Health

How Mentally Ill Hasidic Women Slip Though Cracks in the System

Isolated from secular society and often at the mercy of unlicensed therapists who can do more harm than good, it can be nearly impossible for women in New York's ultra-Orthodox world to find the help they need.

by Allie Conti
Aug 15 2016, 4:00am

Illustrations by Koren Shadmi

By the time Rachel was hospitalized at New York City's Cornell Weill Psychiatry Specialty Center in July 2014, she was almost too exhausted to speak. For years, she had been traveling the same cloistered, unrelenting path on which many female members of her branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism find themselves: arranged marriage at 18, a domineering, sometimes abusive husband with whom she would have a bevy of kids. Duty, family, duty, duty. She was breaking slowly under that weight, and worst of all, she had no one to talk to. Everyone Rachel knew was in similar situations, and she had so little access to the outside world that she didn't know there was any other way to live.

"I was having a baby every year because I wasn't allowed to take birth control, and I wasn't allowed to talk about the fact that I couldn't take birth control," Rachel, who asked me not to use her real name or any identifying details, tells me over Skype.

Rachel, who is in her early 30s and looks like a dark-haired Lena Dunham, bats away her sidecurl-sporting son, who keeps climbing into the frame. She's speaking from her dimly lit apartment in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where she remains for the sake of her children. She has a thick accent, a wry sense of humor, and a hurried manner of speech. Which makes sense: She's terrified of being caught speaking to someone outside the highly religious community, let alone a reporter.

In 2011, she tells me, Rachel reached out to a mental health referral service called Eitzah for help. She says she was sent to a life coach who instructed her to pray, drink more water, and not go the police even after her husband's abuse extended to her kids.

"They would say, 'What do you wanna do, break up your family? You got kids, you got this, you got that,'" she remembers. "I was like, 'Well, what am I supposed to do? He's beating me and I'm smiling to the whole world because I can't talk to anyone.'"

Finally, it all came tumbling down for her and she checked herself into a hospital on the Upper East Side. It was her first opportunity to learn how the secular world worked; the only problem was she had ceased to care. Her depression deepened, and Rachel barely saw the point of living. It was impossible for her to discuss the abuse with anyone, she says—every time she saw a doctor, an ultra-Orthodox woman referred to as a "community liaison" was in the room.

But two weeks into her stay, another ultra-Orthodox patient was brought in: Faigy Mayer, the woman whose name briefly became famous last year when she jumped off the 20th floor of a tony Manhattan bar in July. The tragedy came with a made-for-tabloids narrative. "Ex-Hasid's death bares anguish of leaving ultra-Orthodox sect," read one New York Post headline. Faigy's still-religious sister, Suri, went on to hang herself the following October, further casting a pall over the family.

But the story of Mayer's death didn't start when she went off the religious path, or derech—she had been troubled since she was a child, and her difficulties surely weren't helped by the frequently shoddy approach to mental health taken in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox world.

"It's like we've lived parallel lives. We knew each other's traumas without having to know the details of it."
Rachel

Rachel remembered Mayer by reputation. By the standards of the community, Mayer was a rebel.

Going off the derech means rejecting everything you've known, and often turning your back on your family. When Rachel tried to picture what happened to such people, she could only imagine them being swallowed by a black hole. But here was Mayer––a raven-haired beauty with an awkward posture and glasses that were perpetually on the verge of falling off her nose––explaining that she'd been committed for handing out condoms in the middle of Borough Park.

"She was paranoid, but she wasn't hallucinating," Rachel remembers of their four weeks together. "She was very clever and focused and articulate, and we really had great discussions in the hospital. She was from a younger age group, but we ended up having conversations like two people on a rocking chair, reminiscing, like in a nursing home. It's like we've lived parallel lives. We knew each other's traumas without having to know the details of it."

The two women had a lot in common. They'd both grown up in the same Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, where they were taught to follow the orders of their respective rebbes down to how many stitches they could have in their socks. Now Rachel had someone to mock her former teachers with, someone with whom she could openly question her upbringing. "The staff there was so happy that Faigy found someone there that she knew, because she wasn't really talking to the staff," Rachel says.

The duo had one more important thing in common: Eitzah.

Eitzah is a hotline that helps parents to "learn how to diffuse tension, create calm, and get their children to listen," according to its website. The name is Hebrew for "advice," and many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Borough Park turn to it in times of need and stress, as Rachel did. But several young women say the hotline, run by the nonprofit umbrella Mishkan Yecheskel, intimidates people who might want to leave the community while directing patients to unlicensed "life coaches" who do more harm than good.

Because they're unlicensed, such practitioners aren't required to report instances of abuse or neglect to the city or state of New York. Victims and advocates tell me that these coaches are sometimes recommended by pillars of the ultra-Orthodox community for precisely this reason.

The informal and often inadequate mental health system is just one of many ways that Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox are isolated and insulated from the systems of government and law enforcement that run the rest of the five boroughs. Interviews with academics, rabbis, activists, members of the community, and those who have left it suggest this loophole protects an image-conscious group from public scrutiny in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault—all at the expense of vulnerable women.

Jennifer Mesrie is a psychiatry resident at Montefiore Medical Center who was recently awarded a fellowship grant to study the mental health of former Hasidim. She says people like Mayer and Rachel have no good options: They're ostracized if they leave, and silenced if they stay.

"These are people who are brought up in extremely isolated communities that are extremely disconnected to the rest of the world and the process of... transitioning out of these communities is so disruptive and very often there is nowhere for them to go," she says. "There are so many basic life skills that they may not have, and many of them end up feeling desperate or ending their lives.

"On the flip side of that, families will send their kids to unofficial mental health workers, who are members of the community and see things from the same perspective," she continues. "They may very often worsen the situation by not understanding how bad that situation might be."

During their late-night talks, Mayer tried to convince Rachel to leave Borough Park, but she was too scared to make the plunge because she didn't know how to support her kids. Today, she has a protective order against her husband, though she lives with him—one foot still firmly inside the community she believes is responsible for perpetuating her abuse. As she puts it, she's "in both worlds, which is not the right place to be, but it's getting there."

Rachel believes unlicensed therapists are running rampant in Borough Park, and that the mental health regime there keeps people like Faigy Mayer and many others from getting the help they need. "It's everyone I know," she says. "My old neighbor used to see people for $300 an hour with no certification. And I know Faigy had that in her life, too."


Rachel and Faigy had many late-night talks while in the hospital

Faigy Meyer's father's family came to Borough Park from Ukraine after the Holocaust decimated the Hasidim of Europe. Hasids are Jews who believe in the message of extreme piety preached by an 18th-century rabbi and mystic named Israel ben Eliezer. Most follow strict guidelines laid out by their rebbes: marry very young, wear modest clothing, and generally try to emulate shtetl life. The men dedicate their lives to studying the Torah and receive little secular education. The women are generally expected to be subservient to their husbands while managing the secular affairs of their families.

Life in such communities is governed by faith in ways both large and small. In stores, Hasidic cashiers leave change on the counter when dealing with female customers so they don't have to make physical contact with a woman who is not their wife. At the Belz School for Girls, where Mayer went to high school, the principal implored girls to wear thick socks, and "even a belt was considered immodest," according to a classmate of Mayer's.

New York City's Hasidic community—which votes in blocks and is therefore politically powerful—is often left to its own devices. Disputes among Hasids are often settled in their own private courts; there's even an organized quasi-police force that patrols the community. Mayor Bill de Blasio—who unveiled a citywide mental health initiative last November—seems unwilling to challenge this community's autonomy. Last year, his administration rescinded a city rule requiring parents to sign consent forms about the health risks of a ritual common among some sects of the ultra-Orthodox where the mohel uses his mouth to suck away blood from an infant's penis during circumcision. "Whatever we needed, he was always there for us," Yitzchok Fleischer, a prominent rabbi in the Bobover sect, told Tablet magazine in 2013.

The community's isolation, its conservatism, and the lack of secular education its members receive makes it possible for them to stay ignorant about some tenets of modern medicine, according to Yosef Blau, an orthodox Rabbi at Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

This is especially true when it comes to mental health.

According to a spokesperson from New York State Education Department's Office of the Professions, practicing psychotherapy without a license is illegal, but there are exceptions that allow churches, schools, and nonprofits to provide advice or instruction. That loophole has helped spawn Borough Park's cottage industry of "life coaches." Under the law, people can advertise themselves using that term and offer services that "are not intended to treat a behavioral or mental health condition that would require the use of professional judgment and treatment techniques," the spokesperson says. But a significant number of people in the Hasidic community suffering from very real mental health problems are regularly referred to these life coaches for treatment.

"It's a community in general that doesn't begin to understand anything about therapy and anybody in their world can be a therapist," Blau says. "They don't know much about psychology, and they're very hesitant to opening up to people on the outside. They don't have a clue, and they don't want to have a clue. Therefore sending someone to a fake therapist is par for the course."

One of these Hasidic practitioners is Goldie Stern, an aunt of Faigy Mayer's who, according to Finette Russack, another of Mayer's aunts, claimed she was the reincarnation of a great healer. It's not clear how much formal education Stern has, but she's not licensed with the state of New York's Office of the Professions as a mental health professional. Instead, she has credentials from something called the Refuah Institute, which claims to be about "coaching in the light of the Torah." A cached version of the Refuah Institute website from 2014 indicates that she is also credentialed by something called the American Association of Professional Coaches––an organization with a shell website and a broken contact form. Nevertheless, she had a stable of clients referred to her by Eitzah, the hotline run out of Borough Park, including both Faigy and her sister Suri.

It's unclear when either girl started seeing their aunt as a life coach, although Russack, the secular aunt, says it was when they were teenagers. Neither Stern nor Mayer's immediate family would speak to me for this story, and it remains unclear precisely what happened to Mayer while she was under her aunt's care—but it was apparently enough to make numerous religious officials in the Borough Park community take notice. In June 2014, 11 rabbis posted a flyer around the neighborhood. "Mrs. Goldie Stern has an unprecedented method of counseling her clients," it warned in English, detailing how she "counsels children and she poisons them with chutzpah [rebelliousness] and hatred against their parents." They issued a proclamation that no one was allowed to go see her any longer.

But even though the rabbis banded to together to stop Stern, they did not condemn unlicensed therapists outright. "People who are not sophisticated in this area see any piece of paper and think a person is qualified," says Blau, who adds that ignorance and the desire to keep young women quiet are equally to blame.

"But," he says, "that doesn't change the fact that it's form of fraud."

Some parents sit shiva—or mourn as they would a death—their children who leave the community.


Life for those who go OTD (off the derech) can be complicated. Most people who grow up ultra-Orthodox don't have much secular education and rely on the community's resources to support themselves. Making friends is difficult when you've missed out on a lifetime worth of pop culture references, and dating is even harder when you've grown up segregated from the opposite gender and without any sex education. But worst of all is the risk that your old friends and family will turn their backs on you. Some parents sit shiva—or mourn as they would a death—their children who leave the community.

Faigy Mayer continued to have one foot in and one foot out of Borough Park after she officially became non-religious. In fact, when she moved out of her parents' house, she just moved down the block in Borough Park. That's around the time she became a loyal MeetUp.com user—at one point belonging to some 200 groups, ranging from ones targeted at people looking to overcome social anxiety to those specifically for New York Latinos in tech. And at many of those groups, she gravitated toward other former Hasid. One of them was a man named Aaron Katz, who remembers Mayer keeping a dress in her bag so she could change on the train and still be allowed into her parents' house.

In 2010, Mayer joined a support group called Footsteps, a social service agency and nonprofit intended to help teach OTD people about secular life by taking them to movies and ballgames and giving them a space to network. She became a well-known and well-liked person there––someone who had a bit of experience with the outside world, who could lend help with constructing a resume or securing an apartment.

People who knew her then remember her as a determined woman with a bit of a smartass streak who dreamed of making a life in the secular world. From the outside it seemed as if she was successful at transitioning into OTD life: She got into Touro College in Manhattan despite not having any transcripts, and at the time of her death was teaching herself to code with hopes of becoming an entrepreneur and an app developer.

She was also learning the art of public speaking through her local Toastmasters chapter, where she'd give speeches like one called "Breaking Hasid," which was named after the reality show called Breaking Amish, in which four Amish people and a Mennonite move to New York City, then decide whether or not they want to return to religious life.

Henny Kupferstein, a friend of Mayer's, says the comparison between Hasidim and the Amish is an apt one. An ex-Hasid from Borough Park herself, she says that she was excommunicated after she tried to get outside help for her autistic children and secure them "access to someone who has different thoughts." She says ending up across the country in San Francisco–– as opposed to attending Footsteps meetings and living in Borough Park—is the best thing that could have happened to her.

"Have you ever met an Amish person who has left but still lives in the Amish town?" Kupferstein asks me. "It's a no-brainer. You can't connect someone who wants to escape with someone who hasn't had the balls to up and leave themselves."

Faigy's search for some sort of guidance led her all over New York City, including to an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting

One friend of Mayer's, who did not want me to use his name but met her through MeetUp in July 2012, remembers being taken aback by her honesty about how much she was struggling with her mental health. "She just met me and she was unloading all this stuff," he says. "It was a lot to take in. But she would go to these meet-ups and make long-lasting friendships. I think she had spent so much time not having friends that she came to really appreciate people."

Despite being from very different backgrounds––he is a secular Hindu who is getting a PhD in math from New York University––the two became close. To his dismay, he watched Mayer's mental health unravel over the course of their three-year friendship, he says. Her text messages became alarming. In July 2013, she wrote about a dream she had in which her neighbor's rabbi raped her. Mayer also had nightmares about her own mother molesting her. A recorded call she placed to a local police precinct in April 2014 attests to her increasing paranoia: Mayer became hysterical with a dispatcher over fears that her roommate would break into her room.

She was also seeking out community wherever she could find it. Another friend of Mayer's remembers taking her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 2013, which he thought would feel comfortable and familiar after her time in a mental institution focused around group therapy. But when she told the group about her desire to finally separate from her religious upbringing, an AA member told her, "Are you an alcoholic? Because if you're not, there's nothing here for you."

According to her Hindu friend, Mayer was also still in touch with life coach Goldie Stern, although she never revealed many details about that relationship.

Mayer maintained contact with her family as late as July 2015. Pinny Gold, a friend of hers from Footsteps, says he was relaying messages between Mayer and her parents over the phone. He remembers that Mayer had an Apple Watch shipped to her parents' house because she didn't trust her roommate at the time not to steal it. To retrieve the watch, she put a skirt on top of her jeans and covered up with a sweater. But despite her modest dress, her mom wouldn't let her in.

"This is ridiculous," Mayer told Gold. "She wouldn't let me in and I tried to accommodate her."

A week after that incident, she went to a bar she'd been to for MeetUp groups before called 230 Fifth. Mayer showed her ID at the door, went down a long corridor, and took an elevator up to the 20th floor. Then, she asked a bartender the location of the east deck. As people sipped $14 cocktails, she slipped unnoticed into the smoking section and vaulted over a six-foot-tall green fence and a shorter brick wall. With her back to the setting sun, she jumped into the air above Fifth Avenue.

Today, her friends disagree on exactly what went wrong. "People are blaming her family," Gold says. "I just want to point out it's way more complicated than that."

"I was terrified of them. Everything I thought was, 'What if Eitzah finds out?'"
—Leah


I was never able to reach Mayer's immediate family for this story, despite multiple attempts in person, on the phone, and through email. I still don't know when Mayer stopped talking to Goldie Stern, among other details of her last days. Unsurprisingly, given the sensitive nature of the story and the Hasidic world's tendency to avoid engagement with outsiders, most of the community refused to speak with me.

One former Hasid who did agree to meet me was a woman named Leah, whose transition into the secular world began when she was in tenth grade and met another outcast at summer camp. Leah's parents were divorced, while her friend Sara's were American Hasids who adopted her from Israel. "In the community, we were both defective in some way," she remembers.

The two wanted to keep in touch after camp, but Leah and Sara lived in two different Hasidic enclaves in Brooklyn. Their solution was to pass notes through a middleman who frequently traveled between the communities. These notes were not defiant in any meaningful way, but would almost certainly have raised some flags with Hasidic elders. Leah, who was 16, wrote about the only time she had seen a movie, at an rebellious uncle's house. Although it took her years to realize The Parent Trap wasn't a documentary and that Lindsay Lohan wasn't actually two people, the experience stuck with her. She wrote to her friend about how she would one day have a TV in her house, too.

But the girl they trusted to relay the notes was actually letting her mother read them first. Concerned that they were going rogue, she contacted a rabbi and, according to Leah, the rabbi called Eitzah. The hotline then contacted Leah's principal and tried to have her expelled, she says. She ended up filing a petition to get back into school, but was forced to go see an unlicensed religious therapist twice a week as a condition. "I was still very, very religious, but I knew she was full of shit," she tells me.

Eitzah became involved with Leah's grandparents, her principal, and even the man who was helping her father sort out his divorce in the Hasidic court system. (That man, she said, sat her down one day and told her, "I know that Eitzah is involved in your life, and that's no good, because they're only involved with rebels.")

Leah says Eitzah "made sure the whole world fucking knew" about her letters to Sara, and that the biggest threat was that they might prevent her from ever getting married. She never once met with anyone from the agency, but it was a haunting specter in her life until she eventually moved to Israel. "It was definitely bullying," she says. "I was terrified of them. Everything I thought was, 'What if Eitzah finds out?'"

After several stints in the hospital, Leah attempted suicide. But she survived, and made the move to Israel to escape the series of quacks she believes nearly ended her life. Today, Leah is a student at a private college in New England, where, she says, "There's no such thing as an unlicensed therapist."

When I met her she was back in Brooklyn for spring break, staying at a house on the edge of Borough Park that's known as a place where ex-Hasids congregate, sort of a club house for the OTD. The plan was for me to provide emotional support to her while she visited Eitzah's offices and asked for her records, but as the day wore on she began to have doubts. Maybe she shouldn't show up in person, she said—perhaps she should pretend to be a therapist over the phone.

She sent me her schedule and I hoped to speak with her again, but she soon stopped returning my calls. Around the same time, Rachel stopped speaking to me as well. Other members of Mayer's family told me that Stern was still seeing patients, but then wouldn't give me any details or any way to verify that claim.

"You're dealing with an unbearably dysfunctional family with its own dynamic," the Rabbi Blau told me just before he too stopped returning my messages. "So it may be more about that than the community writ large. But how the heck is this woman still getting people to go see her? That is a real criticism of a community. If she's still out there after all of this, that is really scary."

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