As Friends Remember Faigy, Silent Struggle Surfaces
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As Friends Remember Faigy, Silent Struggle Surfaces

Depression and suicide rates among the ex-Chasidic community remain high. What needs to change?

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

In the end, the Internet couldn’t save her.

One week before jumping 20 stories in an apparent suicide late Monday evening, Faigy Mayer, a 30-year-old app developer and ex-chasid, penned an article about growing up in the insular, computer-starved community of Borough Park. She emailed the piece to a close friend, hoping to find a place to publish it.

“I remember being in the third grade and my mom and I wrote a list of all the girls in my girls-only hasidic Jewish girls’ school. … The purpose was to find me a friend,” she wrote in what amounted both to a sharp critique of the charedi lifestyle and a cry from the heart. “Nothing was accomplished, and until I left the religion of chasidic Judaism at the age of 24, I would not have any friends.”

For Mayer, the Internet was her route out of the cloistered Belz chasidic community. In the article, she describes finding others on Facebook who shared her struggles. The founder and CEO of Appton, a New York-based mobile and web solutions startup, she carved a new path for herself as a developer. She created a parking app, a restaurant-tipping calculator app, and an app called “All About Hasids.”

In the article, a copy of which was sent to The Jewish Week on Tuesday, she describes the Internet as a lifeline, bound to set others in her ex-community free. "Can you survive without the internet?" she writes.

But for Mayer, it was not enough.

Police said Mayer jumped from the 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar during a corporate party at 7:40 p.m., landing on the sidewalk on West 27th Street. According to published reports, her leap was sudden, preceded by a dash toward a row of bushes that lined the bar’s roof deck.

Mayer’s suicide comes at a time when there is an increasing spotlight on individuals who successfully — though often painfully — leave the chasidic community, and go on to carve out careers in the secular world. A number of ex-Orthodox memoirs, including Shulem Deen’s 2014 bestseller, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” and Judy Brown’s 2010 young adult novel, “Hush,” originally written under a pseudonym, have opened a window on the chasidic world rarely glimpsed by the wider public.

Deen, who has been friends with Mayer for the past five years, described her as an “incredibly intelligent, bright person,” with a technical genius. “She genuinely pursued her passions, even though her life was very hard over the past few years,” he said. He described the “callous” behavior that many who leave the charedi community face from their families.

“I know for a fact that Faigy had difficulties with her family and former community,” Deen said. “Feeling disowned and abandoned can trigger such behavior.”

Footsteps, an organization that helps charedi Jews who leave the fold, tries to alleviate feelings of abandonment and loss by providing a support system. The organization just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Other groups, including a small counseling group in Crown Heights where Deen first met Mayer, also attempt to fill the void.

Still, despite the growing community of ex-chasidim and a burgeoning communal awareness, high rates of depression, anxiety and attempted suicide in this population persists, said Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps. Deb Tambor, a young mother who took her own life in 2013, was a former member of the chasidic community in upstate New Square. After losing custody of her three children, she suffered from severe depression. Though her family claimed she lost custody because of her mental instability, friends said it was because she had left the fold.

“If someone has been pushing down questions and doubts for years, it is likely they will confront spaces of anxiety and depression,” said Santo. Though no formal studies have been done, surveys of the Footsteps membership indicate that depression and suicidal thoughts plague many who leave the charedi world.

“Feelings of intense isolation, and confronting the voices of family members and community members who tell them they will never succeed makes it hard to move forward, even after achieving success in the secular world,” Santo continued. “You can’t easily get rid of those memories.”

The Footsteps community, 1,000 strong, functions as a source of social support in the place of former communities, said Santo.

More than 100 people were in attendance at Mayer’s funeral on Tuesday afternoon in Borough Park. The crowd was a mix of men in chasidic garb and those in secular dress, including some women with hair dyed. After the funeral was over, many milled around, hugging, wiping away tears, and shaking their heads in disbelief.

Ari Mandel, who met Mayer through Footsteps, said she discussed her struggles with depression openly before her death.

“Though she was in and out of institutions, she had big dreams,” Mandel told The Jewish Week after the funeral service. “Mental health isn’t specially a problem in the ex-chasidic world,” Mandel said. “It’s universal. People are often afraid to admit when they’re having a problem.”

Clean-shaven and dressed in business casual, there were no external signs of his chasidic past. He described Mayer as a “foodie” who was always talking about her latest app.

Srully Stein, a student at Columbia University who grew up chasidic, also attended the funeral. A friend of Mayer’s through Footsteps, he described how she would ask him questions about college life and discuss her career goals. “She always had lots of interesting ideas,” he said. He described organizing visits to see her after she was hospitalized for severe depression. “We tried to be there for her.”

Still, according to clinical psychotherapist Naomi Mark, who participated in the documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” a film about gay Orthodox Jews, the schism between happiness and community loyalties can often overwhelm.

“There’s a deep values conflict,” said Mark, who works with many members of the charedi community. “In the chasidic community, happiness is not the final goal, nor is it a priority. Continuity and loyalty to the family is the highest value.”

This “inherent tension” often leads to a break between individuals who leave the community and their families, she said. For children who feel they do not fit in the community, this disconnect is magnified. Mark mentioned children who do not fit into gender norms, sexual norms and children who have learning disabilities.

“When a child feels they do not belong in their environment, they becoming increasingly vulnerable,” she said.

Though the internet provided her escape, Mayer writes that the battle is far from over. "Right now, rabbis are winning," she writes. She describes a young Hasidic mother: "Will she go online so that she can get her food stamps? I believe she will. And once she is online, she might come across a story on the home screen, and that might make her think about her harsh life, which she embraces, but she is embracing it without thinking."

Chaim Levin, sexual-abuse activist and an advocate for LGBTQ Jews, was a close friend of Mayer’s. A former member of the Chabad community, he said he is no stranger to depression. “I know just how awful it can be,” he said.

At the funeral, he described how Mayer’s father gave a eulogy in Yiddish. “He said she was so sweet and kind,” he said.

Still, before her death Mayer had opened up to Levin about feeling alienated and alone. The last thing she shared on Facebook before her suicide were photographs of her family.

“She needed her family — it didn’t need to be this way,” said Levin. “We need to find a way to fix the broken family dynamics when someone leaves the community. Even in New Square, in Borough Park, we have to find a way to get a message across that she may be living a different life style, but she’s still your child, she’s still your daughter,” he said.

In an interview after the funeral, Levin concluded, with a catch in his voice, “If only she could have seen how many people were ready to show up to her funeral, maybe she’d still be here.”

Editorial intern Talia Lakritz contributed to this report.

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

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