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The Skverer Rebbe, Rabbi David Twersky

I’m told by a prominent Jewish lay leader friend of mine who knows him well that the Skverer Rebbe, Rabbi David Twersky is a very sweet man. He is someone who agonizes over the welfare of each and every individual member of his city, New Square. He does not have a mean bone in his body.

An example of that is the story about four of his Chasidim that were convicted of defrauding the US government to the tune of $30 million in educational grants. He could not sleep nights. He rose to the occasion however and succeeded in getting Bill Clinton, then President of the United States, to pardon them. He promised that his entire community would vote for his wife Hillary when she ran for the US Senate. It happened. The four Chasidim were pardoned and the town voted for Hillary Clinton. (Too bad Rubashkin is not a Skverer Chasid. His crime only cost the federal government $27 million!)


The loyalty he breeds among his Chasidim via his caring and commitment to their welfare has bred extreme loyalty. What kind of loyalty? Two years ago an individual in that town decided to make a Minyan for a friend of his in the hospital. That violated the Rebbe’s rules about Davening outside the town Shul. Rabbi Twersky’s ‘Hoiz Bachur’ (…young personal valet) ended up setting fire to that man while attempting to torch his house. Now that’s loyalty! I’m sure the Rebbe agonized greatly over that loyal but misguided young man.

In an attempt to moderate the public fury over that incident at the time Ami Magazine publisher, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, paid New Square a Shabbos visit and was determinedly inspired by what he saw: A unified approach to the joys of Judaism – particularly on Shabbos. People there are devout and are joyously immersed in the Chasidic culture of the town.

For that 24 hour period it seemed like a Chasidic paradise on earth to Rabbi Frankfurter as he watched and participated with these Skverer Chasdim in joyous celebration of Shabbos spent with the Rebbe. It was unlike anything one can experience on the outside, he commented. Quite a contrast from all the negative publicity that town and the Rebbe received at the time. But joy in observance is apparently not the only thing the Rebbe inspires.

Last Friday Deb Tambor, a woman who used to be a part of that community, committed suicide. She was a devout member of New Square. She married and had children there. But she left that life behind getting divorced from her husband and abandoning the that lifestyle and observance of Halacha. Apparently it was not so joyous for her. She was now part of a growing community of ex-Skverer Chasdim who have gone OTD – and lived with one of them. Now she is dead. What happened?

It’s hard to know exactly what happened. But one can try and put together some facts and come to a reasonable conclusion. Deb Tambor suffered from depression. Depression is a deveastating illness that can and often does lead to suicide. Depression can happen in the best of families without any reason. Clinical depression is a chemical imbalance of the brain. It causes uncontrollable anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.

When an individual feels so low and sees no hope – the irrational act of suicide will often seem like the only way to stop the pain. I know people who suffer from depression. Some of them have tried to commit suicide via slitting their wrists or taking an overdose of sleeping pills the way Deb Tambor did. I also know that when they are properly medicated via prescription anti-depressants they lead completely normal lives.

And yet I can’t help but point out the precipitating factors in Deb Tambor’s case. There are always precipitating factors although they will most likely not be recognized as such by the depressed personality.

From Ha’aretz:

Weiss, her live-in boyfriend, said her family had disavowed her earlier, when she told family members that she had been sexually abused by a member of the tight-knit New Square community as a child and they denied it.

Driven by her depression, Tambor checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, said Weiss, which is when family members in New Square moved to block her from seeing her children, who are now 11 and 13.

“Her depression started when she decided to leave the community and was threatened with losing her kids,” Weiss told The Forward. “Her biggest issue was that no one cared for her, everyone blew off all her issues.”

Those are some serious precipitating factors! But as if that were not enough… From the Forward:

She suffered terribly after losing custody of her three children. Her family claimed that her depression was the reason she lost custody of the children, but close friends blamed her lack of religious observance.

Her own father testified against her in the custody battle, some of her close friends said. Both her father and her ex-husband’s new wife besmirched Tambor to the point where her own children did not want to see her anymore.

If these kinds of events don’t drive someone into a serious state of depression, they are not human. Although most people will not commit suicide – a clinically depressed person will often try to do so.

The joyous members of Skvere had absolutely no compassion for this poor woman. They only saw someone who left the community and went OTD. That was enough to treat her like dirt. They completely shunned her… both in life, and now in death.

They would not even allow her to be buried in the town cemetery. Not because of her suicide. But because she went OTD. There are other suicides buried there. Even though people who commit suicide are Halachicly not allowed to be buried with other people who died – it is rarely done. There are loopholes used – such as saying that the person did Teshuva the moment before he died. Deb Tambor’s ‘crime’ was not suicide, it was going OTD.

Deb Tambor had many friends among expatriate Skverer Chasidim who went OTD. They tried to attend the funeral. A Charedi friend of mine who attended the funeral was appaled by what he saw. These people were badly mistreated.

From the Forward:

They stood for hours in the cold, but no one from the funeral home or the community informed them that the family had quietly arranged to have her funeral the next day in West Babylon, on Long Island.

And from Ha’artez:

“Who wants to be buried next to this lady?” New Square resident Menashe Lustig told the Forward in a phone interview. “It’s very difficult to know where to put her. I hear they called up the rabbonim in Israel and they told them the decision” that she should be buried elsewhere. Of Tambor’s life and death, he said, “The family is ashamed. They’re very ashamed.”

They are ashamed. They should be. But not for the reasons they think.

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Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at [email protected].