Special service to honor
Golden Gate Bridge suicides
by Matthew S. Bajko
Harold Wobber, a World War I veteran, has the dubious distinction of being the first known person to have committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Wobber went to the iconic span to take his own life August 7, 1937 just 10 weeks after it officially opened to the public. Over the ensuing years at least another 1,557 people are known to have died jumping from the Golden Gate.
To mark the 75th anniversary of Wobber's death, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav (which means "Golden Gate" in Hebrew) will honor the dead with a special ceremony next Tuesday night known as a Yizkor for the Fallen.
"I know there are people in the congregation who know people who have jumped from the bridge," said Rabbi Camille Shira Angel.
In Hebrew Yizkor means "may God remember," and the service involves the recitation of a memorial prayer for the departed. Jewish synagogues normally conduct the Yizkor ceremony four times a year, with the recitation of the names of deceased loved ones a way to publicly remember them.
Shortly after the Bay Area celebrated the Golden Gate Bridge's 75th anniversary in May, several congregants at the predominantly LGBT synagogue approached Angel about conducting a special Yizkor specifically for those who had committed suicide off the Golden Gate. It is believed to be the first time such a ceremony has been held to collectively remember and celebrate the 1,558 people.
"This is a way for people affected by it to come together and receive some comfort in a religious setting and acknowledge one another. That hasn't been able to happen," said Eve R. Meyer, a straight member of Sha'ar Zahav and the executive director since 1988 of the nonprofit San Francisco Suicide Prevention agency. "The only setting people have come together was in a political setting where they have to say I have been harmed by this, please help me."
Having it take place in a religious setting is also significant said Meyer, as various faiths have long viewed suicide as one of the worst sins a person can commit and those beliefs can be devastating for loved ones of the dead to grapple with.
"It is one more way of healing. There is a tremendous amount of healing that has to happen," said Meyer. "If you have 1,500 deaths each of those affects a minimum of five people."
Using a list compiled by John Bateson in his book The Final Leap, the ceremony will incorporate the names of all of the known suicides from the bridge. Bateson and his collaborator, Dayna Whitmer, compiled the list of names from online newspaper articles, the archives of San Francisco news reporter Malcolm Glover, and names released by the Marin County coroner.
"This is a way for us to say we have to have compassion for people who take their own lives and their loved ones who need a place to grieve," said Jenni Olson, a non-Jewish member of Sha'ar Zahav with her wife, who is Jewish, and their children.
Meyer hopes that participants of the Yizkor ceremony will feel a spiritual connection to the people who have been lost.
"There is so much shame and stigma associated with suicide. Much of it has come from our religions, and it should not come from them," she said.
During the bridge's birthday celebration this spring, there was an exhibition of shoes placed on Crissy Field to recall those people who committed suicide from the span. It was one of numerous projects officially sanctioned by the bridge district during the yearlong commemoration of the bridge.
But Olson said she felt underwhelmed by the exhibition, which was largely obscured by the hoopla and fireworks show conducted during the bridge's birthday weekend. It prompted her to work with Meyer and approach Sha'ar Zahav about holding the special Yizkor ceremony.
In 1995 Olson's friend Mark Finch, who was a co-director of the LGBT film festival Frameline and co-authored a gossip column in the Bay Area Reporter with Olson, committed suicide off the Golden Gate. A decade later Olson directed the award-winning documentary The Joy of Life that examined the history of suicides at the span.
The film led her to become a vocal advocate for seeing a suicide barrier be erected along both sides of the bridge. After a hard-fought campaign that many suicide prevention advocates and the friends and family members of the deceased waged, officials at the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District in 2008 voted to erect the barrier.
"People have been advocating for a barrier really since right after the bridge was built," said Olson. "My perspective is it is a public safety issue and a public health issue. There needs to be a barrier erected."
Meyer said suicide barriers have proven to be effective. At other locations where such a preventative measure was put in place, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, the problem of suicides has largely been resolved.
"When deterrents were put up in other sites the suicides have stopped. They have come to a screeching halt," she said.
But the Golden Gate Bridge's suicide barrier, estimated to cost $45 million, is still years away from being built. Bridge district officials are still finalizing the design plans while they try to secure funding for the project.
This summer, in what bridge district spokeswoman Mary Currie called "good news" for the barrier effort, language was inserted into a federal transportation bill that will allow the project to seek funding on Capitol Hill.
"The project is now eligible for federal funding. That is a pretty significant milestone," said Currie.
The bridge district expects to have completed the design work next year. Once the money is secured, it is estimated the barrier will take up to three years to be fabricated and installed, said Currie.
"We will certainly be in Washington looking for those funds prior to completion of the design early next year," said Currie. "It is really virtually unpredictable when funds will be flowing into this project. It is really about political will at this point."
By having the Yizkor ceremony, advocates for the barrier hope to add pressure on lawmakers and bridge district officials to get the project built.
"I believe this will happen in my lifetime," said Meyer. "I think the pieces are in place and the major obstacles have been removed."
The public is invited to attend the special Yizkor service. It will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday August 7, at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, 290 Dolores Street at 16th Street.