“Crisis Line. May I help you?”
This is how I answer the phone at a local crisis center here in Mississippi, during every four hour shift I spend volunteering there. Each time I pick up the line, I take a deep breath and hope that the person on the other side of the phone is okay. However, having been trained as a crisis line volunteer, I know that I am ready to respond if the person who was brave enough to call is not okay. I am ready to talk to them if they want to talk to me about feeling suicidal.
“Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade.”
That is the opening line of this May 2013 New York Times article. When I read those words, I immediately thought about people I know who have been affected by suicide. Too many. As the ISJL’s Director of the Department of Community Engagement, I wondered if and how congregations, as community based organizations, might respond to this rather serious piece of information.
Consider some more noteworthy news points about people taking their own life:
From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent.
In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, and 38,364 suicides; while car safety has improved, it’s still shocking that suicides outnumbered vehicular death.
The increase coincides with a decrease in financial standing and the widespread availability of opioid drugs, which can be particularly deadly in large doses
Most suicides are committed using firearms (not most suicide attempts, but most suicides)
People who are left behind face social stigma.
While I am not suggesting that we panic, I am suggesting that we pay attention to what this means for our congregations and communities. Suicide has become more prevalent. In the same way that we are trained to prevent drunk drivers from operating a vehicle, we can be trained to intervene when someone is at risk of committing suicide.
September 10th of each year is World Suicide Prevention Day. In honor of that day, congregations can host speakers who can talk about issues related to mental health or say a prayer for the healing of all who are feeling hopeless and depressed. Here are some other ways to take action:
- Invite people from service agencies to speak at services about the resources that are available through their non-profit
- Learn about what Judaism has to say about suicide and mental illness; have a study session or education program dedicated to the topic
- Get involved in local crisis hotlines. Congregations can host trainings for crisis hotline volunteers or give an annual financial gift to the local hotline
- Host support groups for people who are dealing with depression
- Host support groups for people who have been affected by suicide (family and friends of someone who committed suicide)
- Foster community and relationship building: with the understanding that suicide is now more prevalent among men between the ages of 35-64, there may be some benefit to having a Brotherhood Committee that mirrors the Sisterhood Committee’s level of activity
- Educate congregants about firearm safety and the dangers of opioid drugs
- Offer programs and initiatives that can help ease the financial strain on families
For information about suicide prevention, contact one of the many wonderful advocacy organizations out there, such as SAVE.
Do you have other ideas of how congregations can play a role in curbing the rise of suicide rates? Please share them in the comments below!
The holiday of Shavuot demonstrates a method of gift giving that we may want to deploy when thinking about advancing social justice.
Think about it. What might have happened if instead of the whole counting of the Omer (those 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), and had instead received the Torah on the last night of Passover — perhaps as a gift for the hard work of putting together a Seder and drinking 4 glasses of wine?! That would have been more efficient, right?
There are many commentaries on the purpose of separating the holidays by 49 days. But all of them make it apparent that both the giver and receivers of the Torah needed to be prepared for the giving and accepting of this gift. After all, it seems as though the 49 day delay in the giving of the Torah was not a result of a lack of preparedness on the part of the giver. Rather, it was the receivers who had more preparing to do. When it comes to the giving of Tzedakah, it is not merely the content of the gift that matters, it is the time, place, approach and the people who we intend to help that define whether the opportunity for Tzedakah is ripe. Receiving the Torah prematurely may have resulted in an outcome different than the one we know—the emergence of an independent Jewish people.
Giving Tzedakah, effectively, requires mindfulness—awareness about the material objects that are being exchanged but also about the feelings felt by each person involved. This mindfulness made it possible for the Jews to accept the Torah and make it a defining part of Jewish life moving forward. The receiving of the Torah itself wasn’t an isolated incident. It came with 49 days of preparation, where the desire for the Torah led to extraordinary anticipation. Only when the Israelites themselves demonstrated their desire to receive the Torah was the Torah given to them.
When we think of the many gifts that the Israelites received before the giving of the Torah, they seem to be given by an omniscient and omnipresent God who rescued them from the Egyptians, gave them Manna, split the Red Sea, and so on. However, on Shavuot, we don’t see a God who knows what is best for the Israelites. Instead, we see another face of God – God as partner; God humbly asking the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah. The Torah may have been received differently if it were given by a high and mighty God who had little familiarity with the Israelites. Instead, Moses descended upon the mountain and then God is said to have descended onto the mountain. While it is true that God and the Israelites are not standing on equal footing, we certainly see an attempt to create a more balanced relationship, where God acknowledges the need for a receiver of the Torah, trusts that the Israelites will provide the answer that suits them best and gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
Don’t people living in poverty deserve similar treatment?
Recently, the Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, signed the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act. On Governor Bryant’s website, the student religious liberties bill is described as one that “protects students from being discriminated against in a public school for expressing their religious viewpoints or engaging in religious activities.”
The expressed desire is to ensure that students can express their religious viewpoints. However, when we look at this bill more closely, it seems to be protecting the privileges associated with being part of the dominant Christian faith. As someone who does not subscribe to the dominant religion in Mississippi, Christianity, I found myself wondering whether the state was acting as an entity with privilege and whether my personal response (along with many others) was consistent with the behavioral patters the attached document ascribes to people who are—in the broadest sense—being oppressed. Because essentially, what this bill does is protect SOME students from being discriminated against in public school for expressing their religion.
Last week, I wrote about privilege and oppression. While we might feel privileged in certain areas of our life, we may feel oppressed in other areas of our life. This dynamic is often found when there is a dominant group with power greater than that of a minority group without as much power.
It’s difficult to make the case that in a Mississippi public school, where a significant majority of the students and faculty members are Christian, that a student that is Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, or any other minority faith (or no faith at all) will feel as though their expression of religion is being protected by this bill. If anything, the message is that to fit in with the other students, their religious expression ought to be diminished and more consistent with the dominant religion.
The tendency to pay most attention to the dominant culture is a phenomenon we see not only in public schools, but also in private institutions – including American synagogues. Ashkenazi, white, straight, able-bodied congregants are part of a dominant culture. They are dominant in numbers and in the power structures of many American synagogues. Is it a stretch to wonder whether people who don’t fit that very precise description are feeling oppressed in any way? In looking at the tendencies associated with people in oppressed positions, I’d like to suggest that there are similarities.
Again, this chart provides some insight into the behavioral tendencies of people in positions of privilege and how it feels to be in a position of oppression—in the broadest sense. My hope is that this insight can lead us to proactively aim to foster a community where everyone is part of the “we” and there isn’t an “us” and “them” that separates the dominant group from one that is less dominant. With this in mind, we can do the difficult work of creating more genuinely inclusive schools, houses of worship, and communities, where everyone is valued.