Back in the days before psychology and the DSM, suicide was often viewed as a sin. According to early Jewish law, killing oneself was no different from killing another human being, and thus one who committed suicide was considered a rasha — an evil person.
Congregation Sha’ar Zahav of San Francisco is out to remove that religious stigma.
On August 7, exactly 75 years after the first suicide jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, the synagogue will hold a public Yizkor for the fallen, in which all jumpers will have their names read aloud. With 1,588 victims, or over 20 a year, the Golden Gate Bridge is the number one site for suicides in the world.
Read the synagogue’s prayer for those who committed suicide.
It’s been centuries since Judaism required victims of suicide be buried in a separate section of the cemetery and, now that the psychology behind suicide is better understood, even Orthodox congregations allow mourners to recite Kaddish for their loved ones who have killed themselves. But Jenni Olson, co-organizer of the service along with fellow congregant Eve Meyer, believes religion still treats suicide negatively.
“Historically, suicides have been shunned in Judaism and organized religion,” says Olson. “Specifically in how the bereaved are comforted in the aftermath of suicide. There’s room for improvement.”
Grieving a friend who committed suicide off the bridge in 1995 culminated in Olson’s 2005 film on the history of Golden Gate Bridge suicides, and this personal connection continues to fuel her activism today. In May, the congregation held Shavuot learning sessions connected to Jewish laws governing bridges in honor of the 75th anniversary of the bridge’s opening. It was then that Olson mentioned to the synagogue’s rabbi that this year would also be the anniversary of the first suicide jumper’s death.
Rabbi Camille Angel directed Olson to Eve Meyer, another congregant, who acts as Executive Director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention. Meyer has been a longtime advocate for a barrier on the bridge to prevent deaths, and joined up with Olson to plan this Yizkor event, the first of its kind.
“The only other time an event like this was held was on the bridge’s 40th anniversary in 1977, when Reverend Jim Jones led 600 pro-barrier activists to protest the bridge and the suicides, and said that the bridge is a symbol of social failure,” says Dayna Whitmer, who lost a son to the bridge in 2007. “This will be much more positive, and better accepted by the public.”
Whitmer’s son Matthew, whose father was raised Jewish, jumped when he was 20, after years of battling schizoaffective disorder and surviving previous suicide attempts. His mother, who keeps a blog and a website about Matthew’s suicide, was touched to hear about the Yizkor service.
“I’m glad it’s being done; Jewish religion has great respect for death,” adds Whitmer, who informed Matthew’s Jewish grandmother about the service as soon as Olson contacted her about it.