The smile — her smile — was remembered by scores of mourners.
It was reflected in the crackling flames shooting out of a backyard pit, and in the grief-stricken smiles of loved ones. In a circle around the makeshift campfire, on lawn chairs set on the damp autumn ground, sat a group of people intent on doing justice to the life of a young woman gone far too soon.
The memorial for Deb Tambor, a 33-year-old ex-Hasidic mother of three who died a little over a week ago, was held last Thursday evening. This was an invite-only event, hosted by OTD Meetup, a New York social group for those who have left Orthodox communities. Held in a modest backyard of a private home in Suffern, N.Y., the organizers at first considered capping the attendance at 30. Instead, at its peak, the group of mourners swelled to 85.
I arrived an hour late, in typical Hasidic fashion. I tried to quietly make my way to the circle, avoiding the gravel in the driveway. A dark, solemn silence greeted me. Backs hunched over, tears streamed down faces, and that fire spat flames into the night sky. There was a melancholy magnificence in the air.
“I never met a person who had so much love to give. It was never about her, but always about someone else,” said one of Tambor’s closest friends, amid sobs. “She went through so much pain in her life, but she always thought about others. She worried about others. It genuinely bothered her when someone was suffering.”
This sentiment was echoed throughout the night. Deb Tambor was remembered as a beautiful soul – a selfless woman who cared about fellow humanity more than she cared about herself – helping them with every fiber of her being, as if giving was the ultimate joy.
“She got light from helping others,” her grieving boyfriend, Abe Weiss, said to me the day before. He thought that her concern for other’s well-being is what prevented her from sharing her own pain. This, he said, is what ultimately killed her.
“She did not have a bad bone in her body,” Weiss said.
Tambor was found in her apartment in New Jersey by Weiss, surrounded by empty bottles of prescription pills. Police said there was no sign of foul play and a medical investigation was ongoing. Those are law enforcement code words for an apparent suicide.
After her death, Tambor was buried apart from the community. Leaders of the Skver Hasidim cited their shame at her leaving the community in which she was raised. There was no such shame evident at the memorial — only pride at knowing (or wishing one had known) her.
Like so many others in the circle, I did not know Deb while she was alive. But standing there in solidarity with her loved ones, overwhelmed by the moving tributes, I felt a deep sense of loss. Loss for a woman who loved unconditionally and who was a beacon of hope to many individuals, like herself, who had to make the excruciatingly difficult journey out of ultra-Orthodoxy, losing custody of her three children in the process.
“Even at her worst moments, this was a woman who wanted to love and be with her children. Even in those times when she was down about being apart from her children, she would sit there and ask me about mine, genuinely caring and wanting to know how they are,” remembered Chanie Friedman, who hosted the event. “I wish she knew how many people cared about her and loved her.”
Her death sparked outrage within the tight-knit ex-Orthodox community to which Tambor belonged. Rumors and controversy surrounding the abuse she claimed to have suffered as a child and the loss of custody of her three precious children created a firestorm on social media.
But on this night, in this circle of loved ones, friends and strangers came together to share in the grief of senseless loss. Grievances were put aside, and sectarian differences were non-existent.
“Tonight’s event is intended to remember and honor Deb’s memory and to support her boyfriend Abe, as well as each other,” Gene Steinberg, organizer of the memorial, said in his opening statement.
We came together as one people, a fitting tribute to Tambor who, I was told by some of her close friends, deplored animosity and strife.
Especially noteworthy was the attendance of a man in a traditional Hasidic crisp white shirt, dark pants, and big velvet yarmulke. I sat behind him during the emotional eulogy of one of Tambor’s closest friends and listened to his audible sobs. I was not aware of his identity until he introduced himself as Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and outspoken advocate for child safetyin the Orthodox community.
“Children should never be denied access to their parents, unless they are abusive” he said, while choking back tears. “I am 54 years old and I have seen enough tragedy for 10 lifetimes. I beg you, please go for help if you are suffering and if you feel your pain is too much to bear. Life is precious. Life is the ultimate treasure. See what you can do to access help and be there for each other.”
He closed by saying: “I give you my word to try to undo some of the injustices.”
This message soothed a raw nerve amongst the gatherers. For an Orthodox rabbi to stand in solidarity with those who left the fold and to extend a hand to help parents at risk of losing their children due to changes in religious observance was poignant, a moment that will not quickly be forgotten.
“There’s nothing we can do now,” Chaim Levin, a young advocate for victims of sexual abuse, said. “Deb is gone. But what we do have is her legacy, her life, her story. We need to take that and make sure it never ever happens again. We have to survive. There’s no other way.”
Others spoke eloquently about Tambor, too. But one tribute that brought her to life was that of Michael Jenkins, Program Director at Footsteps, an organization offering support to individuals seeking to explore the world beyond their ultra-Orthodox communities. He simply spoke of her smile and how it would light up a room.
“That smile. Many of you shared that with her and gave her that smile and that period of happiness. That smile. That smile,” he repeated. “We may not have her body, but we have her smile.”