Most of us can understand what it must be like to get a divorce and engage in a bitter custody war. In this modern world, such drama is all too familiar - if we haven’t lived through the dissolution of a marriage in our own families, we have friends and acquaintances who have gone through it, and we know it is never pretty.
What is harder to imagine is the level of devastating pain and misery faced by women and men like the late Deb Tambor, who are members of strict and cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclaves, after they divorce and leave those communities.
Not only did Tambor have to do battle with her ex-husband and her family in her fight to keep her connection with her children, but an entire community, including her own family members. On Friday, that pain became too much, and Tambor, 33, who was suffering from depression, died of an overdose that her friends believe was intentional - suicide.
What has lent her individual tale such impact is the fact that it echoes the experiences of many others like her. Her suicide has clearly rocked the close-knit online community of former ultra-Orthodox Jews who populate numerous blogs and Facebook groups that exist to support those who have gone, as they call it, “Off the Derech” (OTD) - strayed from the path of Orthodoxy. Tambor was an active member of several of these groups.
Less than 48 hours after news of her death emerged, an outpouring of sad and furious posts from those who knew her both in real life and online had already appeared on the Internet. Her fellow travellers viewed her apparent suicide as more than an individual tragedy, and their posts shine a spotlight into a world of conflict and pain with which most of us are blessedly unfamiliar, alerting us to the injustices that occur in that world.
Rebecca M. Ross, an activist who counters ultra-Orthodox ‘outreach’ efforts and moderates a Facebook page for the formerly Orthodox wrote in her blog:
““I know that many will claim that this was an isolated incident. Except that the only thing isolated about this is the fact that it ended in suicide. Women who want to leave ultra-orthodox Jewish communities are often held hostage by motherhood. Being denied access to your children, or having to fight to retain custody is a powerful deterrent to leaving. I know several women on the many forums in which I post, who have been through, or are currently dealing with similar situations. These are good people who want nothing more than to be good parents but without being chained to a community in which they don't wish to belong. There is nothing Jewish about turning children against their parents, whether it exists in kiruv (outreach) circles or in off the derech (off the path of orthodoxy) circles.”
Another formerly ultra-Orthodox blogger, Hayley Amanda, said Tambor’s experiences reminded her of her own: and news of her death rattled her deeply:
“In my journey away from ultra-Orthodoxy, I have also faced times of deep pain and indescribable sorrow. I have known Deb’s darkness. Many sleepless nights, as I watched my marriage fall apart, I wondered whether everyone else would indeed be better off without me. A frum therapist insinuated that I was causing my husband deep spiritual ruin; rabbis reinforced that my lifestyle choices were selfish and destructive to my sweet young children. As the chasm between my husband’s world and mine deepened, my self-worth plummeted. No longer did I feel worthy of love; no longer did I feel like a human being. Over the years, I met many others who experienced the same deep pain of alienation that I did. Somehow, though, miraculously, and unlike our sister Deb, we survived.
Deb’s death has left me shaken because I am also Deb Tambor. My friends are Deb Tambor. And perhaps you’re reading this because you are Deb Tambor, too. Those of us who have been through the life-altering alienation that can accompany a departure from ultra-Orthodoxy carry the embers of Deb’s pain in our hearts. We will not forget. We will not rest until there is hope and change."
Yet another impassioned cry for action came from an anonymous blogger at I am Acher!:
“Let Deb Tambor not have passed on in vain. Let us spread the word of why Deb felt compelled to prematurely end her life …And let us band together and try to end this injustice once and for all. For Deb Tambor. For her family. For her friends. For everyone that loved her. And for all the other men and women out there who have wrongfully lost custody of their children.”
Musician Yitz Jordan, who described himself a ‘close Facebook friend’ of Tambor’s, wrote that while her family may have been upset that she left ultra-Orthodoxy, now:
"Instead of a secular mother, now her children have no mother. Instead of a daughter who eats non-kosher, her father now has one less child.
I consider Deb no less a victim of bullying than a gay kid in a schoolyard. All the closest people in her life turned against her in the worst ways, egged on by clergy who assured them that such was G-d’s Will."
On the popular news and opinion site Failed Messiah, former Chabad member Shmarya Rosenberg called for closer scrutiny of cases like Tambor’s by the media, in a post titled "A Death in the OTD Family."
"What Sqvere did to Deb Tambor, Satmar and other hasidic groups have also done and are still doing to other former hasidim who opted to leave. If this were the Amish or Scientology doing these horrific things to former members, the press would extensively cover the story. Here these former hasidim … suffer in relative obscurity and silence. It should not be this way.”
By Allison Kaplan Sommer