In I Kings, Chapter 19, Elijah the Prophet pleads for God to take his life. Instead, the Lord responds by sending an angel, who instructs Elijah to undertake a 40-day journey before reassessing the situation.
“The journey from darkness to light is one that many great individuals have walked, and one is never as alone as they might feel,” said Efrem Epstein, the founder of Elijah’s Journey: A Jewish Response To Suicide, a new nonprofit focused on raising awareness about the connection between mental illness and suicide.
A Johns Hopkins University graduate who now lives in New York, Epstein, 44, took part in World Suicide Day in September, 2009, when he listened to presentations from speakers who represented a broad spectrum of religious, ethnic and minority communities. A Conservative Jew, Epstein couldn’t help but notice the
absence of a Jewish group.
The absence especially concerned Epstein, since one of the take-home points from World Suicide Day was that suicide prevention is most effective when it takes place in one’s own community. That realization was the impetus for Elijah’s Journey.
The mission of Elijah’s Journey is based on three mitzvoth: pikuach nefesh (saving a life), kiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s name) and the mitzvah of simcha (happiness). The organization has developed Jewish text study guides that use Biblical characters such as Moses, Hannah, Elijah and Jonah to explore issues of emotional disturbance from a Jewish perspective.
“In parsha Vayeishev, Joseph had the presence of mind to ask [Pharaoh’s servants], ‘What’s wrong?’ because they looked disturbed. This changed the course of history,” said Epstein. “We can change the world by asking, ‘What’s wrong?’”
Rella Kaplowitz, a Baltimore native who lives in Washington D.C., says that one reason suicide carries such a powerful stigma is the profound lack of understanding about mental illness. Kaplowitz, 29, lost her brother, Eytan, to suicide in June 2010. Currently, she is part of a team [organized by Elijah’s Journey] creating a guide for those visiting a shiva home after a suicide.
“When my brother died, I experienced people saying things — not intentionally — that really hurt me,’ said Kaplowitz. “There is such … a lack of understanding; it’s taboo to talk about [suicide].”
Kaplowitz grew up in Baltimore’s Orthodox community, where she said she felt there was a fear of being different and a concern that airing one’s dirty laundry could lead to one’s children not getting married. After a great deal of discussion, Kaplowitz’s family decided to be upfront about the cause of her brother’s death.
“After his death, a lot of people who had lost someone to suicide but had never told anyone came up to me and said, ‘It’s so courageous of you to come forward,’” Kaplowitz said. “If you can’t talk about it, you can’t move forward. When we hide the real cause of death we’re contributing to the stigma. One way to help prevent suicide is to acknowledge that mental illness exists. … Suicide may have been the means, but he died of an illness … just like someone dies of cancer.”
One cause for the stigma around suicide in the Jewish community is that with few exceptions, Jewish law strictly forbids the taking of one’s own life.
“From a classical religious and textual perspective this begins in Genesis,” said Rabbi Ilyse S. Kramer, educator at the Center for Christian and Jewish Studies in Towson. “God is the one who gives the gift of life. Life is supposed to end when God takes it away. We are not supposed to hasten it.”
At one time, it was widely understood that those who committed suicide could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery and that families would not sit shiva for these individuals. Today, however, Rabbi Kramer said, Jews of all denominations understand that suicide is usually a result of mental illness and that those who are suicidal and their families deserve to be treated with compassion and understanding.
“There is a strong principal that says someone who takes his own life and is of sound mind doesn’t receive rites such as a eulogy or shiva,” said Rabbi Daniel Rose of B’nai Jacob Shaarei Zion. “But the words ‘of sound mind’ are key. Even in the most traditional communities, there is an understanding of mental illness. We try hard to give the benefit of the doubt.”
More education about mental illness is vital, said Rabbi Menachem Goldberger of Congregation Tiferes Yisroel, who noted that society at large, including the Orthodox community, is headed in the right direction on this issue.
“There is a lot of storytelling recently, some anonymous and some not, in the Jewish and non-Jewish media [about mental illness],” said Rabbi Rose. “The more people hear about what’s out there, the more they accept that there is no such thing as a perfect family. Rich or poor, religious or less religious, every family has problems.”
The rabbi explained that one of the reasons the community has made strides in removing the stigma of mental illness is that many traditional Jews have become therapists.
“That has helped to make people more comfortable seeking help,” he said. “But there is always more to be done, especially in helping people to recognize when others aren’t well.”
Dr. Mark Komrad, a psychiatrist in Towson, wrote his 2012 book, “You Need Help: A Step by Step Plan to Convince a Loved One to Get Counseling” for just that reason.
“Suicide is the most painful kind of loss because it’s accompanied by tremendous guilt and shame,” he said.
Yet, Dr. Komrad stressed that suicide is usually preventable.
“One of the things we are most successful with is reversing suicidality. But in order to prevent it, the [suicidal] person must be in treatment,” he said.
Rabbi Goldberger reiterated that seeing a psychiatrist and/or using appropriate medications is encouraged in these situations. And, he noted, that it is up to all facets of the community to be supportive.
“We need to provide as much support as possible — professional support, rabbinic support and friendship. No one person or institution can do it all,” he said.
When Rabbi Michelle Dardashti was a student at Jewish Theological Seminary, she spent a summer as a chaplain at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. There, she came into contact with many people suffering from a variety of mental illnesses and struggling with intense emotional pain. The experience impacted her significantly.
Rabbi Dardashti, who this fall will begin a new position as associate chaplain of the University for the Jewish Community at Brown University and rabbi of Brown Rhode Island School of Design Hillel, grew up in Baltimore and is the daughter of former Chizuk Amuno cantor Hazzan Farid Dardashti. She also serves on the rabbinic advisory board of Elijah’s Journey. Rabbi Dardashti believes it is incumbent upon rabbis to speak openly about mental health issues.
“Writing, talking and speaking about it has to be a priority. We need to take opportunities to shine light on this issue and to create environments where it’s safe to talk about it,” said the rabbi. “Every moment is a choice for some people — just walking around, engaging with the world. … When you’re suicidal, you’re on fire, you’re drowning, fighting for your life. It’s like someone is out to kill you. Dominant voices … see now that suicide is not a petty disregard for life; you were under a compulsion.”