A short few weeks ago, close friends Scott and Helayne Ference came over for a Shabbos lunch. They brought with them Scott’s nephew Tzvi Yehezkel Ference, a 26-year-old Miami resident, who would be starting yeshiva in Connecticut.
Somehow, our lunch conversation led to the issue of mental illness. I was working on a piece for the Jewish Link on mental illness, depression and suicide prevention. Tzvi, who I knew all of about an hour since the Ferences arrived for lunch, matter of factly said, “I’m the guy you are writing about.” He went on to share with us his ongoing struggle with depression.
Fast forward to Monday evening when my phone rang. The caller ID showed it was Scott Ference. Typically my conversations with Scott are about Shabbos or Yom Tov invitations or, during baseball season, Scott, an avid New York Yankees fan and me, a Baltimore Orioles fan, talking about upcoming games.
But when I answered the phone, I didn’t hear the typically happy voice I’ve known for many years. Scott’s voice was deeper and breaking up. How could it not be? The news he was telling me seemed impossible, like a horrible nightmare. Tzvi, his beloved nephew, the young man who led us in bentching at our table, committed suicide on the Florida Turnpike on Sunday night by driving his small car in the opposite direction of traffic and colliding with a tractor trailer.
Here was a guy who loved Judaism. He loved to read. Loved baseball. He was a frum young man, an older brother, he smiled and fit right into our Shabbos discussions. He had his demons, however, and they would not leave him alone.
Days before his death, Tzvi used the social network to write ahead of his suicide how he actually drove his car to the Florida Turnpike and it was only his repeating the words of the Shema while he cried hysterically that kept him from turning onto the Turnpike. He posted on Facebook:
“Fifteen minutes after I started driving I was almost onto the turnpike. I started saying Sh’ma Yisrael. First slowly then faster and over and over again. I was overcome with such emotion that I started crying. Crying hysterically to Hashem to help me. To help me with my pain. I was crying so hard and there were so many tears. I pulled over at the entrance to the turnpike and cried nonstop for over 10 minutes.”
In my career I’ve written many articles about all sorts of social issues. For many of these stories, I feel as if I’m no more than a temporary guest to the story subject. I finish an article and then I’m on to the next one and then the one after that. It’s as if I’ve touched that “base” and am not looking back. And I feel badly about that. The mental illness article I wrote for The Jewish Link was published just last January 14.
If anything, the people who suffer from this unrelenting disease are all around us. Some are afraid to ask for help, because a mental illness typically doesn’t come with an easy answer for a cure. But others are afraid that their cries for help lead to a stigma of sorts.
And worse, many people I’ve interviewed over the years for this type of story are frustrated because they can’t make their loved ones or friends understand what it is they are feeling, what the pain resembles.
I write “over the years” because this isn’t the first time I’ve written a comment piece nor was the January 14 Link piece the first time I’ve written a news article about mental illness. This is sadly another difficult comment I have had to write about a suicide. I’ve written about children with mental illnesses, families with multiple cases of mental illness, Jewish homelessness as a result of mental illness and too many others.
As a reporter of Jewish news, perhaps the most difficult experience I had in covering this issue occurred when I was writing an article on Jewish homelessness. A source took me to meet a man also named Phil. He lived for a time in an old railroad terminal building. It was the middle of winter, and the deteriorating building was frigid. When my source called out “Phil,” the man who emerged from the darkness recognized me right away. And then I recognized those eyes. Phil’s mother and my mother were co-leaders of our Cub Scout Den many years prior.
We were stunned into silence. Phil asked if I remembered him, and I heard myself say a very shaky “yes.”
We did stay in touch for several years. Phil would get help from area municipal and Jewish agencies. He did get off of the street and into a room in an apartment. He tried to teach me what depression was. He was a very good illustrator, and he drew self-portraits in pencil with angry, gray clouds in each one of them. But we eventually lost contact with one another.
I would say it’s been over 10 years since I last spoke to Phil.
In Tzvi Yehezkel Ference’s memory, I’ll try to find him again.
I’ll invite him for a Shabbos lunch.
And this time, I won’t lose touch.
By Phil Jacobs