On the Fink Summit

On the Fink Summit

Friends have been asking me about the meeting I attended this Sunday. It was hosted by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink. I was there with nine people; five orthodox who are in some position of authority, five formerly orthodox who are in no position of authority whatsoever (we OTDs don’t believe in authority anyway, so there.) We met in a nice Rockland home, just a few minutes away from where I live. When I came inside, Hasidic time; which is a few minutes late, everyone was already assembled in the living room and people were making introductions. There were bottles of water and the participants were curling up their notes into long microphone-type rolls. I spotted my friend Leah Vincent amidst the odd crowd, in a black skirt and beige stockings, talking to some bearded guy about the parsha. This, I assure you, has not happened at any of my meetings with Leah before.

I know well some of the people who were there. Leah, Adina and Ushy are good friends. Fink is a good star I follow online. The other people had good beards, except Avital Chizhik. She had good hair; great hair. Fink had no hair and no beard. Anonymous had no hair, no beard and no name. As I said, there was great diversity.

I was introduced to Shafran and when I said I’d read his stuff, he said “and you’re still talking to me?”

His answer was NOT the style of small talk my own Satmar Rebbe would have made, which would have probably been to kick me out the door with his silver cane. See, my reference point is a fundamentalist rabbi, so I am perhaps not the best judge of seasoned politician rabbis. But from my shtetled perspective, I appreciate the Rabbis’ willingness to “talk.” In my journey I’ve very often turned to Rabbis for help. And I’ve been yelled at, talked down to, ignored, brought to tears. I’m always cynical of grand Rabbis efforts to save the day and the troublemakers like me, but this was an unusual opportunity to be able to talk to Rabbis, with the promise to at least brainstorm.

The meeting was not about vague talk. It was a platform to discuss concrete issues. There were no illusions about grand solutions, it was just an effort, another one of thousands from many of us, to try to figure out problems that seem insurmountable but are too important to ignore.

I’m not sure I can divulge what others spoke about, but I’ll tell you about my subject:

I spoke for the issue of custody wars that erupt when a parent leaves the faith. I made it very clear that I come from a Hasidic community and that I’m not sure of the degree to which these issues are relevant in mainstream orthodox or Yeshivish communities. I did not come with any illusions that there is accountability for hard-core Hasidic problems in the wider orthodox world. I came because I think the wider orthodox community needs to be aware of it and needs to stop turning a blind eye.

I have two girlfriends who lost custody in the Hasidic community. I myself was very close to losing custody, and only because I had some good luck and good timing am I lucky enough to raise my son (and I raise him on The True Off Derech, mind you.) My proposal was for there to be pressure from the larger Jewish community to stop tearing children away from one parent, especially, excuse my old-fashioned values, mothers. My proposal for action was this: that we should look at the issue the same we we look at the aguna issue. The aguna issue is morally unjust but created by religion (only as a friend pointed out, the aguna problem is an imaginary construct and using kids as pawns isn’t.) Both aguna and parental alienation are incredibly tragic contortions of religiosity used in bitter divorces. If two people want to destroy each other and their children because their marriage went sour, our hands are in many ways tied. But in some segments of the Orthodox religious community, religion is the tool through which the destruction happens. And it is such a powerful, effective tool. The ability for the religious community to empower injustice, petty fighting, self-destruction, bitter divorces, is incredible. The tool must be stopped.

Here’s how a religious community is so effective:
(note, I use the Hasidic community in my example because it is what I KNOW. It may be true to some degree too in other branches of orthodoxy.)

  1. Rabbis and askonim get actively involved in ostracization, shaming and bullying the OTD parent.
  2. The money poured into the legal system by the religious community just buys the legal victory.
  3. Family court judges are elected, and the religious community can bargain with a huge bloc vote.
  4. The buddy-buddy friendships between the influential lawyers who know how to work the legal system (take Eric Thorsen) and Hasidic community is a mutually beneficial union that makes lawyers rich and the community successful even while destroying little children. Often these goons don’t even go through the legal system. They use “mediation”, i.e. legal language intimidation with rabbinic power, to get their way.
  5. People who leave a sheltered community (especially if it is the only community they know) are emotionally very vulnerable and this is exploited to throw a convenient label of ill mental health on them. Borderline and BPD and Depression crop up in forensics and legal arguments before you know it.
  6. The schools and chedarim cooperate with this war as well; threatening to throw the children out as a leveraging chip. The court hates getting children expelled, so judges are very influenced by the argument that the parent who is OTD is causing children to be removed from schools.
  7. The wider Orthodox world does not offer a yeshiva in its place. Or any help for the leaving parent. This means that the choice of a middle ground does not exist. You either stay in the Hasidic community or drop orthodoxy entirely. And the very need to make a radical change is very off-putting to courts.
  8. Courts love status quo. A status quo designed by a system that marries its kids off at 18 isn’t a fair status quo though. It doesn’t allow for personal growth.
  9. People who leave Orthodoxy often lack a support network. This is exploited by lawyers and therapist directly and indirectly.
  10. And most sadly; the children are often poisoned against the leaving parent and they themselves wage the war against their own mother or father. How terribly sad.

These are issues that few people know about. Number ten is only part of the list. Please, feel free to add an eleven, twelve and thirteen and thirty.

I care not only because I retained custody through the skin of my teeth and was so close to losing my son, but because of the heartbreak I’ve experienced through friends who were mulled ruthlessly by people who commit injustices under religious guise.

I am not saying this has much to do with Shafran and Fink. But in the same way that the orthodox community is to some degree effective in raising awareness and shaming the man who refuses to give a get, we can try to tackle the issue of custody cases. We can try to stop making this about religion versus no religion and make it about the children’s wellbeing.

I got five minutes for my presentation. Each presentation was followed by a conversation. There was of course, no objection to the problems I raised, and no solutions either, but I could hope that this overlooked issue will get some attention in the Orthodox community.

As we were eating dinner Shafran asked the old question — why those who leave Hasidism “go all the way” instead of staying to some degree religious. And it was an opportunity for me to bring up the problem of the complacency among the Orthodox, of almost enabling the Hasidic world. I myself tried to become mainstream orthodox, but no Yeshiva would accept my son. They didn’t like a Yiddish speaking little boy with a Hasidic background. Yes, I tried and was denied, turned away time and again. The orthodox don’t like the whole idea of former Hasidim, that was my experience. Let’s be honest, there’s a silent prejudice the way there is among the Satmar towards Yemenites. I lived for three years in an orthodox community and tried to integrate. My son didn’t make a single friend on our block (in fact, I paid a neighbor to play with him) and I felt like a complete outsider, a few rungs down and out. I got none of this type of condescending treatment EVER from the secular Jewish world.

The orthodox community has a silent respect for the Hasidic, or maybe a desire to see it survive and thrive. That is all good and well. I want to see my Hasidic family and friends thrive happily too. But it does not mean it is acceptable to turn a blind eye to problems like: parental alienation, no yeshiva for children, etc. Contrary, if you care and want to see a community prosper, then you don’t ignore where it bleeds. The orthodox world needs to be aware of these problems and make an effort to help address it. We all need to. This is not the type of problem we can stand back and watch “respectfully.”

I am hopeful that next time I contact one of these rabbis because a friend needs help in a legal war, they’d be a little more engaged. They’d speak up, make some phone calls, put some pressure. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz has been very effective in influencing even the Hasidic community on the issue of sexual abuse, because rabbis who really want to can do so with unique influence. Maybe the solution isn’t magical, but it is anytime better than the silent pain we have now.

After we all talked we had dessert of chocolate rum balls and cookies with a chocolate swirl on top. We all agreed to finish strong like that.

  • Chaya k.
    Posted at 12:17h, 13 May Reply

    I am so sad to hear about the terrible struggles you went through as a mother, no one should be victims in such way.I think you raise important questions we need to address, I was really sad the orthodox community let you down.
    I live in Jerusalem and you are welcome for shabbos by me, and believe me I would make sure your son would be excepted into a yeshiva!

  • Frieda Vizel
    Posted at 12:53h, 13 May Reply

    It’s different in Israel. More room to be Jewish many ways, I think.

  • Chaya k.
    Posted at 13:06h, 13 May Reply

    I actually made aliyah a few years ago…yes it’s very different in Israel, yet if we take a moment and look inside our community deeply and honestly, we need to improve and be more tolerant to people choices in life, not reject them but try to make some real changes, trust me orthodox Jews in Israel have still a long way to go…
    Thank you for speaking your truth, this time before shavuot is a time to improve oneself to be worthy of our Torah! I hope reading this can improve my love for each Jew ….sorry for being so mushy! And thanks
    for replying!

  • Frieda Vizel
    Posted at 16:12h, 13 May Reply

    I feel the need to clarify. People in the Orthodox community did not ignore me, no, of course not. Many even made an effort to invite me for shabbes lunch. But I was asked by almost all neighbors why I had moved to their neighborhood and not moved to somewhere where people were more like me. The prejudices I felt were a lot more of an undercurrent. Let’s be open; if a Hasidic girl off the boat from Monroe moves into your neighborhood – hurt, shaky, afraid, no self confidence – everyone looks at her like a nebech. She’s not an equal.
    And full disclosure; after two years I stopped trying, stopped attending shabbes lunch, stopped going to shul, and just accepted that this was a socioeconomic class that called for a husband, a better financial situation, things I didn’t have.

  • Mindy
    Posted at 22:26h, 13 May Reply

    Hi, Frieda. Thanks for posting this. I’m sorry you went through what you did with your son and with ostracization. I am from Boro Park, from a “modern Chassidish” family. Chassidish in many ways, but also completely exposed to movies, books, Internet etc, and raised by my immediate family to think for ourselves. I went to Bais Yaakov.
    Boro Park was not for me, let’s just say, and I now live in Memphis TN, a Modern Orthodox community, and would consider myself Modern Orthodox. So regarding what Mr. Fink said about retaining some level of religiosity, it seems to me that places outside the NY/NJ area and other highly populated Jewish places are much more accepting than those concentrated places. I can only speak for Memphis, since that’s where I have been living for several years, but for example, there is only one Orthodox school here, and there’s no such thing as not accepting a Jewish child. Whoever wants to go, goes.
    Coming from Monroe, yes, it would take some time to get acculturated and used to the norms of a new community, but you won’t find that judgmentalism here in Memphis. At least, I have not experienced it in my 3.5 years here.
    Going to check out the rest of your blog now.

  • Chaya K
    Posted at 03:04h, 14 May Reply

    interesting! I also grew up in boro park went to bais yakov…evetually got a masters in social work from Yeshiva University and moved to Israel,my children go to religious Zionist schools…small change in direction..;)
    While driving to work with my husband this morning we were discussing the importance of REAL tolerance and social justice, and how important the concept of “derech eretz kodmah latorah” is
    and how real the mourning , lack of love and tolerance , rabbi akivahs students were missing is relevant in our generation.
    We were thinking of ways to contribute and make some changes in our community,Frieda brings up real problems we MUST address!
    Thank you for such honest writing,
    with hope you will have a lot of “nachas” from your son who I am sure will learn from your courage and strength !

  • miri
    Posted at 07:05h, 14 May Reply

    this is EXACTLY the game plan used by the hasidic community.Im watching it being played out with my own children.I am not OTD but I am a BT and DID NOT leave orthodoxy but since I got engaged to marry again there is and even more aggressive push from the other side to try to prove Im marrying a goy and not religious etc.My daughter was almost kicked out of school because another girl brought in a childbirth book and they accused my daughter of supposedly saying”babies come from a mothers stomach” they keep going on and on with their fight.I want my children to have an emotionally safe and stable home.He can not provide this but seems to think this shouldnt matter.Many from that side brag on the street that they will take my kids and make sure I dont even get visitation…Who wins there? certainly not the children. Children deserve 2 parents .If one parent has mental issues then the contact must be limited on that side,as has been in my daughters case(crazy,but not my son.he has full visitation with him still).The goal should be keeping the lives of the children stable and nurturing.Why are so -called religious leaders who care about our childrens nashamas so much supporting these tactics???

  • Frieda Vizel
    Posted at 07:49h, 14 May Reply

    That’s very sad. Thank you for sharing Miri. Sadly, more should be done to ENABLE parents, not to sabotage them.

  • anonymous
    Posted at 09:40h, 14 May Reply

    It is so sad to hear that the reason you dropped orthodoxy was lack of acceptance. I wish you continued success in raising him in a world that has not rejected you . You have custody and don’t mention that you had any legal battles to win that. I understand why you slander the legal system as you are entitled to your own opinion, but what is your experience with Eric Thorsen anyways? You should only speak for yourself and remember that no two cases are ever alike.

  • Rockland Mom
    Posted at 21:47h, 14 May Reply

    Anonymous, I believe Frieda did mention that she has two other friends who recently felt the wrath of the unholy alliance between Rockland County attorney Eric Thorson and his rabbinical fixer, recruiter of incompetent therapists and biased schools staff.
    No two cases are similar, indeed. But all Hassidic cases in Rockland County family court are equal in that the children’s best interest takes back seat to winning on behalf of the religious parent. Eric Thorson has overseen and defended cases on behalf of parents who engaged in vicious parental alienation, ordered by Hassidic rabbis. Tragically for the children, rabbinically-sanctioned and community-financed alienation has been the lethal weapen of Thorson.

  • Mother
    Posted at 04:23h, 15 May Reply

    Anonymous you seem to be defending Eric Thorson, and I’m curious about the reason for that.
    As a mother who is currently going through something similar to what Miri describes above – I can fully attest to how horrendous it is for your children to be ripped away from you while you’re helplessly watching the process unfold, with very few options to reverse or repair the damage. This is the kind of thing that until you experience it, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to lbelieve: you think you’re immune; you think it happens only to “them”, those people (who probably deserve this someway or another); you think that you’re beyond it, it’ll never happen to you — No, your not perfect, you’re human, average human, and yes, you make human mistakes, but you have a pretty good relationship with your children and you can’t imagine these children, your own children, to be turned against you in the way that they – mine – have been in a matter of mere weeks.
    In my case it IS Eric Thorsen who’s representing the other side. It’s Eric Thorsen together with the Monsey rabbonim he works with hand in hand, of which, Eric, or his buddy rov, make no secret of at all.
    In the end the ones who undoubtedly suffer most are the children. At this point, (being that I’m not much of the fighter, which has, unfortunately, allowed for things to deteriorate to this extent) I don’t know how much I care to “win” custody. All I want is to see my children emerge from this with a shred of emotional well-being in tact. This, I have no doubt, requires the maintenance of a healthy relationship between the children and BOTH parents – even the vilified, evil, “goyta” (twos months ago), “neglectful” (current) one, in this case, me.

  • Frieda Vizel
    Posted at 04:51h, 15 May Reply

    The comments are better than the post. Thanks “mothers” for sharing.
    Anonymous — unfortunately what you have here is anecdotal, but I know them to be true. Perhaps one day much more of this will come out. When it comes to these issues, because of privacy and caution, speaking out becomes very difficult. So a lot is not known.

  • On the Rabbi/OTD Summit & Other Missives
    Posted at 20:36h, 18 May Reply

    […] finally there was Frieda Vizel. Frieda wrote about it on her own blog and it’s a good thing because until her post people were taking themselves […]

  • Hannah @A Mother in Israel
    Posted at 08:27h, 19 May Reply

    Excellent post, especially the list of issues relating to custody in situations where one parent leaves the community. Thank you.

  • soso
    Posted at 03:31h, 20 May Reply

    “And most sadly; the children are often poisoned against the leaving parent and they themselves wage the war against their own mother or father. How terribly sad.”
    I feel with you and all the parents who are affected on this point.
    However, I think that this is quite inherent in ultra-orthodox culture: they make so many efforts to set themselves apart from the rest of the world, that they automatically view themselves as superior and the rest of the world as inferior, if not evil. so even without any intentional effort to paint the non-religious parent as evil, the children are exposed to so many associations of “non-religious” and “evil” that they will draw their own conclusions. Same problem applies to children of BT, by the way, who have “evil” grandparents. Either they will question the system, because their non-religious relatives are not evil, or they will believe the system and distance themselves from the non-religious relatives.
    for that to change, the whole community outlook must be changed.

  • Mindy
    Posted at 00:25h, 21 May Reply

    Miri and Mother, I am so sorry for what you are going through. It must be horrible. No, it is horrible.
    Jew in the City is starting to do something about this and I think it was inspired by this post.

  • Anonymous
    Posted at 23:02h, 22 May Reply

    I must agree with Mindy that some some of this stems from the culture around NYC / NJ. In a smaller city (my experience is in the Midwest), Orthodoxy is more open-minded and welcoming. When the total Jewish population in town is not as much, then each new addition is valued much more. In my community, you might be looked as as a nebech, but that does not make people want to ostracize you, it makes the women want to gather around an help and teach you.

  • SDK
    Posted at 21:49h, 08 June Reply

    There are still a lot of secular Jews in rockland county and they don’t like corruption. You need to take this BS to the larger Jewish community and get rid of him. Play hardball. If you can’t do it because of your custody battle then find others who can do it for you.

  • Susan
    Posted at 11:05h, 12 June Reply

    Wow, I’m speechless. I hope this group continues. Maybe somebody should put out an online journal of your meetings such as a Klal Perspectives type. Everybody deserves to be heard! Kudos to the Rabbonim who sat down to listen to their pain.

  • Cheskie
    Posted at 12:06h, 24 June Reply

    Hi Freida,
    I understand your pain. Yes, you might have a point regarding the bad treatment you got.
    But please please dont play the “whats best for the children” game.
    Face it, you are totally biased on that one.
    You know very well about the millions of Jews, men women and children, who over the past 2 thousand years, have let themselves be killed al kiddush hashem rather than transgress the 3 cardinal aveiros – Avodah Zorah, gili aroyos, and shfichas dumim. Think Inquisition, Cemlinski pogroms etc etc.
    Be minimally honest and at least acknowledge that from an Orthodox perspective the best interest of a child (or adult) is to care not only for the limited time they’ll be living on this planet, but for ikar life that is of their neshama for eternity.
    Besides is it really good for a child to live with a unstable mother who cant settle down in ANY community she tries?
    I love a you as a Jew and as a human being.
    Stay strong and be honest.
    A caring yid

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