Outcast Mother's Death, and Questions About Jewish Sect's Sway Over Children

The New York Times/November 21, 2013

By Joseph Berger

Bridgeton, New Jersey -- Abe Weiss came home on the last Friday in September to find the lifeless body of his girlfriend, Deb Tambor, on the bedroom floor of their ranch house here.

Her body was propped up against the bed; underneath lay a bag of pills and a half-empty bottle of vodka. Nearby were photographs of the woman’s three increasingly estranged children, including a snapshot of the eldest, Chaya, 13, at her elementary school graduation.

Mr. Weiss said Ms. Tambor had written a telling diary entry after Chaya refused to accept her graduation gift of a bouquet.

“I’m done living,” the entry said. “I can’t take the pain. People say give it a shot. But it’s not working. I’m done.”

Ms. Tambor, 33, had forsaken the Hasidic Jewish world in which she was raised and married, a decision that undermined her relationship with her children. Her Skver Hasidic sect in Rockland County, N.Y., was concerned that Ms. Tambor’s freer lifestyle might be a subversive influence on the children, and whether it swayed the children to keep their distance and limited her opportunities to visit has become an emotionally charged question in wider Jewish circles.

Articles in The Forward, The Jewish Week and the online magazine Tablet and on blogs run by Hasidic defectors, like Failed Messiah, have detailed the agonizing challenges facing those who leave the insular world of Hasidim, where dress is austere, the language is Yiddish and religious obligations structure each day.

Former Hasidim seeking child custody arrangements find that rabbis, community leaders and Orthodox Jewish family therapists line up with money and witnesses behind the Hasidic spouse. Such influence is especially powerful in a place like Rockland, a county near New York City where one-third of the residents are Jewish.

Lani Santo, executive director of the decade-old Footsteps, an organization that has offered support to more than 800 Hasidic exiles, called Ms. Tambor’s death “a tipping point.”

“People are seeing there’s a possibility of losing their children because the Orthodox community thinks it needs to protect each child’s Jewish soul,” Ms. Santo said, “and will go to great lengths to sever ties between the child and the parents leaving to become more modern.”

Given how wrenching to one’s identity throwing off the Hasidic way of life can be, she said, “suicidality is really an issue that haunts many of our members.”

The causes of suicide are complex, experts say, and it seldom can be attributed to a single event. Ms. Tambor did not leave a note, and the official cause of her death is awaiting toxicology tests.

Even before she divorced and had to work out custody arrangements to see her children, she had a troubled history that included depression and, according to friends, sexual abuse by a relative. But Ms. Tambor’s friends and supporters say her alienation from her children weighed most heavily, and for that they blame her family and the rest of the Hasidic community she left behind.

A spokesman for the sect would not comment and another did not respond to messages.

Ms. Tambor’s ex-husband, Moshe Dirnfeld, declined to comment.

Yeedle Melber, a cousin of Mr. Dirnfeld, said close family members had told him that Ms. Tambor began to have mental problems several years ago after she was struck by a car. There followed an attempt to take her own life during the marriage and hospitalization for five months at Rockland Psychiatric Center.

“She became unbalanced,” said Mr. Melber, who is Hasidic. “Her husband tried everything in his power to hold things together. She started going in a bad direction. There was a feeling the kids are not safe with her because of mental issues.”

But Mr. Weiss and friends of Ms. Tambor said her psychological issues had been exacerbated by the way she was treated. One friend, Shulem Deen, a divorced father who had also left the Skver sect, wrote an essay for Tablet comparing Ms. Tambor’s ordeal to his own estrangement from his five children.

“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,” Mr. Deen wrote. “Most of all I was naïve about the powers of religious extremism to control the minds of children themselves.”

The article describes how the children “grew withdrawn in my presence, eating dinner in silence and refusing the books and games I bought them,” and inspecting foods he offered to be sure they were kosher.

“Mommy says you want to turn us into goyim,” he said a son told him, using the Yiddish term for non-Jews.

Mr. Deen has not seen his two eldest children in five years, and the next two eldest stopped allowing visits after they turned 13. His youngest son, now 11, sees him grudgingly.

Family Court records are sealed. But an official in the state courts familiar with the Tambor case, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said decisions in the children’s custody were based entirely on Ms. Tambor’s mercurial behavior and the previous suicide attempt.

“There was a unanimous feeling that the mother was in no shape to get custody or even unsupervised visits,” the official said. “The fact that she tragically took her own life is the clearest indication that what the experts said about her psychiatric problems was right.”

Once someone leaves a sect, he or she often becomes a pariah, virtually disowned by parents and siblings, Hasidic exiles say. Hasidim realize it is important for a child to know a mother or a father, but, Mr. Deen said, they think they can remedy the absence “by getting the religious spouse to remarry.”

One confidant who recorded interviews with Ms. Tambor and spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to draw attention to himself said Ms. Tambor had told him that she did not want to leave the Skver sect but was forced out because she had accused an uncle of molesting her. Mr. Weiss and other friends also said Ms. Tambor had told them of the abuse.

Ms. Tambor, a dark-haired woman with a broad smile, was the daughter of a yeshiva principal in New Square, a Rockland County enclave of over 7,000 residents, all Hasidic, that was established as a village in 1961 to maintain its insularity, a place where men and women walk on opposite sides of the street to avoid mingling.

After leaving the sect four years ago, Ms. Tambor moved to New City and got her first driver’s license. She supported herself through Social Security payments for her mental disability and took courses at Rockland Community College. She no longer kept kosher or observed Sabbath, and became an avid Yankees fan — something that would be an aberration for a Hasid because sports are generally discouraged as a distraction from a pious life. Nine months ago she started living here in Bridgeton, in southern New Jersey, with Mr. Weiss, 38, another former Skver Hasid she had met on Facebook.

“She was a beautiful woman with a heart of gold and we really loved each other,” Mr. Weiss said.

He doubted that the car accident mentioned by Mr. Melber, the cousin of Ms. Tambor’s ex-husband, had caused psychological problems because, he said, she injured her leg, not her head.

“It’s all part of the cover-up of sexual abuse,” he said.

While she was in the psychiatric hospital, her husband obtained a divorce and custody of their three children, now ages 10, 11 and 13. Initially, Mr. Weiss said, she was allowed a supervised visit once a month at a therapist’s office. By this past summer, she was allowed to see the children twice a month at a sister’s home in Monsey, a Rockland County community almost a three-hour drive from Bridgeton.

Mr. Deen said Ms. Tambor had told him that she felt humiliated because the children called her Devorah and called their stepmother Mommy. A son answered her questions with a resentful yes or no.

“Do you know how it hurts to hear your kid say they don’t want to see you?” Ms. Tambor wrote on Facebook.

Two days after her death, Mr. Weiss and friends gathered in New Square, hoping to attend her funeral. Eventually, two of Ms. Tambor’s brothers picked Mr. Weiss up and took him to a minivan parked outside the village. Inside the vehicle was the coffin for him to view.

The next morning he learned in a text message that Ms. Tambor was being buried at that moment in a cemetery on Long Island. It was too late for him to be there.

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