Marin teens talk at synagogue about classmates suicide

After the Oct. 11 suicide of a San Rafael 13-year-old, some kids worried they weren’t sad enough. Others didn’t know how to deal with classmates who were breaking down in tears.

Rabbi Chai Levy

To address the wide range of emotions, Congregation Rodef Sholom’s sixth- and seventh-grade religious school students gathered in the sanctuary Oct. 12 to talk things out.

“I wanted to give the kids a sense of connectedness,” Rabbi Stacy Friedman said, “and instill in them this idea that they are linked to this community, part of this synagogue and they have someone to turn to 24 hours a day any day of the week.”

Some of the kids in attendance had classes with Dante DeMarco Monteleone at Miller Creek Middle School in San Rafael. Others might not have been acquainted with the boy who took his own life, but still were having a tough time dealing with his death. Some had never before grappled with the death of someone they knew.

In light of those emotions and many others, Friedman said she could not ignore the need for a communal session at the Reform synagogue, and neither could Rodef Sholom Rabbi Michael Lezak, who organized a similar gathering for high school–age kids.

The sessions created a safe space for the teens to open up about how Dante’s death, as well as the Oct. 2 death of 15-year-old Terra Linda High School student Emily Grace Panicacci, impacted their lives. Both deaths were reportedly suicides, although a Marin Independent Journal article linked neither to online bullying or harassment.

Rabbi Stacy Friedman

Of the session that she led, Friedman said, “They wanted to talk about being at school where kids broke down in tears. We talked of the process of mourning, and how grief can come in waves and an array of acceptable, normal feelings. Some kids thought they should be sadder, and others were really struggling.”

Friedman acknowledged that while it is normal for teens to “see themselves as the center of the universe,” she urged them to see their lives as part of something bigger, in terms of the longer and larger trajectory of ups and downs.

“There are hard days,” she said. “But Judaism is a religion of hope and one that emphasizes how holy and sacred life is. Knowing that there are places people can turn is something our religion offers to us.”

In that vein, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco took steps last week to let congregants know that the clergy’s doors, minds and ears are open in the wake of a recent rash of teen suicides nationwide that resulted from anti-gay bullying.

In the Reform synagogue’s Oct. 12 newsletter, Saxe-Taller explained the tragic incidents are “sounding an alarm among many communities in our country. It is an alarm like a shofar — part siren, part wake-up call, part call to battle.”

Asked about the newsletter statement, Saxe-Taller said, “We have to respond because we care about our teenagers. We are on the side of every single one, no matter what they’re experiencing.” 

In her Oct. 9 sermon, Rabbi Chai Levy of Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar addressed the teen suicides in the LGBT community. Her words were then distributed via e-mail to members of the Conservative synagogue, and parents were encouraged to read them to their children.

“In the [story of Noah], we consider that being truly righteous is not just taking care of ourselves, but looking out for others,” Levy wrote. “ … You young people know what goes on at school, how kids are picked on, teased, tormented. Maybe you’ve been bullied yourselves. Or maybe you’ve even been the bully at times.

“ … For us adults, what message are we sending to kids when we allow bullying [and] homophobic language, and don’t create safe spaces for kids struggling with their sexual identities?”

Levy said she received an overwhelming response to the sermon, which is why she sent it to the entire congregation.

“So many people came up and thanked me,” said Levy, who delivered the sermon at a bat mitzvah service. “It felt like a good message to deliver since there were a lot of young people present.”

Levy said that parents with gay adult children told her how meaningful it would have been for their kids to know they had their rabbi’s support when they were struggling during their adolescence.

“We often overlook the fact that religion is not always seen as a safe place for gay people,” Levy said. “It means something particularly powerful for the kids or parents to hear a religious leader who speaks on behalf of the Torah say we are all created in the image of God.”