BRIDGETON, N.J. — 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.
Read more: NY Times