Bankole: Rabbi Syme’s crusade against suicide

Bankole Thompson

For decades, Daniel B. Syme was the guiding light at Temple Beth El, the state’s oldest Jewish congregation, in Bloomfield Hills where, as senior rabbi, he opened the doors of that beautiful and historic edifice to regular dialogue about bridge-building and racial justice issues.

When Arthur Horwitz, head of the Detroit Jewish News, and I teamed up several years ago to launch a black-Jewish forum, Syme offered Beth El as the site of the conversation.

Bankole writes: "A Single Soul, is a suicide prevention program that continues a crusade against suicide Syme started in New York."

Among the many notable guests who spoke at Beth El during his tenure was the late Coretta Scott King. In fact, Syme would later be inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. International Board of Preachers at Morehouse College, an honor reserved for few men and women of the clergy around the world.

But now as rabbi emeritus, Syme isn’t slowing down. The prolific author of 24 books on Jewish life has one more cause to take on.

“This initiative is a tribute to the memory of my brother Michael,” Syme said in an interview last week.

The initiative, A Single Soul, is a suicide prevention program that continues a crusade against suicide Syme started in New York, with a similar program called Hand of Hope, after his younger brother committed suicide in 1975 at age 21.

“I believe if I had gotten help for Michael he would be alive today,” Syme told me.

But the last words that Michael, a talented musician who wanted to be a classical pianist and played 21 instruments, shared with his older brother remain surreal for Syme.

“I have never felt worse in my life and I see no reason to go on this way,” Syme recalled Michael telling him.

Michael’s final words were a cry for help.

Now A Single Soul, which operates under the Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit with songwriter Peter Yarrow as its honorary chair, wants to do for others what should have been done to help keep Michael alive.

“Suicide is going up. It is a national epidemic,” Syme said. “While no one program can solve the issue of suicide, I am determined to do what we can to save lives. We are training people in the community to recognize the warning signs of suicide and those whom they interact to get them help.”

According to a report last year from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates are increasing and, in 2016 alone, 45,000 people died by suicide. CDC ranks suicide as the 10th leading cause of death and one of three leading causes that are on the rise.

The issue hit home hard for Syme after Fox 2 Detroit meteorologist Jessica Starr reportedly took her own life recently.

“I was stunned by the news that she died of suicide because it opened up a whole new level of concern for me,” Syme said. “The fact is there are so many contributing factors to suicide today. I have come to the conclusion that all of these causes are factual.”

Perry Ohren, CEO of the Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit, said the program is needed.

“It is the goal of A Single Soul, and all the work in the Jewish community, to not just train helping professionals, but rather to train every community member to be better eyes and ears and to be able to know how to ask someone if they’re suicidal and then to build a bridge to get that person the help they need,” Ohren said. “JFS is lucky to have Rabbi Syme working with us, a man who, first-hand, knows the pain of losing a loved one to suicide and has made his life’s work passionately and tirelessly preventing suicide.”

Gigi Colombini, a veteran psychotherapist and suicide prevention specialist, conducts the training.

“Our Reach for Hope training within A Single Soul's program's is designed to not only identify a person who may be struggling emotionally, but also teaching those tasked with helping the person in crisis, once they have been identified,” Colombini said. “The reality is that most of us in the mental health and medical profession do not know what to do to help a suicidal person. I believe this is an important missing piece in our prevention efforts, and A Single Soul is working to make a difference in this area.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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