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.
"It's like we've lived parallel lives. We knew each other's traumas without having to know the details of it."
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.
"I was terrified of them. Everything I thought was, 'What if Eitzah finds out?'"
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."Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.