Puberty and young adulthood are difficult times for many of us. We go through swift mental, physical and sexual development. As our bodies, mental capacities and psyches mature we formulate a unique identity. But this process can be challenging and even painful, particularly when our sense of identity clashes with societal norms.

We can feel rejected, unloved and lonely. And when our social surroundings are particularly intolerant to our newly formed identity the pain can be unbearable.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that suicides and attempted suicides are significantly more common among Orthodox homosexual Israelis aged 24 or less compared to their heterosexual peers.

About 20 percent of gay and lesbian youths who participated in a survey conducted by Hannah Bar-Yosef, a member of the Interministerial Committee for the Prevention of Suicide, said they had tried to commit suicide, compared to just 3.5% in the general population aged 24 or less. And though she did not provide numbers, Bar-Yosef was quoted last week in the local media as saying that suicide rates among Orthodox gays and lesbians were even higher than among non- Orthodox homosexual youths.

Studies have found that suicide rates among homosexual youths tend to be significantly higher when they grow up in an intolerant, unsupportive social environment. For instance, a study by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler that appeared in the May 2011 edition of the medical journal Pediatrics showed the correlation between a hostile social environment and attempted suicides. In a survey of 31,852 11th-graders in Oregon, Hatzenbuehler found that lesbian, gay and bisexual youths were more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals (21.5% vs 4.2%). The risk of attempting suicide was 20% greater in unsupportive environments; supportive environments significantly lowered the risk.

“Supportive environments” were defined as societies in which there was a higher proportion of same-sex couples, a higher proportion of left-leaning voters (registered Democrats), the presence of gay-straight alliances in schools and nondiscrimination or anti-bullying policies in schools that protected lesbian, gay and bisexual students.

Significant steps have been made in the modern- Orthodox communities of Israel and North America in recent years to foster more tolerance of homosexuality without necessarily condoning actions explicitly prohibited by Jewish law.

For instance, in July 2010, about 200 modern-Orthodox rabbis, educators and community leaders – mostly from North America but also from Israel – issued a “statement of principles” that essentially accepted gay and lesbian Jews into the Orthodox community (the question of openly practicing homosexuals was left up to individual synagogues and communities to decide, much as attitudes vary from community to community regarding whether or not to accept members who drive to shul or are married to a non-Jew).

Too many Orthodox rabbis continue to view homosexuality as a “curable affliction” and to obligate gays and lesbians to undergo therapy. They hold this opinion despite the fact that so-called “conversion therapy” has been rejected by nearly every reputable psychiatric authority. The latest blow to conversion therapy was the public recantation and apology to the homosexual community by Dr. Richard Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist. In April of this year, Spitzer essentially acknowledged that his 2001 study – the only credible study “proving” reparative therapy helped to “cure” homosexuality among highly motivated individuals – was fundamentally flawed.

Indeed, attempts to “cure” homosexuality inevitably do infinitely more harm – sometimes irreparable and quite lethal– than good. A World Health Organization report released in April called reparative therapy “a serious threat to the health and well-being – even the lives – of affected people.”

The more conservative elements within Orthodoxy must understand that tolerance and acceptance of the other is not just a luxury better left to more liberal elements in society.

It can be a matter of life and death.

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