Another beautiful soul died this past weekend, prematurely and unnecessarily. Thirty-year-old Faigy Mayer was found dead early Monday morning after having plummeted from a 20-story building in Manhattan. Officials described her death as a possible suicide.
While Faigy may have taken her life, the will to live was taken away from her by a community that is sadly complacent and perhaps a tad distracted. All of us in the Orthodox world are somewhat complicit in her death.
Faigy was raised in the ultra-Orthodox Belz community. As a young adult she chose to embark on a journey of self-discovery, abandoning her native community in search of an alternative.
Replacing your native community is a long and arduous process, happening gradually and over the course of many years. It takes a long time to admit to yourself that you’re a misfit, different from everybody else in your social circle. Once you’ve come to terms with being different, you need to muster the courage to leave. That does not happen overnight either. Making such a momentous move requires years of reflection and introspection. After you leave, you spend years searching for an alternative community, one that corresponds with your new identity.
Many of those years are spent living in a metaphorical closet, to borrow but not trivialize a term most commonly used by the gay community. You walk around in this world scared and alone, physically and existentially. You wonder if your values and beliefs are still in consonance with those of your native community, but you have to keep those doubts to yourself. Sharing your hesitations about the community’s tenets or practices might be dangerous and detrimental. Instead you walk around anxiously, terrified that your secret will be discovered. While many who leave manage to find alternative communal homes, the interim years are excruciatingly difficult, with days spent mired in self-doubt and paralyzed by self-loathing.
I know what this life is like because I lived in that metaphorical closet. I grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community of Satmar but now identify as Modern Orthodox. Those years of transitioning from one end of the Orthodox spectrum to the other were extremely difficult, excruciating and debilitating.
Spending years obscuring your true identity is existential hell. Many of us who have been there have contemplated suicide. Although bruised and scarred for life, most of us triumph over those suicidal demons. Faigy, unfortunately, did not. The thought of living a life where she is invisible and unseen (at least to some segments of her former life) became unbearable. She apparently decided to put an end to it. She is now gone and we are somewhat at fault. We failed her and also let down her community.
Faigy was a member of the XO (ex-Orthodox) community. Her story is not anomalous. Many in that community are struggling with similar issues, feeling ignored and communally neglected. We owe it to them to do better.
Our efforts towards addressing this problem have so far been haphazard and piecemeal. We are, for the moment, too distracted to notice the tragic proportions of the problem, a phenomenon that impacts all segments of Orthodoxy. Attrition is not unique to the ultra-Orthodox community. The Haredi community is busy rallying around rabbis and yeshiva heads who are fighting turf wars, while the Modern Orthodox community is focused on demarcating communal boundaries. We need to shift our energies from the hypothetical to the practical and start providing support to the young souls who are struggling and flailing.
Our efforts should be two-pronged. We need to develop a robust support system for those beautiful souls who are imprisoned by existential loneliness. They should know that our acceptance of them is absolute and unconditional and that we appreciate and even sanctify their journey in search of a true and authentic self.
We also have to support their families and loved ones who are rightfully pained by the rejection implicit in this pursuit of self-discovery. We can legitimate their pain but at the same time help them appreciate the difference between product and process. They can be made to understand that while they might not approve of the final outcome of their relative’s journey, they can still support the process and be there to provide the unconditional love that the relative craves and deserves.
In a few weeks we will read the Torah portion of Eglah Arufah. In it, the Bible prescribes a communal cleansing ritual for when someone in the community dies under questionable circumstances. A tragic death is never an accident or a matter of happenstance — it’s a call for reflection and introspection. We are due for a communal cleansing. May Faigy’s death be a clarion call to all of us to look out for those in our midst who are suffering in silence, being penalized for no other crime than the desire to live an honest and authentic life. This way her death will not be in vain.
May Faigy’s memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, along with Rabbi Levi Brackman, is co-founder of “Frum And Stuck,” an organization that provides guidance and support for people exploring issues of self-identity and communal affiliation.