From Darkness To Light

August 1, 2013
BY Simone Ellin
Suicide and the Jewish community

Toxic Legislation?
After losing his 19-year-old son to suicide in 2010, Ronald Waltemeyer, a Beth Am congregant who resides in Towson, began attending the nondenominational Baltimore chapter of Survivors of Suicide, a support group that meets at the Church of the Redeemer near Roland Park. Waltemeyer said that if there is a Jewish group for survivors of suicide [family members and friends of suicide victims], he is not aware of it.

“I would like to see a support group for survivors of suicide at a local synagogue,” he said.

Although Waltemeyer and his wife and daughters experienced an outpouring of support after their son and brother, Aaron, died, he too noted that many people don’t know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.

Waltemeyer said he doesn’t blame people for their ignorance. In fact, he knew very little about mental illness prior to his son’s suicide.

“Awareness needs to be taught early,” he stressed. “I would like to see mental health discussed openly in Jewish day schools and high schools. Rabbis and other licensed professionals should talk about this subject often and to the congregation.”

Aaron Waltemeyer’s tragedy led to his father’s efforts to bring attention to the Family Educational and Privacy Act (FERPA), a statute that Waltemeyer believes is widely misinterpreted and that may have contributed to his son’s death.

Designed to protect the privacy of students’ educational records, the law prohibits colleges and universities from releasing information about students over 18 years of age. This includes the release of information to their parents. All universities that receive federal funding are obligated to adhere to FERPA. Yet, Waltemeyer said that most colleges and universities fail to take note of exceptions that exist in the law.

For example, postsecondary institutions may disclose personally identifiable information from education records, without consent, to appropriate parties, including parents of an eligible student, in connection with a health or safety emergency. Colleges and universities therefore may notify parents when there is a health or safety emergency involving their son or daughter, even if the parents do not claim the student as a dependent.

Exceptions such as these, said Waltemeyer, were made to the law in 1998 after several Virginia students with alcohol violations were killed in automobile accidents. In that year, Waltemeyer explained, the law was changed to allow universities to share certain types of information with parents, but only if the university chooses to do so. Disclosure is not mandatory.

Despite the changes to FERPA, he said, Virginia Tech chose not to enforce FERPA changes until 2010, three years after Seung-Hui Cho, known to be displaying inappropriate and frightening behaviors on campus, acquired a firearm and murdered dozens of students. Cho’s parents were not made aware of their son’s behavior until after the tragedy occurred.

Waltemeyer believes that fear of losing federal funding and a general misunderstanding of FERPA keeps universities from releasing vital information to parents. He was adamant, however, that no college or university has ever lost funding for a FERPA violation.

In the Waltemeyer’s case, Ron and his wife, Maria, were unaware that their son was placed on academic probation during his first semester at McDaniel College or even that he was academically dismissed from McDaniel after failing all of his second-semester courses. Oddly, even after he had been academically dismissed, Aaron, who went to McDaniel on an academic scholarship and was on the college’s tennis team, continued to play tennis at McDaniel. The tennis coach had not been informed of his academic status.

After Aaron’s death, Waltemeyer obtained his son’s records from McDaniel and from a local clinic where he had been assessed. He learned that Aaron had displayed several alarming behaviors — witnessed by fellow students and McDaniel professors and staff — including missing appointments and an inability to sleep.

In addition, Waltemeyer learned that when his son sought help at the clinic, he was assessed by an unlicensed and unsupervised college intern from McDaniel College. The intern inquired whether Aaron had considered suicide either recently or in the past. Aaron answered the question affirmatively but provided no details. He was also asked whether he had access to weapons. Again, he replied in the affirmative.

Despite these observations and the assessment, no action was taken.

“If we had known what was going on, we would immediately have sought help for him,” said Waltemeyer. Instead, he said, “A dean who had never met Aaron, wrote him a certified letter of academic dismissal, which unbeknownst to us, he received on May 22. He shot himself on May 23.”

Articles in the Carroll County Times (Nov. 20, 2011) and in the McDaniel Free Press (Dec. 2010) both reported that school officials said they were unable to release information about Aaron to the Waltemeyers due to FERPA. Waltemeyer noted that since Aaron’s suicide, McDaniel has re-examined their policies and recently implemented an Interactive Screening Program (ISP), a system that helps to identify students at risk.

A Community At Risk
Being gay, lesbian or transgender as well as mentally ill can be doubly stigmatizing.

While statistics concerning suicide rates among LGBT Jews in the United States are inconclusive, such data does exist in Israel where a 2012 study directed by Hannah Bar-Yosef, a member of the Interdepartmental Ministerial Committee for Prevention of Suicide that operates under the auspices of the of the Israeli Health Ministry, found that 20 percent of gay and lesbian Israeli youth had attempted suicide as compared with 3 to 5 percent among Israeli youth who are not LGBT.

Among LGBT Israeli youth who consider themselves Orthodox Jews, the percentage was even higher, although the exact number was not indicated. The study also confirmed that suicide attempts among Israeli youth in general are drastically underreported.

Miryam Kabakov is co-executive director of Eshel, Inc., an organization that provides support for LGBT people and their families from traditional Jewish communities. Founded in 2010, Eshel trains members and allies to speak about their experiences, creates bridges to Orthodox communities and provides opportunities such as retreats and get-togethers, where traditional LGBT Jews can practice Judaism in an environment in which they feel comfortable expressing their true selves.

Kabakov said that Eshel wants to help observant Jews coping with issues around their sexual orientations and gender identities to stay Orthodox and involved in their communities.

“If people have to step outside their own communities [to find support], it just reinforces the belief that there’s nothing inside for them. They’re cut off from family and community, and it just reminds them how much they don’t have a place,” she said. “Suicide is a manifestation of an internal state of not existing.”

Exceptional Cases
There are arguably several instances in the Torah when suicide is permitted under Jewish law.

In the case of Saul (I Samuel 31: 4-5), suicide is justified because he believed the Philistines would torture him, hastening his death anyway. In Judges 16:20, Samson’s suicide is defended because it is an example of sanctifying God’s name. In Jewish War 6:7, Josephus tells of the mass suicide that occurred at Masada. There, the Zealots killed themselves rather than allowing themselves to be enslaved by the Romans.

Likewise, there are three inst-ances in which Jews are required to kill themselves. Jews must commit suicide rather than take part in idolatry, certain types of sexual misconduct and murder.

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