Losing faith, and one’s own children
To narrate the world of Chassidic Jews – the most orthodox fringe of Hebraism – is no easy task. We are dealing with a complex universe, made of customs, rituals, and unintelligible languages for those living in secular realities such as Western cities.
Recently, their traditions have been exposed in the media thanks to the world-wide success of Unorthodox, a miniseries produced by Netflix and filmed in Yiddish, inspired by the homonymous autobiography of Deborah Feldman – a Jewish woman who chose to abandon her Chassidic community and live outside the claustrophobic rules imposed by it. At the same time, the fame of the miniseries has also revived from the Netflix archives the documentary One of Us, which recounts the stories of three individuals who have left the ultra-Orthodox groups of Brooklyn.
The ultra-Orthodox communities are characterised by a deep traditionalism and base their lives on the sacred scriptures of the Torah and Talmud, the main source of reference also from a legal point of view. There are several deep-seated, uncontroverted customs to respect, which are often demeaning to women, whose only role is to get married and give birth to many children to sustain the community’s future. Education is a male prerogative and it is based on religious texts only, in an attempt to limit any connection with the external world (Internet is obviously banned).
Several Chassidic Jews live and die happily within their communities, but others do not adapt so easily to this lifestyle imposed from birth. Some choose to explore the outside world, others grow up and realize that their Jewish faith is not enough to accept the community’s impositions, still others discover a different sexuality from the one they should accept compulsorily.
Leaving the community is a very hard process, both practically and psychologically. Usually, Chassidic Jews are not “taught” how to live in the present day and the impact with the outside world is always strong, because Orthodox culture only considers it in an extremely negative light. In addition, those who leave remain alone: they have to give up their family and friends, who are forced to sever every connection with those who decide to change their lives.
But the greatest tragedy is what happens, when it comes to divorce, between the parent who “leaves” and the children who remain inside the community.
If divorce cases with minors involved are complex enough in the secular society, in the Chassidic world the legal battle is played at another level.
When civil courts face controversies for the legal custody of minors, they usually attempt to find a solution that does not upend the children’s lives. In case of ultra-Orthodox Jews, the child’s removal from religious life is what impacts the most, according to judges. A parent’s rights, then, can quickly become secondary, especially if the minors’ status quo involves precise daily religious habits and rituals.
Ostracised by relatives and friends, those parents who leave the community cannot find any help at a legal or economic level, since their social life is almost always confined to their Chassidic group. Nobody can testify on their behalf, or aid them financially in their legal battle. In the communities, instead, financial liquidity is never scarce thanks to actual crowdfunding, organised for this purpose, which allows the community to hire better lawyers and carry on with the trial. Often, the community tries to discredit the parental abilities of the person involved, spreading gossip that can damage the father’s or mother’s reputation.
For the parent leaving the fold, then, the trauma goes beyond the private dissolution of a marriage and family. "Their job gets in jeopardy, their home. If they are renting from a religious landlord, surveillance goes up. Each child is considered by the community as a Jewish soul that cannot be lost" stated in an article by the New York Times Chani Getter, a program manager at Footsteps, an organization that offers support to formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Parental alienation is not typical of the Chassidic world only, but the difference in these cases is that parents are not dealing with a mere private family issue. In recent years, rabbis, lawyers, and family therapists have worked together to keep the children away from a non-observant parent. Practically, a single individual has to stand against a highly organized system. Confronted with institutional power and the Chassidic community’s resources, these parents do not stand a chance, psychologically defeated even before their cases can be discussed in court. And if, by chance, the parent manages to obtain at least monthly visits, it is often hard to get the counterpart to respect the agreements.
The case of Etty Aush – a formerly Chassidic young woman from Brooklyn whose story is told in the documentary One of Us – is emblematic.
In 2016, the Supreme Court of County King placed Etty’s seven children in the provisional custody of other Chassidic relatives. Etty had left the community a year before the custody hearing, also because of alleged abuses from her ex-husband. However, while the man’s violent behaviour did not draw much attention, Etty’s new lifestyle was thoroughly inspected during trial – because of her homosexuality and deviation from religious practice. During the hearing, one of the questions even involved a pair of socks Etty gave one of her children, which were adorned with snowmen and therefore linked to non-Jewish Christmas.
During trial, Etty’s family and close friends testified against her. Doctor Adam Raff, the forensic psychiatrist assigned to the case, testified instead that the children “would have suffered emotionally and in their process of growth if separated from the mother", stating that “all the children should remain in their mother’s custody” because “the emotional bond between Etty and her three older sons was the basis of their stability”.
This notwithstanding, the judge chose to renew custody to the already involved relatives for an indefinite period of time. Etty tried to appeal in accordance with Article 10 of the US Family Court Act, which demands evidence of neglect or abuse from the mother for such a ruling. The New York Supreme Court, however, rejected her petition and confirmed the ruling by the court of first instance, de facto separating the woman from her children.
To date, Etty has chosen to take a break from her legal battles, but her future is still open to debate. Her last chance could be represented by her sons’ coming of age: hopefully, they will try to get in touch with her. However, since Etty is an “apikoros” – that is, someone who has rejected the rabbinic tradition – their choice won’t be easy.