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.”
In another recent case, an Orthodox psychiatrist in Rockland County, Dr. Richard Price, testified that it would be “tremendously difficult” for children raised religious to keep living with a non-religious parent. A judge cited the psychiatrist’s testimony, giving it “great weight,” when ruling to remove custody from Kelly Myzner, an ex-Hasidic mother of three.
Hasidic communities, so adept at organizing large-scale communal efforts of all kinds—setting up volunteer services such as Hatzolah, Shomrim, and Chaverim; bringing kosher meals to Jewish hospital patients all over New York City; getting out the vote for public officials who will bring benefits to the community—these same communities sometimes come together for purposes less noble. In Williamsburg, Monsey, and Kiryas Joel, flyers often call on people to “save the children” from a parent gone astray. Common tropes are used to stir hearts; most often the image of a young boy, scissors Photoshopped menacingly over his sidecurls, beseeching people to raise money for legal fees to keep away the bad parent.
Parents who have left the system often stand little chance. “It is often one individual fighting a highly organized system,” said Michael Jenkins, the program director at Footsteps, an organization that offers support and assistance to people who have left ultra-Orthodoxy. “People would be truly surprised to hear how things play out in a country where there is separation between state and religion.”
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 was between jobs, and my reserve funds were quickly depleting. The legal fees were exorbitant, and I was quickly sinking into unmanageable debt. Even if I was prepared to continue fighting, I had no money left.
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.”
I didn’t understand. It didn’t matter.
One day last April, I asked Facebook friends for ideas for father-son activities. The years had passed. I hadn’t seen my two oldest children in five years. Of the three younger ones, one turned 13 and then another, and they stopped coming. Now I was left only with my youngest; I was set to see him the first time on his own in a few days. He’d been 6 when my wife and I were divorced. Now he was 11. Unlike the older ones, he barely remembered me as a real father.
Friends offered dozens of suggestions—amusement parks, nature trails, Chuck E. Cheese. It was Deb’s comments, however, that stood out for me. She suggested a local law-enforcement museum and a nearby ferry crossing. Then she added this:
I don’t get to take my son out of New Square, but knowing his inquisitive mind I’d take him to Alto Music; he’d enjoy exploring all the different musical instruments. And then maybe find a quiet place for a game of chess. They’re very into that.
It struck me that in this gentle, casual comment, Deb was not so much offering a suggesting but had lapsed into a moment of fantasy, imagining what she herself might do with her own son, if she were able. But she was not allowed, of course, and it offered a heartbreaking glimpse into the grace with which she carried her struggles.
Perhaps one day Deb’s own son will read his mother’s words above. She could not take him out of New Square, but maybe he’ll find his own way. Maybe he’ll go to Alto Music, in nearby Monsey, on his own, or with his own son or daughter, check out the instruments. Perhaps he’ll find someplace to play a game of chess afterwards. His mother thought he’d be into it.
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