Saddened Over a Death of Someone I Never Knew

If you are like me, the name Deb Tambor probably meant nothing to you until recently. And even after her death last week, unless you read about her story online, it still may mean nothing to you. So, let me bring you up to date on her brief but tragic story and perhaps help others walk away with something positive from this tragic story.

Friends and family of Deb Tambor, a former resident of the ultra-Orthodox community of New Square, in upstate New York, believe she killed herself on Friday, September 27  in Bridgeton, N.J.  Tambor was a former member of the Skver Hasidic sect, which founded New Square, a village about 50 miles north of New York City.

She had been a victim of sexual abuse (claims for which she was not believed by the local rabbinate). She had been involved in a bitter custody battle for her children and subsequently decided to leave the community, the Chasidic world and then  went OTD (“off-the-derech”). She was ostracized by her former community and by most of her family. The Skver  leadership poured money and support into her ex-husband’s account and life and vilified Deb, all in order to make sure she did not get custody of or normal visitation with her children. After this, many in the community continued to work to alienate her children from her.

Last Shabbat, in what appears to have been a suicide, the pain became too great for her and Deb took her own life.  While there are sadly over 30,000 suicides a year in the USA, this one hit me particularly hard. It was not only due to the fact that she took her own life. That alone is tragic enough. Rather, it is the CIRCUMSTANCES that led to this death.

According to reports, the cause that led to her being ostracized from her community is that she went off the Derech. And that response from her community and family is reason alone for mourning.

Now before you jump and say, “Oh, of course they ostracized her! After all, that is what the Chassidic community does all the time,” let me tell you that it is NOT only in the Chassidic community that this is a problem. It applies and is found in many Dati/religious groups. When a family sees one “of their own”  has gone OTD, in many cases, rather than maintain a connection, the child/children find themselves on the outside with no support and no love from the family or the community.

Wake up people! While the world is witnessing a renewal and strong growth in Jews returning to a Torah life and an Orthodox life of Shabbat, Kashrut and everything that comes with it, the flipside is that we are also witnessing a not insignificant number of committed Jews leaving for a secular life. While we welcome (and SHOULD welcome) those known as Ba’ale Teshuva, so many are quick to dismiss those who “opt out” of the so-called religious life. But even worse than “dismissing” them is the proactive move of ostracizing them from their family and community as in the case of Deb Tambor.

And it is the opposite that needs to happen.

While a person might make a choice to leave the Orthodox way of life, nevertheless, it still must be understood that they are JEWISH and, as such, are a part of our people, NO MATTER WHAT! If there is to be any expectation of change, any expectation of returning to SOME form of Orthodox lifestyle, it will not happen when there are threats or marginalization or outright  casting out of the one who has gone OTD.

In some cases, as in this one, being turned into a pariah, the abuse heaped upon her and the mental cruelty heaved at her not only served to distance her further and further from Judaism, but ultimately (apparently) led to her death at her own hand.
It saddens me, this death of Deb. It saddens me to know that there are so many out there like her that while not necessarily suicidal, nevertheless, have become outcasts from their families and communities for leaving an Orthodox way of life. PLEASE, if this has happened in your family, there is NO need to  condone or encourage such a change. BUT…they are still your son, daughter and brother or sister. The LAST thing you should do is to cut them off.

King David tells us in Tehillim: יתמו חטאים מן הארץ (“May sins be eradicated from the Earth). The rabbis comment on this and say: חטאים ולא חוטאים (the SIN should be eradicated and not the SINNER).  His words should act as a beacon to us in an ocean of uncertainty.

Rest in peace Deb Tambor….

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.