A sensation-hungry media gleefully anticipated the juicy story: a chassidic woman leaves the fold, is cut off by her family, can’t bear the pain, takes her own life, and is shunned even in death. But one reporter who sought the truth discovered a noble family who found resources of love and connection amid piercing emotional trauma — and taught his own colleagues a lesson. 

Among the horrifying terrorist attacks and calamities that shook Israel last week was one tragedy that on the surface seemed like nothing more than a sordid family drama. On the face of it, the story was nothing exceptional. Family breakups, fraught with suffering and angst, painful separations between parents and children leading in the end to loss of life, are unfortunately everyday fare in the news. 

But rarely do these stories attract such deep scrutiny and arouse such strong emotion as the funeral of Esti Weinstein a”h. And that is because in this case, hostile individuals and groups, and especially the sensation-hungry media, believed that here they had a juicy plum of an anti-chareidi story: a woman who had left the chassidic world and eventually put an end to her life due to the unbearable pain of being cut off from the daughters who stayed behind in her former community. 

What an opportunity to weave a tale depicting the chareidim, and one group among them in particular, as cruel, inhuman, and entirely apathetic toward those who leave the fold (known colloquially in Israel as yotzim b’sheilah, and I’ve often wondered what that phrase is supposed to mean — what is the “question” that triggers their exit?), harsh and unyielding toward a son or daughter who chooses a secular life, and so on and so forth, the best and most heartbreaking story an ignorant writer can concoct. Weinstein’s tragic death and funeral was their big chance, and they pounced on it. 

Yet during the levayah, public opinion shifted. The chareidi family of the deceased, a family of high standing in the Gerrer community, showed themselves, with dignified restraint, to be overcome with grief. In the well-constructed tale of a heartless family who had disowned their daughter, the first brick fell when the heartbroken father gave his hesped. Contrary to the reports that Esti’s parents had turned their backs and left her to her fate, it became clear that through a lifetime of emotional difficulty, they had kept in touch with her up until her final days. The estrangement that caused her such anguish was only with her daughters, whom she loved deeply. And the daughter who eulogized her hinted at the reason for the estrangement in a very impressive hesped that revealed some of the background to the tragedy. 

Even the hostile media suddenly realized that their assumptions didn’t fit the reality that was unfolding before them when they came face-to-face with the family. This wasn’t the story of a religious war that they could use to attack chareidi society, but a very painful family drama that ended in tragedy. There were no extreme, untenable instructions from rabbis, or any of the other silly nonsense that reporters regurgitate out of the depths of their ignorance. It would be fitting, therefore, to let this story rest for the sake of the family’s privacy, and to pray that with Hashem’s help, the grieving family should find a way to gather up the painful shards and see only good from now on. 

How, though, does a libelous tale, feeding off of ignorance and preconceived ideas, get built up? I’ll allow Avishai Ben Chaim, a nonreligious reporter, to present the lesson. After attending the funeral, he wrote the following: 

“This is what injustice looks like. 

“We came to the funeral of Esti Weinstein z”l in order to see her evil, coldhearted family, and we ended up seeing a noble, sensitive family instead. We heard the eulogy of a compassionate, loving chareidi father, and an explanation and request for forgiveness from a sensitive, hurting chareidi daughter. That means that we have to rewrite the whole story of the past 48 hours and tell the truth: Everything you’ve heard about the maliciousness of the chareidi parties to the story is unfair and untrue. 

“Something about this idea of chareidi maliciousness didn’t sit well with me all along: 

“First there was the claim that the chareidim were going to steal the corpse of the deceased. I made a phone call, I spoke with the family, and they were shocked at the idea. ‘Where on earth did that come from? Chas v’shalom,’ they said, and I needn’t add that no one tried to steal the body. 

“Then they said that the daughters had cut off contact with their mother because of a cruel ruling from the rebbe. I called, I spoke with the family, and they promised me there was no such ruling. They explained that the rift was not a religious matter at all, but a complicated and delicate human matter. The daughters were angry that seven years ago, their mother got up one day and left them, and that was the cause of the estrangement. 

“Then they said that the chareidim were demanding, chalilah, that she be buried outside the fence. I called, I spoke with the family, and they were shocked at the idea. ‘She was a good mother, we love her,’ they told me. Bury her outside the fence? A total fabrication. “Then they said that the chareidim were demanding a small, chareidi levayah that would diminish the honor of the deceased. I called, I spoke with the family, and they told me that it wasn’t true, that they respected Esti’s choices, and they had no problem with allowing flowers and songs at her funeral. 

“Then they went to court to get a ruling that the funeral would be secular in tone (songs and flowers aren’t really a secular funeral), and they reported that the chiloni side won, and the judges ruled against the chareidi family. But the chareidi family didn’t even send anyone to the hearing to argue against them, and they took no part in the fight. They didn’t want to fight at all, and there was no need for anyone to win in court, because they respected Esti’s choices. 

“Then they said that the family was going to boycott the funeral, which is as hardhearted as can be. And today we saw a group of chareidi women, chassidos Gur, weeping as they came to the funeral, and a group of sad men, chassidei Gur, standing on the side quietly, sensitively, and courteously, waiting for the part when they would be allowed to participate. And then we heard the father eulogize his daughter, and the eldest daughter Racheli eulogize her mother, without any chareidi telling her that she can’t speak in such a forum because she is female. And then, then I realized that this week, injustice was done in Israel.” 

Those are the words of Avishai Ben Chaim, who can teach you a lesson about what to do when a nasty rumor about chareidim starts making the rounds. Before you rub your hands in glee and eagerly reach for the rumor, reach for the phone instead. You may discover, like Ben Chaim, that there is nothing behind the libel. So if you aren’t sold on the new universal law of “I have my agenda, don’t bother me with the facts,” then pick up the phone and verify the truth for yourself.