Rutgers Hillel responds to gay student’s suicide

Rutgers Hillel responds to gay student’s suicide

Statement invokes Torah in calling for tolerance, ‘dignity’

Hundreds gathered on the main campus at Rutgers University Oct. 3 at a vigil in memory of freshman Tyler Clementi. Photo by Jennifer Kong/Daily Targum Staff Photographer
Hundreds gathered on the main campus at Rutgers University Oct. 3 at a vigil in memory of freshman Tyler Clementi. Photo by Jennifer Kong/Daily Targum Staff Photographer

Even before a gay first-year student committed suicide after his roommate and a friend broadcast images of him having sex over the Internet, Rutgers Hillel had already moved to provide a safe haven for gay and lesbian students.

Students at the organization started a group earlier this year called JAQs (Jewish Allies and Queers), which meets bimonthly at Hillel’s College Avenue headquarters in New Brunswick.

The group offers “a safe space to students who may be struggling, as Tyler was, with issues around sexuality, confidentiality, and a sense of community,” said Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer.

The death of Tyler Clementi, 18, of Ridgewood galvanized the Rutgers community and sparked an international discussion over anti-gay intolerance and the dangers of cyber-bullying.

Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge Sept. 22 after his roommate Dharun Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro and Molly Wei, 18, of West Windsor set up a camera in a dorm room to view and transmit Clementi’s relations with another man. They have been charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy and may face additional bias charges.

The Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey Regional Office called for greater awareness of cyber-bullying and Internet safety in the wake of Clementi’s death.

“The Anti-Defamation League is deeply saddened by the terrible circumstances surrounding the death of Tyler Clementi,” said regional director Etzion Neuer in a prepared statement. “ADL strongly supports the investigation by the Middlesex County Prosecutors’ Office to determine if the perpetrators targeted Clementi because of his perceived sexual orientation. If so, a prosecution on hate crimes charges could be part of a strong and effective outreach and education effort to deter future such bullying.”

Neuer added that the case pointed to the ongoing need for cyber-bullying and Internet safety education. The tragedy highlights “how the destructive impact of cyber-bullying extends beyond the high school years and into college. We must do more to educate students on the real-world consequences of such behavior.”

A statement prepared by Hillel at the request of NJ Jewish News said that many students knew Clementi and were affected by his loss. It noted that Jews around the world had just marked Simhat Torah by reading the Book of Genesis.

“In the first chapter of the Torah we read that God created all human beings ‘b’tzelem Elokim,’ in God’s image,” it read. “It is one of the tragedies of our world, which we as Jews have a mission to repair, that we often fail to recognize the b’tzelem Elokim in each other. That is what happened at Rutgers in the tragic death of Tyler Clementi. It is our hope that because of Hillel a Jewish student would never feel as isolated and hopeless as Tyler must have felt.”

Since last year Rutgers Hillel has scheduled occasional Shabbat meals in Demarest Hall on the College Avenue Campus, a haven where “many gay and lesbian students and their allies live,” said Getraer. The meals attract up to 75 students.

“We have been way out ahead on this issue,” said Hillel’s development director Lee Rosenfield.

Hillel is also involved with Project Civility, a new university-wide initiative resulting from a two-year “conversation” about diversity. Hillel’s annual award-winning Days Without Hate, scheduled for next month, will be a featured component of the project.

“Rutgers Hillel affirms the dignity of every human being that we are all made in the image of God regardless of sexual orientation, whether Jewish or non-Jewish,” read the statement. “We work and pray for the day when the entire world recognizes this and we no longer have to attend a candlelight vigil for another human being.”

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