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?!”
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.”
One woman I know in one of New York’s Hasidic communities had her three children taken away from her after she was accused of inadequate religious observance. Her major crimes: Her husband caught her texting on Shabbat and socializing with non-Hasidic friends. Her rabbi helped her husband hire lawyers and other “experts” to guide him on how to keep the children away from her. When she went to the rabbi, pleading for him to hear her out, he refused to listen.
“Your yiddishkeit is lacking,” the rabbi told her—a woman in her 30s. “Fix that, and we’ll talk.”
In another recent case, an Orthodox psychiatrist in Rockland County, Dr. Richard Price, testified that it would be “tremendously difficult” for children raised religious to keep living with a non-religious parent. A judge cited the psychiatrist’s testimony, giving it “great weight,” when ruling to remove custody from Kelly Myzner, an ex-Hasidic mother of three.
Hasidic communities, so adept at organizing large-scale communal efforts of all kinds—setting up volunteer services such as Hatzolah, Shomrim, and Chaverim; bringing kosher meals to Jewish hospital patients all over New York City; getting out the vote for public officials who will bring benefits to the community—these same communities sometimes come together for purposes less noble. In Williamsburg, Monsey, and Kiryas Joel, flyers often call on people to “save the children” from a parent gone astray. Common tropes are used to stir hearts; most often the image of a young boy, scissors Photoshopped menacingly over his sidecurls, beseeching people to raise money for legal fees to keep away the bad parent.
Parents who have left the system often stand little chance. “It is often one individual fighting a highly organized system,” said Michael Jenkins, the program director at Footsteps, an organization that offers support and assistance to people who have left ultra-Orthodoxy. “People would be truly surprised to hear how things play out in a country where there is separation between state and religion.”
In my case, I didn’t lose in court. I lost my children’s hearts and with them, very nearly, my sanity. I had been many things in adulthood—a husband, an entrepreneur, a computer programmer, a blogger—but for 14 years, fatherhood defined me most. When my children withdrew their affections, I no longer knew who I was.
Like Deb, I came to a low place. After months of harrowing court appearances, during which, by court order, a judge limited my contact with my children until the issue could go to trial, I felt drained. My children, especially the older ones, were open about not wanting to keep up contact, clearly influenced by the people around them. I ended up hospitalized for a time, depressed and suicidal and angry at the world and myself. Most of all, at myself. I could not understand how it had all happened. I could not understand how I had lost my children before the fight had even begun. I blamed myself for not having foreseen it, for not being better prepared, for lack of cunning and craftiness, to match the qualities so deftly used by the other side.
When I was released from the hospital, I was emotionally stable. I had forgiven myself for some of my failures too and accepted responsibility for the things I was able to change. But my resolve had weakened. My fight was gone.
“We can beat him down emotionally and financially,” the Hasid who had placed himself in charge had said.
I was between jobs, and my reserve funds were quickly depleting. The legal fees were exorbitant, and I was quickly sinking into unmanageable debt. Even if I was prepared to continue fighting, I had no money left.
I, too, had turned to rabbis for help, but few were sympathetic. “Don’t you agree that your children are better off without you?” one rabbi asked, eyeing my too-small yarmulke and my shaven beard.
I asked a friend to arrange a meeting with the Hasid. I would take what they would give me.
We met at a local park in Rockland County, three miles down from New Square, where my children still lived with their mother. We sat across from each other at a picnic table, while a group of young Hasidic kids twirled on a merry-go-round nearby. The Hasid in front of me shook his head. He wanted to clear up a misconception. “We would never keep children from a father.” He was so very surprised, he said, that I’d thought otherwise. “That would be incredibly cruel,” he said.
Surprised, I asked what he had in mind for an agreement.
“What we would like,” he said with a salesman’s flourish, “is for them to see you twice a year.”
I stared at him in disbelief. He tried to explain that this was best for the children. I had been prepared to take whatever I got, but I could not accept this.
“You are aware that they don’t want to see you, yes?”
I said nothing. The man thought for a bit, then offered four times a year.
I asked for six.
“Fine,” he said. He offered his hand, then pulled it back. “But only the three youngest.”
I bit my tongue, and nodded.
“And only until they’re 13,” he said. “Later it’s difficult. Especially for the boys, after bar mitzvah. You understand, of course.”
I didn’t understand. It didn’t matter.
One day last April, I asked Facebook friends for ideas for father-son activities. The years had passed. I hadn’t seen my two oldest children in five years. Of the three younger ones, one turned 13 and then another, and they stopped coming. Now I was left only with my youngest; I was set to see him the first time on his own in a few days. He’d been 6 when my wife and I were divorced. Now he was 11. Unlike the older ones, he barely remembered me as a real father.
Friends offered dozens of suggestions—amusement parks, nature trails, Chuck E. Cheese. It was Deb’s comments, however, that stood out for me. She suggested a local law-enforcement museum and a nearby ferry crossing. Then she added this:
I don’t get to take my son out of New Square, but knowing his inquisitive mind I’d take him to Alto Music; he’d enjoy exploring all the different musical instruments. And then maybe find a quiet place for a game of chess. They’re very into that.
It struck me that in this gentle, casual comment, Deb was not so much offering a suggestion but had lapsed into a moment of fantasy, imagining what she herself might do with her own son, if she were able. But she was not allowed, of course, and it offered a heartbreaking glimpse into the grace with which she carried her struggles.
Perhaps one day Deb’s own son will read his mother’s words above. She could not take him out of New Square, but maybe he’ll find his own way. Maybe he’ll go to Alto Music, in nearby Monsey, on his own, or with his own son or daughter, check out the instruments. Perhaps he’ll find someplace to play a game of chess afterwards. His mother thought he’d be into it.
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Shulem Deen is the editor of Unpious.com. He is currently at work on a memoir, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2015.
Shulem Deen is the editor of Unpious.com. He is currently at work on a memoir, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2015.