A brand of therapy with positive results

For many of those who decide to leave, it is a traumatic decision.

Talpiot branch of The Boydem, a unique psychotherapy enterprise (photo credit: Courtesy)
Talpiot branch of The Boydem, a unique psychotherapy enterprise
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shaindy Weber has issues. Who doesn’t? Some issues are more critical than others, and even in serious cases some people are able to manage their issues, without their issues managing them.
Among the more difficult cases are those of young people who leave the ultra-Orthodox community after questioning the religious beliefs with which they have been inculcated since birth and which are part and parcel of the lifestyles of their families in their communities.
For many of those who decide to leave, it is a traumatic decision.
From living in a cocoon, they are thrust into a strange world in which they are suddenly alone without a profession, without friends and without the background that would make them feel comfortable in their new environment.
Too often, they are disowned by their families, and even though there are organizations to which they can turn for help, many find that they cannot cope and commit suicide.
Not all such suicides or attempted suicides are reported in the media. Three such suicides were widely reported this year. In January, two Chabad cousins, Hani Solish from Netanya and Sarah Klapman from Jerusalem, jumped to their deaths from a high building in the capital. In February, Chaya Weller, a well-known figure in the circles of those who left ultra-Orthodox communities, and who was frequently interviewed by the media, took her own life in her apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot. She was 22 years old.
Despite her charismatic personality, Weller was constantly haunted by a death wish and eventually succumbed to it.
Raised in a Satmar family, where her rebellion against religion was evident when she was still a teenager, Weller’s community tried to “save” her with psychiatric drugs, which had negative aftereffects. Eventually, she escaped, but the drugs had caused permanent damage to her psyche.
Weber could have been one of those statistics from among ultra-Orthodox young people who left the fold and became nonbelievers. Fortunately, her attempts at suicide failed.
OUR MEETING was held in her place of work on what was coincidentally her 34th birthday. She is a manager at The Boydem, a unique psychotherapy enterprise in Jerusalem that was started a little under six years ago by social entrepreneurs Elie Lederman and Guy Avihod.
A nonprofit enterprise, a warehouse and two stores for secondhand merchandise – mostly clothing – it helps people with mental problems to get on-the-job training in operating a store. This includes sorting clothes, displaying them to best advantage and according to size and category, customer service, and operating the financial aspects of the venture, such as the cash register or credit card payments, and recording the intake of sales.
“Boydem” is a Yiddish word for “attic.” The interview took place in what is literally the boydem of The Boydem. The floor of the huge warehouse was covered with racks of clothing, and large boxes of clothing still to be sorted were on shelves lining the walls.
So as not to disturb other people working at The Boydem, we climbed a very steep staircase and entered a small, pleasant office with nice furniture and a monitoring system that commands a view of the whole of the downstairs area, and provides yet an added responsibility for managers to be on the lookout for thieves.
Lederman, who is familiar with Weber’s story, thought that it would be inspirational for others in similar positions, because it illustrates that no matter how low a person may sink through force of circumstance, with a little help from people who care and a little willpower, there are ways out of the morass.
In initial telephone contact with Weber, I asked if she was absolutely sure that she wanted to make her story public. People can be cruel, and there are aspects of her story that are far from pretty.
“I’ve been there before,” she replied.
Even so, I urged her to speak to her therapist and to ask if this was a wise move.
Her therapist was gung-ho about the interview, believing that this was yet another important step in enabling Weber to take control of her life.
WEBER IS one of 10 siblings – eight of them brothers – born in London to a family of Belz Hassidim. Her mother is Swiss; her father is British. Weber was the somewhat rebellious member of the family, but her difficulties were minor until she was 16 years old and was sexually molested by a family friend.
She was naive, innocent, confused and afraid.
She didn’t have a close relationship with her mother, as a result of which she couldn’t go to her with the story of what had happened to her. She had no one else to go to.
Instead, she came to Israel where she had relatives, thinking that in another country her problems would go away, in accordance with the old Jewish proverb: change of place, change of luck.
While in Israel, she met a young man who seemed to be reasonable marriage material. She thought that by marrying him, she could escape from her problems forever.
It was an arranged marriage. She returned to England to prepare for it, and it was in London that the wedding took place.
The young couple returned to Israel, and Weber soon discovered that her husband was not all that he’d appeared to be when they were introduced. He was physically and emotionally abusive.
She stuck it out for six years, during which time she gave birth to three children, two girls and a boy, now aged 15, 13 and 11. The boy is the youngest.
After six years, she’d had enough and she left. Neither she nor her husband were able to look after the children on their own, so after a lot of bickering, they agreed to put them into private foster care.
After a while the welfare authorities intervened, and the two girls were placed in the care of a religious family in Jerusalem, and the boy in the care of another foster family outside of Jerusalem.
While she still has respect for religion, Weber began to distance herself from religious practice. She got rid of the wig that had graced her head as a married woman. She stopped observing the Sabbath, though she does still keep kosher.
Many mothers whose children are removed from their care veer between desperation and depression. Weber was one such mother. Moreover, the bulk of her family disowned her, once she no longer stuck to the rules, and her husband refused to give her a Jewish bill of divorce.
She didn’t have a home to go to, because her parents divorced after her second child was born.
It didn’t take long before she began drowning her sorrows in drink and drugs.
Convinced that no one cared about her and that no one would help her, she became suicidal.
Luckily, she came to the attention of Marpeh Le’Enosh, a support organization for people who are mentally unstable.
There were lots of ups and downs along the way, but she was fortunate in that the therapist assigned to her was firm but empathetic and “saved my life and turned it around.”
Listening to Weber, who is polite and articulate, and gives the impression of being completely put together, it is hard to believe that she used to be the person she described.
“I’m stable now,” she explained, “but I still need to work on myself.”
Another figure in her stability is her former high school teacher, who on Shabbat walks halfway across Jerusalem to ensure Weber’s well-being. She is always there for her, and Weber loves her.
Weber, who prefers jeans to a dress these days, sees her daughters once a week, and her son on an average of once a month.
Her children accept her as she is, although they are somewhat bewildered by this different image of their mother. She is careful not to interfere with their religious lifestyle.
“They were born haredi,” she explained, and there was no reason for them not to stay that way.
Technically, she said, she was married for 10 years. Her husband finally agreed to give her a divorce when served with a lien which prevented him from leaving the country.
“He likes to travel,” she said, and the only way he could continue to do that was to give Weber her freedom.
When she was still in a bad state, her best friend in Israel contacted Weber’s oldest brother, who, realizing that she could possibly die if she did not receive the support she needed, came rushing to the rescue and effected somewhat of a family reconciliation.
The arrangement with The Boydem is that people in therapy come there on a daily basis for a year, after which they are rostered for twice a week, until they wean themselves off and are ready to go out into the world.
Weber’s year is up, but she still works as a shift manager. She lives independently in an apartment with two other young women, and as she completed high school in London, she would like to go to university to study social work so that she can help other people, just as she was helped. She feels that because of her own experience, she is in a better position to understand them than someone else who has never been at that nadir.
If she was able to get past all the things that she revealed plus some that she asked not to commit to print, there is little doubt that she will succeed and prove that the care that people invested in her will yield a very healthy profit.