The suicide of a former ultra-Orthodox mother of seven stuns Israel

July 31, 2016

“In this city I gave birth to my daughters – in this city I die because of my daughters….I understand that I am sick and needy, and I don’t want to continue to be a burden on you….Don’t make much effort for the ceremony, something modest with a lot of flowers, and remember that this is what I chose as best for me, and also if you say that I am selfish, I accept and understand your lack of understanding.”

So wrote Esti Weinstein, 50, in a suicide note found alongside her body in her car that was discovered four days after her death at a beach in the city of Ashdod, Israel.

I learned of Esti’s story not from the media, though her suicide was headline news in Israel at the end of June, but from one of my synagogue’s regular cantorial soloists a day after her body had been discovered.

Meni Philip was Esti’s friend. Like Esti, Meni had left the ultra-Orthodox Haredi world in Israel in which he was raised. Both Esti and Meni were disowned by their parents and community and were cut as if by a surgeon’s knife by their Haredi community away from everything and everyone they knew and loved.

Meni (47) is the second child of eleven siblings and the father of five children. His marriage had been arranged, but he never loved his wife. At 32 Meni asked his rabbi for a get (a religious divorce). He continued to live in the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community doing all that was expected of him religiously, though he had come to no longer believe in the God that had been taught to him by his rabbis. Four years after his divorce, though continuing regularly to see his parents and children, he could no longer keep up religious appearances, took off his kippah and began wearing western clothing. He didn’t anticipate, however, that he would become persona non grata. His family, rabbis and friends suddenly would have nothing to do with him. He was denied visiting his children. Yet, he persevered, built a new life, learned survivor skills, acquired work, and became a filmmaker.

Four of Meni’s siblings followed him out of the Haredi community. Today, he has reconciled with his parents and children.

Such was not the positive outcome for Esti Weinstein, the mother of seven daughters all of whom save one, Tami,  completely cut ties with her.

Esti comes from a prominent Gur Hasidic family, a stringent Haredi sect considered extreme even by others in ultra-Orthodox world. Husbands never address their wives by name. Sexual contact between them is considered a sacrilege and is engaged only for the purpose of procreation. Sex occurs rarely, quickly, while fully clothed, and devoid of emotion, intimacy, and joy. (http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/gur-hasidim-and-sexual-separation-1.410811)

After leaving her community, Esti suffered. She wrote an autobiography (that Meni sent to me) in which she told her inside story in a 183-page book she called “Doing His Will.” Esti dedicated the volume to her daughter Tami who followed her out of the Gur sect and who remained close to her. She wrote as well of her marriage, the loss of her other six daughters and about a previous suicide attempt.

In a story reported by The Times of Israel one can view photos of Esti (see below). She was a natural beauty, but beneath the lovely smiling images was a profound sadness. She ended her book with these words:

“…my life of motherhood, the painful, that is smashed to pieces, sick and wounded….I thought it was a temporary matter, but the years are passing and time isn’t healing, and the pain doesn’t stop.” http://www.timesofisrael.com/before-suicide-woman-penned-book-about-her-ordeals-in-ultra-orthodox-world/ – see also http://forward.com/news/343780/ex-hasidic-womans-suicide-book-rattles-ultra-orthodox-world/

Meni told me that there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of former mostly young Haredim in their 20s living in Israel who have left their communities over the years. It is unclear what is causing the increasing number of suicides in this unique population, though it is clear that many had been disowned by their families. Some may have suffered depression before they left, and many experienced as children sexual abuse and later as adults spousal abuse.

Meni made a film called “Sinner” which won the “Best European Short Film” in the Venice Film Festival, Italy 2009. (the 27-minute film can be viewed here in its entirety – http://www.meniphilip.com/english/Sinner.html)

There is one underfunded organization in Israel called Hillel (not the same as the college organization) that offers help and support for ex-Haredim. Meni received such support as did Esti who had volunteered there and where Esti and Meni met and became friends. Additionally, there are two more small but important organizations that were established by Meni's good friends after the deaths of two young “Yozim” (those who leave) a few years ago. One is called “Uvacharta-And Choose” (see https://www.facebook.com/uvacharta/?fref=ts) and the other called “Out for Change – Yozim l'shinuy” (https://www.facebook.com/yozimleshinuy/. The first focuses on social support, and the second focuses on educational assistance. Neither receives financial support from the government.

The Reform movement’s Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC) assists individuals who leave Haredi communities through its social justice program Keren B’chavod. Israeli Reform Rabbis tell me that the Reform movement's 45 synagogue communities around the country are open to any ex-Haredi Jew who seeks support and comfort.

May Esti's memory be a blessing.

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