A Letter Especially for our Teens and College Students
Hi! As your rabbi and cantor, we have been asked to respond in a Jewish manner to an important issue. Sometimes those issues are so heavy, so serious, that words seem insufficient. We are writing you about Rutger's student, Tyler Clementi, his being bullied and his recent suicide. Tyler's tragic death has saddened us greatly.
If you are not familiar with what happened, you can read the full story here. Here's the gist of it: Tyler was secretly filmed having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room at Rutgers University. This film was then broadcast over the Internet, causing him much embarrassment. Authorities believe that this was a major factor in his decision to take his own life. Appropriate personnel from his school and from local law enforcement are continuing to investigate. Tyler is only the latest and most publicized in a string of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) young people who have taken their own lives because of pressures they felt to conform to the expectations of others. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of all of these young men and women.
But we want to speak to you, whoever you may be. Whether you are gay, straight, bi or transgendered or just plain confused, Judaism teaches that each individual is created B'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It does not matter what other people think about you as you struggle to figure out what you think about yourself.
What does matter is that you feel comfortable being who you are - at Or Ami, at school, in your community, and in your home - and you learn how to deal with those who do not accept you. And you need to know what Tyler, in his shame and pain and suffering, may have been unable to appreciate - that no matter how badly you feel about how things are going in your life, you will always have someone to talk to, and a community that will accept you, support you, and love you for who you are. Let us also help you if you are in pain or thinking of hurting yourself. (Suicide is a permanent solution to what is a temporary problem.) Our emails are at the bottom of this letter, and we encourage you to reach out to us if ever you need help.
Tyler Clementi's life ended because we live in an imperfect world that hurts or even kills people because they are different. People fear what they do not understand, and so we are left with a twisted world where people are harmed because of who they are, or whom they love. Others may be hurting due to acts of anti-Semitism, cyber bullying, social exclusion, breaking up with a first love, using drugs/alcohol, or any of the countless other pressures that teens and college students face today. The effects of such harm will not always be physical, but words and name-calling and lack of acceptance can leave scars just as deep as one who wields a knife. The good news is that there are more people in the world who support your right to be who you are than not. Torah teaches Kedoshim Tehiyu, that you are holy and valued (Leviticus 19). We accept you and want you to feel welcomed and valued and respected and loved.
Although the two of us are straight men, we have been blessed with friends and relatives, rabbinic colleagues and other coworkers, and beloved and involved congregants who are gay or lesbian or bi or transgendered. If we examine our relationships, I believe all of us would find the same to be true. Some come out easily; others struggle with their identity; still others remain "in the closet." One day, perhaps we will be able to say, "Who cares what an individual's sexual orientation is?" And until that day comes, so long as such prejudice and bigotry remain, we cannot remain silent. The Jewish tradition teaches that we are all responsible for one another.
As your rabbi and cantor, we care for you. So if you are reading this, and you are feeling sad, angry, scared or any of a myriad of confusing emotions, and you need someone to talk to, please be in touch with one of us (our emails are below).
And always remember that you have a rabbi and cantor and a community that care about you deeply and accept you for who you are. No matter what.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes Cantor Doug Cotler
You may want to read Rabbi Kipnes' blog on the issue (The Holy One Created Tyler Clementi; Why Couldn't His Roommates See His Holiness?).