I learned in an article by Shulem Deen in The Tablet, that a young American Jewish woman, Deb Tambor, took her life last Friday; while the reasons are not clear, she apparently was suffering the loss of her children, denied access by her former husband and the Hasidic community in which she grew up, and which she left.
Deen’s article tackles the painful phenomenon of individuals who leave their Hasidic communities, and frequently lose not only custody, but contact with, their children.
Like me, Deb was part of the growing community of ex-haredim, men and women who have undertaken difficult journeys away from ultra-Orthodoxy. I do not know all the specifics in Deb’s case, but I do know that, like me, she was denied meaningful contact with her children because she chose to leave her Hasidic community.
The particulars of her situation were unusually sad: She was allowed to see her children only once a month, under supervision of a family member who remained within the community where she grew up. She was not allowed to take her children out of the Hasidic enclave where they live. The visits were frequently canceled; the children had weddings and bar mitzvahs and other events to attend, and she could always visit with them next month, she was told. She felt humiliated when they began to call her by her first name, Devorah. She wanted them to keep calling her “Mommy,” but “Mommy” was a title given to somebody else—the Hasidic woman her ex-husband married.
Unfortunately, this is a phenomenon which anyone working in the field in Israel, and among observant communities abroad, is familiar with.
The author of the article also suffered as a result of a change in lifestyle:
Married for nearly 15 years, my wife and I chose, in December of 2007, to part ways. Our divergent worldviews and religious differences had brought acrimony and tension into our day-to-day lives, and it had created an untenable situation in our home. While I was committed to maintaining religious observance when around family and community, I was no longer a believer. My wife, however, could not stomach a heretic in our home, and I could not stomach her scrutiny of our credit card statements for charges at non-kosher restaurants.
We agreed to resolve matters about the children between us, but several months later, I found myself in family court, facing complaint after complaint on minor matters of religion and Hasidic custom. I was wearing jeans when I picked up the children, one petition read. I fed them matzo on Passover that was square and machine-baked, rather than round and handmade, read another. There was concern that I might take the children to “atheist places”—which I could only surmise meant natural history museums or maybe a movie theater. And so she wanted me out of our children’s strictly Hasidic lives.
The complaints were brought by my ex-wife, but I knew also that community “experts” were involved. One community member in particular, one of my ex-wife’s relatives, tasked himself as overseer of my children’s fates. As he told one of my own family members: “We may not have a legal case. But we can beat him down emotionally and financially. He’ll have to give up eventually.”
And that’s the real kicker: when the community decides to get behind the “religious” – or even “more religious” of the parents – it can dedicate tremendous resources, financial and otherwise, to ensure the children’s souls are not in danger.
What I found surprising in the article was the extent to which the secular justice system in the States does not adequately protect these parents and the children.
I remember laughing when I heard it. It sounded ludicrous. A family court judge could not rule on the basis of religion, I imagined. I was unaware that even with a strong case, custody battles could cost many tens of thousands of dollars, which the community could easily raise but I could not. I was unaware that, when held in Rockland County, N.Y.—a hub of American ultra-Orthodoxy, less than an hour north of New York City—custody battles required rabbis, community leaders, and Orthodox family therapists on your side. I was unaware that family courts were also part of the local political machinery and that elections and constituencies were never far from a judge’s mind. I was unaware that my relatively meager resources were no match for a powerfully resourceful community with an ideological stake in the future of my children. Most of all, I was naive about the powers of religious extremism to control the minds of children themselves.
Here I think the author needs to understand that it’s not uniquely “religious extremism” which controls the minds of children. A familiarity with parental alienation teaches us that, perhaps counter intuitively, one of the easiest things in the world to do is control children’s minds and create alienation. At the same time, one of the most difficult things to do is undo this control.
“My children will never reject me,” I remember saying. They adored me. Later I discovered it was more complicated than that. When a child is taught that a parent is wicked, the child’s love for the parent does not subside immediately. What the child mostly feels instead is shame. Shame over their own feelings of affection for someone they have been told is a bad person. Shame over their biological association with that bad person. Embarrassment over what people would say were they to observe or think about their association with this bad person. It is only natural that the child then wants nothing but to withdraw from the source of all that shame.
I think Deen makes a very good point about the shame that the children are made to feel and internalize, shame that not only deprives them of the love and affection of one of their parents, but shame which has an impact on their very sense of self. And this is where the “do-gooders” and well meaning members of the community are causing damage to these children. Where parents make different life choices, the children need to be given the tools to navigate these rough waters, to find the qualities in the parent who has “changed” which can strengthen them.
Parental alienation is not unique to Hasidic custody disputes, but it would be a mistake to think that in these cases it is merely a private family matter. Recent years have shown case after case in which rabbis, attorneys, and family therapists collaborate to keep children away from a non-observant parent. Facing the institutional power and resources of the Hasidic community, these parents often find themselves crumbling before their cases can get off the ground.
I had watched, after my family’s issues were brought into court, how my children’s attitudes changed markedly. They grew withdrawn in my presence, eating dinner in silence and refusing the books and games I had bought them. My boisterous bunch of three girls and two boys, ages 6 to 14, who had previously seemed always to be crawling all over me at all times, began to speak to one another in hushed tones, their attitudes subdued, looking to each other awkwardly and to me barely at all. They began to inspect the labels on food products, and then picked at their dinners reluctantly. When I asked what was wrong, they turned away, looked at the clock, anxious to leave. Finally, my 7-year-old son looked me in the eye. “Mommy says you want to turn us into goyim.”
One woman I know in one of New York’s Hasidic communities had her three children taken away from her after she was accused of inadequate religious observance. Her major crimes: Her husband caught her texting on Shabbat and socializing with non-Hasidic friends. Her rabbi helped her husband hire lawyers and other “experts” to guide him on how to keep the children away from her. When she went to the rabbi, pleading for him to hear her out, he refused to listen.
“Your yiddishkeit is lacking,” the rabbi told her—a woman in her 30s. “Fix that, and we’ll talk.”
Again, the issue of a change and difference in lifestyle is an issue which cannot be dismissed; to pretend that there is no impact on a child whose parent has rejected the lifestyle in which he or she has been raised is disingenuous. We need a serious discussion about how to navigate these waters while protecting the best interests of the children, including the ongoing relationship with both parents. Further, it would be interesting and very useful to research children of divorce in the observant community, and to find out which families maintain meaningful contact with both parents, and which families produce children who are alienated.
In my case, I didn’t lose in court. I lost my children’s hearts and with them, very nearly, my sanity. I had been many things in adulthood—a husband, an entrepreneur, a computer programmer, a blogger—but for 14 years, fatherhood defined me most. When my children withdrew their affections, I no longer knew who I was.
Like Deb, I came to a low place. After months of harrowing court appearances, during which, by court order, a judge limited my contact with my children until the issue could go to trial, I felt drained. My children, especially the older ones, were open about not wanting to keep up contact, clearly influenced by the people around them. I ended up hospitalized for a time, depressed and suicidal and angry at the world and myself. Most of all, at myself. I could not understand how it had all happened. I could not understand how I had lost my children before the fight had even begun. I blamed myself for not having foreseen it, for not being better prepared, for lack of cunning and craftiness, to match the qualities so deftly used by the other side.
When I was released from the hospital, I was emotionally stable. I had forgiven myself for some of my failures too and accepted responsibility for the things I was able to change. But my resolve had weakened. My fight was gone.
“We can beat him down emotionally and financially,” the Hasid who had placed himself in charge had said.
I think that the situation in the Family Court in Israel is a little different, first and foremost because it’s less trial-focused, and more focused on finding solutions for the family. In the Beit Din, things are much different once there is a discrepancy in the level of observance of each of the parents, and I’ve written about this here. In the Israel Family Court, litigants are not allowed to bring their own psychological evaluation, and all experts must be appointed directly by the court, which paves the way for a more objective view of the parents.
However, any lawyer in any field is aware of the war of attrition which Deen describes in his article: just keep throwing enough money into the case, keep filing meaningless petitions and appeals, and wear the other side down emotionally and financially. At some point, as in many parental alienation cases, the parent simply gives up. The value of this is in the future, when the alienated parent can, under the best of circumstances, reconnect with the alienated child, and let him know that he did his best to fight for contact.
Poignantly, Deen describes his own painful experience of paternalistic community members insisting that they are not trying to limit contact, and that they only want the best for the children:
I, too, had turned to rabbis for help, but few were sympathetic. “Don’t you agree that your children are better off without you?” one rabbi asked, eyeing my too-small yarmulke and my shaven beard.
I asked a friend to arrange a meeting with the Hasid. I would take what they would give me.
We met at a local park in Rockland County, three miles down from New Square, where my children still lived with their mother. We sat across from each other at a picnic table, while a group of young Hasidic kids twirled on a merry-go-round nearby. The Hasid in front of me shook his head. He wanted to clear up a misconception. “We would never keep children from a father.” He was so very surprised, he said, that I’d thought otherwise. “That would be incredibly cruel,” he said.
Surprised, I asked what he had in mind for an agreement.
“What we would like,” he said with a salesman’s flourish, “is for them to see you twice a year.”
I stared at him in disbelief. He tried to explain that this was best for the children. I had been prepared to take whatever I got, but I could not accept this.
“You are aware that they don’t want to see you, yes?”
I said nothing. The man thought for a bit, then offered four times a year.
I asked for six.
“Fine,” he said. He offered his hand, then pulled it back. “But only the three youngest.”
I bit my tongue, and nodded.
“And only until they’re 13,” he said. “Later it’s difficult. Especially for the boys, after bar mitzvah. You understand, of course.”
Unquestionably, one of the issues that the communities need to grapple with is why they are so insecure about their own lifestyles and belief systems that they cannot conceive of a middle ground which allows for ongoing meaningful contact, which protecting the belief system in which the child is being raised. And, is anyone thinking about how sturdy that belief system will remain once the child grows up and realizes that he or she was deprived of a parent in order to protect these beliefs?