My thoughts on Faigy Mayer’s death and the changes I wish I could hope for as a result.
I have been asked, in various ways, by various outlets, to share my thoughts about Faigy Mayer’s sudden, tragic death. The truth is, I don’t feel comfortable expressing them through the filtering lens of journalism. I think the best place for my personal feelings and opinions are here on my own blog.
My first, reflexive response to news of her death was not what you’d expect, I guess. I was impressed by the manner in which she ended her life; I thought there was something defiant and brave in it. This way of viewing it will not earn me much praise, but the reaction may be connected to the story of a very good friend of mine who lost his mother at the age of 11 in exactly the same way; he once confided in me that the method she chose was one he found especially hurtful in that it was so clearly intended to succeed, and therefore could never be interpreted as ambivalent, or as a cry for help, knowledge that might have given him some small comfort later in life. So immediately I thought to myself, Faigy didn’t just want out, that simple release that I suppose all ex-hasids have contemplated at some point. She wanted to send a message of defiance, perhaps she even wanted to hurt those who hurt her. Even in death she did not submit. This is no easy thing. Contrary to the many rumors of my own violent suicide that have already circulated through social media several times, I’m pretty sure that if I ever chose to fulfill my family’s sweetest dreams, I’d go gentle into that good night (you get the euphemism.)
Recently I read this article by Shulem Deen, in which he claims friendship with Faigy. He describes her troubles, explains that he knew she was about to be evicted, and proceeds to praise the efforts of “Footsteps,” an organization designed to help people like Faigy that he is a board member of. He boasts of a million-dollar budget allocated for scholarships, legal aid, and other basic needs of OTDs. Commentators have already pointed out the obvious discrepancy quite eloquently, so I’ll just sum it up here: Deen was a friend of Mayer’s, knew of her pending eviction, and sat at the helm of an organization whose official policy is stated as helping people just like her, in precisely those situations. And yet, housing could not be secured? In which universe does this add up? Personally if I knew that any of my friends were facing eviction I’d be offering up my spare room.
Sadly, my own story is not that different. When I approached Footsteps in 2008, I asked for concrete assistance. I needed a lawyer, and I needed help with navigating childcare, school, and a job. I made an appointment, met with the required counselor, even participated in a few workshops. I soon learned, to my bitter disappointment, that I could expect nothing more from Footsteps than these so-called “workshops,” in which five or six of us gathered in the presence of a counselor to pour out our woes and hear our pain confirmed by a white man who had an impressive CV but no real understanding of how to help us. “That must have been hard,” he offered, nodding sympathetically. “I can see how you might feel that getting out is not a possibility.”
Since concrete help, or even solid advice, was out of the question (something I never quite understood as Footsteps fundraises heavily and can afford a prestigious Soho address, quite a few catered parties, and the salaries of its numerous employees and board members) and since the community of ex-Hasids can be politely described as “less than supportive,” I planned to run as far from Footsteps as I could. I felt as if we were all drowning in an ocean and using each other to push our way to the oxygen at the surface. Somehow, many of us are afflicted by the subconscious fear that only 1% of us can make it to the top, and to be that 1%, we think we have destroy the chances of others first. This way, the statistics will add up, I suppose.
I published my first book to all sorts of unexpected attention, good and bad. I was not surprised to see an über-friendly email from the Footsteps director in my inbox shortly after. Over lunch I calmly explained to her that unless significant changes were made in how Footsteps was run, I was not going to support an organization I could not believe in. I made it clear that I expected two things: concrete help offered to those who ask for it, or at least significant evidence of attempts to offer such help, and a general overhaul in social policy to avoid the alienation of weaker and more vulnerable members by bullies who had risen in the ranks. She could not offer me even the minimum of assurances on either part, so I said my final goodbyes. Here we are, just over three years later, paying the price.
I’d like to tell the people who are donating their monies to this organization, some of whom I’ve met in person, that they’d be better served sponsoring an individual directly. What better motivation to fight for a better life than to be in direct contact with the person who has invested in your progress? How much more rewarding can it feel when you actually see your donation creating instant and valuable results? Why bother going through an organization that will take your money, throw fancy parties, and pay their own wages with it?
People like Faigy who are still hanging on can be helped by those who would be willing to form personal connections with them, offer them advice and support, and finance their efforts at education, good health, and independence directly. You do not need to have a dinner thrown in your honor and have people praise you at a podium.
I see ex-hasids posting apologies on Facebook about how they treated Faigy; one such post expressed remorse for unchecked nastiness hurled at Faigy only a week before her death, but, in defense, explained that there was no way of knowing that she would be so hurt by his words. OTDs are consumed with jealousy and fear and express it in their actions and words and are then surprised at the results? It does not fix anything if you write articles after the fact in which you call the Jewish world to action, advertise your book, or fundraise for your organization. It is just plain ugly, and that is what sickens me most. Faigy did not die so that those people could profit from it. She deserved better, and the people in her position that are still alive should be our focus now.
I value my life very much. The best decision I ever made was to completely disconnect myself from the Hasidic world, as well as the ex-Hasidic one. If ever I entertained a suicidal thought, it was because I thought I would never escape the unrelenting hatred and abuse of both of those environments.
If there exists the possibility that these circumstances I have described can be mitigated in some way, Faigy’s death will still be a great and unforgettable tragedy, but it will not have been in vain.