If snapshots could tell the story of a person’s existence, then by all accounts, recent pictures of Deb Tambor showed only happiness and a complete life being lived to the fullest.
There was Tambor on the beach, in a tank top, as she basked in the sunlight with her friends, and then in synagogue, clad in a tallit, as she completed psichat ha’aron, the opening of the holy ark. There was Tambor next to Elvis Presley and Britney Spears impersonators; protesting abuse at rallies; atop an ATV, in a convertible and cuddling in bed with her small dogs. There she was, nestled in the various embraces of her adoring boyfriend. In almost all the photos, there was Tambor’s broad smile and its accompanying indentations imprinted on either cheek.
But pictures never tell a complete story, and what was missing from these was the deep depression that enveloped Tambor, a 33-year-old ex-chasidic woman who left the Skver community in which she was raised, married and bore three children. Tambor regularly posted about her bitter custody struggles on a Facebook page for the burgeoning community of self-described “Off the Derech” (OTD) Jews; there, she also posted about her increasingly reserved children. Friends testify that it was her children’s alienation from her, orchestrated, her supporters say, by their chasidic father and community, that caused Tambor’s profound sadness.
Tambor sought psychiatric help for her depression, found a new home and partner in fellow ex-chasid Abe Weiss, and forged close friendships with other OTDers. But her monthly supervised visits with her children, who took to calling her Devorah because they were instructed to refer to only their stepmother as Mommy, were too painful a reminder of what she had lost. On Sept. 27, Tambor was found dead in an apparent suicide at the home she shared with Weiss in New Jersey.
The ensuing outcry from mainstream and OTD bloggers on social media and from writers throughout the New York area has shed light on a disturbing trend within ultra-Orthodox communities — the alienation of children from their non-frum parents, and the dearth of resources available in the United States to help them.
“The chasidic community drove Deb to commit suicide, pure and simple,” said Pearl Reich, 32, a mother of four who left her own chasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, two years ago. Reich has since appeared on radio and talk shows like Dr. Phil’s to describe the campaign of degradation the ultra-Orthodox community waged against her and continues to wage against other parents who defect; the community, Reich told The Jewish Week, labels such people as “heretics” and “whores,” and attempts to wrest custody and children’s affections away from them.
“The two most important resources in a battle like that are money and emotional support, and people who leave the community usually don’t have either,” said Reich, who eventually won full residential custody after a lengthy legal saga and with the help of anonymous contributions from sympathizers in her former community. “There were many times where I felt like giving up, and I can understand how a mother who is cut off from her own children can get to a place where suicide seems like the only option.”
Fraidy Reiss had a happier ending when she left an arranged marriage to an abusive ultra-Orthodox man and prevailed in the ensuing battle in court for custody of their two daughters. “I was very lucky that my ex gave up the fight for custody pretty quickly, even though I was openly living as an atheist,” said Reiss.
Mindful of women with less-happier endings, Reiss founded a nonprofit organization two years ago called Unchained At Last that helps both Jewish and non-Jewish women leave arranged and forced marriages and win custody of their children in civil court. So far, the organization has supplied over 65 clients, mostly from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds, with pro bono divorce attorneys and other support services. But the nonprofit has yet to help a formerly chasidic mother win custody of her children and raise them outside her former community.
“I see many of those women go to beit din, or Jewish court, and end up with divorce agreements that say they must raise their children ultra-Orthodox, and sometimes even that they must remain ultra-Orthodox, in order to retain custody of their children,” explained Reiss. “Those agreements are legally binding and very difficult to overturn in civil court.”
While Unchained At Last is the sole resource for women in the U.S. wholly dedicated to helping them leave arranged marriages and forge new lives, it is not as well known as Footsteps, the national organization that provides both men and women who leave their religious Jewish communities with educational and professional training, and emotional and social support groups.
Though its website cites no programs tailored specifically toward helping parents with legal and financial assistance, Michael Jenkins, a psychotherapist and Footsteps’ program director, said 30 percent of its members are parents and refers to a Family Issues Handbook as a “beginning resource to navigating court systems and family supports.”
Lani Santo, Footsteps’ executive director, says that the organization has been doing “much deeper work” to assist members facing the added issues of divorce and custody arrangements after leaving the community, and is on the verge of debuting a pilot of the Footsteps Family Supports project. “People are seeing Deb’s passing as the tipping point for the difficult issues that parents face,” said Santo.
Whatever support OTDers find in one another and in these two support organizations, it is often a weak opponent when matched against the considerable power and influence wielded by the united ultra-Orthodox community; that community raises substantial funds for legal battles and often instigates an operation of intimidation against the opposing parent.
That was the case with Kelly Myzner, a secular Jew who became ultra-Orthodox at age 21, quickly married within the community and had three sons. When she filed for sole legal and physical custody in 2011, the family court judge awarded custody to her allegedly abusive ex-husband, citing her belief that religious consistency carried great weight. Myzner’s case caused several bloggers, such as Shmarya Rosenberg, who runs the website Failed Messiah, to point out that Rockland County’s influential Orthodox community donated large sums of money to the campaign of the family court judge hearing Myzner’s case.
“In places like Rockland County and Lakewood [in New Jersey], the haredi communities use their political influence and money to rip children away from parents who are no longer haredi, or sufficiently haredi,” Rosenberg told The Jewish Week. “That power and influence is considerable and judges are often seemingly much more concerned with what haredi rabbis want done than they are with what is best for the children or with what is ethical,” Rosenberg said.
The considerable political and financial influence of the ultra-Orthodox villages within Rockland County’s town of Ramapo, which includes the New Square community where Tambor is from, has been raising eyebrows for years. When an Orthodox majority won control of the East Ramapo School District in 2007, it sharply reduced the district’s school budget and inspired bitter acrimony among Ramapo’s non-Jewish residents. A 2011 arson attack on a New Square dissident that left him with severe burns emphasized what some see as the community’s totalitarian rule and demand for absolute conformity, and its potential wrath against noncompliant individuals.
Shulem Deen, a prominent blogger who left the Skver community six years ago, recently wrote in Tablet magazine that in Rockland County, “…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.”
Photos of Deb Tambor in recent years are still being posted, on a Facebook page dedicated to her memory; a virtual commemoration of her life. They paint images of her in happier times, but knowing all we do of Tambor now, one cannot help but look at them, and notice only what is missing.