Help Solve The 31 Year Old Murder Mystery of Chaim Weiss

This isn’t my normal type of post, and since I rarely update this blog anymore it’s a shot in the dark that someone with information will see it, but just in case, I feel compelled to reach out to anyone who might ease the pain of the family of Chaim Weiss, a Long Island Yeshiva student who was murdered in the school’s dormitory in the early morning hours of November 1, 1986 by helping to find his killer. Anyone having any information about the case should contact a special hotline set up by the Nassau County Police at 1-800-244-TIPS.

This article describes the case and includes a video (linked below) 

This is a video from Unsolved Mysteries that goes into greater detail about the case –

Here is an October 4, 2017 podcast about Chaim’s case on Robin Warder’s “The Trail Went Cold.

After listening and reading about Chaim’s case, I can’t help but hear so many details taken as fact that don’t make sense to me.  Without the benefit of more information other than what’s been published in the media, this is my armchair detective take on things as they stand – which could be completely wrong – but I wonder if anyone else reading this from the perspective of the orthodox Jewish world noticed these things too.  I am also going to add in a detail that goes against what has been reported in the press thus far.

There are a lot of strange bits of information in the case.

For example, the memorial candles lit in Chaim’s dorm room for the shiva period. First of all, only immediate family members sit shiva for a departed loved one (these would be Chaim’s parents and siblings), and they are the ones to light the memorial candle (they have large 7 day candles for this purpose, so you don’t usually keep lighting individual candles). Second of all, you wouldn’t light such a candle at the place of the departed’s death (like Chaim’s room), but rather, most likely in the family home where you are sitting shiva (in a place safe for lighting candles and perhaps on a nice tray and a place of visual prominence).

The second off detail is how much of a prominent role the idea that Jews are targeted for violence on Halloween plays in the push to consider that the killer was a random non Jewish stranger. This is a common paranoia in more insular orthodox Jewish communities, because historically, there were times when Jews were harmed on Halloween. However, in 20th and 21st century America, almost no one else outside of the orthodox Jewish community would associate Halloween as a “kill the Jews” day.

Generally speaking, I don’t believe that in America, there is a great uptick in violent crime against Jews during this largely “dress up in costumes, watch scary movies, and eat lots of candy” cultural version of Halloween as it is celebrated today. I can’t say if a Yeshiva, with its group of boys, might attract other groups of non Jewish boys for general mischief like egg tossing, but certainly, I can’t recall any murders or mayhem happening specifically to Jews on Halloween in recent times in America. My son went to an out of town dorm Yeshiva and so did my husband and they didn’t experience crime or harassment specifically on Halloween. Maybe they got lucky.

My point is, only someone with a firm belief that it’s widely accepted that Jews are targeted for violence on Halloween would feel that police would also think it a reasonable motive for a non Jew to murder a random Jew on that day. To anyone outside the enclave, that theory seems pretty far fetched and without recent precedent. Which is why I personally think this was an inside job perpetrated by someone in the community.

The third inconsistency I see is the widely reported detail that Chaim was one of only two students with his own room. This is the part of the story where I have heard the opposite of what has been reported. I mentioned my husband went to a dorm Yeshiva. In 1986, my husband was in a Yeshiva in Baltimore. Shortly after Chaim Weiss’ murder, one of Chaim’s classmates joined my husband’s Yeshiva. Not just any classmate, but Chaim’s roommate.

He told the boys that he had been spending that Shabbos at home when Chaim was murdered. His parents were so freaked out by the situation that they never sent him back to the Long Island Yeshiva and transferred him to Baltimore.

Now keep in mind that at that time in 1986, Chaim’s murder had a huge impact on the orthodox community all over America – especially in the Yeshiva world. It was all anyone talked about. So, it is possible, that a newly transferred high school student, anxious for friends, attention and clout, might exaggerate his level of involvement with the victim. Certainly, roommate or not, I can see why his parents would have panicked and removed him from the school. However, if he really was the victim’s roommate, how might that change things? Why would the school have told police that he had his own room?

Certainly, if this was a premeditated murder, waiting until Halloween might seem like a good night to claim that an antisemitic stranger bent on murder randomly struck down Chaim. But maybe the Halloween part was incidental and the murderer picked a night when the roommate would be gone and surely wouldn’t return until after Sabbath? Of course, there is always the possibility that this roommate had something to do with Chaim’s demise and the school covered it up and allowed his parents to shuffle him to another Yeshiva (this theory seems unlikely, as my husband didn’t say this kid was a troublemaker or behaved strangely in any way).

The other odd mention was that there was no dorm counselor present during the night – dorm counselors are usually younger unmarried guys (early 20s) and there have been unofficial (read unreported) cases of abuse between dorm counselors and students in the past. Where was the dorm counselor that night? He wasn’t around during the night to detect an intruder or hear the sounds of murder and the subsequent movement of the body and cleanup, but he was around the next morning to find his body and tell everyone to get out of the building?

Which bring me to what I see as the smoking gun that the murderer was a staff member – Chaim’s hysterical crying phone call from camp during the summer before school started, asking his father to bring him home. As with the murky accusations about abuses in dormitories, there have likewise been reports (both official and unofficial) of kids being abused in Jewish camps by staff. Most cases are never reported much less convicted. We can thank the internet for bringing attention to such accusations, but of course, you can only believe what you hear about on the internet so much. However, in terms of opportunity, it is so much easier to abuse a child in a mountain camp in the outdoors – no parents, much less supervision than in a school setting, and many more places to go to commit the crime unseen.

Apparently there are online sleuths who feel that Chaim was likely abused at the school or camp (it was mentioned that this was a camp run by his school with the same staff as during the school year), and by the time his father came to the camp a week later, after returning from Florida, the staff and/or possibly the perpetrator had already convinced Chaim not to tell. The fact that the yeshiva’s principal was so anxious/nervous to speak to Chaim after camp ended (probably to make sure he didn’t talk outside of the influence of himself or other staff), and also convinced Chaim not to reveal the contents of their conversation to his father, is all the more suspicious. An odd detail reported in a 1986 New York Times article on events that happened at the school shortly before Chaim’s murder –

Also, last summer, a mattress was found burning at one of the yeshiva dorms, according to Rabbi Chaim Wakslak, a local Orthodox leader.

My opinion is that Chaim’s murder was an inside job, but none of the people involved, nor those close to them, will talk. It’s not because they have a moral obligation not to accuse someone unless they are certain, which is what potential witnesses have told media and authorities. It’s because they have a moral obligation not to be an informant against another Jew to secular authorities. This is misguided, as respected rabbis have rules that in cases of abuse (how much more so murder) a Jew is required to go to authorities. But many religious Jews still feel that reporting a Jew to non Jewish authorities is still worse than whatever crime the Jew committed. Of course, the actual murderer(s) exploit this belief because it’s to their advantage not to be turned into the authorities.

These are just my theories and opinions based on what I’ve heard and read about the case. I came across another article that discusses a taunting letter sent to Chaim’s family eight years after his death in 1994. One commenter on that article said the Yeshiva had suggested that the school’s Polish janitor committed the murder and then fled back to Poland, sending the taunting letter years later. This version could be true, or the letter could be a plant by the true killer trying yet again to put forward a theory of an outsider (non Jew) as the murderer who conveniently skipped the country and couldn’t be questioned. Was there even actually a Polish janitor?

I would be interested to hear your perspectives and who you think might have committed this atrocity. Chaim’s family is in agony even to this day. His parents are getting older, and it would be a terrible thing for them to leave this world without ever knowing who killed their son and to know that they will never get justice unless the murderer is found.

Again, the hotline is Nassau County Police at 1-800-244-TIPS


An unspoken dream is like an unopened letter

Many years ago when I was newly married, I woke up from a nightmare. I don’t get nightmares often, but when I do, they stay with me for a time, haunting my waking thoughts as I search to make sense of the frightening visions. I woke that night in a confusion between dream and reality, with tears streaming onto my pillowcase and barely concealed snuffles and sobs, trying not to wake my husband without success.

He asked me what was wrong, and I began to tell him about my dream, thinking that putting it into words outside of my dreamscape would take away the power of the disturbing alternate universe from which I had so recently emerged.

As I began to delve into the details, my husband stopped me.  “No!  Don’t tell me.  An unspoken dream is like an unopened letter.  If you don’t say it out loud, it won’t come true.” Apparently this was an adage that many in the frum community live by, and are deeply superstitious about.  Indeed, he seemed nervous at the prospect that I might say too much, thus bringing ill tidings upon us.  He spent time soothing and reassuring me that it was just a dream and everything was fine, until my little crying hiccups subsided and my eyes no longer ran in salty rivulets down my cheeks.

As I turned over on my damp pillow and heard my husband begin to softly snore, I lay awake and thought again about my nightmare.  I felt unsettled and restless, but I repeated the mantra to myself that it was only a dream.  Eventually I drifted off to sleep.  While the dream continued to haunt me for a few days afterward, not putting it into words eventually helped to eradicate it from my memory, as I have no recollection about the details today.  I have since kept my nightmares to myself, to the same amnesic effect.

It’s interesting to note that the idea of not speaking of dreams, lest they come to pass in real life, is typically only brought up when referring to bad dreams.  Nightmares are the visions that must be kept at bay, by not infusing them with the power of words.

I believe it’s this same theory that prevents us from speaking of real life horrors.  If we don’t name the atrocities, they don’t exist.  Except they do – much in the same way my nightmare affected me in a very real way – even though it remained unrevealed.  Even though I don’t remember the details, I still remember my fear and panic as I woke from that bad dream and struggled to put it into context.  I know the nightmare happened, I remember the trauma, whether I spoke of it or not.

There are some brave people in our world who dare to reveal what we all want to remain hidden.  They refuse to leave the nightmare unspoken, because if these nightmares are allowed to exist in the name of keeping unpleasantries out of the public eye, they grow and flourish like a cancer.  Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is one such champion who refuses to remain silent, if he can save even one child from being harmed by those things that go bump in the night, or even in broad daylight, while the rest of us “keep it sweet” and stay quiet because, “loshon horah,” because, “think of his/her (the abuser’s) family, because, “there are two sides to every story,” because, “it’s embarrassing to talk about such topics,” or because, “it will make a chillul Hashem for the rest of the world to hear of this happening in the Jewish community.”

Yes, especially when it comes to child sexual abuse, there are so many reasons to remain silent, yet that silence is mostly self-serving.  It alleviates us from the responsibility of getting involved.  We tell ourselves the rabbis will handle it, the parents will handle it, maybe even the police (if they are notified) will handle it.  It’s not for us to mish in (butt into someone else’s business).  Yet when all of us have that attitude, it leaves no one to mish in.

Rabbi Horowitz is the perfect example of why a person shouldn’t mish in, after all, look where his mishing in got him? A defamation lawsuit and failed attempt at an order of protection filed against him in the Israeli courts from U.S. convicted Level 3 sex offender, Yona Weinberg!  The lawsuit remains pending.

It all began when Rabbi Horowitz, founder and director of the Center for Jewish Family Life/Project Y.E.S. and founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, discovered Weinberg had moved to the Har Nof area in Jerusalem, and sent out tweets to warn residents of his presence.  Ever since those fateful tweets, Rabbi Horowitz, a child safety advocate who speaks internationally educating parents and children on protecting themselves against predators, has been the subject of a legal campaign by Weinberg to silence him against warning residents of his Har Nof community about his criminal past.

Ironically, the media attention brought on by Weinberg’s own legal campaign has called more attention to his current whereabouts and criminal past than a few tweets ever could.

Rabbi Horowitz recently spoke in Har Nof about child safety, an event that was almost derailed by Weinberg’s attempt to get an order of protection against Horowitz, unsuccessfully arguing that Horowitz would incite community violence against him and his family. Hours after successfully fighting the petition for a restraining order in Israeli court, Rabbi Horowitz was able to give his seminar to an audience of 200 as planned, despite Weinberg’s legal effort to prevent him from coming to his neighborhood.  His speech from August 2 in Har Nof can be seen here.

Lohud featured a timeline of Yona Weinberg’s crimes and whereabouts, giving more background and justification for why Rabbi Horowitz would want the citizens of Har Nof to be aware of Weinberg’s presence –

June 2008: Brooklyn district attorney indicts Yona Weinberg, a 29-year-old licensed social worker and bar mitzvah tutor, on numerous charges including nine misdemeanor counts of second-degree sexual abuse and six of child endangerment.

June 2009:  Weinberg convicted of nine counts for victimizing two boys — seven counts of second-degree sexual abuse and two of child endangerment.

September 2009: Weinberg sentenced to 13 months in jail. At his sentencing, Judge J. Reichbach criticizes the Orthodox Jewish community for supporting Weinberg, noting 90 letters were sent attesting to his character and innocence — and mentioning nothing about the victims.

2010: Weinberg released from jail after serving roughly a year. He returns to his Brooklyn home, where he lives with his wife and young children. Weinberg is designated a Level 3 sex offender (high risk of repeat offense and threat to public safety).

June 2014: Police investigate a complaint Weinberg allegedly groped an 11-year-old boy after they were watching television in Weinberg’s apartment earlier that year. Prosecutors declined to bring charges, according to the Daily News.

August 2014: Weinberg allegedly elbows and slams the same 11-year-old against a coat rack in synagogue after prayer service, hurting the boy’s back. The boy told police that Weinberg pushed him against a bookshelf, threatening further harm if he continued to talk to authorities, the Daily News reported.

September 2014: Police file report about the alleged physical assault. The next day, police go to Weinberg’s Flatbush home to arrest him, according to the Daily News. His wife told police he was not home and referred them to his attorney. Weinberg moves to Israel. Shortly after, his wife and four children join him in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.

January 2015: News of Weinberg’s presence in Israel appears in the Daily News. After the story, the NYPD notifies the state that Weinberg had moved to Israel. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Monsey, child-safety advocate, sends out a tweet to notify Har Nof residents of the presence of a Level 3 sex offender in their community. Tweet says he was as dangerous to children as “a terrorist with a machete.”

June 2015: Horowitz is served papers at his Monsey home, informing him that a summary judgement was issued against him for $55,000 in an Israeli court, stemming from a defamation lawsuit. Horowitz didn’t show up in court, he said, because he didn’t realize he was being sued.

Later that year: Horowitz’s attorney in Israel has judgment set aside. Horowitz is still required to pay some court costs.

July 2016: Weinberg seeks protective order against Horowitz, which would prevent the rabbi from giving a lecture on child safety in his neighborhood, where the rabbi has been lecturing for 13 years. The court denies the request.

November 2016: Trial date scheduled in Israel for defamation charges. Horowitz says he will appear in court to defend himself.”

Horowitz said that he will not be silenced by a bullying sex offender.

“I think this is a test case…,” he told The Journal News/lohud. “I am not giving up.”

Israel does not have a sex offender registry, and as such, some child abuse activists such as Horowitz take it upon themselves to warn residents of predators in their vicinity. “How can you slander a sex offender?” asked Horowitz..”

“Horowitz told The Journal News/lohud that he won’t be intimidated by Weinberg, who used his position as a bar mitzvah tutor to gain access to his victims, who were 12 and 13.

He also sees the fight as part of a larger effort designed to thwart others from exposing sex offenders and warning potential victims of the danger. The Israeli legal maneuverings are key to this tactic, he said…”

“If you care about the personal safety of children, these lawsuits should trouble you deeply. For, make no mistake, if these outrageous lawsuits are permitted to continue, fewer and fewer people will be posting warnings when convicted sex offenders move near you or those you love,” he wrote on his blog,

“Horowitz, who faces thousands of dollars in legal fees, in addition to the threat of a judgement against him, pledged to continue his defense in order to protect families who have a right to know a predator is in their midst….I will fight to the end,” he said.”

I asked Rabbi Horowitz how those of us who also feel this lawsuit is an outrageous and dangerous precedent can financially help him.  He said that the best way to help him is by donating to his efforts to distribute complimentary copies of his Project Y.E.S  Let’s Stay Safe books and give seminars to communities who want to learn how to protect their children from abuse.  The Let’s Stay Safe book has been translated into several languages and been culturally appropriated for various Jewish communities in Israel and the diaspora. Many of these communities are impoverished and so he gives his books away to them for free with no compensation for even basic costs.

Mishing in comes at a price, and it’s a price most of us aren’t willing to pay.  Thank God for those who mish in. Thank God for those who wake and tell what they saw, for those are the ones who will save lives, save worlds.  We can no longer afford to be dreamers, dreaming that if we don’t acknowledge the nightmares, they don’t exist.

Let’s assist Rabbi Horowitz in his important work so that he can continue to share his message to communities around the world.

Is the Orthodox community suffering from compassion fatigue?

compassionThis is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. The first time I heard about an incidence of child abuse in my community was over twenty years ago. Being an idealistic newbie to the Orthodox neighborhood, I was absolutely shocked to hear allegations (for abuse committed many years back) against a seemingly gentle old man. Apparently, this man (now deceased) had caused untold harm to young children back in his younger days, but was never held accountable for his actions.

Moving forward, the internet provided an underground grapevine of whisperings that before passed between families through word of mouth, but now passes through online bulletin boards, blogs, Facebook, and phone apps. Social media gives people the opportunity to openly share accusations to the world either under their own name or a pseudonym.

Even if the accused is never charged with a crime (often they are not), exposing the alleged perpetrator is one way for victims or their supporters to get some form of justice and also put out a warning to others who might encounter the individual in question. The global nature of the internet also means that someone who commits a crime in one part of the world, and tries to flee to another part of the world, can’t escape their notoriety by changing locations.

As online participation grew in the Orthodox community, so did websites and online publications devoted to unearthing maggots who committed heinous crimes under the guise of piety and under the protection of powerful leaders who felt that protecting the community’s reputation trumped getting justice for those irreversibly injured by human fly larvae sporting kippahs or wigs.

In the beginning, when online allegations would be published, there were mixed reactions. Some people were outraged that good people, who had never been charged with a crime, were being slandered. Other people were outraged that the accused escaped justice and the victim left to rot in the depths of the trauma they endured. Cases that were reported to police and received wider news coverage divided the camps within the community even more. Offline rallies were organized in some instances; those in Camp A railing against abuse being covered up and allowed to continue, those in Camp B defiantly defending the accused, speaking out against the victim, and organizing fundraisers to pay the accused’s legal expenses.

The comments on abuse articles on some popular Jewish blogs sometimes outnumbered the comment sections of major newspapers. Vicious fights took place between opposing sides, and sometimes even more poignant insights to the frum world could be found in the comment sections than in the original post.

The complex reactions that people have to finding out that they have been betrayed by someone inside their “circle of trust” is mind boggling. For some the revelation is met by determined denial and defense of the construct they’ve always believed in. For others, the news is met by distrust and rejection of the entire system. Still others will take a more pragmatic view of individual situations, and blame the perpetrator, but not necessarily the leadership that allowed the person to continue living among the community, perhaps under supervision. Pragmatists will allow that there is room to acknowledge that the high rate of recidivism among sex offenders wasn’t fully understood by those of us without a background in criminal psychology, and that the leadership did their best with the information they had.

Today, 10-15 years out from the early days of social media sharing, the lurid stories sometimes pour out at a dizzying pace. Additionally, in a positive move forward, abuse survivors are stepping forward and speaking directly to the public in their own voice, defying those who would dare tell them to hide in the shadows and deny their own truth. Conferences with panels of abuse experts and testimonials from survivors attract generous audiences, and are usually captured on video for wider viewing. There is now an open public dialog in the Orthodox community about child sexual abuse and sexual abuse in general. The next phase, which is happening in some progressive Jewish day schools, is classroom education geared for children to speak to them about abuse in language they can understand.

This new openness is a good thing, as victims now have a better chance to be seen as the wronged party and treated accordingly. The shame factor for survivors has diminished significantly with public discourse, although, I will say that many of the victim testimonies I have listened to online are from those who are safely married and no longer in danger of not finding a marriage partner due to their activism. It still takes an extra dose of courage to come forward as a single person and share a sexual abuse story with the world.

However, I have to wonder, as with any tragedy reported in the news that at first is shocking, but becomes just another headline to skip over after the thousandth report on the topic, are we suffering from compassion fatigue? Compassion fatigue is lessening of compassion over time due to constant exposure to traumatic situations. Health care professionals, first responders, family members caring for seriously ill loved ones, and others, report feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, fatigue, and other negative symptoms due to burn out. There are those who have suggested that our constant exposure to shocking news items has dulled the emotions and expected compassionate response of readers. It’s all too much.

These musings came shortly before the announcement that Shmarya Rosenberg is leaving his Failed Messiah blog after 12 years. Failed Messiah was a blog of guilty interest that probably prompted more Rosh Hashanah resolutions before Yom Kippur (in the coming new year, I will give up….reading Failed Messiah) for Jews, than the number of Catholics who give up candy for Lent before Easter.

Love it or hate it, Failed Messiah was one of the first blogs to openly publicize accusations of child abuse, the whereabouts of accused molesters who had evaded justice, and the identities of those who assisted such perpetrators. Whether he left his blog to pursue other interests, for financial gain, or simply because of burnout is something only he knows. However, there is still work to be done. Protecting our children from predators and spreading awareness only works as a relay race. Child abuse activists often burn bright and burn fast, so being able to pass the baton to others is imperative. It will be interesting to see if new faces will step up to fill the void.

The Jewish Community Needs a Mental Health Care Gemach

mentalhealthToday I read an article called, “Breaking the silence on Jewish Suicide.” The article profiles families who have dealt with the tragedy of having a loved one commit suicide, and the attempt to break the stigma that surrounds suicide in the Jewish world.

In Judaism, suicide is akin to murder. Just as we aren’t allowed to take the life of another person, so too, we aren’t permitted to take our own life. Only Hashem can decide when our time in this world is finished. In a sense, our lives are not our own. We live on borrowed time, in borrowed physical vessels, and our job is to do as many mitzvos and make as many positive contributions to this world during our time here as we can. In a sense, our lives are not our own to take.

Those who do take their own lives are considered to have committed a grave sin. If the cause of one’s death is known to be suicide, that person can’t be buried alongside other Jews, nor is their family permitted to sit shiva.

Today, as our knowledge of psychology and mental health improves, we know that even if an act of suicide was premeditated (i.e. leaving a suicide note or gathering supplies to carry out the act), often the person’s mental state makes it impossible for them to have made a rational choice in taking their own life. The person, being desperate and in tremendous pain, cannot be held responsible for their action. Because the person is helpless in the face of their crisis, any rebuke or punishment after their death should not be implemented.

I think that there is a great need for mental health care funding in the Jewish community. Private insurance plans often have limited coverage for mental health issues, and those who rely on public health care services are often under served, their coverage subject to budget cuts and availability in a system already stretched thin.

While there are many Jewish charitable organizations that help people with everything from food, to making weddings, to home furnishings, to infertility treatments, to help with general healthcare, there aren’t many that cater specifically to mental health treatments.

My husband was once told that opening the door to subsidized mental health services in our local Jewish community would be opening a Pandora’s Box. The need would be so great, that there would be no way any organization could collect the required funds. Consequently, we are left with the ironic situation of having a communal need left unmet due to overwhelming demand.

It seems strange that the Jewish community has so many hotlines for various emergency services, yet there is no widely publicized Jewish suicide prevention hotline. Although, if suicide is something that simply “doesn’t happen,” in the Jewish community, I suppose officially, there is no need for such a service, nor for funding to treat mental health issues that could eventually escalate into a suicidal crisis.

Elijah’s Journey is the lone Jewish organization that deals with suicide awareness and prevention. It is a little known nonprofit that is trying to provide support for those at risk or who have lost a loved one to suicide. It is a sorely needed organization, however, it doesn’t negate the need for an organization providing mental health support that might prevent people from becoming suicidal in the first place.

The recent suicide of Faigy Mayer, as well as similar stories of tragic suicides that came before her, prompt similar reactions from some in the community. When and if journalistic digging reveals a history of mental illness, that fact is latched onto as being the true cause of the suicide. It is all too easy to absolve ourselves of responsibility with the excuse that the deceased suffered from depression or bipolar or anxiety – blame their brain chemistry and leave the community alone.

However, how many people suffer from latent mental health issues that don’t manifest except under extreme stress? How many depressive episodes leading to suicide might have been avoided if the person hadn’t suffered isolation and condemnation for not conforming to communal expectations? A mental health diagnosis doesn’t let us off the hook, as much as we would love to sit back with a sigh of relief and say, “See, it’s not our fault!”

For those solidly in the orthodox world, religious expectations can cause us to be harder on ourselves than folks on the outside. When you are religious, you are never simply an individual. No man is an island, and all that jazz. Our actions not only reflect upon us, but upon our families, our local community, the larger Jewish community, and God. If we are a “bad Jew” we take down a lot of folks with us. That’s what the concept of chillul Hashem is all about.

It’s a lot harder for religious people to view inevitable mistakes made in life simply as learning experiences. Outside of the frum world, it’s a lot easier to make a bad choice and recover from it. Unless you’re a celebrity, who has every move plastered all over the media, most people can make a fresh start for themselves and not have a collective memory of their past misdeeds to haunt them. Not so in the orthodox community, which generally speaking, is fairly small. A person’s reputation, good or bad, can follow them even if they move to a different location.

Before Tisha B’Av, I was listening to a shiur about some of the things we are missing out on by not having the Bais Hamikdash. One of the points was that we no longer have the opportunity to give a korban to atone for our sins. I have always been fairly squeamish about the concept of animal sacrifice. While I still can’t really wrap my modern sensibilities around the concept of slaughtering an animal to cleanse my body or my soul, the shiur did enlighten me with a new take on the purpose of korbanos.

In today’s times, our ability to do teshuvah and know that we’ve been forgiven is limited. If we do an aveira, yes, we can repent, we can confess, we can give tzedaka, we can vow never to do the sin again, we can klap away during viduy on Yom Kippur, we can toss our sins into the water during tashlich, and we can daven. However, we can never know if Hashem truly forgives us.

For some, the doubt that they have been forgiven can cause them to sink into despair. Those who feel they’ve committed an unforgivable sin can feel like a faker or a fraud, which is especially harsh when one is presenting themselves to the world as a religious Jew. Sometimes this feeling can go so far as to turn a person away from the Torah.  If a person can never achieve forgiveness, despite their best efforts, they feel hopeless. They can’t move on from closing the old chapter of their life and moving forward with a clean slate. The korban ritual provided a physical way to achieve closure and allow a person to psychologically move forward from their sins. Part of our exile is that we no longer have a vehicle with which to achieve that closure.

I guess what I’m rambling on about is that those of us touched by religious life and expectations, whether we have left orthodoxy or are still in it, have the potential to be extra hard on ourselves when we screw up. Guilt and shame can be powerful forces behind suicidal thoughts. The added expectations that have been instilled within us as religious Jews (whether in the past or present) can be a potential touchstone that triggers depression and anxiety when others disappoint us in a major way or when we disappoint ourselves.

Not everyone who faces occasional bouts of the blues during a rough patch in life is in danger of developing a full blown mental health crisis. However, those of us who are vulnerable through genetics, hormonal imbalances (i.e. postpartum depression), chemical imbalances caused by illness/medication side effects, or any number of other reasons that could make us permanently or temporarily vulnerable to a mental health crisis can have potentially dangerous reactions to stressors that would normally be manageable.

It’s easy to play the crazy card in dismissing people who cause us to take an uncomfortable look at our own behavior and attitudes. Mental illness isn’t pretty, but it also doesn’t develop and thrive in a vacuum. While the roots of mental illness might not be planted by outside invaders, feeding and watering the seeds with negativity can cause it to surface. Likewise, allowing the obvious signs of mental distress to flourish without treatment, can cause the symptoms to grow uncontrollably with sometimes fatal consequences.

Why are rabbis encouraging family estrangement and why are parents listening?

One bad apple spoils the whole bunch. This seems to be the philosophy behind why some rabbis advise parents to kick out a deviant child, cutting off all contact, except for the most delicate thread of connection that might inspire them to return to the right path.

The child parent bond is the most primal form of relationship. I never fully understood the innate connection between parent and child until I became a parent myself. Yes, as the child of parents, I felt a love and dependence upon my mother and father. However, it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I felt the immediate magnetic bond, that “mamma bear mode” protective instinct, that I knew that my babies will always be my babies even when I have to crane my neck to look them in the eye.

Therefore, I can’t imagine coming to a bump in the road with my teenage or adult children, where I would seek rabbinic counsel and be told that the only solution is to cut off my child so that they don’t taint the rest of my kids. I can’t imagine this because I don’t believe that the rabbinic counselors I would choose would offer this advice. However, I also can’t imagine, no matter how great my respect for the rabbinic authority offering this counsel, placing my reverence for that person over my love and responsibility for my child. I personally don’t believe a good rabbi would ever force a parent to make such a choice.

Some of us seeking the advice of our rabbis concerning a family crisis, know that the choice to follow that advice is still ultimately left to our own discretion. However, in some communities, the rabbi’s counsel is never simply advice, but a mandate. Going against the decision of the rav is akin to breaking a commandment. In those communities, rabbis have a tremendous responsibility to their followers. Their word is irrefutable, and as such, they have the power to hold families together or tear them apart.

I often wonder, when I hear stories about parents who shun their children because – they no longer want to be religious, they come out as having a same sex preference, they identify as a different gender than their God given biology conferred upon them, or any other number of other revelations that are incompatible with the path laid before them by the Torah, the rebbe, the parents, and the community – how could they abandon their child?

Maybe in my heart I can understand. Their child must be the sacrificial lamb. Perhaps they can justify their actions by feeling that they made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the whole family unit. This child will reflect poorly upon the entire family. Their younger children will be ostracized at school and their older children won’t get good shidduchim. They themselves will be viewed by their neighbors with suspicion as having failed as parents and possibly inspiring the devious ways of the wayward child.

How many times have I heard people clucking about families who have kids who went off the derech – “I always knew this would happen. When the kids were younger the parents would always say negative things about the rabbaim. They would complain about the teachers and criticize their shul rabbi in front of the children. It has an impact. You always want to speak positively about religious figures in front of your kids. Now, not one of their kids is frum!”

It’s the parent’s fault. They didn’t have the proper respect for rabbinic authority and that’s why their kids are no longer religious. By shunning the errant children, the parents show their allegiance to authority, both by respecting the rav’s psak and by making the ultimate sacrifice of their children.

The parents see their actions as selfless, while outsiders see it as selfish. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. However, the one thing that remains is the broken child, who not only is embarking upon a new and sometimes frightening path outside of the only world they’ve ever known, but embarking upon that journey without the support of their family. More than that, the child embarks upon their journey knowing that their family harbors hope and confidence in their failure, which they pray will send their wayward offspring back home with their tail between their legs.

What parents don’t grasp is that the chance of failure is very high when your entire support system vanishes in rubble. Without their love, their child has little chance of a happy existence no matter how successful they are in their educational or career goals. What parents need to understand is that sometimes failing in the outside world doesn’t result in a return to the home, but a return to their maker. The ultimate price could be life of their child.

Parents don’t understand the real gamble they are taking by shunning a child. They aren’t merely risking their child being lured into a secular existence versus returning to the orthodox enclave, they are risking their child’s emotional and mental well-being, and ultimately their lives. The parents might not understand the high stakes they are playing with, the question is, do the rabbis advising them to cut off their children understand that risk?

Killing off non-believers and non-conformists is a heck of a lot easier than bearing the burden of having them in our midst. You don’t even have the pull the trigger, give them enough time, they’ll do it themselves. Assisted suicide.