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A young gay Orthodox man died by suicide. We must confront how Jewish teachings harmed him

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One of the hardest parts of my job is attending the funerals of young Orthodox Jews who have died by suicide. As clinical director of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), I’ve unfortunately been to too many of them. 

This week, I am grieving the death of 25-year-old Herschel Siegel of Atlanta, who died this past Friday before Shabbat.

Herschel was not the first young Orthodox person to die by suicide this year. It is especially painful that, even when victims were openly gay themselves, the Orthodox community too often refuses to acknowledge or value this part of who they were.

The Trevor Project just released its 2023 National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People. Based on the experiences of over 28,000 queer youth across the US, the survey found that 41 percent of LGBTQ young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

Since 2016, over 2000 queer youth from Orthodox families have accessed support services at the JQY Drop-in Center program. Data collected from our intake assessments suggest that the suicidality number is closer to 70 percent among Jewish queer youth growing up in Orthodox families, in which being LGBTQ is usually seen as a grievous sin. 

It’s time to start being honest about the messages queer youth are receiving in the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish spaces.

The Orthodox community has every right to live in accordance with a traditional understanding of the Torah, halacha (law) and Jewish values. Orthodox Jews are allowed to believe in the divinity of biblical verses and ancient laws, even when they conflict with modern sensibilities. And Orthodox Jews should all have the right to raise children in line with these complicated beliefs without being labeled as bigoted, homophobic or evil.

What we do not have the right to do is look away when the deadly consequences of these teachings appear before our eyes. 

Herschel Seigel was a lot of things. He was a loving son, a caring friend, a supportive sibling, a gifted actor, a person who grappled with mental illness and a courageous young gay man growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community. It took incredible bravery and strength for him to come out to his Orthodox family and be out at Yeshiva University. Herschel never gave up on the things or people he loved, even when it meant enduring intense suffering. 

And Herschel certainly suffered. He suffered for a very long time. Underneath the huge smile, the positive affirmations and the high energy that he so often brought into a room, there was unbearable pain.

In one of Herschel’s last social media posts before he took his life, he tried to explain his decades-long trauma. He wrote: “My very EXISTENCE as a gay, Jewish, Male was an abomination… and even decades later, that fear-based thought pattern erupts into my consciousness, at the most unexpected of times….’abomination’…is the only defining aspect of my ‘inherent self-worth.”

While mental illness may have exacerbated these messages, it’s important to acknowledge that the voice in Herschel’s head calling him an “abomination” was neither a demon nor a delusion. Instead, it was quoting what most Orthodox Jews understand to be the literal words printed in last week’s Torah portion, written by God, which call homosexuality an “abomination deserving of death.”

The ArtScroll Stone Bible, ubiquitous in nearly every Orthodox Synagogue across America, pours salt on this open wound. In a gratuitous footnote accompanying the verse in Leviticus 18:22, the Stone Chumash reads: “The harshness with which the Torah describes homosexuality testifies to the repugnance in which God holds those who engage in these unnatural practices.” 

It should not be lost on anyone that Herschel left this world just in time to escape having to live through another Shabbos during which his fellow Jews gathered to read this Torah portion out loud. 

What happens to self-esteem when your holiest book in the world tells you that God finds you “repugnant”? What happens to hope when it is made clear to you that your community will never accept you having a loving partner? What happens to self-care when your religious leaders won’t even mention your identity by name in public, and, when they do, frame it as a problem? The answer to all of these questions is: it dies.

Research consistently shows an elevated risk for suicide among queer youth from communities that reject homosexuality. If we teach that being gay is immoral, and fill our synagogues with prayer books that convey the message that God finds gay people repugnant, then there will be vulnerable young people in the community who take that message seriously. 

The vast majority of queer people will make it through to adulthood with “only” long-term trauma. But with this persistent communal messaging, it is an inevitable reality that a number of LGBTQ+ Jewish youth, especially the ones already dealing with mental illness, will die by suicide.

At Herschel’s funeral, it sounded as if the officiating rabbi went out of his way to avoid mentioning this core aspect of Herschel’s life. How can we protect our children if we are unwilling to face this uncomfortable truth? 

In the rabbi’s eulogy, “mental illness” (while an important aspect of Herschel’s story) was used to hide, distract, discount and ultimately erase Herschel’s gay identity. There was such intentional resistance to facing any communal responsibility that even the tradition of publicly asking the deceased for mechilla, or forgiveness, was omitted. 

It seemed like any suggestion that there were lessons to be learned about making life easier for gay men like Herschel, was seen as akin to blaming the family and community for Herschel’s death. Closeting was confused with compassion so no one would have to face the inevitable consequences of their own beliefs.

This is wrong. When erasing someone’s public identity is viewed as an act of compassion, we reinforce the narrative that it would be easier on families if queer people just disappeared. 

This is one of the most common narratives that queer youth use when rationalizing suicide. They come to believe that erasing themselves would be the kindest thing to do, and that their queerness is a burden on their loved ones. 

Every time we choose to avoid talking about someone’s LGBTQ identity out of “compassion” for the feelings of a sensitive family member, we send a message to queer youth that they are not wanted.

Herschel’s story was nuanced and complex. I am not suggesting that anyone is directly to blame for his death, or could have done something specific to prevent this particular tragedy. I am not even advocating that any biblical verses must be reinterpreted, or that halacha must be changed. 

What I am demanding is that we not look away from the human cost of our religious positions. We can only lay claim to the holiness of our faith if we are willing to bear witness to the suffering it can inspire.

Herschel was a gay man in a world that made no place for queer people. He was loved and will be missed. There are thousands of Jewish queer youth in the Orthodox community. We must do better. Do not look away. 

A Zoom memorial for Herschel Siegel will be held May 4 at 7:45 p.m. Eastern Time. Click here to join. To contact the author, email editorial@forward.com

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