Return to Sender — Our Response to LGBT Suicide is Misaddressed

We often miss the point in responding to tragedy, such as sharing articles on how to escape riptides, instead of demanding accountability and safety in our summer camps. We make the same error when responding to the suicide of an LGBT teen from B’nai Akiva by talking about access to mental health support instead of intolerance in our communities. It is certainly important to learn to escape riptides and to get mental health support for those who need it, but these are the wrong lessons for us to learn from this summer’s tragedies.

A friend recently shared on her Facebook wall that her son came home from a B’nai Akiva summer camp last year saying, “That’s so gay!”  She admonished him, telling him that it was a hurtful insult. Her son responded that counselors and campers used the term freely. She was proud to report that he went back to the same camp and explained to the employees of the camp that it wasn’t a kind term to use as an insult. While I am proud of her son for living his values, I am shocked that my friend sent her kid back to a camp where the employees of the camp were alleged to engage in bigotry.

The suicide of Adam Seef should have been a wake-up call to all of us. He wrote in his suicide note:

The difference between me and my friends [is] insolvable. Deep down they know I’m different and it’s about time I accept it too….All I see is them [friends] moving on from me and finding success and heterosexual love, leaving me isolated and alone. Trying to pretend to be someone I’m not in front of all of you is becoming more tiring by the day as I’m not the heterosexual being I portray for you……I wish I could have told you guys everything and I know you would have understood but deep down I know our relationship would have changed

Please read that last paragraph again. The problem is not Adam’s mental health, it’s the community we’ve created in which he grew up. And that’s my fault and your fault, not his fault. The self-reflection after his death needs to address our own problem.

The Forward responded to Seef’s death, highlighting the need for mental health assistance in Israel for foreign students. The article promoted Crossroads, an organization for students in the so-called “gap year” who need mental health assistance. And in a deft stroke of literary deflection, the article says the problem is being away from home, saying that, “It’s usually harder when it’s not a pre-existing issue. They can come to Israel and get really overwhelmed about not being at home, or not having those comfort things, and that is harder to deal with. The kid doesn’t know how to ask for help.

B’nai Akiva leaders similarly addressed the wrong people, saying, “Many people in the Orthodox world feel that there is no-one to talk to about their sexuality…It is not simple to be LGBT+ and Orthodox. We may not have all the answers, but we are happy to talk about it or direct you to others who could help you…..Consider this an invitation to talk. However long it’s been, we are saying to you, loudly and clearly, don’t hesitate or feel uncomfortable to send a message or pick up the phone.”

The approach reaches a nadir in a statement by Rabbi Seth Grauer, head of Toronto’s Bnei Akiva Schools, who reportedly said that if a student came out to him, he would approach the student with sensitivity and care, but not unconditional acceptance. Grauer stated, “It’s important to understand my reception would not be one of approval, because you’re talking about complicated halachic issues that of course as an Orthodox school, we can’t condone and we can’t support.”

When an LGBT youth commits suicide, it is patronizing to place the problem on mental health problems of LGBT youth. The response to Seef’s death was the metaphorical equivalent of teaching youth how to escape riptides after Virginia Beach. It failed to figure out why Seef was so despondent, and failed to ask how phrases like, “That’s so gay!” create an environment where kids like Adam have to pretend to not be gay.

The focus of our efforts to prevent future tragedy should be on the leadership and the non-LGBT youths who are part of building the environment. Did we speak out when the leadership at the Orthodox Union forced the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale to not celebrate a same-sex wedding? How did we defend Rabbi Dweck when he lost his leadership position for openly discussing our attitudes about homosexuality?  No amount of therapy will make a teenager feel accepted in such an environment. While we should certainly provide mental health access for those who need it, our immediate response to this tragedy should be self reflection to change the environment we have created. Can I look in the mirror and say, “I have done absolutely everything possible to make an environment comfortable and accepting for LGBT youth in my community”?

Can we honestly say that “our hands have not shed this blood”?

About the Author
Joel Avrunin is a leader in building technical sales teams, with a passion for technology, teambuilding, coaching, and helping people develop their careers. Experiencing the heartache of being a father to a victim of clergy child sex abuse has motivated him to be a vocal proponent of robust child safety and anti-grooming policies in our schools, houses of worship, and summer camps. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and children, where he enjoys long runs down the Atlanta Beltline and hikes in the North Georgia mountains with his family.
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