'You know what? I'm not hearing of any initiatives to do with the nuances of the Jewish community.'"
He started an organisation called Elijah's Journey, named after the prophet who, the Bible says, journeyed into the wilderness, sat under a juniper tree and asked God to take his life. Instead, God sent an angel with the message, "Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee."
Elijah's story is part of a cycle of Bible readings on an official schedule for reading in synagogues but because of a quirk in the Jewish calendar it is not heard very often - it will next be read and discussed in 20 years' time. But other figures from the Bible had moments of despair too, including Moses, Hannah and Jonah, whose story is heard every year on Yom Kippur.
"We look in the Bible and see these stories of some of our heroes struggling and we say, 'Well if they struggled, how much more can we understand that we can struggle?'" says Epstein.
Elijah's journey creates educational materials to be used in synagogues and schools, to illustrate to the Jewish community the importance of suicide awareness. But Epstein wants to reduce the taboo surrounding suicide too.
"Somebody said that when you lose someone to suicide, one of the worst aspects is that their entire life becomes about their death.
"So one of our missions is to try to deal with that because it's painful enough to lose somebody. If because of our stigmas we're making that process worse, then that's something we've got to change."
There is some data to suggest that Jewish communities in the US have a lower than average suicide rate - though the extent to which the data was tainted by under-reporting of suicide is unclear. A recent study in Israel has also suggested that adolescents from religious families are at less risk of self-harm than those from nonreligious families - even though levels of depression were the same in both cases.
"One thing about religion is about the taboo on suicide, and what the religion says. But another, no less important, is not about what the religion says, but it's about belonging to any kind of religion, any kind of social system," says Dr Ben Amit from Tel Aviv University, who led the study.
"So religious people, they go to the synagogue, they have more sense of community, they are less alone in the world."
The thought echoes the most influential theory ever made about suicide. In 1897, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim compared rates of suicide between Protestants and Catholics, and suggested that the lower rates among the latter group were caused by better social integration. Durkheim believed that the likelihood of suicide depended on an individual's sense of belonging to a group, and the extent to which his or her life was regulated by society.
Do you need help?
Whatever your religion, if you are suffering from anxiety or depression and you need to talk to someone, ring one of the numbers below:
- In Israel call ERAN on 1201 or 972 9 8891 333 from abroad (Hebrew language)
- In the US call the national suicide prevention lifeline on 1 800 273 8255
- In the UK call the Samaritans on 0845 790 9090
Rabbi Shimon Grady, who runs a community house in Pocomoke, Maryland, for Jews who are feeling lost, says 80% of Jewish people who kill themselves have left religious communities.
"The Jewish people think like a tribe. And when you go outside you don't have the tools to deal with the outside world."
The apparent suicide two weeks ago of Faigy Mayer, a New York entrepreneur who had moved away from the strict Hassidic lifestyle of her upbringing, has prompted a number of reflective pieces in the Jewish press on the pressures of the so-called XO (ex-Orthodox) life. "The news, when I heard it, shook me, as it did many in our community of ex-Haredi Orthodox Jews," wrote Shulem Deen for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "But it didn't shock me. It's almost as if we've come to expect another suicide in our ranks every so often."
The expectations of the Orthodox community can be hard for some people to meet. Grady recalls a successful lawyer, a bachelor in his 30s, who one day opened up to him about feeling lonely and inadequate. "He had a big, big heart, and he just didn't have anyone," Grady recalls. "By being single, he felt people didn't look at him as an equal in the ultra-Orthodox community he was living in."
A week after this conversation, in the middle of a meeting with a client on the 69th floor of the Empire State Building, the lawyer stood up, walked into the next room, and jumped out of an open window. "Never in my worst dreams did I think he would jump that next week," says Rabbi Grady.
Suicide, he says, is regarded by Judaism as a very serious sin, maybe worse than murder. Killing oneself is seen as an act of rebellion towards God - a rejection of the gift of life and a turning-down of the challenge to live well in preparation for the next life.
But he adds that Jewish theology and history contain examples of suicides where the people in question are afforded respect.
What about Samson, who with his extraordinary strength brought the temple down on the Philistines, killing himself in the process?
The Talmud tells the story of Yakum of Tzerorot who turned his uncle, a rabbi, over to Greek persecutors, then began jeering at him. But after some wise and cutting words from the uncle, he was overcome with shame and remorse and killed himself.
Around 73 AD, the Roman army laid siege to the rocky plateau of Masada, near the Dead Sea. Historical reports have it that 1,000 Jewish rebels were camped out on the hill. When, after several months of siege, the Romans entered the encampment, they found a terrible scene of mass suicide.
A number of anecdotes have also come down from the Holocaust - of Jews who killed themselves when the Nazis demanded they take another's life, or Jewish women who chose death rather than life as sex slaves.
"Even though it's not the proper way to pass out of this world, and we're very against it, Jewish people know that sometimes it's almost like people are being forced," says Rabbi Grady. His friend the lawyer is a case in point. "When someone has that much depression, it's almost like he didn't have a choice and we give him the respect he deserves."
But families of those who have killed themselves have no guarantee that their rabbi will take this view. It depends on the rabbi and it depends on the manner of their relative's death.
In June 2010 Rella Kaplowitz was 26 and her brother Eytan was 23. She may have been the big sister but she was a good foot shorter than Eytan, who towered above her. She remembers his dry sense of humour and fondness for debate.
He was living with his parents, having just returned from travelling in India for a couple of months, and was about to start training as a lawyer. It was his mother who found his body.
"Originally when my brother died we were told that we could not sit shiva," Rella says. "And the reason for that is that he left a note, so there was some aspect of pre-meditation.
"That was the answer the head rabbi gave, not really knowing my family, and also in contrast to the bounty of research that shows that just because someone writes a suicide note, it doesn't mean they're in their right frame of mind. There is a dispensation, that to my mind most rabbis would agree with, that of course you sit shiva for this person, because they were ill."
She says that if you drill down into the stigma that surrounds suicide in Orthodox communities what you generally find is an ignorance about mental health.
The Kaplowitz's family rabbi pushed back against the head rabbi's advice, and the shiva period was allowed to go ahead. Like Esther and Gil, the family took the decision to be open about suicide being the cause of death - they were the first in their ultra-Orthodox community to do so. For seven days, the family stayed at home, sitting in low chairs with the mirrors covered, while their friends, neighbours and colleagues poured through the door to pray with them, comfort them and just be with them.
"I'm not going to lie and say that there aren't times in my life that I've wondered why I'm Orthodox," says Rella, who now belongs to a modern Orthodox community in Washington DC. "But the response that I got and the way that people rallied to help me was just unbelievable."
It was not just Eytan who was mourned that week. His death became a chance for the whole community to open their hearts.
"During shiva, people just came out of the woodwork about their cousin, brother, father, uncle, that they lost to suicide and they'd never talked openly about it before. And we had a lot of people telling us that our family was very courageous."
But Kaplowitz adds that since that time, there have been several more suicides in that community and the families have not spoken about the deaths. "I don't know if our being open about it changed anything. I know it was important to me."
If families aren't open about suicide, it will be more difficult for their community to help them, she says. But she also recognises that some communities don't know how to help, or don't want to. For that reason, she was inspired to start blogging about her brother's death and giving talks about suicide. Together with other volunteers at Elijah's Journey, she is putting together a document of tips for Jewish people, to help them make shiva calls after a suicide.
"I can't find a silver lining in my brother's death, so I'm making a silver lining. I'm talking about it, I'm involved in suicide prevention and I'm involved in conversations about mental health in the faith community at large. I'm creating that silver lining because I need it."
Esther and Gil also hope that the documentary about them will make a change.
"It's a very touching film, that penetrates the heart," says Esther. "But on the other hand, it isn't made in a way that will make the religious part of our society say that it's wrong or portrays things in an inaccurate way, because it was made with a lot of respect and love for our communities."
Elijah's Journey: How can you help a family after a suicide?
- Do make the effort to see the family, even if you feel unsure what to say
- Offer support and a recognition of the tragedy - you might say "I can't imagine what you are going through, but I am here for you" or "I know there are no words that can heal your pain, but I want you to know that you are in my thoughts"
- Give the mourner space to talk, even if it means sitting in silence for a while
- Don't say "Your relative is in a better place now" - that implies that the family home was a bad place
- Don't say "I'm sure your relative loved you" - you really don't know what the deceased was thinking or what the family relationships were like
- Saying "You did everything you could" or "There was nothing more you could do" is not a great idea - despite the intention to reassure, it places a burden on the mourner's shoulders
Excerpt from the Elijah's Journey, "Guide for Visiting Mourners after a Suicide'
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