Faigy Mayer took her own life on July 20, jumping off the roof at a popular Manhattan bar. Despite its geographical proximity to her birthplace, she was light years from her roots.
Faigy was born into a Hasidic family in Brooklyn and didn’t mince words about her former life in what amounted to a suicide note posthumously published soon after her death. In it, Faigy discussed many aspects of Orthodox Judaism that drove her away from religious life:
When I was 18 or so, I remember wondering about: What if I would have been a boy? A day at Belz school from pre-1-a to the end of high school was divided in half. The two parts of the day were “Yiddish” (the first half), and “English,” the second half. I purposely flunked out of Yiddish as I knew there would be no consequences, as there were separate diplomas for English and Yiddish. In August 2004, at the age of 18, I was accepted to Touro College with only my diploma and no transcripts, as Hasidic schools refuse to provide transcripts. But Hasidic boys aren’t as lucky as Hasidic girls. They do not know simple math, such as division or fractions. That is because their day isn’t divided in two. They have only “Yiddish” all day. I remember wondering what I would do if I would have a son and he would be subjected to the torture of learning Yiddish all day.
On the heels of Faigy’s suicide, but seemingly unrelated to it, New York officials announced that the city will probe 39 Brooklyn yeshivas (religious schools).
“City officials have confirmed they will investigate a complaint alleging that dozens of Brooklyn yeshivas are violating state law by giving their students a subpar education in English, math and other secular subjects,” the Jewish Week reported.
Among friends and in the Jewish parenting Facebook groups I frequent as a young Orthodox mother, I increasingly see and hear complaints about the quality of education children are receiving. Not only is yeshiva tuition breaking the budgets of families who dare to be fruitful and multiply, but often families are left wondering what they’re getting for all that money.
This shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently it does: Parents should be able to make educational choices that suit their family’s needs without going bankrupt.
And yet, despite the availability of yeshivas in most Jewish enclaves, most Orthodox parents are deprived of that choice. Schools flat-out reject special-needs students, and many teachers are unlicensed and unfamiliar with the field of education before taking on the sacred task of leading a classroom full of impressionable minds.
Societal pressure practically forbids observant Jewish parents from taking alternative paths like public schools, charter schools and homeschooling. Yeshivas are prohibitively expensive, while at the same time parents are expected to pay to send more children to school than the average American parent sends to public. Two children is the norm for secular America, but out of favor in even Modern Orthodox circles.
The education students receive often leaves them ill-suited for life in the secular world, as Faigy illustrated. While many blame the stringencies of Orthodoxy and her subsequent estrangement from her family, the education Faigy received was no help to the depression she battled. At the time of her death Faigy was reportedly unemployed and about to be evicted from her apartment. This feeling of financial insecurity no doubt weighed on preexisting mental illness — illness which the Orthodox world is still too often unprepared to deal with.
The day-school system as it currently stands is a house of cards. If social pressure prevents the Jewish community from policing its own and upholding the standards we should expect of our schools, we can only hope the jurisdictions in which they reside will ensure students receive a secular education as rigorous as their religious training.
The City of New York is doing its Jewish community a favor by more vociferously enforcing educational stringency.
A large part of what drove Faigy, and many others, away from Orthodoxy and the community in general is the subpar education children receive in yeshivot. The People of the Book have a tendency to rebel against the withholding of essential knowledge from them.
Faigy’s death forced some needed introspection in the Orthodox world, and her critiques of its educational system, as well as the city’s investigation, are a much-needed wake-up call for all of Orthodoxy.
We spend a lot of time, money and energy on the important work of kiruv (outreach). But in order to make our lifestyle more appealing to those on the outside and those already religious, we need to ensure we keep our promise to educate our children to the best of our ability. That we have the freedom to provide this education, but all too often neglect to do so, remains a stain on the record of those charged with preserving Jewish continuity in the 21st century.