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 waters 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 about grand efforts to save the day by Rabbis and the troublemakers like me, yes, but all that aside 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.