We march in the darkness to shed light on suicide

It's more prevalent than you may think, and specially-trained community rabbis can make a lifesaving difference
Sadness, loneliness and solitude. (via iStock)
Sadness, loneliness and solitude. (via iStock)

This evening, the organization Bishvil HaHayyim (Path to Life) will sponsor its annual March for Life along the streets of Tel Aviv. The march is in conjunction with International Suicide Prevention Day which takes place annually on September 10. The march’s goals are to raise awareness of suicides in the State of Israel, help enable families that have been affected by suicide to get help and suicide prevention. There are more than 10,000 suicide attempts in Israel each year with over 500 actual suicides – more than the amount of deaths by traffic accidents. At any given time over 20% of Israeli youth are having suicidal thoughts. We will march in the dark and in complete silence to mark the darkness in which people experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts live and the difficulty in speaking about it to their loved ones.

The Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development based in Modiin was founded in 2011 with the aim of improving the fabric of Israeli society by intensively training Orthodox Israeli rabbis in all aspects of communal rabbinics so that they can develop and lead communities. In order to attain ordination in Israel today, one does not need to have any practical training whatsover. In addition, the diaspora model of community with the synagogue at its center and the rabbi its leader is mostly absent from Israeli society thus leaving many Israelis without the support and envelopment of community. Early Zionist leaders believed that the community was to be a relic of the past in the newly created State of Israel with the State the provider of all services, religious services included. Most synagogues in Israel do not have rabbis and in those that do the rabbi’s activity is often limited to the ritual area and not the pastoral/leadership sphere.

Barkai provides a one of a kind, two-year intensive training program in Hebrew comprised of over 600 hours of practical rabbinic training. To date, close to 80 rabbis have either graduated from or are currently enrolled in the course. The rabbis come from all over Israel and represent the full gamut of Israeli society. The rabbis are trained in diverse areas including, listening skills pastoral psychology, social work, couple’s therapy, public speaking, addictions, chaplaincy and more. Of course, the rabbi is not intended to be a professional mental health provider. The rabbis learn where their job ends and when they must refer to a professional. Although they are not professionals, very often the first phone call or knock on the door from people suffering is to the rabbi. The rabbi, almost like a family doctor, deals with all kinds of problems and therefore must receive this critical training.

One of the areas that Barkai has taken upon itself is the issue of suicides and suicide prevention. In conjunction with the Suicide Prevention Unit of the Ministry of Heath, all Barkai rabbis receive the Unit’s “Gatekeepers” training. A “gatekeeper” is trained to identify people in the community who are suicical and to get them the help they need, sometimes immediately.

There is much silence and denial in Israel today about the suicide phenomenon. Suicide is present in all sectors of our society: men and women, old and young, religious and secular, etc. People who are suicidal usually feel shame and fear, often causing them not to seek the help that they desperately need. The community rabbi who is properly trained can often be a portal for people to receive this help. Working together with professionals and the government Barkai will work to drastically reduce the number of suicides in the State of Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi David Fine is the Founder and Dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics in Modiin, Israel. He was a pulpit rabbi in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Overland Park, Kansas before making Aliyah in 2008.
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