When she was sixteen years old, Sara Erenthal ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage. Erenthal's family, who had relocated from Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim to Borough Park, are Neturei Karta—one of the more cloistered ultra-Orthodox sects. After she ran away, Erenthal's father disowned her. She believes he sat Shiva for her—the Jewish ritual to mourn the dead that also applies to those who marry outside the faith.
“One of the hardest things for me leaving the community was losing touch with every single person I’ve known and being completely alone in the world,” Erenthal told Gothamist recently. “It’s very, very, very difficult. I remember crying myself to sleep for a long time after I ran away from home.”
Individuals like Erenthal who leave the ultra-Orthodox community to pursue a secular life are frequently shunned and ostracized by their families and loved ones. Their parents might refuse to see or communicate with them, and keep them from their family home. Many have had no secular education, and find it difficult to find employment; housing is a constant, crippling struggle. If they have children, those children are often lost in custody battles, or they turn against their parents, who they view as pariahs. All of these things can cause deep depression, and worse.
“In general, there’s definitely a strong feeling of suicidality amongst a sizable amount of people who leave ultra-Orthodoxy,” explained Leah Vincent, who was pushed out of the ultra Orthodox community and banished by her family for the sin of communicating with a boy at the age of sixteen.
Shortly before the release of her memoir, memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, Vincent's father, a prominent rabbi, put out a statement to the media. "Regarding her teenage years, it is clear to me that she does not, or perhaps is not always able to, separate her imaginings from the facts," he said, adding that he hoped that “her gaining the media attention she has craved for so long will bring her some measure of peace.”
In her book, Vincent details her own suicide attempt in the wake of the severe loneliness, self-loathing, and even hunger that followed after she was excommunicated.
The emotional stress and trauma associated with pursuing a secular life stems not only from the physical and familial challenges. It’s rooted in the prophetic language that suffuses ultra-Orthodox discourse, instructing its adherents from a very early age that anyone who leaves the strict confines of the community is bound for a life of misery, prostitution, and death.
“Every song of my childhood, every parable, told me that anyone who tries to leave will end up miserable and or dead,” Vincent explained.
Among the formerly ultra-Orthodox, sometimes called XOs or OTDs for “Off the Derech,” or path, thoughts of suicide have all too frequently turned into tragic reality.
In 2009, Alex Deutsch took his life. In 2010, so did Ruchy Nove. In October of 2013, Deb Tambour took her life after an ugly custody battle for her children. Earlier this year, Joey Diangelo overdosed.
Faigy Mayer (Facebook)
“There can no longer be any doubt: Members of our ex-Haredi community are at an elevated risk for suicide,” OTD author Shulem Deen wrote in Haaretz earlier this month. Deen’s memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, chronicles his journey out of the community, and the loss of his five children who will no longer speak to him.
Mental health issues in the ultra-Orthodox community are still stigmatized, though in recent years, things have gotten better. There are more social workers, and people are seeing therapists and psychiatrists. But religious struggles can lead to depression, especially when people feel trapped by their circumstances.
In the face of all this tragedy, an organization called Footsteps has created a support network for the formerly religious, offering assistance in adjusting to modern society and coping with the crippling loneliness.
Footsteps started as a drop-in group where people with an ultra-Orthodox background could meet and talk and take a break from the solitude so many face in the secular world. Since its founding in 2013, the organization has served over 1,000 people, and has a budget of around $1 million dollars.
“I can honestly say, Footsteps saved my life, literally,” Shulem Deen told us.
Shulem Deen before and after he left his Haredi community (courtesy Shulem Deen)
Footsteps’ most important function may be that it gives individuals with no friends and no family a community—people to talk to who have been through what they are going through, plus a place to eat holiday meals, even if they no longer believe in the religious significance of the dates in question.
The group has social workers on staff who conduct individual supportive counseling, and refer individuals out for long term care if necessary.
While Footsteps can’t help people with issues like housing, the organization recently secured a relationship with an anonymous donor that provides emergency financial support to qualifying members. In 2014, Footsteps leveraged $35,440 in emergency financial support to assist 11 individuals, according to Footsteps Executive Director Lani Santo.
In addition, Footsteps offers a “Cross Cultural Skills Program,” which includes dating, relationships and sex workshops for OTDs, most of whom grew up in a world of total gender segregation, as well as explorations of “local museums and cultural institutions and sports programs” to assist in the transition from cloistered to American life.
In a new partnership with NYLAG, the free civil legal service, Footsteps now assists the formerly religious in custody battles, some of which involve taking on the entire community from which they are trying to escape.
Miri Freed (not her real name) was involved in such a battle. Her husband of twelve years took out an order of protection against her and sued for custody of her children. He was able to secure over $30,000 in support from the Satmar community to divorce Freed and hire a lawyer in Rockland County who specializes in religious custody issues, Freed says. Powerful rabbis were consulted on her husband’s behalf.
Freed’s story is similar to Deb Tambour’s and Shulem Deen’s. But Freed had Footsteps.
From the beginning, Freed was told in Footsteps peer groups not to sign anything, and never to go to the Beis Din—the religious courts. It would turn out to be crucial advice that went a long way towards helping her achieve a better custody deal. Freed was given a grant from Footsteps and helped by NYLAG.
Freed says she felt overwhelmed facing off against the entire Satmar community in Monsey. But with Footsteps in her corner, Freed says, her husband was intimidated. He realized the custody battle would not be so easy, and in the end, she got a much better settlement.
“Without Footsteps, I had no allies,” she recalled. “What am I doing? What power do I have on my side? I have nothing.”
But with the organization’s help, she was able to turn things around. “The idea that I am now part of a community that I can be part of as much as I choose to be, that will accept me without me having to filter my thoughts, has enabled me to become a stronger person,” Freed said. “This process of meeting with people who understand how you have been abused by the community, being able to sit in a room with a group of people and talk about these things and be understood and validated, it’s life altering.”
In the Hasidic community, emotions aren’t discussed regularly, and are only welcome in conversations surrounding religion and life events. The concept of validating a person’s feelings is simply non-existent, and people who stray from the script often feel worthless, Freed explained. “That’s what Footsteps did for me. I feel like I am a worthwhile person.”
Footsteps is well known throughout the numerous Hasidic communities, and is regarded with a combination of fear and loathing.
“How is a big national slaughter house viewed in the vegan community?” a Satmar source said by way of explanation.
But the feelings of loss go both ways. The way a person leaving the community might experience the pain of losing their family, so too does the family experience the anguish of losing a child, even though they are doing the shunning, according to the source, who is prominently positioned within the community and wouldn’t go on the record out of the fear of reprisals for speaking to a secular journalist.
“According to them, they have no choice,” he explained of the community. “They have to protect their way of life which they totally believe in. They have four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten kids at home. If he comes along and he doesn’t behave, what kind of impression does it leave on the other kids? It puts them at risk that they might follow him.”
The source likened shunning to amputating a leg—a painful decision one is forced to make.
“It doesn’t mean they don’t love them. It’s a very difficult decision, and one they have to make. That’s what happened in the Faigy Mayer case,” he said. “They felt that having her around was going to have a bad influence on the other kids.”
Still, not all families shun children who go OTD. The source was familiar with ultra-Orthodox families who maintain contact with their now secular children.
The shock of leaving the community is in some ways the result of the tight-knit nature of the community, which takes care of its own with private ambulances and organizations for the poor.
“Eviction rate by Hasidim is very low because the community will rally to come up with the funds,” the Satmar source explained. Individuals leaving the community are forced out into the world without an education, where the threat of homelessness is a constant struggle, and with it, depression.
And yet, despite these difficulties, many choose to leave—at a rate that is increasing every year.
“The decision isn’t taken lightly,” says Lani Santo, the executive director at Footsteps. “They are dying inside and some contemplate suicide within the community—because it’s not working for them.”
For most, Santo says, it’s not really a choice. Leaving the community is the only way for these individuals to live an authentic life, despite the difficulties associated with leaving.
And for some, it’s not a choice at all. “I was pushed out,” Vincent responded when asked why she made the decision to leave despite the terrifying prospects that awaited her. “I pounded at the door for years, begging to be let back in, before giving up.”
Leah Vincent (courtesy Leah Vincent)
Vincent wishes Footsteps had been around when she was making her exit. “My journey out of the community was traumatizing and devastating,” she said. "Particularly being a young girl on my own, I had no understanding of what it meant to be a woman in society, beyond the role I had been shaped to fill—being subservient to men."
This conception of a woman’s place put her in a dangerous position, and she was involved in a string of traumatic relationships, resulting from a lack of basic concepts like boundaries. In her memoir, Vincent describes how she was raped by more than one man in the early years after her family abandoned her.
“No one should have to go through what I went through, and because of Footsteps, they don’t have to.”
But for OTDs like Vincent, there is still the anguish of losing family—family you know are all still there and yet now inaccessible.
“The pain of that is incredibly intense,” Vincent recalled. “Some manage to transition and keep their families. I imagine suicidal ideation is much lower with those people. But when you have to leave your family behind and your identity behind, it’s like losing your bones. The way the mind is structured, it’s a Herculean task.”
Eventually, Vincent received a scholarship for graduate school from Footsteps. Sara Erenthal received a fellowship to pursue her dream of becoming an artist.
The Footsteps community is a small, tight-knit one, and many of its members continue to mourn the loss of Faigy Mayer.
“People don’t kill themselves because they were disowned,” Erenthal said. “There has to be mental illness. But mental illness can be managed. No one has to die. You can always reach out.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.
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.