Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Grad's suicide ignites debate in Jewish community" by Rachel Marder

2006- The suicide of a young Brandeis alum last month in New York has sparked a discussion over how the Jewish community addresses mental illness and whether young Orthodox Jews feel excessive communal pressure to get married. Sarah Adelman '04, 25, an Orthodox Jew from St. Louis, jumped from her eighth floor Upper West Side apartment July 24 around 1:30 p.m. and died from injuries sustained, according to the medial examiner's office.
Just before she jumped, Adelman spoke on the phone with Steven Green, an ex-boyfriend who tried to persuade her not to go through with it.

Green told the New York Post that Adelman had been depressed for a while and was feeling low after breaking up with her boyfriend the day before.

"I guess that was the tipping point," he said.

After completing her undergraduate studies in Sociology at Brandeis in Jan. 2004, Adelman received an MBA in Healthcare Management from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management in Aug. 2005.

She had lived in New York for one year and managed a dental office in Rockefeller Center, her father, Ed, said in a phone interview.

Ed said he stayed in close touch with his daughter and spoke with her up to three times a week.


The last time they spoke, the day before she died, Ed said Sarah expressed disappointment over the relationship that just ended.

"[She] wanted to know 'is it really worth doing it again just to get hurt?'" he said. A July 28 article in The New York Sun highlighted Adelman's suicide in a story exploring the overwhelming pressure in the Orthodox Community to get married young.


Julie Berg '07, a B'yachad coordinator who is also from St. Louis, said she danced with Adelman's sister throughout high school, but didn't meet Adelman until they danced together in B'yachad at Brandeis. Though Berg said she never thought Adelman worried about settling down, she said Adelman's mother brought the issue up at her funeral.

"Sarah was so excited when all of her friends got engaged and got married and had children and she would call her friends' children 'her babies," Berg said of Adelman's mother's speech. I think it just got to the point where maybe she just felt like there was something wrong with herself," Berg said.

But Ed Adelman disagreed with the assessment that such pressure drove his daughter to suicide. "We never put any pressure on her," he said. "I don't think her friends or her family members put pressure on her." Rather, he said, she was probably frustrated with dating in the Orthodox community in general.

Adelman struggled with clinical depression since she was a teenager and had been on medication for several years, her father said. Her illness "absolutely" contributed to her suicide. Most had no idea she was depressed though, Ed said.

"That's the way she wanted it, so everyone treated her like she was normal even though she wasn't." Berg said Adelman's depression was never apparent. "She was so concerned with everybody else and making sure everybody else was so happy and she always wanted to know what was going on in your life and what you were up to."

Adelman's parents spoke openly about their daughter's illness at the funeral, Berg said. "They talked about how she would kind of go to other people to avoid herself." Friends and family remembered Adelman as a warm and vivacious person, loyal to loved ones and giving to those around her."She was definitely an extrovert," her father said. Berg remembered Adelman's commitment to the dance group, her approachable nature and easy smile.

Stephanie Gould '08, who met Adelman at B'yachad tryouts her freshman year, spent the year with her in the dance group."She was caring and warm, helping people with whatever they needed whenever they needed it," Gould wrote in an e-mail to the Justice.

Gould said Adelman helped her learn the dance moves at the B'yachad tryouts."She touched so many people on campus, myself included, and Brandeis is a very different place without her." She enjoyed her years at Brandeis and made many close friends, said Ed, who is grateful to the University for her experience.

"The fact that Sarah was able to have such strong friendships was good not only for the normal person, but for her, and probably lengthened her years," he said. University Rabbi Allan Lehmann said he barely knew Adelman, and did not know whether she felt pressured by her community in dating.

"I don't have a sense of there being a great deal of pressure in part of the Brandeis culture," said Lehmann. "I haven't had people come talk to me about that."In response to Adelman's suicide, Orthodox Jews in the Upper West Side gathered for a series of "Safe Space" discussions at Congregation Ohab Zedek and the Jewish Center in the days following her death.

Laura Freiman, the clinical director of the social and organizational leadership training at Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future, helped facilitate the discussions between mental health professionals and community members."This is a safe space for you and your peers to express any thoughts or feelings you may be experiencing," an advertisement for the program said.

Freiman said in a phone interview that it's unhealthy and useless to focus on exactly why Adelman committed suicide, but it's important that her community examine ways to bring mental health to the forefront.

Discussions generated a host of ideas for ways synagogues can be more welcoming, including a monthly Safe Space meeting, regular guest speakers on mental health topics, family hosts for singles during the Sabbath, dating support groups and mental health referral lists at synagogues.

"We do not intend for all of these ideas to remain as only ideas; but rather, to find ways to implement at least some of them," Freiman wrote in an e-mail to Safe Space participants. An Orthodox single woman in her late-thirties from the Upper West Side started a blog soon after Adelman's suicide to address issues she thinks the suicide raises. She writes under the pseudonym "Ayelet."

Ayelet, who suffers from bipolar disorder, discusses the pressures and loneliness of being single, Orthodox and mentally ill in New York City on her blog. "It's hard to be Orthodox and single, because Judaism is a very family-oriented religion. If you don't have a spouse, you're always scrambling to find a place to have Shabbos meals or you're stuck at home alone," Ayelet wrote in an e-mail to the Justice.

Ayelet was granted anonymity by the Justice as she keeps her illness private."There's a general stigma attached to seeking psychiatric help in American society, but I do think it's a little worse in the Orthodox World," she said. Though the stigma attached to mental illness is not unique to the Jewish community, Freiman said, there's more that society as a whole can do to be more accepting.

Adelman echoed Freiman's sentiment: "I think society in general doesn't talk enough about disabled people, handicapped people, [or] people with special needs," he said. Assistant Dean of Student Life Alwina Bennett said the University will hold a memorial service for Adelman in early October following the High Holidays, so that her family can attend.

Bennett said some of Adelman's classmates at Heller and friends in B'yachad have expressed interest in participating. Berg said they may perform at the service or do something special at their show this year to honor her, but nothing has been finalized.

The funeral was held July 26 at Berger Memorial Chapel in St. Louis. "Someone told me it was the biggest crowd they ever saw at a funeral parlor," Adelman's father Ed said. "She touched a lot of people.

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