Ex-Hasidic Jew's Suicide Cannot Be Blamed on Orthodoxy

I have no doubt that Faigy Mayer’s suicide was not the result of any shunning, no matter how anxious some have been to proclaim so, or what she herself may have imagined.

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Faigy Mayer in Brooklyn in 2011, in a photo posted on her Facebook page.
Faigy Mayer in Brooklyn in 2011, in a photo posted on her Facebook page. Credit: Facebook / JTA
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

To make my mourning more visceral on Tisha B’Av, I try to focus not only on the destruction of the holy temples and subsequent Jewish expulsions and persecutions, but also on tragedies closer in time, like the Holocaust and the tolls of terrorism in Israel. All Jewish calamities are in a sense rooted in the persistence of Jewish exile.

Individual tragedies, too, are often in my Tisha B’Av consciousness, such as the loss this year of two dear friends, one to cancer and the other in a car accident.

The untimely death of Faigy Mayer, aleha hashalom, also remains with me even now, weeks after the tragedy.

Also with me is the ugly blaming of Faigy’s death on her original community, even on all Orthodox Jews.

I never met Faigy but, like so many, I grew to know her after the young, vibrant woman, who left her Hasidic community to pursue her dreams of success in the wider world, committed suicide earlier in the month of Jewish mourning.

Some of that fantasizing came from tabloid media and the sort of people outside the Orthodox world who rejoice at the chance to portray Orthodoxy negatively so that they can feel better about their less-observant Jewish lives. And some came from people on, or beyond, the fringe of the Orthodox world.

Eliyahu Fink, a West Coast rabbi, reacted to Faigy’s death by decrying the “pain, rejection, and demonization” that “often define the journey out” of Judaism. He called the tragedy “an indictment of our lifestyle” and commented that “we [Orthodox Jews] are definitely guilty of this crime.”

Another rabbi, Yisoscher Katz, a proponent of “Open Orthodoxy” (a group that, despite its name, is indistinguishable from the early Conservative movement) asserted that “All of us in the Orthodox world are somewhat complicit in [Faigy’s] death.”

I have no doubt that some people who leave religious communities become estranged from their families as a result. I have no doubt that others, despite their choices, remain loved by and involved with their parents and siblings. And I have no doubt, too, that it is hard both for those who leave Orthodox Judaism and for their families. There’s certainly room for empathy on all sides.

But finally, I also have no doubt that Faigy Mayer’s suicide was not the result of any shunning, no matter how anxious some have been to proclaim so, or what she herself may have imagined.

In the days following the calamity of Faigy’s death, it became clear that she suffered from mental illness — she had been hospitalized several times and was taking medication — and that her illness darkly clouded the lens through which she saw her world.

Ari Mandel, a friend of Faigy’s who also grew up Hasidic but left his community, confided that “it was fairly well-known that she suffered from mental illness.”

Faigy’s cousin, Finette Lerman-Russak, who is not Hasidic, and who helped Faigy transition to the “outside world,” said that Faigy’s hold on reality was tenuous. Lerman-Russak asserted bluntly that it was “untrue” that, as Faigy had claimed in a letter to friends shortly before her death, that her family had withheld childhood photographs from her. “A lot of Faigy’s friends,” Faigy’s cousin noted, “had no idea how ill she was and that she was filtering what they knew.”

None of us has any right to sit in judgment of someone with illness of the mind, any more than we do someone with illness of the body. I would no more criticize Faigy for her ailment, G-d forbid, than I would the friend I lost to cancer for his. But recognizing that it was her illness, not her, writing about her family and erstwhile community is important. And it should give pause to all those bent on slurring ultra-Orthodox life at every real or perceived opportunity.

A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that among people who were hospitalized with major depression, the religiously unaffiliated had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts than those who reported being affiliated with a religion. Israeli researchers last year found that religious teens were 45% less likely to exhibit suicidal behavior than less-religious ones. To some, such findings would implicate the lack of religious affiliation itself in tragedies like Faigy’s suicide. But that would be no less speculative than the notion of those who blame religious communities. The issue should not be whom to blame, but simply how to foster mental health.

The overwhelming majority of young people in insular Orthodox communities lead happy lives. Are the families of those who feel compelled to leave their communities hurt by this? Of course they are. Does that justify shunning those who leave? Of course not. And if that does happen, even rarely, it’s wrong.

Jews who feel stifled in their Jewish communities should be encouraged to explore options like Project Makom, which offers classes, one-on-one mentoring, information about preparing for higher education and the job market and conflict-resolution sessions.

Parents and siblings of those who choose new lives for themselves should be encouraged to continue to offer unconditional love to their children and siblings.

But none of us should use cases where preexisting conditions led to bad places as license to point fingers at families and communities that are only trying to live the best Jewish lives they can.

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