Making Families a Priority
Adapted from a speech delivered on April 24, 2013 to an intimate group of supporters of the OTD community.
Some of you may have children, and surely you want the best for them. You want your children to be educated in the best institutions. You want them to build fulfilling careers, and to have successful relationships.
Close your eyes for one moment, and imagine your spouse, your parents, your neighbors, and your rabbi, all coming together to remove your children from your care, simply because you want these very basic good things for your children.
That is what is happening today to many of our friends.
First, let’s understand something about these families:
Most ultra-Orthodox Jews are pressured into marriages at 18, 19, or 20. Some of my friends were allowed only a single, ten-minute meeting with their groom- or bride-to-be before their parents announced them engaged. Once married, the pressure to have children is immediate and continuous, and these young men and women move almost instantly from sheltered childhoods to the responsibilities of parenthood.
Imagine now that you are a young ultra-Orthodox man or woman, married for several years, perhaps with a child or two, and you have an awakening. You have matured, you’re now more thoughtful and more aware of the world, and you realize that you no longer want to live an ultra-Orthodox life.
Furthermore, perhaps you no longer want that life for your children. You don’t want your son to have 12-hour school days of Talmud study, with no math or science or art or literature. You don’t want him to have to withstand the physical and emotional abuse common in many Charedi boys schools.
You don’t want your daughter taught that her life is to be defined only by motherhood. You don’t want her to be constantly scolded for a skirt that is an inch too short or a stocking not thick enough.
You want your sons and daughters to have the opportunities and ambitions that you yourself were denied.
But when you have that awakening and seek to follow through on it, it might come at a very great cost. If your spouse is not supportive—as is most commonly the case—your marriage will likely end. And then not only will you likely lose all say in how your children are raised, you will probably also lose custody and in some cases you may lose all contact with your children.
We see this time and again. The response of the ultra-Orthodox community is like a well-oiled machine. An entire communal apparatus is very quickly set in motion to support the spouse who remains within ultra-Orthodoxy and to keep away the one who has left—be it a mother or a father. Large sums of money are raised for legal funds and whatever else the ultra-Orthodox spouse needs in order to win sole legal and physical custody. Rabbis, friends, and even your own family members will testify in court that you, the parent who has left, is beset with a host of imagined physical and psychological ailments that render you an unfit parent.
When a child’s soul is at stake, the Orthodox community feels that not only is there is no prohibition against lying about the person who leaves, it is a mitzvah to do everything in their power to tear children away from a parent who has strayed.
And you, the parent? You probably have just lost your job in an Orthodox company, you probably have had little education so far, and your entire support network has just fallen apart. Who will now represent you against the high profile lawyer the community has hired against you? Who will defend you against the relentless harassment and intimidation that is sure to come? And who will be there to make sure you do not lose that connection to your precious children?
The courts? I’m sure everyone here is aware of the tremendous political power of the Orthodox community, which, you can be sure, has tremendous influence on courtroom environments. The community also relies on American values of tolerance and multiculturalism to bolster its case. Even the most progressive judges are often blinded by a romanticized notion of the ultra-Orthodox way of life. Yes, that is the heartbreaking irony; multiculturalism and religious tolerance touted by a community that has zero tolerance for any way of life other than its own.
This process is excruciating for women—mothers whose entire lives have been devoted to birthing and raising their children—who now risk having their babies taken from them by the powerful men who control the ultra-Orthodox community.
But do not imagine that it is not also excruciating for men, men who may be struggling to assert their rights as fathers in a culture that does not always encourage close relationships between fathers and children; men who might not instantly generate a judge’s sympathy the way a mother might, but who have also devoted their lives to raising those children, to providing for their material, financial and emotional needs, and who have just as much right to maintain a relationship with their children as the religious parent does.
In many of these cases, beaten by the relentless bullying of the other side, weighed down by financial pressures, worn down from the overwhelming stresses of trying to rebuild their own lives while fighting to hold onto their children, our friends have lost custody of their children. Some are grudgingly granted visitation rights–sometimes no more than once a month, or in some cases only a handful of times a year. Often, before scheduled visitation times, our friends are told: “the kids don’t want to see you,” or “the kids are sick,” or “they’re busy,” “they have other plans.” Often, when these men and women do get to meet with their children, these visits are “supervised” by an ultra-Orthodox person, there to ensure that nothing is said to influence the children. You can imagine how humiliating such arrangements are and also how they prevent meaningful relationships from developing during that one precious hour a month.
Certainly, we can respect the fact that one parent of these children has chosen to remain within their ultra-Orthodox community, and that parent, too, has parental rights. But choosing a self-determined life should not be a crime punishable by the loss of one’s children. At the very least, parents should be expected to compromise, to find ways that allow both parents to impart their values to their children. At the very least, both parents should have a right to maintain meaningful relationships with their children.
There are currently hundreds, maybe even thousands within the ultra-Orthodox community, men and women, who want nothing more than to live self-determined lives, but who are unable to do so because the risk of losing their children is too great.
And there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of heroic men and women who choose to leave despite the risks, who take on the fight, alone, with very little support and almost no resources, determined to make better lives for themselves and their children.
I am an outsider on this issue. Having left ultra-Orthodoxy as a teenager, I did not go through this experience myself. But when I began to meet the men and women whose lives were filled with the unimaginable sorrow of losing their children, whose hearts were broken from the injustice and from the trauma of that experience, I knew that I had to do something to help. Having lost my own parents for my choice to live a self-determined life, I could not turn my back on my friends’ children, who were now being ripped from their parents because of religious differences.
Two years ago, I set out to compile “The Family Issues Handbook,” a collection of the most essential information for those going through this very difficult process. The handbook was recently published by Footsteps, and this is an important very small first step. But we need to do a lot more. We need a legal team that can work closely with counselors, we need liaisons to the legal community, we need to raise awareness and to educate lawyers and therapists, we need to do whatever is necessary to ensure that those who choose to live self-determined lives are not punished for it by losing their children.
Those who support the people who leave do sacred work. You support heroes. Your compassion, your attention, your dedication is changing people’s lives. You plant a stake for justice and goodness in the world, and my heart is full of gratitude to know that my friends and I are not alone.
Please, as you continue this important work, I beg you to think about the men and women in these heart-wrenching situations, and consider making their cause a priority.
There are many pressing issues that our community need to address, but it is now time to focus on this one. If we don’t act now, we further neglect an issue that has been put aside for far too long.
Click here to download the “Family Issues Handbook,” compiled by the author and recently published by Footsteps. For further assistance, or to get involved, please contact Footsteps at 212-253-0890 x5, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.Printable Version