This weekend, though consumed with the celebration of life – a wedding, two B’nai Mitzvah, the bris of a baby – my heart was breaking as I tried to comprehend the deadly harassment that led to the death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi. His roommate taped a private sexual encounter, publicized it on twitter and put the video up on the internet. Humiliated and bullied, Tyler jumped off a bridge to his death. I am horrified and embarrassed that such acts continue to happen.
It is enough that our young people struggle so to acclimate to college life. That Tyler was targeted in what is supposed to be safe space (his dorm room) by people who were supposed to support him (his roommates) and that his privacy and dignity was destroyed are unconscionable.
It wasn’t just 18-year-old Tyler who suffered. I learned from Rev. Dr. Neil Thomas, Senior Pastor, Metropolitan Community Church, Los Angeles, that five teens who took their lives in September:
Raymond Chase, 19 Rhode Island; Seth Welsh, 13, California; Asher Brown, 13, Texas; Tyler Clementi, 18 New Jersey; and Billy Lucas, 15, Indiana; five teens who took their own lives, not this year, but this month (September)…. We mourn with them and we commit ourselves to live our legacy now and use our voices and our lives and to work together to bring to an end the senseless violence against all our our children; specifically LGBTQI children who face taunts and harassment every day in the playgrounds and classes of our schools and colleges.
There are many lessons to be learned from this horrific harassment. My friend Rabbi Denise Eger of Temple Kol Ami focuses rightly on the need for better education of our youth on issues of tolerance, human sexuality and the appropriate use of the internet:
In this weekend of the movie premier of The Social Network about the founding of Facebook the emerging facts of the Tyler Clementi case scream out for our society to have a renewed discussion about acceptable boundaries in the face of the internet and a real discussion about tolerance, acceptance and human sexuality. There is lots of condemnation but little honest talk about the need to educate our young people.
I support her call for better, deeper and more encompassing education in our schools and in our synagogues.
Perhaps there is another lesson, simple yet important, that one would think (hope) that in the 21st century, we would not longer have to teach. It is a most basic lesson of the value of each human being. Apparently, we must go back to basics. So here goes:
Judaism and Torah teaches that we are all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Let us be clear about what Genesis meant and means. Being created in God’s image means that each person is valued, worthy, and sacred. Such love – between mature consenting individuals – is similarly holy. Gay or straight, bisexual or transgender – the people, their gender identities and the ways they make love – are blessed. The Torah teaches that; our tradition affirms it. Those who read it any other way are misquoting the Bible for their own twisted perspectives and purposes.
So let us mourn the deaths of Tyler, Raymond, Seth, Asher and Billy, and the thousands of other LGBTQ teens and adult who, struggling to understand and accept their own identities, face unrelenting bullying and harassment. May our synagogues and schools and colleges becomes havens of hospitality, safe places to come to accept the holy way the Holy One made each of us.