Ex-Hasid’s death bares anguish of leaving ultra-Orthodox sect

New York Post/July 26, 2015

By Maureen CallahanJuly

On July 12, Faigy Mayer, a 30-year-old New Yorker who left Hasidic Judaism five years ago, sent one of her last messages to a close friend. She tried to explain how foreign the world was to her — even though she grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

“I feel as though Hasidic Judaism shouldn’t exist at all,” Mayer wrote.

She went on to detail things about the ultra-Orthodox that most secular people know — “arranged marriages, strict segregation of the genders, the wife shaving her head, the couple having sex with the wife wearing a bra in the complete dark (hole in the sheet, anyone) but still producing thirteen children generally throughout her lifetime, working for cash only so that Uncle Sam can help with food stamps, Section 8 and Medicaid.”

Then there are things the secular world doesn’t know, things that make leaving seem insurmountable. Imagine not knowing that the sun is a star, or that there’s a solar system. Imagine not knowing what a human cell is, or what menstruation is, or, until you’re 18 and three weeks away from your arranged marriage, what sex is and how it works. Imagine never asking for a puppy growing up, because dogs bark, and that means they are beasts and demons. Imagine you have been told for your entire life that in the secular world, people mainly rape, pillage and murder, that it’s all a lawless meaningless free-for-all, and you are safe only in your little enclave, where these things do not happen.

You do not have an iPad, a TV, a battery-powered radio, because all secular culture is forbidden.

Now you have a sliver of a sense of what it is to leave — to become “OTD,” initials for “off the path” in Yiddish, or “XO,” for ex-Orthodox.

“Thinking analytically when it comes to basic life decisions,” Mayer wrote, “is something new to me and something I still struggle with, five years after leaving.”

She also wrote that she didn’t know leaving was even an option until she was 23, “when a secular relative told me I could.”

Last Monday, Mayer went to the rooftop bar at 230 Fifth Ave. It was about 6:45 p.m. She had just posted childhood photos to Facebook. “My family refuses to allow me to have my baby pictures,” she wrote, “so finding these pics were cool!”

Minutes later, Mayer jumped to her death. A source close to her family says Mayer suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but several OTD members tell The Post the community commonly makes such claims about those who leave. Whether Mayer did have a mental illness, it’s clear from her writings — and from others who have left ultra-Orthodox Judaism — that the consequences of renunciation can be dire.

“Faigy was very independent from the time she was a child,” says Pearl Reich, who left her ultra-Orthodox sect years ago and knew Mayer through Footsteps, a group that helps those who leave. “That kind of child is a threat, and the parents treat them differently — I heard that from her. She comes from a very, very fanatical group. I am extremely upset that the media is saying she died from a mental illness. This is a cult.”

The largest concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States lives the New York metro area. According to a 2011 study by the UJA Federation of New York, upward of 400,000 are ultra-Orthodox.

To most secular New Yorkers, it seems incomprehensible that even the most devout, observant ultra-Orthodox Jews would be so cut off from the modern world — after all, they walk the streets of New York, are exposed to advertising and storefronts, to the subways and roads, to the shared outside stimuli.

Yet the ultra-Orthodox do all they can to insulate themselves. Most do not have secular jobs. They are married at 18 years of age, arranged marriages all — falling in love is a sin. Women are expected to have at least six children, preferably 12.

Children don’t go to secular schools: Boys study only religious texts, while girls, at least, get the rudiments of math. Many don’t finish high school, and those who do have no transcripts. College is forbidden, and so there are no ultra-Orthodox doctors.

“One of my first transgressions, when I was 24 or 25 and got my first car, was to take a drive to the local public library,” says Shulem Deen, who chronicled his excommunication from the Hasidic community in his recent memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return.”

“I accidentally wandered into the children’s section and discovered the World Book Encyclopedia. Those books seemed to contain all the information the world could ever need. I’d be sitting there next to a little boy reading the Berenstain Bears, going back and back to the encyclopedia.”

At the time, Deen was married to a Hasidic woman. They had three children and lived in a Hasidic community in Rockland County, but the more curious Deen became about the outside world, the more the marriage foundered. Deen’s spiritual drift played out over years, each transgression a brief portal into an unknown world.

“Next, we had a Panasonic cassette player with a radio attached,” he says. “Radio is forbidden. If you bought that kind of cassette player, you were supposed to break off the antenna, put masking tape over the channel indicators, and Krazy Glue the play button.”

Deen had never disabled the radio, and one night, while his family was sleeping, he surreptitiously plugged in a pair of headphones. “My mind was blown,” he says. “There was a whole world out there — a blowout mattress sale in Paramus! Traffic backed up on the BQE! All these mundane things — they were very seductive to me.”

After the radio came the computer — a Hebrew-language word processor that happened to come with a three-month AOL trial. “Suddenly, there’s this world of shopping and movies and chat rooms,” Deen says. “And the chat rooms were amazing. The idea that I could sit in my little Hasidic village and talk to people I’d never ever meet who have different religions and world views . . . I kept going to the library.”

Once Deen graduated to the adult section and discovered comparative religion, he was done. His wife left him, and he was summoned to a rabbinic tribunal. “I wasn’t just told to give up my synagogue membership,” he says. “It’s, ‘Pack up your things and sell the house.’ The community came together and raised a ton of money for my wife. They made a case that because I wasn’t dressing the way I used to, it was confusing and damaging to the children. I grew very depressed. I was hospitalized for a time. For the 14 years up to that, fatherhood was my primary identity.”

Today, he is 41 and still feels alone. His two oldest children will not speak to him.

Mayer, too, had been hospitalized at least twice since leaving, most recently in April. Just a few weeks ago, she told a friend she needed to find a job and was about to be evicted from her apartment. Her family wanted nothing to do with her, and she was sick with worry over a sister who had also left the religion.
“There is a stigma that if you leave, you’ll never succeed,” says Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps. “ ‘You’ll become a bum.’ That’s what they’re told. And not knowing general life skills: How to order off a menu.

The people who decide to leave are bright, curious about the world, and largely self-determined. But they are immigrants to a country they already belong to.”

Author Judy Brown was excommunicated in 2010, after the publication of her young-adult novel, “Hush,” which dealt with the sexual abuse of children in the ultra-Orthodox world. (Her memoir, “This is Not a Love Story,” is out this week.) “I always say it’s not like moving countries,” she says. “It’s like moving to a different planet — like you literally walked off the edge of Earth and into space.”

Growing up, Brown had a couple of friends who were sexually abused and who were told it was all their fault.

“The painful, painful betrayal of sexual abuse was a knife in my heart,” Brown says. “Two years ago, I was meeting with young men who were going to the fourth and fifth funerals of friends who had ‘overdosed’ — which has become the euphemism for suicide of a sexual-abuse victim.”

Once she left, Brown began writing articles for the Jewish daily The Forward describing her struggles with the secular world: the day that, as a 25-year-old mother, she watched “Sesame Street” for the first time and was scandalized by a woman dancing. “My past teachers’ warnings flashed through my mind,” she wrote. “ ‘It begins with children’s movies, and ends in porn.’ ”

Brown writes of a clueless adolescence in which girls are never taught the word “breasts.” Instead, they are “mounds” or “lumps” — inconvenient growths to be endured, used only for nursing. When a female rabbi explained sex to her three weeks before her wedding, “it was quite the shock,” she says. Until that moment, young people are taught that sex is something only amoral gentiles do and enjoy.

As a young wife (she is now divorced), Brown was scolded by her husband and rabbi after a male neighbor saw her in her backyard, in the summer, with her feet in the kiddie pool. Word had spread that Brown wasn’t wearing pantyhose — she was, but no matter.
In the ultra-Orthodox world, pantyhose isn’t just pantyhose.

“If you don’t want to wear stockings,” says ex-member Pearl Reich, “you’re told, ‘Oh, that’s immodest. You’re turning men on. You’re bad.’ And that, you internalize.”

Faigy’s family held her funeral on Tuesday. It was a traditional Orthodox service, and of the hundreds of mourners, at least 150 had left the community. Asked for comment by reporters, Faigy’s mother said: “I don’t want to say anything. What am I supposed to say — that she’s a wonderful person? No, we don’t want to comment.”

There’s no data available on the number of ex-ultra-Orthodox in the metro area. Santo, the director of Footsteps, says her organization keeps the specific location of its lower-Manhattan office secret; the wrath of the community can be devastating. “Leaving is very risky,” Santo says. “If they haven’t told their families, if they have children, the social and emotional consequences can lead to economic ones.”

In the days since Faigy’s suicide, there’s been much debate in and outside the community: Was she really mentally ill? Was she suffering from loneliness, guilt, an inability to survive in the secular world? Could it have been both? And if so, will the ultra-Orthodox community re-evaluate the way it treats those who leave?

Brown, for one, doesn’t see that happening — with any form of fundamentalist belief, Christian or Muslim or Jewish. “Short of Earth becoming paradise, denial will remain an incredibly powerful force,” she says. “Because that’s what religions need to thrive. It’s universal — the basic human operating system.”

Faigy said as much in her last note.


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