By Jonah Geller
Six months ago, I purchased tickets to see “Dear Evan Hansen” with my wife. Although I knew very little about the plot, the story seemed relevant given my three teenage children, the important work we do with teenagers at camp, and the ways in which today’s society has become increasingly challenging for all of us – especially teenagers. After six long months of anticipation, as well as hearing more and more wonderful feedback about the show, our opportunity to experience it for ourselves arrived two weeks ago.
As many of you know, “Dear Evan Hansen” is a story about a 17-year-old boy, “always on the outside looking in,” who struggles to make friends and yearns to connect. He finds himself unwittingly at the center of a lie. A letter Evan has written to himself, as a self-awareness pep-talk assignment from his therapist – “Dear Evan Hansen,” it begins – ends up in the taunting hands of Connor Murphy – the “freak” at school, who ends up taking his own life. When Connor’s parents find Evan’s letter, they mistake it for their son’s suicide note. Devastated and seeking to understand their son’s death, the Murphys desperately cleave onto Evan and draw him into their family.
Of course, Evan can correct this misunderstanding at any time, but when he sees how relieved the Murphys are to learn that Connor had even one good friend, he is buoyed by the connection and begins embellishing. Classmates latch on to the tale – Evan becomes popular, important, even loved. Lies beget lies, events spiral – and go viral. Later, Evan eventually goes on to accept himself for who he is.
The music of “Dear Evan Hansen” is powerful, including: “I’m waving through a window, does anybody see me? Is there anybody waving back at me?” “No one deserves to be forgotten; no one deserves to fade away; no one deserves to disappear.” “When you’ve fallen in a forest and there’s nobody around, all you want is somebody to find you.” “You still matter.” “You are not alone.” “You will be found,” and “All we see is sky, for forever.”
On May 20, 2013, Evan Rosenstock, a Winston Churchill High School sophomore, varsity athlete, and past Capital Camps camper, was suffering from severe depression and committed suicide. The tragedy left the school and the Montgomery County, Maryland community shocked and devastated. After their childhood friend was gone, a group of friends – many of whom were Capital Camps counselors at the time – decided to join the movement in preventing teenage suicide, by creating messages of hope, help and strength.
In response to Evan’s tragic death, his friends and family established umttr (pronounced “you matter”), a community of young adults attempting to change a far-too-often teenage culture of alienation, bullying, depression, and suicide, into a compassionate culture where every person matters. Since its inception, umttr has provided schools and youth athletic organizations the funds, information, and necessary tools to place emotional well-being and caring support at the forefront of teens’ daily interactions. As the summer of 2013 began, Evan’s Capital Camps friends planted a tree at Capital Camps to honor his memory.
Two years later, on the very first day of summer staff orientation, all 200 members of our summer and year-round staff traveled to the 2nd annual umttr event, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament to support Evan’s family and friends, and any teenager and/or family concerned about mood disorders or suicide. While a powerful message was sent to the Churchill community by way of the Camp staff’s attendance and participation, a more significant message – including a meaningful conversation with Evan’s mother, Sue Rosenstock – was sent to us.
Hassidic master, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, connects the final total of 603,550 Israelites to the tradition that there are 603,550 letters in the Torah. Just as the absence of a single letter makes a Torah scroll unfit for use, the loss of even one Jew prevents Israel from fulfilling its mission. As Connor Murphy’s absence permeated the rest of “Dear Evan Hansen,” so too has Evan Rosenstock’s absence been felt at every turn, both at Capital Camps and throughout our community.
Throughout my career, many people have inquired about my inspiration to work in Jewish camping. During those 21 years as a Jewish communal professional, including learning the stories of both Evans, my motivation has remained consistent – to ensure that each member of our Camp community, broader Jewish community, and the rest of the world – is seen. That each of them feels an incredible sense of belonging and worthiness. And that each of them, along their ongoing and evolving identity-building journey, sees sky, for forever. Let’s find each of them – now.
As “Dear Evan Hansen” posits: “Share this with the people you love – the world needs to hear it.”
- The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services estimates that $240 billion will be spent on mental health in 2020, more than any other medical condition.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified suicide as the second leading cause of death among individuals aged 15-34.
- Approximately 50% of the population will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
- One in five Americans will experience a mental illness in any given year.
- One in five children, either currently or at some point, has had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
- U.S. adults living with a serious mental illness, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or dysthymic disorder, die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions.
The Crisis Text Hotline, established in 2013, provides 24 hours/day support to anyone in need of help. A troubled child, teenager, adult, and/or a concerned parent, teacher or friend – anyone – can send a free text, 24 hours/day, to 741-741, and include any one word in the body of the text. A certified Crisis Counselor will assist immediately. To date, the Crisis Text Hotline has processed approximately 80 million text messages.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) also provides free, 24 hours/day, confidential support and resources for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals.
Special thanks to The Hollywood Reporter and umttr for contributing to this article, as well as tremendous gratitude to anyone in pursuit of making every individual feel seen. The next umttr event will be scheduled soon – check umttr.org for details.
Jonah Geller is CEO of Capital Camps & Retreat Center.