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In Death of Ex-Hasid Estranged From Her Religious Children, a Mirror for Trauma of Many

A father reflects on his own efforts to stay close to his children after deciding to live a secular life

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Uriel Sinai/Getty Images and Shutterstock)
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Last Friday, Deb Tambor, a 33-year-old woman who left the Skverer Hasidic community in New York, took her own life.

Like me, Deb was part of the growing community of ex-haredim, men and women who have undertaken difficult journeys away from ultra-Orthodoxy. I do not know all the specifics in Deb’s case, but I do know that, like me, she was denied meaningful contact with her children because she chose to leave her Hasidic community.

The particulars of her situation were unusually sad: She was allowed to see her children only once a month, under supervision of a family member who remained within the community where she grew up. She was not allowed to take her children out of the Hasidic enclave where they live. The visits were frequently canceled; the children had weddings and bar mitzvahs and other events to attend, and she could always visit with them next month, she was told. She felt humiliated when they began to call her by her first name, Devorah. She wanted them to keep calling her “Mommy,” but “Mommy” was a title given to somebody else—the Hasidic woman her ex-husband married.

I knew her only as a casual friend, a deeply generous and kind and caring person with whom I chatted at social events and exchanged messages on Facebook. But to many in the ex-haredi community, even to those who didn’t know her, Deb has now come to symbolize the struggles of parents to maintain their parental roles with their children.

With her death came an outpouring of grief, both online and off, from people close to her and from this extended community. Some bloggers and Facebook commenters drew comparisons to bullying-related suicides. Some called Deb’s suicide murder. Most did not have to look far for what might have troubled her. Her struggles seemed so familiar, resonating deeply with those who made similar life choices and dealing with similar issues: alienation from family and community, recovering from traumatic histories of abuse, and the struggles to start fresh and figure out how to live in the outside world. As one friend put it, “This makes you think, who’s next? And will it be you?”

While Deb’s suicide was surely a result of many factors, her death brought into focus an issue that has in recent years been drawing increasing attention: the growing number of ex-haredi parents, both mothers and fathers, who are unable to maintain relationships with their children. For me, in particular, Deb’s death brought back painful memories of my own struggles on this issue. Like Deb, I too lived among the Skverers, where, with my wife, I had been raising my five children. Like Deb, I too eventually left and struggled to stay close to my children.

Married for nearly 15 years, my wife and I chose, in December of 2007, to part ways. Our divergent worldviews and religious differences had brought acrimony and tension into our day-to-day lives, and it had created an untenable situation in our home. While I was committed to maintaining religious observance when around family and community, I was no longer a believer. My wife, however, could not stomach a heretic in our home, and I could not stomach her scrutiny of our credit card statements for charges at non-kosher restaurants.

We agreed to resolve matters about the children between us, but several months later, I found myself in family court, facing complaint after complaint on minor matters of religion and Hasidic custom. I was wearing jeans when I picked up the children, one petition read. I fed them matzo on Passover that was square and machine-baked, rather than round and handmade, read another. There was concern that I might take the children to “atheist places”—which I could only surmise meant natural history museums or maybe a movie theater. And so she wanted me out of our children’s strictly Hasidic lives.

The complaints were brought by my ex-wife, but I knew also that community “experts” were involved. One community member in particular, one of my ex-wife’s relatives, tasked himself as overseer of my children’s fates. As he told one of my own family members: “We may not have a legal case. But we can beat him down emotionally and financially. He’ll have to give up eventually.”

I remember laughing when I heard it. It sounded ludicrous. A family court judge could not rule on the basis of religion, I imagined. I was unaware that even with a strong case, custody battles could cost many tens of thousands of dollars, which the community could easily raise but I could not. I was unaware that, when held in Rockland County, N.Y.—a hub of American ultra-Orthodoxy, less than an hour north of New York City—custody battles required rabbis, community leaders, and Orthodox family therapists on your side. I was unaware that family courts were also part of the local political machinery and that elections and constituencies were never far from a judge’s mind. I was unaware that my relatively meager resources were no match for a powerfully resourceful community with an ideological stake in the future of my children. Most of all, I was naive about the powers of religious extremism to control the minds of children themselves.

“My children will never reject me,” I remember saying. They adored me. Later I discovered it was more complicated than that. When a child is taught that a parent is wicked, the child’s love for the parent does not subside immediately. What the child mostly feels instead is shame. Shame over their own feelings of affection for someone they have been told is a bad person. Shame over their biological association with that bad person. Embarrassment over what people would say were they to observe or think about their association with this bad person. It is only natural that the child then wants nothing but to withdraw from the source of all that shame.

“Do you know how it hurts to hear your kid say they don’t want to see you?!” Deb once wrote in a Facebook discussion, trying to explain to those who didn’t understand. “Do you know how painful it is to see the kids watch the clock while you are visiting with them?!”

I knew.

***

Parental alienation is not unique to Hasidic custody disputes, but it would be a mistake to think that in these cases it is merely a private family matter. Recent years have shown case after case in which rabbis, attorneys, and family therapists collaborate to keep children away from a non-observant parent. Facing the institutional power and resources of the Hasidic community, these parents often find themselves crumbling before their cases can get off the ground.

I had watched, after my family’s issues were brought into court, how my children’s attitudes changed markedly. They grew withdrawn in my presence, eating dinner in silence and refusing the books and games I had bought them. My boisterous bunch of three girls and two boys, ages 6 to 14, who had previously seemed always to be crawling all over me at all times, began to speak to one another in hushed tones, their attitudes subdued, looking to each other awkwardly and to me barely at all. They began to inspect the labels on food products, and then picked at their dinners reluctantly. When I asked what was wrong, they turned away, looked at the clock, anxious to leave. Finally, my 7-year-old son looked me in the eye. “Mommy says you want to turn us into goyim.”

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In Death of Ex-Hasid Estranged From Her Religious Children, a Mirror for Trauma of Many

A father reflects on his own efforts to stay close to his children after deciding to live a secular life