Like many in North America I was saddened by the recent suicide of Rutgers University freshmen Tyler Clementi. I feel for his family and friends. May their memories of him be a comfort.
As I have been reflecting on the events that led to his death and discussing it with my family, friends, and colleagues, a few thoughts come to mind. I’d like to share them with you because I know you are also thinking about this tragedy.
It seems that the suicide might have been in reaction to bullying. Bullies pick on the people they think don’t fit in, maybe because of how they look, how they act, their race or religion, or because the bullies think their targets may be gay or lesbian.
Research shows that people who are abused by their peers are at greater risk for mental health problems, such as low self-esteem, stress, depression, or anxiety. They may also think about suicide more. Bullying is a form of abuse in which one person is picked on repeatedly by an individual or group with more power, either physically or in social standing. Bullying often happens in public, adding to the humiliation the victim suffers.
Today, with instant communication through text messaging, Facebook, email, and YouTube, the tools of bullying are ever more public, more humiliating, and more abusive. The consequences of that bullying – including suicide – can be far greater than the bullies can imagine, and will scar the bullies as well as the victims for the rest of their lives.
Bullying is antithetical to Judaism. We believe that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image and likeness of God. Bullying another person, therefore, is like bullying God.
When Rabbi Akiva asked for the Torah’s most important lesson, he said v’ahavta l’reekha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, the entire Torah is intended to teach us how to be mentschen, how to get in the habit of civility and decency in our interactions with each other; how to act on the belief that each of us is created in the divine image. V’ahavta l’reekha kamokha and b’tzelem Elohim guide us to be ever vigilant in elevating each other toward holiness, not bringing each other down through bullying.
I’d like to share a second and related thought about suicide. Because we are created in the divine image, we are sacred and our lives are of infinite worth. We -your parents, your teachers, your community -want you to know that we love you unconditionally.
You are sacred to us. You are our infinity. You are the embodiment of our past and our hopes for the future. Suicide is permanent. It does not resolve loneliness or hopelessness. It is just the end of everything. We want you to know that we take the feelings that may lead someone to consider suicide seriously. We are committed to doing whatever it takes to assure that each of you has a support system and you know that you have the resources to work through whatever feelings and challenges you face. There is always hope. And we are always here for you.
It might help to remember these things:
* If you are being bullied or see someone else being bullied, speak out. Ask for help from an adult you trust.
* If you are thinking about suicide, talk to a parent, a teacher, a rabbi or another responsible adult.
* If you know someone who is thinking about suicide, don’t try to handle it yourself. Talk to a responsible adult.
* Or if you prefer, seek help by calling a teen suicide hotline: In the USA: 1-800-Suicide (800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-Talk (800-273-8255). In Canada: 1-800-448-3000.
On USY’s homepage, you will find educational resource materials on bullying that may help.
If our reflections on Tyler’s life and death lead us to a renewed commitment to reduce bullying and to reach out to people who need help, then we will have turned his tragedy into an opportunity for growth. And we will all be the better for it.
Rabbi Steve Wernick
Rabbi Wernick is executive vice president/CEO, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.