6 Mar 2011

Children in London's ultra-Orthodox community have no personal, intellectual or religious freedom

The Telegraph - UK February 25, 2011

Inside the private world of London's ultra-Orthodox Jews

London's insular, close-knit Haredi Jews live by age-old traditions, yet are flourishing in the face of the 21st-century pressures

By Mick Brown

On my way to meet Isaac Kornbluh, who runs the Schomrim neighbourhood patrol (the word means 'guardians’) in the Haredi Jewish enclave in Stamford Hill, I managed to misplace his address and found myself lost.

The Haredi – strictly-Orthodox Jews who trace their ancestry to 18th-century Eastern Euope – are one of the most close-knit, insular and private communities in Britain. More than 20,000 live in Stamford Hill, in north-east London. But it is a community, it seems, in which everybody knows everybody, and where a stranger is noticed.

As I fumbled through my notebook, a woman stopped. 'You look lost,’ she said helpfully. Ah, I wanted Isaac? First left, then right, number 16.

It is a community too in which everybody seems to be in a hurry.

Earlier that afternoon, I had been sitting on Clapton Common, a small park adjacent to a busy main road. Stamford Hill is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood, but even here the Haredi are strikingly conspicuous. Across the park stood a large, Victorian brick building - a centre of learning, perhaps, or a synagogue, and men and boys moved back and forth across the park, all dressed in variations of the traditional Haredi dress - the high-crowned black hats, ringlets and frock-coats.

In the 18th century, the Hasidim - the largest group of Haredi Jews, who comprise perhaps ninety per cent of the Stamford Hill community - were noted for the ecstatic fervour of their worship. 'They conduct themselves like madmen,’ railed a denunciation by the rabbinical authorities of the day, 'and explain their behaviour by saying that in their thoughts they soar in the most far-off worlds. When they pray...they raise such a din that the walls quake.’ But on the streets of Stamford Hill they looked as solemn as undertakers, hurrying purposefully along, their gazes fixed firmly ahead, a world apart from from the idlers outside the betting shop, the hoodies loitering on the green.

Beneath their hats and locks they had a scholar’s pallor. Many, one noticed, wore spectacles. It was once assumed that it was strain brought on by the long hours of study in the yeshive, or Torah schools, that affected the eyesight of so many Haredi men. However, a study in Israel suggested that much of the blame lay with shockelling - the fervent rocking backward and forward motion that students make as they read the texts, and which causes an incessant change of focus in the eyes leading to myopia.

'Let me tell you something,’ said Isaac Kornbluh. He was a short stocky man of 61, grey bearded, curls protruding from his yarmulke. He was dressed in a white shirt, the tzitzit, or ritual tassels - a reminder of God’s commandments - dangling over his black trousers. 'People in this community have lots of children, and they’re always busy. 24 hours a day. They’re going to the synagogue, going to study, to work, to see their family, back to the synagogue, social events in the evening. It’s a very full life.’

Kornbluh is, by his own description 'a fitness fanatic’ who jogs five or six miles each day - not a type, it seems, much found in the Haredi community.

'I try telling my friends, you need to live healthy. They say, “I’ve got no time...”. I maintain, if a person wants something he’ll find the time. I say to them, in the morning after you go to pray, go out for a brisk walk...’ He laughed. '“Got no time....”’

While mainstream Judaism in Britain is in decline, as people 'marry out’ and abandon the faith, the Haredi community is expanding at a phenomenal rate.

A report by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 2008 estimated the size of Britain’s strictly Orthodox community at close to 30,000 people, around 10 per cent of the nation’s Jewish population. Within the Jewish community at large, the Haredi have traditionally been regarded as , eccentric, inward-looking - some would say religious extremists.

In many ways they are a community frozen in aspic - a repository of life as it was lived in 19th century Eastern Europe, where tradition is held sacrosanct and modernity is largely scorned.

It is a deeply conservative community that venerates religious learning above all else and in which Yiddish is the primary language. FFollowing the Biblical commandment to 'be fruitful and multiply’, families of seven or eight children are common; relations between the sexes are stringently policed, and arranged marriages are the norm. It is a community where a lack of secular education means that economic hardship is rife, and dependence on benefits is high. A community where television, secular newspapers and visits to the cinema are forbidden, where the internet is frowned upon, and where outsiders are treated guardedly.

The word Haredi is a fairly recent coinage, an umbrella term for strictly Orthodox Jewry. It’s literal meaning is 'fearful’ - in this context 'trembling in the face of God’. The Haredi see themselves as defenders of the faith - engaged in struggle which dates back to the rise of the Jewish Reform movement in early 19th century Germany, when liberal thinking started to challenge the traditional religious teachings and practices. Along with that came the increasing assimilation of Jews within mainstream society and a rise in secularism in which religious learning was exchanged for the scholarship of the university. In the face of this drift from tradition, the Haredi regarded themselves as the last redoubt of orthodoxy, taking sustenance from their rigid observance of the halacha - the body of ethical and ritual injunctions governing Jewish life. Even their appearance symbolised a defiant resistance to any trace of modernity. The Holocaust brought the Haredi to the brink of extinction, but also created the conditions that enabled the spread of ultra-orthodoxy, the determination to remake the past - its language, its dress, its rituals and practices - in new soil, in Israel, America and Britain.

There are now estimated to be around 1.3m Haredi worldwide, and according to a 2007 study by Dr Yaakov Wise at the University of Manchester, strictly-orthodox Jewry in Europe is expanding more rapidly than at any time since before the Second World War. In Britain - home to the largest Haredi community in Europe - almost three out of every four Jewish births are in the Haredi community. If current trends continue, the strictly-Orthodox will constitute the majority of British Jews by 2050.

The Haredi community first took root in Britain in Gateshead at the end of the 19th century, when a small group of Jews from Lithuania docked in Newcastle upon Tyne. Appalled at what they regarded as the laxity of the local synagogue, they established their own on the other side of the river.

They built Britain’s first yeshiva (an institution for Torah and Talmudic study), a women’s seminary, and a kollel - a centre of rabbinical studies for married men.

With all of the great centres of Orthodox Jewish scholarship in Europe having been destroyed during the Holocaust, Gateshead became the largest such centre outside the United States and Israel. It remains the principal centre of learning for the Haredi in Britain.

In Stamford Hill, a small Haredi community that had lived in the area since the end of the 19th century was swollen dramatically by the influx of pre-war refugees and survivors of the Holocaust. The population has grown with arrivals from Israel and America. Now within a tight geographical area, little more than a square mile, there are no fewer than 74 synagogues, or shuls, 32 orthodox schools, kosher supermarkets, butchers, fishmongers and a multitude of other businesses.

To the outsider, the Stamford Hill Haredi community may seem like one confusing, amorphous whole, but in fact it is made up of a number of different streams, mostly Hasidic.

Hasidism had its roots in Podolia - what is now Ukraine - in the early 18th century, a populist movement that emphasised an ecstatic form of worship, deeply rooted in mysticism, and that quickly spread throughout Eastern Europe.

The Hasidim are themselves subdivided into numerous rabbinical dynasties - the Satmar (the largest group), the Gerer, the Belzer and the Bobover, all taking their name from the village or town in Poland, Hungary or Ukraine where they originated, and each distinguished by some slight variation of religious practice and of dress.

At the head of each dynasty is the grand rabbi, or Rebbe - nowadays all of whom are to be found living in Hasidic communities in New York or Israel. More than just a religious teacher, the Rebbe is held to be the fount of all wisdom and authority, on domestic, financial and marital matters - the repository of a stream of learning and wisdom that extends back through the rabbinical teachings and commentaries, to the Talmud and the Torah, and thus to Abraham, Moses and God Himself.

Walking around Stamford Hill, it is the geometry of family relationships that you notice. There are groups of mothers uniformly dressed in the mandatory dark coats and long skirts, and wearing the wigs that are an obligation for married women, pushing prams, a handful of children in tow. There are groups of men, but seldom men and women together.

Modesty is paramount to the Haredi, and the mingling of the sexes is strictly regulated. Unmarried boys and girls will have little contact with the opposite sex outside their families. At concerts and wedding parties men and women will always be separated. A Haredi man will avoid making eye-contact with any woman other than his wife, and would never shake hands.

Among the Gerer, the more traditional will observe the rule that even husbands and wives should not be seen walking on the street together, giving rise to the joke: 'Who was that woman I saw you with last night?' 'Not my wife! Not my wife!'

The Torah, the Five Books of Moses that constitute Judaism’s founding texts, and which are held to be the unmediated word of God, contains 613 Mitzvot - or 'dos and don’ts’ - of which one, held among Haredi to be perhaps the most important, is to study Torah.

The act of study is a supreme religious obligation, as much for the layman as the rabbi, and the talmid hakham - the student of the Talmud, the compendious volumes of rabbinical discussions pertaining to Jewish law and custom - is venerated above all others.

All Haredi children in Stamford Hill attend Jewish schools, all of them single-sex, and all but one of them private.

An Ofsted report on faith schools schools in 2010 noted that most of these Haredi schools have few resources, and many are in converted houses. Fees are heavily subsidised by the community at large, but for families with five, six or more children to educate the burden can be crippling.

For boys in particular, education revolves almost entirely around religious studies. The school week can sometimes be more than 40 hours, with the non-religious curriculum taking up only six or seven hours, mostly covering English, mathematics and general knowledge.

In the last round of Ofsted inspections in 2008, more than a third of the strictly Orthodox schools under inspection were criticised for the quality of their secular education.

Schools argue that many aspects of non-religious studies are actually covered in the study of the Talmud ('a place,’ as the writer Jonathan Rosen has described it, 'where everything exists, if only one knows how and where to look’) but the Ofsted report noted that it 'can be difficult even for experts to decipher the curriculum’.

By their mid-teens boys will have entered a yeshiva, where they will remain until their shidduch - an arranged marriage, which usually happens between the ages of 18 and 20. A married man will then go on to a kollel, either full or part-time. In recent years, the enthusiasm for study has become more, not less, intense. Until the 1970s full-time learning in the kollel was unusual - Gateshead was the only one in Britain. But now it is estimated that more than 20 per cent of married men continue their studies in a kollel well into middle-age and beyond, supported by their family. It is not unusual for wives to take on the burden of providing for their families.

This emphasis on religious learning exacts a high price in other ways. Haredim may be well educated in Jewish law, but many are poorly equipped for employment in the outside world. Few boys will have GCSEs, almost none will have A-levels. More than ten per cent of men obtain a rabbinical qualification, but very few have a professional one. Many take jobs in the community that allow time for study.

A 2003 survey suggested that between a quarter and a third of all men work in property; 18 per cent work in retail; 17 per cent teach in local Haredi institutions. The diamond business, centred in Hatton Garden, is a traditional mainstay. Such are the ties to the community that very few will chose to work outside it.

Of the Orthodox Jewish day schools in Stamford Hill, the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School is the only one to have voluntary-aided status.

The school’s principal is Rabbi Abraham Pinter. I met him at his office at the school. He sat behind his desk, wearing a black beaver hat and top coat. His grey beard gathered in clouds around his face, and sharp, amused eyes blinked behind rimless glasses.

Rabbi Pinter is a ubiquitous and much-respected figure in Stamford Hill, a man who seems to enjoy his position as the public face of the Haredi community. He runs three schools, and is an influential voice in any number of bodies and organisations. In 2008 he was listed at number eight in The Times’s Jewish Power List - ahead of Lord Levy and Israel’s envoy to London, Ron Prosor.

A discursive conversationalist, much given to jokes and ruminations, he has a reputation for worldliness - 'he has a Blackberry,' somebody told me.

He is the scion of a distinguished rabbinical dynasty; his brother is the rabbi of his own synagogue in Stamford Hill - not an important one, Rabbi Pinter suggested with disarming candour; compared with others in the community it was only 'Ryman League’.

Yesodey Hatorah was founded in 1942 by Rabbi Pinter’s father as an independent school with separate sections for boys and girls.

The girls' senior department became a voluntary aided school in 2005, and at the same time moved into superb new, purpose-built accommodation. Tony Blair attended its official opening. The school has 260 pupils, from 11 to 16, drawn from all sections of the Haredi community.

When the school became voluntary aided, Rabbi Pinter told me, there had been some parental concern about having to follow certain aspects of the national curriculum.

'For example, the law is that you have to provide sex education. But parents can choose to opt out. 100 per cent of our parents opt out. Sex education is something we deal with on our own terms through the Jewish curriculum, based on very strong family values.’

He twisted a lock of grey hair in his fingers.

'A question I’m asked is, “How many teenage pregnancies do you have in the community?” To which I reply, “Are you talking about inside or outside marriage? Outside marriage, none.”’

I had never seen a school as clean and orderly as Yesodey Hatorah, nor a more well-behaved body of students. The last full Ofsted report on the school provided an embarrassment of superlatives, rating it 'exceptionally and consistently high’ in virtually all categories. 'Attendance is well above national average,' the report noted. 'Behaviour is superb; in a student questionnaire over 90 per cent stated they liked learning, and above all their joy is obvious.'

While the education of boys is centred on religious study, girls enjoy a much more balanced curriculum, at primary and secondary level. In 2009 83 per cent of the pupils at Yesodey Hatorah sitting GCSEs gained five or more A to Cs.

The attitude to learning was what defined a Jew as Haredi, Rabbi Pinter said. 'For the Haredi, higher education would be in Talmud or Jewish learning; in a modern Orthodox person it would be going to university. There is a difference in aspiration. For a modern Orthodox person getting a doctorate might be an aspiration in its own right; a Haredi person would say, “What do you need it for? You could be an authority in halacha [Jewish law] - why would you want a PhD in physics?”

'I’ll show you...’

He rose from his chair and called out for his secretary.

'Mrs Greenhouse!’

A smiling face appeared at the door.

'Mrs Greenhouse, when you’re looking for a son-in-law what are you looking for - a doctor or what?’

'No someone who will carry on with the study of the Talmud. Learning...’

'You wouldn’t want your daughter to marry a physicist?’

Mrs Greenhouse shrugged. 'A physicist? I would say second-rate. A doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, I would say second-rate. Somebody else might say, "My son the doctor”. My son the doctor, very nice, but I would say, “My son the rabbi”; that’s important to me.’

Rabbi Pinter laughed. 'So a girl would look at a doctor and say he didn’t make it in learning!’

The phone rang, and Rabbi Pinter answered it. It was the London editor of Hamodia, 'the newspaper of Torah Jewry’, which is published in Israel, New York and Stamford Hill, and to which Rabbi Pinter acts as unpaid consultant. 'With respect,’ he said, 'you want me to talk to a tuppence ha’penny Israeli newspaper when I’m talking now to The Daily Telegraph?’ He gave me a broad wink, and hung up.

'People will tell you I’m wasted here,' he said with a laugh. 'I can think out of the box - and that skill I got through Talmud. I can think straight, I can think horizontally, and I can think with my head as well. Talmud develops a person morally, ethically and intellectually.’

Almost all of Rabbi Pinter’s students at Yesodey Hatorah would go on to study at a seminary, either in London, Manchester or Gateshead. None would go to university - 'because at present there isn’t the environment for Haredi girls to do that’ - although some might do Open University courses while continuing to live at home. His daughter, he said, had gained a BA, 'without stepping into university’, and now teaches history at the school. Midwifery is a particularly popular option - and in Stamford Hill there is no shortage of opportunities to practise it.

But for women, the primary expectation is to marry, create a home and raise their children in the faith. 'Our experience,’ Rabbi Pinter said, 'is that the better educated girls turn out to be the most successful mothers. For us, that’s the most important role a woman plays.’

Because of the size of families, and the emphasis put on continued religious studies, poverty is a real problem in the community. A 2006 study of the Stamford Hill community, Between Torah Learning and Wage Earning, published by the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies in Jerusalem, estimated that more than half the households below retirement age were receiving a means tested benefit of some sort, 62 per cent of families in the study were receiving child benefits, and 70 per cent receiving housing benefits. Of those, 70 per cent reported finding it 'difficult’ or 'very difficult’ to fund the gap between housing benefits and real rent levels.

Agudas Israel Community Services is an independent body that gives advice to the Stamford Hill Haredi on welfare, employment and immigration issues. An affiliated housing association has more than 500 residential units in Stamford Hill, neighbouring Haringey and Manchester.

Housing, Michael Posen the director of the advisory service told me, was a major concern among many Haredi in Stamford Hill. Of the 3,500 families in the community, more than 2,000 live in private rented accommodation; housing is scarce and and there are high levels of over-crowding.

The proposed government changes to cap housing benefit at £400 for properties of four bedrooms or more threaten to bring further hardship, Posen said. He estimates that more than 100 families in the community will be affected.

'As a community we’re very much aware of the financial state of the country and agree that something has to be done. But a lot of what the government has proposed will affect larger families disproportionately to smaller families. Vastly disproportionately.’

People in the community had a mixed view of drawing benefits, Posen went on. 'I have had people come in here who on principle will not claim anything at all, including child benefit. There are some people who will take child benefit, but they won’t take housing benefit because they don’t want to rely on a government hand-out. But in terms of stigma... not generally because there are so many people have to rely on it. It’s not a social security benefit; it’s not income support; it’s not signing on. Jobseeker's Allowance, yes there would be embarrassment.’

I wondered, would worsening financial straits perhaps encourage people to have smaller families? 'No one’s going to say that,' Posen said. 'There are people who for medical or emotional reasons might be encouraged to use contraception; but for financial reasons... that would be against our whole ethos. For that we can rely that we will be looked after by God.’

'There is a love of children, which is very central to the community,’ Rabbi Pinter told me. 'To us it’s the reason why we’re here. It’s all about continuity.’

It might be argued, I said, that in this day and age one should be thinking about limiting numbers. He shot me a look. 'It’s like saying, you’ve got this wonderful school building - what do you need all these bloody kids here for?’

An authority in Jewish law offered another view. In some parts of the community people’s worth was measured 'by how many children they have and how long their beard is’, he said with a sigh. 'Some people will express frustration that there are people having large numbers of children. But that’s balanced against the fact that in the Jewish world there’s a very strong premium on having children. We’re good at once in a while being completely wiped out. It’s one of our historical specialities.’

The important thing to remember about the Haredi community, Posen told me, was how tightly knit and and mutually supportive it was. There was a complex web of organisations and voluntary groups giving support on everything from care of the elderly to providing bridal gowns for those unable to afford them.

It was a place where people rich and poor live cheek by jowl, where one is expected to help the other, and where people dug deep. Rabbi Pinter had described it to me as 'a model of The Big Society in practice’.

Posen pointed out of the window of his office. Next door was a block of Agudas Israel housing association flats, where virtually everybody, he said, lived on benefit support. Beside that was a large house - 'you can just see the swimming pool’ - owned by a man who had made his fortune in property and the diamond business. 'But he would never think of moving out.’

According to a 2002 survey of the Stamford Hill Haredi, 'Torah, Worship and Acts of Loving Kindness’, more than half of the community is actively involved in some form of voluntary work - compared with around seven per cent for London overall - with some people working for as many as eight different organisations.

(The same survey threw up an enlightening statistic on the depth of religious observance: of the men questioned, 81 per cent had attended a religious talk in the previous two months, compared with two per cent who had attended a concert of classical music, and only one per cent who had watched a sports event or visited a cinema. 28 per cent, however, had visited a shopping centre.)

Crime within the community is rare; there are no gangs, no knifings; violent crime is virtually non-existent, domestic abuse rare - although fear of being the victim of crime or of anti-Semitic abuse is high. The Shomrim comprise some 20 volunteers, manned with two-way radios, who provide a sort of instant-response citizen force which Isaac Kornbluh told me could be on the scene of a bag-snatching or an assault within one or two minutes, tailing the offender until the police arrived to make an arrest.

The community has its own ambulance service, Hapzolah, with trained paramedics, and two weekly newspapers.

The Jewish Tribune, which is published from Stamford Hill, concentrates more on parochial issues. Hamodia ('the informer’) carries world news from its New York and Israel offices, and general stories deemed to be of interest to British Orthodox Jewry - a report on anti-Semitism being taught Islamic schools, Government cuts on migrant workers - as well as local news.

The tone is avowedly religious, everything refracted through the Torah way of life. There is no coverage of the arts, sport or books. Secular culture simply does not exist. The photographs are almost exclusively of distinguished rabbis, beaming out from behind capacious beards, behatted men gathering for some speech or celebration. It takes a moment for the outsider to put his finger on what is missing. There are no pictures of women. It is forbidden.

'The intention is that a person who doesn’t have a television, use the internet or read a secular newspaper can buy Hamodia and read all the news you need,’ Vicki Belovski, a freelance writer who works as the paper’s community news editor, told me.

News coverage is necessarily selective. One of the biggest stories of last year, Wikileaks, was not reported at all. The paper does not cover anything to do with the internet, Vicki Belovski told me, and it would have been unthinkable to report that Julian Asssange had been accused of sexual assault. 'It’s a family newspaper. We’re very careful about anything like that. There shouldn’t be any news in the paper that, in theory, the most sheltered person couldn’t pick up and read with their children.’

Abiding by the Torah injunction of shmiras halashon - 'guarding the tongue’ - local news in the paper avoids anything that might offend or be controversial. Within the community there had been much discussion over the subject of kosher milk. Traditionally there was one supplier that had the stamp of approval from the Kedassia, the rabbinical authority that certifies products as kosher; now a second supplier is selling milk that is cheaper. Cut-throat commercial dealing, squabbling rabbis - it had all the elements of a page-one lead, but Hamodia had not touched the story.

When I discussed this with Rabbi Pinter he shrugged. 'The editor is a particularly nice person and he doesn’t want to upset anybody. Anything that would be critical of somebody in the community would be considered gossip. It’s not what the community expects.’

But supposing somebody was being dishonest, or some sort of abuse of power or position was occurring? Is it not the paper’s job to report that?

'The Rabbinate have to deal with it. It’s not the newspaper’s job. People find out about things,’ Rabbi Pinter went on. 'But let them find out from somewhere else.’

A Haredi man put another spin on this. Stamford Hill was a place where many of the more grievous social problems that afflict the wider world were almost totally unknown. But it was also a community that tended to treat the things it didn’t want to see - the use of drugs, domestic difficulties, broken marriages - as if they didn’t exist at all.

In recent years, child abuse has become a subject of much discussion in the American Hasidic community, with revelations of abuse by rabbis that echo the scandals that swept through the Catholic community.

In 2008 the Jewish Chronicle reported that a rabbi from New York, Nochum Rosenberg, who runs a hotline for children to report abuse, was forced to flee from a Stamford Hill synagogue where he was listening to a lecture after being recognised and chased by 200 Haredi men. Reports of the incident posted on Jewish websites in America prompted hundreds of comments, the majority attacking Rabbi Rosenberg’s campaign.

On Dunsmure Road there is a parade of kosher shops - a baker, a butcher, a supermarket. A railway line runs near by and beside it - with exquisite irony - a street named West Bank. I had it in mind to visit a synagogue, and in a shop selling Judaica, music CDs and greetings cards, I bought a yarmulke, to the evident amusement of the sales assistant. Garishly painted portraits of great rebbes, living and dead, hung on the walls - home decoration.

In the darkening afternoon, the schools were letting out, and the streets were thronged with mothers and children, earnest Torah scholars hurrying home for tea and family duties, the gutteral cadences of Yiddish carrying on the air. London had never seemed more like a foreign city.

At the bottom of Egerton Road stands Stamford Hill’s largest and most impressive place of worship, the New Synagogue - a handsome Edwardian replica of the 19th-century Great St Helen’s Synagogue in the City of London, long since demolished. The New Synagogue was originally of the United Synagogue affiliation, but became defunct some 25 years ago when that congregation dwindled and its last remaining members moved away. In recent years it has become the headquarters of the Bobov Hassidim (considered the most dandified of the sects, I was told, because of their custom of wearing their white knee socks pulled over their black trousers) who, with the help of an English Heritage grant, have restored the building to its original glory.

The door was locked. On an impulse, I crossed to a building on the other side of the road and pulled open the door. It was a yeshiva. A group of teenage boys milled in the hallway between lessons. They greeted my appearance with looks of shock and surprise. A stranger, and a goy at that! A boy stepped forward and I explained that I wished to look at the synagogue. He disappeared to consult with somebody, then returned with a key saying he would show me himself. He was 14, he said, 'but people say I look older’. His upper lip and cheeks bore the faint traces of a moustache and beard. At the door I reached in my pocket for my new yarmulke. 'They sold you that?’ The boy’s voice wavered between amusement and disbelief.

He stepped inside and gestured proudly towards the soaring marble pillars, the cupola’d ceiling. 'See how beautiful it is.’

Ranged in shelves along the back were bound copies of the Torah, the Talmud. The boy pulled out a volume and turned the pages - right to left in Hebrew - running his finger over the blocks of text, here the teaching, here the commentary on the teaching.

So do you want to be a rabbi, I asked.

'Yes. Maybe.’ He paused. 'So are you thinking of becoming a Jew?’

I was told that I should meet Joe Lobenstein. A bastion of the Haredi community, Lobenstein has lived in Stamford Hill since before the war, when he arrived in Britain as a refugee from Germany. He is vice-president of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, and was a local councillor for 38 years (the Haredi of Stamford Hill are as dependable an ethnic voting bloc as the Tammany Hall Irish in 19th-century New York) and four times mayor of Hackney.

He is a succesful businessman, who runs a large electrical cable distributors. I met him at his warehouse in Leyton, a short drive from Stamford Hill. Lobenstein founded the business 61 years ago with his father, and now runs it with two of his sons. He has eight children. 'It’s part of our religion not to count grandchildren. But I can tell you I have enough to man a number of football teams.’ He paused. 'Actually I’ve lost count.’

The Haredi community, he said, was wary in its association with outsiders, he said - a legacy of history, perhaps. He remembered how when he first became a councillor in 1962 people thought he was mad.

'How can you, a Jewish boy, just come out of the clutches of Hitlerism, get into political life? It was very unusual for anybody to mix in this political environment. But I did.

'Naturally there are people who are more fearful than others. It’s a question of the individual. But we do business... I have customers of all persuasions. I get on with everybody. I wear my skullcap and I do what I have to do, and people have to take me as I am.’

Lobenstein is 83 but he still comes to work each day, after morning prayers, and studies the Torah each evening. 'The Torah is, or ought be, a lifestyle for every Jewish person. There are some people who don’t observe some of these laws.’ He shrugged. 'That’s a great pity. A person who lives by the Torah is a happy person, and a group of happy people are by definition a happy community.’

To preserve this happiness, he suggested, it was necessary to keep the outside world at arm’s length. 'For example, you will not find an Orthodox Jewish home with a television. It teaches people how to steal; it shows people how to kill. So why should I expose my children and my grandchildren to this lifestyle which I regard, and my religion regards, as absolutely abhorrent.’

The immorality of today... He shook his head. For much the same reason he would strongly discourage any of his grandchildren from going to university. 'University life today is so infested with revolutionary ideas and secular ideas that I would not like my grandchildren to be exposed to that sort of influence.

'It doesn’t say in the Bible that you mustn’t send children to a non-Jewish school; it’s just that when you look around and you see what’s going on here... it’s the promotion of a lifestyle that I regard, and the Jewish religion regards, as abhorrent.’

We talked about the dilemma facing Stamford Hill - the rapid growth of population, the rising rents, the overcrowding. For some years there had been a running battle with the local Hackney Council, he said, which has placed stringent limits on roof extensions. 'In my years as a councillor I have met hundreds and hundreds of residents of this borough who have complained about the state of the road, the cleanliness, all sorts of things. Not a single person has complained to me that there are too many roof extensions. Some people in our community feel that some people in power don’t want to oblige us...’ His silence implied a multitude of agendas. 'It makes people feel uncomfortable,’ he said at last.

I asked Lobenstein if he might arrange for me to visit a kollel. 'People don’t much like the press,’ he said. 'I’m not sure it would be appreciated.

Perhaps a synagogue on Sabbath? He looked doubtful. 'Ask Rabbi Pinter.’

Rabbi Pinter gave it some thought. 'Why don’t you ask somebody else?’

At length I found my way to nearby Golders Green, a more affluent area than Stamford Hill and home to a large Orthodox community and a small Hasidic one.

Sabbath begins at sunset on a Friday. The synagogue was the converted ground floor of a house on a quiet residential side-street. The congregation comprised some 50 men, all black-hatted, some in frock-coats, some in black suits, some in bekishes, the long silk gown traditionally worn on Sabbath and special occasions. Several wore the flamboyant fur Sabbath hat, or shtreimel.

Sabbath is seen as a time of ecstasy, to enjoy the world. The keening sound of the traditional Sabbath song, Lekhah Dodi ('come my beloved’), which likens the Sabbath to a bride, filled the small room; the chanting of prayers sounded like water running over stones.

A rabbi had invited me to join him, his wife and seven children and some friends for the Shabbos meal. The Sabbath law prohibiting anything that 'creates work’ encompasses a range of activities from driving or taking a bus, to switching on an electric light. The lights in the house had been set on an automatic timer, and the switch on the downstairs toilet bore a sign, for my benefit perhaps, 'Do not turn off’.

The food, the wine - a kosher cabernet from Galilee - and the conversation flowed. It was both an intoxicatingly joyous family occasion and a profoundly religious one, the rabbi an extrovert combination of paterfamilias and teacher. Over gefilte fish, he engaged his 14-year-old son in a lively debate on the Talmudic concept of yiush ('despair’) - at what point the finder of a lost object is permitted to regard it as his own. The roast chicken was followed by a learned discourse - 'tonight’s Torah portion’ - on the subject of Moses’s stammer, the rabbi cradling his baby son on his lap as he talked. And the songs! One after another of traditional zemirot , or table hymns - this one from the Gerer, this one from the Bobover - songs of deep devotion and high sentiment. A woman at the table brushed a tear from her eye. The bride of Sabbath had arrived. The baby slept peacefully in the rabbi’s arms.

It would be true to say that many of the 613 Mitzvot that form the basis of Haredi life have little application to life in 21st-century Stamford Hill. Few would be minded to destroy fruit trees during a siege, for example, or to contemplate dwelling permanently in Egypt.

But the diktats relating to diet, worship, family and commerce have been refined over centuries of rabbinical commentary and debate into a labyrinthine body of law and custom that governs every aspect of daily life - reinforced by what are known as 'gezerah’, or the precautionary measure - a fence, as it were, to guard against any possible transgression.

'For instance,’ Michael Posen told me, 'the rabbis have said that you should not be in a locked room with a member of the opposite sex, even though nothing is going on. But it’s to avoid you coming into an opportunity of doing something that’s incorrect.’

By this same principle, that it is better to be safe than sorry, it is deemed advisable not to go into a newsagent - who knows what you might see on the top shelf? - and to use a special 'kosher’ phone, on which text-messaging is disabled. 'You can open a text and it can start a process,’ Posen explained. 'It can lead to other things...’ He did not specify what.

Strolling around Stamford Hill, it occurred to me that to be Haredi was to walk with one’s eyes half-closed to the enticements and corruptions of the world around you, the advertisements on hoardings, and the side of buses - what exactly is Twilight? - the blare of pop music from a shop doorway. How to preserve the values of the community - and by definition its separateness - in the face of the wider society around it... It was the question that puzzled me wherever I went.

I asked Rabbi Pinter, how aware would his pupils be of the currents of popular culture eddying through society? Would The X Factor figure in his pupil’s conversation on a Monday morning?

'They wouldn’t be aware of what The X Factor is.’ He paused. 'I’m not sure I’m aware of what The X Factor is. But I think they’d say, what are they all going crazy about? One of the reasons why our children are so focused on education and why they are doing so well is because they don’t have those distractions. They have a real appreciation for a modest way of life. I think they would say, why are we idolising David Beckham and - what is she called? The Posh person? What are we getting out of this?’

But living by a code of such tightly imposed rules and guidelines, what cost was exacted in individual freedoms?

Rabbi Pinter thought about this. 'Everybody nowadays talks about “my rights”. What that usually means is “I have the right to do what I want and you have to take responsibility for that, because I have no responsibilities at all”. We don’t believe in that. There are limitations to individualism, and I will willingly give up that individualism because I believe I’m part of a society that is more important than me as an individual.’

Supposing, I asked, somebody had come to the realisation that they were gay? Rabbi Pinter sucked in his cheeks. 'They would be offered support and advice. We wouldn’t make you marry - well some might, but I wouldn’t. But it’s not a lifestyle that you can carry out. So a gay person would limit their behaviour or leave the community.’ He paused. 'I think most would knuckle down.’

There were, of course, young Haredi who rebelled against the burden of conformity - of course there were. But they were few. When I asked about this the word most often used was 'dysfunctional’.

'An outsider may say that whether you study the Torah for an hour each evening or switch on Coronation Street is simply a cultural variation,' one man told me. 'But that’s not how it’s presented to us - and, more important, it’s not how it feels to us. Sitting around the Sabbath table or figuring out a Talmudic conundrum with a child is not just like having Sunday roast together as a family. To us, it is part of what we see as our sanctification, something that is uniquely ours and which we will fight tooth and nail to hold on to. The child who won’t attend the Sabbath meal will have his or her parents concerned not simply that he or she is antisocial or may be depressed but that it is the beginning of drifting away, and that they’re losing the child. That is not only in defiance of the child’s parents and family but of our whole way of life.’

For a boy and girl to go out together on a date, to go to pop concert, to dissent from the code of dress - such things, it was suggested, would be almost unthinkable. 'For a child in the Haredi community to buy a pair of jeans,’ Michael Posen told me, 'there would have to be something really troubling him.’

But if there is a fence, it is a fence that has holes. At the London Jewish Film Festival last year there was a screening of the American film, Romeo and Juliet In Yiddish, which tells the story of a young masters student who seeks the help of two Hasidic drop-outs from Brooklyn to translate Shakespeare’s play into Yiddish. To the astonishment of many in the audience, a large contingent of young Haredi from Stamford Hill turned up to see the film. The comedian David Schneider, who was chairing the evening - and who himself studied Yiddish at Oxford - made a point of greeting the group, 'Hello, this is a cinema, this is electricity...’. eliciting a huge cheer from the Haredi themselves.

But it is the internet that constitutes perhaps the greatest trojan horse for outside influences to enter the community. Computers are tolerated, but ostensibly only for business. In the Jewish Tribune, I read a column by Yitzchak Reuven Rubin, a venerable Manchester rabbi, warning of how the internet 'slips into every nook and cranny with a subtle power that can overwhelm the sturdiest of souls.’ Members of 'the Torah community', he warned, 'should remain ever vigilant'.

A desperate - and ultimately futile - caution. 'Anyone with half a brain has realised that the attempt to control it has failed and could never have succeeded,’ one Haredi man told me.

Despite rabbinical disapproval, he went on, most people have internet access, if not at home then at local libraries. How else to book a flight to America or Israel for a sister’s wedding? He suggested I Google Shloime Gertner, whose sentimental religious and wedding songs have made him a star in the London Haredi community (I had heard of Shloime - 'The Hasidic Robbie Williams!’ as one person put it). There was no shortage of YouTube videos, and Shloime had more than 1,000 Facebook friends.

Surfing the web, I even came across a couple of Haredi bloggers - a particularly challenging pastime in a community where to openly express a controversial or contrarian opinion is to bring opprobrium on your head, and where to do it in a medium that is already disapproved of is to be twice damned. The liveliest blog goes under the name of If You Tickle Us (Boy Will We Laugh). It was here that I read an irreverent account of the kosher milk controversy ('Stamford Hill is in a lather or, given the subject matter, perhaps that should be a latte’).

I contacted If You Tickle Us and asked if we might talk. He replied: 'I’d love to talk and even meet, but....’ He would, however, send some thoughts. I received an email a few days later. I felt I was reading samizdat. He wrote at length about living in a community which had, he said, to some extent achieved its aim of 'trumping modern life’, which cherished its traditions, its religious observances its strong family values, but which also 'flatly ignores or denies the many problems inherent in its way of life'.

'Since the Torah is the truth,’ he wrote, 'our path must be of primrose, and since our path is indeed of primrose it proves the supremacy of a Torah way of life. Hence it follows that to criticise some of the fundamentals which underlie our way of life is to challenge the Torah itself. Problems are thus ignored if not denied altogether, criticism is silenced because an alternative is unfathomable, creativity and originality is suspect if not heretical, and change when necessary is either smuggled in unnoticed or presented as a legitimate variant of the status quo.’

He wrote of the limitations of an education system in which 'scholarliness is often a euphemism for ignorant piety’, and where the emphasis on religious knowledge left most students ill-equipped to face the outside world.

'If dissociating yourself from the broader society extends to cutting yourself off from basic knowledge like maths, geography, history and even simple skills like writing which in turn feed into an inability to earn a living, respectfully and honestly then the question must be: what is gained by such insularity?’

'Very few,’ he went on, 'will confront the fundamental issues, or that our way of life is not suited for everyone. So many spend a frustrated life of unfulfilled potential. This generates envy, extremism, dependency and an overall despondency which is seldom discussed.’

But it was also, he wrote, a community of immense warmth and self-reliance, with a level of philanthropy that would 'leave you gaping’; a community that instilled a powerful sense of identity, 'a pride in who you are, your culture and your history.’ It is, he concluded, 'a way of life that I love a great deal but which I am also frustrated with in almost equal measure. But ultimately it is my own and there is a Talmudic expression which encapsulates my feelings. “A person prefers a single measure of his own to nine measures from someone else”.’

A few days later I received another email. That morning he had attended the 8am service at synagogue, and there was a story he wished to share.

'I had walked in late and donned my prayer shawl and tefilin in an anteroom. As I was wrapping myself in my prayer shawl I accidentally jabbed the guy standing near me. This is a guy who though I see him regularly in the morning I have never exchanged a word with. While unwrapping myself I said “sorry” to him. He bent forward and said with a smile, “We Hasidim don’t say 'sorry’, we serve a jab in return”.’

The more time I spent in Stamford Hill, the more I thought about the contradiction of a community whose values depend on keeping the world at bay. It is a community that must, inevitably change. Economic hardship, rising rents, a chronic shortage of accommodation, limited employment opportunities, all mean that the Haredi must increasingly look outwards. Stamford Hill can no longer support its burgeoning Haredi population, but where are they to go?

For years, there has been talk of a diaspora, of perhaps 100 or 150 families, enough to build the foundations of a new community, with its own synagogues, schools and kosher shops, relocating elsewhere. In the early 1980s there was talk of taking over a former psychiatric hospital in St Albans that was being converted into residential accommodation. But nobody wanted to move to St Albans.

More recently, there were discussions with the then mayor of London Ken Livingstone about transplanting a Haredi community within the Thames Gateway, of pioneering in Milton Keynes, or close to Stansted Airport. 'It’s always been my dream,’ Rabbi Pinter told me. 'The problem is it probably needs some government involvement in helping us to do that. But if we can build an infrastructure somewhere out there, why not?’

Joe Lobenstein was doubtful.

'On paper this is fine, but it won’t work.’ He shrugged. 'When I got married - 58 years ago - there was already talk of moving to Ilford. It’s all talk. We are so wedded to Stamford Hill. We’ve got our synagogues here, our schools, our clubs - there’s no question of moving.’

He thought for a moment.

'I’ll tell you the truth - we are always concerned. We always have problems. But always bear in mind we have a pattern in the past.’ He told me a story to illustrate this. When he took his driving test, 'about 65 years ago’, the examiner had asked, 'What do you think is the most important part of the car?'

'I wasn’t quite sure what he was driving at - was it the brakes, the steering wheel? And then it occurred to me, I think it’s the wing mirrors. And I’ll tell you for why - you cannot drive forwards without also looking backwards. We look at how our parents grew up, our grandparents grew up. The times have changed, the environment has changed, but our basic way of life must continue from generation to generation.’

This, he said, is what I needed to understand. 'We are survivors.’

This article was found at:


Children indoctrinated in Orthodox community to fear anything not kosher require special therapy to overcome anxieties

The Independent - UK May 11, 2011

An unorthodox way to talk it over

How do you persuade an ultra-insular community to speak out? Jessica Elgot, this year's winner of the Wyn Harness prize, reports

In the world beyond the kosher bakeries and Yiddish supermarkets of Stamford Hill in Hackney, London, a blue hat isn't a great cause for concern. But in this strictly Orthodox Jewish community where friends wear black or brown hats, agonising over a blue one can be enough to drive someone to seek help.

That's the tip of the iceberg, says José Martin – founder of Talking Matters, a unique counselling centre for the Stamford Hill community. Other widespread concerns include reductions in housing benefit and funding a private, religious education for between six and 10 children.

Ms Martin says: "One lady was really troubled by whether she could wear a blue hat. That to most people would be a non-issue but in this community it can be huge."

And it can have major consequences, Ms Martin explains. "There are arranged marriages, shidduchim. If little Moishe starts acting differently, people start saying, 'Don't marry into his family.' The pressures to conform here are double anywhere else."

Talking Matters, based on the top floor of Stamford Hill's library, was set up in 2001 to help people to face their fears of doing anything outside the norm. Although no real figures exist, the impoverished, secretive community is thought to be 20,000-strong with 50 synagogues in two square miles.

Many of the clients, especially children, are still unable to vocalise their issues. Therapies now include art, acupuncture, reflexology, reiki, shiatsu and music.

The centre aims to deal with anxiety before clients have breakdowns. Ms Martin says problems go back decades. "We have Holocaust survivors who didn't talk and, now three generations down the line, people have learnt certain behaviour."

Ms Martin, previously Hackney Council's Orthodox liaison officer, realised no help existed for this community. "Everyone was too scared to set something like this up because people would say, 'What's wrong with them or their family?' I don't have those issues."

Now the organisation helps 1,500 people a year, including children.

"Ninety-nine per cent of our counsellors are Orthodox Jews, but our dance therapist is Eastern European, our shiatsu therapist is Lebanese Muslim. I think we are the only Orthodox Jewish group around which is that integrated."

Tova Charazi, the group's previous female outreach worker, said the group commands a unique trust. "Here we understand the faith issues but because we are not really ultra-Orthodox, they trust us. They can talk to us and not everyone else will find out."

Humanistic counsellor Ronen Naor says most of the problems he encounters have never been voiced before. "There's a lot of conditioning in this community. And then they grow up and start to have doubts."

Phobias can be a major issue. "The kids are frightened of dogs, bees, wasps, anything that's not kosher. So we give them plastic lions and tigers. I say to parents, 'It's plastic, you don't have to eat it.' Challenging is very important. It might have four legs and fur but HaShem created it. We challenge social norms but not beliefs."

Ms Martin was originally advised she would be lucky to get a 10 per cent quota of male clients. But now, 67 per cent are men. "The reason is, girls bake challahs together and then they talk," Ms Martin says.

"For men, if you're not learning Talmud well enough, or if you've got bills to pay, there's no one to confide in. Your wife, the rabbi, they all have expectations."

But the organisation has funding concerns of its own. Funded by the local Primary Care Trust, operations in north-west London must shut down, after a grant was pulled. Ms Martin says: "We spent three years building it up and we were just starting to get GP referrals.

"Fundraising is a non-starter. People here don't donate money for counselling. We've tried it twice and got nowhere fast.

"The Government want groups like ours to start charging for their services, but for six years, we've been charging £5 per person per hour. It's going up to £7.50 next April and even then it doesn't cover the loss we will make.

"But I have emunah, I have faith. We keep having great successes. If you work hard, God will make sure it happens."

About The Wyn Harness Prize

The Wyn Harness Prize for Young Journalists was established in November 2008 in memory of The Independent's former assistant editor Wyngate Harness, who died from an inoperable brain tumour in 2007.

Jessica Elgot, 24, was awarded the 2011 Wyn Harness prize for this piece. The judges said her piece "treated a serious subject in an entertaining way, without losing sight of the underlying issues".

Jessica is a reporter for The Jewish Chronicle, and a graduate of the Cardiff School of Journalism and the University of Nottingham. She says: "I've always been fascinated by the strictly Orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill, a community which even mainstream Jews have little insight into. I first encountered Talking Matters writing a piece on an award they won from Hackney Council, and was struck by this tiny little charity who are dealing with these issues of repression in many families, which can date back to the Holocaust. It's tragic that it's these smaller, specialist charities whose tiny budgets are being slashed to ribbons by local authority cuts, who now have no option than to charge their struggling clients more money."

This article was found at:



Children in London's ultra-Orthodox community have no personal, intellectual or religious freedom

Child protection policies improving in some Orthodox Jewish communities, but not in ultra-Orthodox ones

Israel's ultra-Orthodox cults indoctrinate and intellectually abuse children, and shun those who manage to escape

An abuse of belief

Isolated from the rest of the world, and proud to be so

European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg: Orthodox Jewish Movement Fanatical, Dangerous and Radical

Ban of Orthodox blog by rabbis could change views on handling sex abuse

Brooklyn rabbinical court orders sect members to report crimes to community council not to outsiders 

Simmering sex abuse scandals in Orthodox communities heats up with allegations against high profile Israeli rabbi 


"Child protection policies improving in some Orthodox Jewish communities, but not in ultra-Orthodox ones"



  1. Jewish sect girls ordered back to Israel

    by Ingrid Peritz and Patrick Martin October 05, 2011

    It is an enclave of ultra-Orthodoxy in the midst of the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, and its family practices have sparked an international tug-of-war with Israel.

    Lev Tahor, a community of religious Jews on the edge of the forest north of Montreal, has carried on largely away from the glare of public scrutiny for years. Women and even little girls dress head to toe in chador-like veils and marry as young as the age of 16. Residents have limited contact with outsiders. But now the Hasidic sect in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts has become the focus of attention since two teenaged girls headed here were stopped by Canadian authorities and sent back home.

    The girls, aged 15 and 13, were forcibly detained by Canadian immigration officials in Montreal and returned to Israel apparently under order of an Israeli court. The girls’ great-uncle had petitioned for the writ out of concern that the girls would be harmed by the group in Canada, that their property would be taken, and that they could be forced to wed male members of the Lev Tahor sect. In Israel, the sect is sometimes called the Jewish Taliban because of the way the women dress.

    The spiritual leader of Lev Tahor in Canada, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, opened his study to a journalist on Wednesday to deny that he is coercing anyone to come to his community. He insisted anyone is free to leave.

    “Use force? We want everybody who is not 100 per cent happy ... to leave us,” Mr. Elbarnes said in an interview on Wednesday in the book-lined room, about 100 kilometres north of Montreal. He said girls typically marry as teenagers, and partners are “suggested” for them. But he said marriages are not forced. “The women here choose of their own will.”

    Mr. Elbarnes was convicted in 1994 by a U.S. court of kidnapping a 13-year-old boy studying with him; he fled to Canada in 2001 on a temporary visa and later obtained refugee status. He eventually brought followers of his anti-Zionist sect to the Laurentians, and the group in Sainte-Agathe has grown to about 50 families. The goal is to recreate strict religious observance in an “old-fashioned” way of life, he said. “It is necessary to keep our traditions.”


    Two years ago, the woman leader of the sect in Israel, Bruria Keren, was convicted of severely abusing her mentally-retarded son and sentenced to four years in prison. When social welfare agents accompanied by police arrived to take the child away, a small riot broke out in the community. A majority of Beit Shemesh’s 72,000 people are ultra-Orthodox Jews from a variety of Hasidic sects. Lev Tahor is one of the most extreme.


    Israeli Judge Rivka Makayes found “there is some defect in the parents’ perception of ways of life,” and ordered that the girls be returned to Israel. The writ, the judge said, would remain in effect until an Israeli family court holds a hearing next week to determine whether the extremely pious lifestyle practised by the parents involves such a defect and whether the court should intervene in the affairs of the children.

    The judgment of the court could have implications for other members of the sect, most of whose 300 or so members live in Beit Shemesh, about 40 minutes west of Jerusalem, not far from where David is believed to have fought Goliath.

    If the court rules the lifestyle is illegal or inappropriate, social welfare agencies would be empowered to remove children in the Lev Tahor community from their parents’ care.

    read the full article at:

  2. Israeli sociologist explores the Haredi community

    by Patrick Martin Globe and Mail October 7, 2011

    The story this week about two Israeli teenage girls being sent by their parents to an extreme Hasidic sect north of Montreal, only to be returned to Israel while a court determines their fate, brought to mind a famous case of another child being abducted by an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) relative half a century ago.

    Yosalle Shuchmacher was six years old in the late 1950s when his secular parents left him in the care of his Haredi grandfather. When the parents went to collect him, the grandfather refused to return him and hid him, first in Israel, then in New York, so that he would receive a proper religious upbringing (among Haredim).

    It took four years, but eventually, with the help of Israel’s intelligence service Mossad, the boy, then 10, was located and returned to his parents.

    It is only incidents such as these, or cases of Haredim rioting when traffic comes near their communities on the Sabbath, or when construction unearths an ancient cemetery, that we delve into this community and its ways that seem strange to most of us.

    In a fascinating new book, Theocratic Democracy, Israeli sociologist Nachman Ben Yehuda, takes a deeper look and explores how and why the community and its many divisions and sects have mastered the use of violence to assert their religious agenda.

    He writes:

    “Haredim strive to have total control over individual life, from the exterior – clothing – to the inner psychic making, including feelings, emotions, perceptions and cognitions. This totalitarian aspiration is the result of a feeling that the Haredi lifestyle has a full, all-encompassing hold on the ultimate and eternal truth. This feeling can give much comfort, and a strong sense of security, to the believers, but it also breeds suspicion, zealotry, contempt and lack of tolerance for what is different. It also seems to grant permission to Haredi control agents to intervene – supposedly in the name of that transcendental truth – in each and every aspect of one’s life.”

    “The Hebrew word Haredi derives from harada –fear and anxiety – meaning “he who is anxious about and/or fearful of the word of the Almighty.” This is not a simple fear, but anxiety to live the kind of life that the Almighty instructed the disciples to live, as is expressed in the Halakha. The term Haredi refers to a distinct form of Judaism, the practitioners of which see themselves, first and foremost, as committed to strict adherence to Halakhic rules, and view themselves as a society of students, or pupils, defending itself against the secular world.”

    Worth reading.


  3. For members of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Gur sect, sex is a sin

    Y., a Gur Hasid, fainted during his pre-wedding counseling session. R. left the sect because she could not stand its alienation of women. A. was sexually harassed as a youth by a religious supervisor. On breaking taboos - and silence.

    By Tamar Rotem, Haaretz Israel February 10, 2012

    When R. was a girl, she came into the possession of the books in the "Anne of Green Gables" series, which her parents did not allow her to read. One Yom Kippur, when her family was at synagogue, she slipped away from the women's section. In her parents' room she shed a tear when the protagonists, Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, kissed for the first time. When she became engaged a year later, she expected that some of her innocent, romantic fantasies would come true in her own marriage.

    On her wedding night, her brand-new husband called her into the living room, where a large picture of the Admor of Gur - the rabbinic leader of that Hasidic sect - hung on the wall. He told her she had to imagine the rebbe's face when she observed the mitzvah of ishut (conjugal relations ), so that she would have "righteous" children.
    As she tells this story, R., who is now 30 years old, shakes her short-cropped head as if in disbelief. A few years ago, already the mother of two children, she divorced her husband and left the Gur Hasidic sect.

    R. was outraged by the research, whose findings were described last week in Haaretz, about the concept of kedusha (sanctity ) among Gur Hasidism, which revealed the ethos of prishut (separation ) and its strict practices aimed at restraining sexuality. According to her, the depiction of these sacred strictures as merely a supreme value, to which the Hasidim are prepared to devote themselves totally, is imprecise, to put it mildly.

    Gur is a large Hasidic sect, numbering tens of thousands of members. Most of them follow the "official line" they are taught in their schools and yeshivas. However, quite a considerable number observe the strictures only during the first years of their marriage, and thereafter see them as guidelines that can be relaxed in the privacy of their own homes.

    R. and her girlfriends who were raised in hard-core Gur families - some of whom left Hasidism by the skin of their teeth - speak of the heavy psychological price paid by women living in a world where kedusha constitutes an ongoing, restrictive way of life, imposed with severe emotional coldness. They describe a society in which the men, who until their wedding night hardly ever have looked directly at a woman, keep their distance and alienate themselves from their wives as well.

    The women's descriptions were embellished by male former Gur Hasidim who spoke about the implications of being educated toward a life of prishut. Out of the desire to maintain their relationships with family members who are still part of the Gur community, most of the speakers preferred not to identify themselves by name.

    According to Dr. Benjamin Brown, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, criticism of the regulations laid down by the late Rabbi Israel Alter (also known as the Beis Yisroel ), who led Gur from 1948 to 1977, goes back as far as the 1960s. Among the critics was Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899-1985 ), known as the Steipler. Kanievsy was the brother-in-law of the world-renowned rabbinical authority Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (the "Hazon Ish," who lived 1878-1953 ) and the father of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the leading rabbinical authorities in Bnei Brak today.

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    The Steipler wrote that one should not necessarily act according to the sect's strict regulations, which he said mainly cause suffering to women. To this day his views are studied in instruction sessions for bridegrooms in the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ) ultra-Orthodox community, who are encouraged not to refrain from sexual relations. Among other things, the Steipler wrote: "It is known that a woman's main hope in her world is to have a husband who loves her ... but heaven forfend that he observe the measure of prishut, whereby he hurts his wife."

    The commandants

    R. was considered a good and pious student at the seminary for young women where she studied. Her family, which had a lofty status within Gur, arranged a match with a groom who did not deviate one iota from the doctrine of kedusha.

    "My family," R. recalls, "were good people with good values, but my husband was the product of his education. In Gur sex is a sin. He was convinced that if he loved one woman, this would be a slippery slope and he would become a pervert. The men are severely warned about this."

    At the only encounter she had with him before the engagement, R. did not like her designated groom, she says, "But I thought that if the Rebbe of Gur says it's suitable, then it's suitable. The Rebbe is not God's messenger on earth: He is God."

    At the wedding, she recalls, "When we were in yihud [where the couple is left alone immediately after the wedding ceremony], he kept making sure that the fabric of my dress wouldn't touch him. My feeling was that he found me disgusting."

    Nevertheless, R. says she wanted to love the man who was intended for her: "I kept trying to connect with him, even during the time I was fighting the rules [of kedusha]. I tried to explain to him that this [sort of life] was irrational. But that didn't help."

    In Gur Hasidism, there is a network of men called commandants, who counsel the young grooms regarding marital relations. If there is one thing L., a friend of R.'s, could not stand in her marriage, she notes, it was the commandant's intervention in her intimate life.

    L.: "Early on in my marriage, it sometimes happened that at 1:30 A.M. on the night of my immersion [in the mikveh, or ritual bath, to render her pure for marital relations], he would phone to consult. The commandant told my husband to set a clock for 3 A.M. because only until dawn is it possible to observe the mitzvah. We fell asleep and suddenly the alarm clock rang. It was pitch dark - because in marital relations you cover even the light of the clock. I didn't wake up. The whole evening I had cleansed myself in order to be immersed in the purification pool at the mikveh. I had worked that day. I was tired. And nevertheless he performed the mitzvah. If that isn't rape, what is it? That's how we started out life. Already the next day, you are ritually impure."

    D., a former Gur member who also fled the sect with her two children, describes entire nights when she sat in the bathroom and wept because her husband treated her cruelly. "While I would cry, he would be fast asleep in his bed, a meter and a half from me, clutching his tzitzit, with an angelic smile on his face," she relates.

    D.'s husband, who actually came from a more open family and thus presumably wasn't committed to kedusha, used the regulations as a weapon against her. Sara Einfeld, a former Gur Hasid, says: "Men are liable to use this to control their wives and avoid treating them well, in the guise of spiritual 'elevation.'"


    Y., a Gur Hasid, sent me the following message: "It is important to me that our outcry reach the sane world," he wrote.

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  5. continued from previous comment:

    We met under the cover of darkness in a secular neighborhood in Jerusalem. A fellow in his late 20s, Y. appears to be a full-fledged Gur Hasid, but inwardly he has stopped believing and he abhors the sect's rules.

    "When I was nine or 10 years old," he recalls, "the mashgiah [supervisor] at the heder called the children in for personal talks. That's how I understood for the first time that there are things about the body that are forbidden. In the conversations with the counselors the feeling is that they are walking on eggshells. On the one hand they are warning you [about sex] and on the other hand trying to withhold information that there is such a thing as sex. There is a code name for this: Yiddishkeit [Jewishness, a Jewish way of life].

    "When I was 15 the mashgiah interrogated me, asking: 'What happens with you at night in bed?' He became all serious when I told him - completely naively. 'These are absolute prohibitions,' he reprimanded me. I was very upset and kept thinking how I could do penitence. This is the main frame of mind in Gur, beating your breast for the terrible sin of sexuality."

    Y. learned to walk along side streets quickly, and with his eyes cast down: "We didn't know what we were missing out on. I wasn't even thinking about women then. I didn't see my body. At the mikveh we'd compete to see who could go in and get out the fastest. There was one boy who managed to take his dip and get dressed, all in nine minutes."

    Presumably a young man who has grown up completely separated from any female figure will feel strange when he is brought before a woman on the eve of his engagement. Indeed, says Y.: "The meeting was one big stutter," he relates. "I felt I was riding in a train and there was an engine pulling me. I did not have an independent opinion, I was so accustomed to my parents deciding for me."

    Y. did not see his intended at all during the next two months. "You are not allowed to think about her, about the wedding, at all. I would not have recognized her in the street had I seen her. It's a disaster that there is no guidance for bridegrooms before the wedding. When the counselor told me, two hours before the ceremony, about a woman's period and intimate relations - I was in shock. After all, my whole life they had taught us that this was something forbidden."

    Like many grooms, Y. fainted during the conversation with the counselor. There are others who throw up. "I saw black circles in front of my eyes and all of a sudden I found myself on the sofa," he recalls.

    But the greatest crisis of all came when Y. realized he could not establish a relationship with his wife: "I was not supposed to know anything about love, but I remember myself praying to God to bring me a match that would grant me love and a real relationship."

    Y.'s wife did not want to budge from the strictures of the sect, he adds: "She believes that if she opens up to my love, she will damage her 'paradise.'"

    Nor did Y.'s counselor leave him alone. "I got a phone call. They had told him I had walked in the street with my wife" - which is against Gur regulations. "After that I got it. I would wait for my wife at the bus stop to help her with the stroller and the children. In Gur it is forbidden to help a woman."

    A., also a young man in his twenties, has had doubts about being a Gur Hasid, but has decided to remain in the sect. He says he keeps making efforts to lessen the feeling of alienation he feels from his wife, and she - whom he defines as "one of the strong ones" (in terms of faith ) - has made some concessions. Today this enables him to live within the community, and yet he still does not forgive it for meddling in his life when he was an adolescent.

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  6. continued from previous comment:

    "The institution of the commandants is a disgusting mechanism in my opinion," he says. "When I was about 14 years old, a mashgiah interrogated me about some strange thoughts that I was having. I was an innocent lamb. He succeeded in exposing my innermost self, he drew out the marrow of my bones. I am damaged to this day because they did not respect my intimacy. I think this is sexual abuse in every respect. They gave me to understand that hell awaited me if I didn't confess."

    A. believes that the institution of the commandants serves as a refuge for Hasidim, who satisfy their own lustful urges by means of voyeurism and conversations about the sexuality of married couples and young boys.

    "They are obsessively concerned with this," he says. "There are also wonderful people, counselors who help in matters of fertility, for example, but they are few."

    According to A., the commandants have total independence, and in the absence of a written code of kedusha, also encourage extremism.

    A. himself was released from some of the constraints of kedusha thanks to his financial independence. According to him, "Gur Hasidism applies force mainly upon the young learners, who are 'nourished' around the community table. The moment the Hasid starts working, like me, he is not dependent on them."

    By force of pride

    In R.'s former environment, she says, they continue to this day to live by the rules of kedusha. "The girls in my class, my aunts, my sisters-in-law, my sisters - all of them are living that way."

    At one time she went along with them: "I wasn't educated to be critical. I lived in a sheltered world. I thought people only do good. That it's necessary to admire the admor. I didn't wake up until my marriage. Then I realized that a woman in Gur is a vessel in the service of the man. I envied men for going to learn when I had to clean and cook. I was strangled by the kedusha rules, and in the end it was a matter of life and death for me - and I preferred to leave."

    R. adds, "Most of the women are submissive because they don't know anything about rabbinical law or Gemara. In the Gemara there are stories that are full of sexuality, but [the authorities] only teach the line about Rabbi Eliezer, who had intercourse with his wife as though possessed. The women can't fight it because they don't know that both things exist.

    "Women hold themselves together thanks to the pride instilled in them for being part of a select unit. Look at the others, they are told - look at the secular, look at the Lithuanians: They are like cats. We are angels, ascetics. And if the women want something different, they are ashamed. You are not supposed to want your husband to stay home and not travel to the Rebbe [in Jerusalem] every three weeks. After all, you are driving him to sin, and causing him to stray from the path of Hasidism - and you definitely don't want him to hug you."

    R. agrees that it is possible for relations of mutual respect and caring to develop even in the most pious Gur families. But that is not enough, she notes: "There is emotional alienation. There are no demonstrations of affection, the whole matter is taboo. It reminds me of marriages in royal dynasties in Europe intended for the perpetuation of the kingdom."

    S., a Gur Hasid of 30 who has left religion, recently attended his sister's wedding. "I saw how she was dragged to the wedding canopy with an opaque cloth covering her face," he relates. "I thought about how she was feeling, thinking that soon someone would be touching her in an automatic and insensitive way, and I wept. I think this is traumatic, but I know that her culture and her locked-up world prevent her from feeling what they are doing to her."


  7. Losing her religion - and her children

    A rabbinical court granted 'Ayala's' husband custody when she lost her faith. One woman's struggle against the religious system.

    By Netta Ahituv | Haaretz June 6, 2013

    Curiosity is a celebrated trait among the secular, but is considered dangerous in the ultra-Orthodox world. And God, if he exists, is Ayala’s witness that she possesses plenty of it. According to her husband, a pious yeshiva student, that curiosity is the mother of all sins. It is the reason he is demanding that Ayala be forbidden to see her six children − so as to ensure that she will not transmit even an iota of her inquisitive nature to them.

    For close to a year, she has been waging a battle in a rabbinical court to get her children back. Because all the cases in rabbinical courts are heard in camera, Ayala has to use an assumed name for this interview. She is a beautiful woman, smiling, energetic and warm. It’s hard to imagine her stuffed into a wig, obedient and prudish. But everyone who knows Ayala is used to seeing her shift between the exterior codes: when she meets with her children, she dons the guise of a Haredi woman.

    Her story begins in the usual way for a girl growing up in a Haredi home: schooling in a branch of the Beit Yaakov educational network for Haredi girls and an arranged marriage at the age of 18 to a yeshiva student from one of the extreme sects of the Sephardi segment of the Eda Haharedit. His occupation: Torah study 14 hours a day, from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. Their first child, a boy, was born nine months after the wedding, followed by five other children at approximately 18-month intervals.

    “I was very ideological,” Ayala says. “I wanted my husband to learn and devote himself, and I didn’t mind staying home with the children all day. When they were asleep I did transcription work in the house in order to provide for the growing family. That is what I believed I was supposed to do, even if it was hard. Our life as a couple was not easy. He is insular and unsociable. He cut me off from my girlfriends, because he refused to visit them on Shabbat, and he barely agreed to let them come to us. It was the same with my family. In the Haredi world, women have to live their lives according to the husband, and so it was.”

    Life at home was as difficult for Ayala as her social life. “He could not express emotions; everything was done coldly. Intimate life was hard, too. It wasn’t until later that a woman told me that what he did is called rape. I didn’t understand that it was rape, because I didn’t resist. The idea is that a woman is forbidden to oppose her husband in any situation: as much as the husband wants, the way he wants and whenever he wants. Even if you are not feeling well. So, how can it be rape if you say yes?”

    It is important for Ayala to emphasize that not all Haredim “are like that,” and that this is not a law in the religious world, or in Judaism. “There are many lovely sides to Judaism, but there are also people who are vile under the auspices of the Torah, people who know how to bend the tenets to their own use. You can find religious authorization for every kind of behavior and every perversion − it depends on the person himself and on how he wants to behave.”

    Seeking to resolve their differences, the couple went to a rabbi. God is testing you, the rabbi told Ayala. “I truly believed that this would gain me a good place in heaven,” she says. Life went on, though Ayala occasionally snapped and the couple returned to the rabbi. He persuaded her each time that she was a righteous woman and urged her to soldier on.

    “It is not customary to complain, certainly not against one’s husband,” she explains. “You have to paste a broad smile on your face and walk around as though everything is just fine. That’s how it is with the Haredim: they sweep everything under the carpet, until they trip over it.”

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  8. Losing God

    Things could have gone in the same vein, she says, “if only I had continued to believe that there is a God, and that I was doing everything for him. Believing helped me all those years; otherwise you don’t have the strength to go on.” Ayala did not lose her belief overnight; the process was long and gradual. But she never imagined that losing God would mean the loss of her children as well.

    The starting point of her journey outward from the depths of the Haredi world lay in her insatiable curiosity. “I love to learn − everything, no matter what − so I asked my husband if we could learn together. I tested him before his exams or asked him to tell me what he was learning while I worked in the kitchen. Those were good times. When we learned together we got along excellently. About six years ago, as we were studying together, we arrived at a discussion of outlook and faith. We read Maimonides’ ‘Guide for the Perplexed’ and I had some questions. When I asked them aloud, he said I was crazy, that women do not ask questions, for as the Gemara says, ‘Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he taught her frivolity.’ He threatened to stop learning with me. After that we studied only the weekly Torah portion and the Jewish laws. The era of Jewish philosophy was over.”

    Nevertheless, she says, “I continued to read more and more on the Internet. The questions pounded in my head, and when someone asks questions, it is impossible not to provide answers. Many Haredi women who are told it is forbidden to ask questions simply do not ask them. I could not stop asking. Once my appetite was whetted, I could not be stopped. I read as much as I could, and in a process that lasted for a year and a half I slowly lost God. I felt depressed, because the ground was pulled from under my feet. I felt I was not normal and thought there were no other people like me in the world. It was a long, painful process.” She relates this part of her story skillfully: it is obvious that this is not the first time she has satisfied people’s curiosity about this aspect of her journey.

    The next stages are less easy to talk about. During the period of asking questions, Ayala became pregnant again, for the sixth time. This time it was a daughter, after five sons. Happy about the future baby, she reached the end of her term without any problems. But then she had the feeling that something was wrong with the fetus. She went from one doctor to another and was told by all of them that the baby was fine, “just a little hyperactive, nothing more.” After a few tense days, she gave birth to a dead girl. On that day, her doubts about God’s existence ended for good. His absence was confirmed.

    “This was after a year and a half of doubts and uncertainties about God,” she recalls. “I told myself that this is his opportunity to prove to me that he exists. That whole night I did not feel the baby moving. My husband was asleep and I had no one to talk to. For the first time in my life I prayed to God in my words, the first prayer I had truly felt. I told him, ‘I don’t know whether you exist or not, but if you want to bring me back into your party, this is your chance. If you exist, you know what I am going through for you. I know you don’t perform miracles and will not be able to give me back my daughter, but no one will know about that. Only the two of us know that there is a problem, so it will not be called a miracle. I won’t tell anyone; do it for me. I have invested so many years in you, now invest in me.’

    “Of course, nothing happened, and I gave birth to the dead baby without seeing God. For a Haredi woman who sees God when she is doing the dishes, washing the floor, when her child gets a scratch or in any of the most minor situations in life, to go through a whole birth without seeing God is meaningful.

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  9. From my point of view, I received the final confirmation that he does not exist. That put the lid on my faith.”

    The traumatic childbirth experience also provided the final confirmation of her husband’s lack of consideration. “He told me that when we leave the hospital, I have to smile and show everyone that all is from heaven and for the best. I remember that as we were leaving, with me drenched in tears, a Haredi man my husband knows went by, and he ordered me to turn around so that the acquaintance would not see that I was crying.”

    ‘My prison’

    The period that followed was the most excruciating yet. Without faith, Ayala could no longer bear life’s hardships. “I did not believe I would be rewarded in heaven. Suddenly I remained alone with my fate.” She asked permission from a rabbi to use contraceptives, as she felt she was no longer capable of becoming pregnant after losing the baby. However, the rabbi refused to sanction this; he had heard about her “heretical” reflections and believed another child might give her something else with which to occupy her mind. Four months after the disastrous delivery, Ayala again became pregnant. It was another boy.

    Two years ago, she happened to see an article about an Internet forum called “Haredim against their will” ‏(in Hebrew‏). Her curiosity piqued, she waited until her husband left for the all-night eve-of-Shavuot tikkun, involving the study of Jewish sources, and organized a domestic tikkun of her own, in which she read the forum’s entire archive.

    The writers are religiously observant people who have lost their faith, but do not want to break up the home. The result is that they live as Haredim against their will. “My eyes were opened − I was not the only crazy one,” Ayala says. “There are others like me in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv. Suddenly I had legitimization for the whole process I had undergone. A few days later I registered myself in the forum, became active in it and met some of the people personally. I, too, thought that I would not wreck my family under any circumstances and therefore would live as a Haredi against my will.”

    Ayala thought of her situation as “my prison,” but felt that as long as she could bend the bars a bit to see the world outside, she could make do. She started to listen to nonliturgical music, joined a city library and asked her husband if she could enroll in the Open University. “How does a Haredi woman persuade her husband about studies? She tells him that in three years she will have a degree that will generate a good living.” Ayala received a scholarship and started to study sociology. “That was my way to preserve my sanity without wrecking the home,” she says. But her husband and the community were leery. One day she was invited to a neighborhood functionary who took out a checkbook and offered to pay her whatever she wished if she would discontinue her studies. Ayala’s refusal sparked her complete ostracism by the Haredi world. From that moment, no one in the neighborhood spoke to her. At the same time, her husband discovered that she was in contact with the Internet forum − she was photographed by a private investigations agency hired by families of some of the forum’s members during one of the group’s outings. He demanded a divorce.

    This was the start of Ayala’s still-ongoing legal saga. In addition to marriage and divorce, a rabbinical court is entitled to deliberate matters related to child custody and alimony, provided no previous claim in this regard has been submitted to a Family Court. It often happens that one of the sides wants the divorce proceedings to be heard in a particular court, so he or she rushes to file a complaint in the court of choice ‏(see box‏).

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  10. Ayala was the first to launch divorce proceedings − in a Family Court − but then her husband agreed to give the family a chance to set things right. For a few months, they tried to restore domestic peace. The Family Court closed the case, and five days later, her husband launched divorce proceedings in a rabbinical court, demanding custody of the children.

    Ayala’s lawyer, Moshe Ben-Shimol, filed a complaint citing dishonesty in the husband’s actions. According to the complaint − which was rejected − the husband pretended falsely that their relationship was about to improve, whereas his real intention was to get the case transferred to a rabbinical court. “We believe that Ayala’s husband thought that if the case were heard in Family Court, his chances of being given custody of the children would be poorer than in a rabbinical court, because children of this age are usually raised by their mother. He therefore got the case transferred to a rabbinical court by totally invalid means,” Ben-Shimol says.

    Less than second-class

    Ayala hoped that things would not come to a divorce, because “to be children of divorced parents in the Haredi world is awful. It’s a lot less than second-class.” For four months she lived with her husband under the same roof, willing to take the insults he hurled at her in front of the children.

    “He was hurt, and he mocked and humiliated me,” she says. At this point, Ayala began to be followed and photographed, in an attempt to cast aspersions on her as a parent. In another wily move, the children’s father complained to the social-welfare authorities that Ayala was neglecting the children by studying for university exams. “In a conversation I had with the social worker, she understood that I was not neglecting the children. She advised me to leave the house and not endure this daily humiliation. For the children’s sake I did not want to renounce my faith completely, but the Haredi society kicked me out. The absence of faith itself did not interfere with my continuing to live there − it was the hard life with him and the ostracism by all the others that made it impossible. If things had been good for me there, I would have stayed.”

    A Haredi rabbinical court began to hear the divorce case eight months ago. “Since then, the rabbinical court has done everything possible, by means fair and foul, to prevent her from seeing her children, with the entire Haredi street mobilized in this story,” Ben-Shimol says. “With each request, the husband is given 21 days to respond and to gain precious time, in which the children barely see their mother and undergo wild brainwashing. Twenty-one days is a long time for children not to see their mother, yet surprisingly, in other cases, when the rabbinical court wants things to move quickly they occur with a few hours.”

    At first, the rabbinical court decided to place the children under the joint custody of both parents. Ayala abandoned her studies, found a job as a secretary in a computer company and moved into an apartment in the same neighborhood, which she shares with another woman. She thought a new life was about to begin for her: the children would be with her from Saturday evening ‏(after the end of Shabbat‏) until Wednesday, and with her husband the rest of the week.

    Her apartment is modest and not especially elegant, but pleasant. The balcony is jammed with things: a small bicycle, a mattress for a child’s bed, “secular” books alongside books on Jewish philosophy.

    Ayala’s flatmate cordially offers a snack. The kitchen is packed with food, in case the children come. The building itself houses mainly Haredi families. A mother with twins ignores Ayala elegantly on the path leading into the building. An outsider could hardly imagine the turbulence that seethes below the seemingly placid encounter between the two women.

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  11. Toward evening, the street bustles with human activity, mostly of Haredi men returning home, as well as little girls in long skirts and boys with tzitzit − fringes of the small tallit, or prayer shawl, worn under the outer garment − sticking out. All in all, it’s a tranquil picture of a pleasant residential neighborhood.

    But behind this tranquillity, too, a storm lurks. In the past few weeks, posters about Ayala have begun to appear on some of the notice boards in the neighborhood. “His wife has been ensnared in Satan’s net,” they say, “and after she became a total heretic, she wants to drag her children down with her. Her innocent, just husband has launched a bitter war for the young children to grow up for God and his Torah. This is costing him a fortune. He has indeed triumphed, but where can he go with a huge hole in his pocket???”

    Ayala’s children live, go to school and wander around in this neighborhood. They have certainly seen the posters and know that they refer to their mother.

    On the day after Ayala moved into her new apartment, she received a handwritten notice, signed by a rabbinical court judge. The notice stated that joint custodial rights were being suspended immediately and informed Ayala that a hearing on the subject would be held the following week. In the hearing, the husband’s representatives stated that Ayala was taking drugs, but in the same breath it was also decided that she would be allowed to see the children on Sundays and Mondays and to visit them in her former home at any time.

    “This is a disturbing decision in itself,” Ben-Shimol says, “because if a person can raise her children on Sunday and Monday, then why not on Tuesday, too?” Ben-Shimol demanded that Ayala be tested for drug abuse. If she were indeed found to be taking drugs she would give up the children, he told the court; but if not, the previous equal custodial rights would be restored. The court declined this offer, and the charges remained hanging in the air. Drug abuse is not the only trumped-up charge Ayala has had to cope with. In another hearing, the court was told that an alehouse was operating in her apartment, and recently she was accused of joining a cult.

    The children stayed with Ayala once, but then were told that God does not protect their mother’s “accursed house” and that something terrible will befall them if they go there. Since then they have been afraid to visit. “From the viewpoint of the Haredi street, it would be better if the children were insane and were not raised by me, because I am not religiously observant,” Ayala explains.

    A source familiar with the case and with the workings of rabbinical courts confirms this: “The rabbinical court does not consider itself a court as such, but a rabbinic institution. They want to save Ayala’s children from becoming nonreligious and care nothing about their welfare. They will go to any lengths to ensure that the children remain with their father and in the Haredi milieu. They will balk at nothing. The needs of small children are of no interest to them. It’s not an orderly court, but shtetl behavior. You have to understand that the members of a rabbinical court are under terrible pressure from the Haredi street, which will not forgive them for allowing children to be removed from a Haredi home into a secular home. This is an ironclad principle for them, and any other form of pressure is far less potent.”

    Ayala relates that, at this stage, she agreed to accept any compromise: “To forgo everything, to repent, to do whatever is needed in order to be with my children.” Her husband refuses to talk to her. Indeed, he did not invite her to the bar mitzvah of her firstborn son or to the birthday party for their 3-year-old. On the day of the bar mitzvah, the boy himself came to Ayala’s apartment and asked her to attend.

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  12. She went with two women friends, who wanted to give her support in the face of the looks of reproof she had to contend with from everyone else. She missed the little one’s birthday, as she only found out about the celebration afterward.

    “When I asked the nursery-school teacher why she didn’t invite me, she said that he told her not to let me know. The whole Haredi world is collaborating with him, and there is no organization that can help me.”

    On visits to the children at their home − in Haredi attire, of course − Ayala must endure her husband’s verbal abuse. He follows her everywhere, and the children look to him for permission before answering her questions. Sometimes he throws her out in the middle of a visit, always with a different pretext. On one occasion, for example, he claimed that her telephone wasn’t kosher. ‏(Smartphones are considered nonkosher because one can surf the Internet with them.‏) Under the law, sanctions are supposed to be imposed on anyone who does not uphold custodial arrangements that have been decided upon. “We are asking for the terms to be enforced, but it is not happening,” Ayala and Ben-Shimol say. Ayala asked for an objective welfare worker to check the children’s condition, as currently the welfare official is a Haredi man. “I am not asking for anything that is not coming to me,” she says. “All I want is for the case to be dealt with by social workers who are not associated with the rabbinical court. I also want the children to see a psychologist, to help them cope with the difficult period they are undergoing. But the court refuses.”

    At this point, Ayala delivers a monologue, which recurs in various versions: “I am their mother and I love them. I am ready to raise them like Haredim and to observe all the rules when they are with me, so they will have the stability they need. Right now they are in a bad way. Every child has the right to grow up with his mother, and my children are no exception. I am not trying to make them become nonreligious, all I want is for things to be good for them.”

    Ben-Shimol adds: “During recess at school the children run off to their mother. They go to say hello to her without anyone seeing. Great mental pressure is being exerted on them.”

    For some time, Ayala wanted to petition the High Court of Justice against the behavior of the rabbinical court, but did not have the money to pay the court fee. Recently, she obtained the necessary funding through an organization called Mavoi Satum, which, as its website ‏states, “opens the dead end” for “agunot ‏(women whose husbands have disappeared‏) and mesoravot get ‏(women who have been refused a Jewish divorce‏).” Ben-Shimol is representing her pro bono.

    On June 2, she filed a petition requesting the High Court to order the case removed from the authority of the rabbinical court, to issue a restraining order under which the children will be removed from the custody of their father and to appoint a neutral social worker to examine both parents. “We are not asking the court to decide whether the children will be transferred to the mother or the father, but to appoint an objective individual to examine the fitness of the mother and the father, to examine the situation and to arrive at sensible decisions,” Ben-Shimol explains. “If the court decides that the father should raise the children, we will give up. But I am convinced that this will not be the case, because the only reason it is happening now is that the father is a Haredi and the mother is not.”

    It is inconceivable, Ben-Shimol says angrily, that in Israel in 2013, a mother’s children should be taken from her only because she has different beliefs from her husband. “And on top of everything else, this is being done by an official, state-financed judicial tribunal. It is not a private court, but one in which every Jewish citizen is liable to find himself.

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  13. People should take to the streets against this; politicians must take action. Rabbinical courts should be stripped of the right to make decisions that are liable to conflict with our way of life. Why is the question of child custody heard in rabbinical courts? Why are we willing to have a religious-legal body – on which there is no place for women and which is dominated by a Haredi worldview – judge us in our civic lives?”

    Asked whether he is optimistic about the possibility that Ayala will be allowed to raise her children, Ben-Shimol replies, “Yes, because I believe that this story can bring people into the streets and induce politicians to throw down the gauntlet and take action. It’s a bit late in Ayala’s case, because the children have already been brainwashed, but we have to try. This is a story with national themes − we have to change the system.”

    Ayala says that for her, the optimal situation is for the children to remain Haredim, “because that is the situation in which they were raised and that is what they know.”

    Still, she would be happy if they also learned mathematics, English and geography. “Those subjects will make it possible for them to find their way in life by themselves. Whatever they choose will be fine with me. I will accept them as they are, because I know what a terrible feeling it is when you are not accepted as you are. I miss the children, the way in which they shared their lives with me. I was their sounding board. Sometimes I come to my apartment and it is so very quiet. I miss hugging them and kissing them. I have a great deal of love to give them, so many things to tell them.”

    Ayala is effectively in limbo, Ben-Shimol says. “She is not Haredi and not secular, she is in a hard place in the middle. To be secular is not only not to be Haredi. In the day-to-day world, to be secular is to connect with a different culture and way of life from what you have become used to as a Haredi person, and it is a long, hard process.”

    Ayala has a somewhat different take on the situation: “I don’t think a secular world exists. Rather, there is a world that is not Haredi, which has no uniform rules and with which I am completely unfamiliar. I enjoy it when I manage to conduct a conversation about religion with secular people, just an ordinary conversation.

    “I believe that I will be able to conduct a regular life, even though I am starting relatively late, at the age of 32,” she says defiantly.

    Ayala has a Facebook page, and a month ago she replaced her fictitious username with her real name and added a photo of herself.

    “I reached the conclusion that exposure is easier than hiding and being afraid that people will find out,” she says. As for which secular-world experiences she would like to try, she says she hasn’t yet been to a theater performance or to a large-scale musical event, “in Caesarea or something like that.” She also wants to drive a motorcycle, “but all very slowly, because first of all it’s important for me to organize my life and get my children back.”

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  14. Zamlen Kwitner, a senior ombudsman in the rabbinical courts, states in response, “Because confidentiality applies to cases heard in the rabbinical courts, I cannot reply to your questions without breaking the law. However, because the complaints that were made known to you create a distorted picture of the panel of judges that is dealing with the case, I checked the ‘facts’ on which the complaints that were conveyed to you are based. I am very sorry to have to say that there is no truth to the complaints, some of which are based on a mistaken interpretation by the complainants. If the complainants apprise you of all the decisions, you will see that there is no factual basis for the complaints.”

    Uncivil courts

    The rabbinical courts in Israel pass judgment according to the halakha‏(Jewish religious law‏) and other Jewish sources. The courts are empowered to pass judgment in cases of conversion to Judaism, last wills and marriage and divorce between Jews. The divorce cases can also involve alimony, visitation rights, the division of property and custodianship. However, the details of the divorce can also be worked out in a Family Court, which is actually a Magistrate’s Court where the judges are experts in the family sphere. This duality sometimes leads to what is known as a “race of authorities,” when one of the sides rushes to be the first to file for divorce in the court of his choice ‏(secular or Haredi‏) − whichever he or she thinks will better their prospects.

    All rabbinical court hearings are confidential, as they deal with sensitive family affairs. By the same token, the judgments are also confidential and are not made public, in contrast to the judgments handed down by the other courts in Israel. In addition to the public injustice this causes, by creating opaqueness instead of transparency, confidentiality is also the bane of lawyers, as they are not aware of precedent-setting rulings that might assist them in their arguments to the court.

    The law setting forth the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts was enacted in 1953, but is actually an inheritance from Ottoman times, when each of the religions in Palestine was empowered to pass judgment on its adherents according to its religious laws. The law states, “Matters of marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel who are citizens or residents of the state shall be under the exclusive jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts.” Thus, even a Jewish couple who were married in a civil ceremony outside Israel in order to evade the Rabbinate, or for any other reason, must go through a rabbinical court to get a divorce.

    The situation is that a religious body is conducting the civil affairs of Israel’s inhabitants.


  15. Wife Of Haredi Cult Leader Escapes Cult After Being Beaten By Hasidim

    The wife of haredi Lev Tahor cult leader Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans has reportedly fled the Quebec-based cult for safety in Israel after being beaten by a mob of her husband’s followers.

    Shmarya Rosenberg • Failedmessiah.com June 16, 2013

    The wife of haredi Lev Tahor cult leader Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans has reportedly fled the Quebec-based cult for safety in Israel after being beaten by a mob of her husband’s followers.

    Rebbitzin Helbrans objected to the beatings and punishments the cult imposed on children as young as six months old, and the forced separation of young children as young as six months old from their families.

    "I heard knocking from the men’s side [of the synagogue]. Eight or ten men with white plastic chairs came [to the women’s side] and and beat them me with them. I was going to die, [I was]screaming…I did not understand what was happening, I did not understand why [it was happening. I fled.] They chased me home…threw snow at me…and beat me and beat me, and beat me,” she said in a recorded telephone call to a relative that was made available to the Israeli haredi news website Beharei Haredim.

    The Lev Tahor cult reportedly employs harsh and often illegal penalties to punish or ‘educate’ cult members.

    These penalties include savage beatings of children, forced marriage and forced divorce, forced marriage of minors as young as 14 (it is likely there may have been forced marriages of even younger children, but they have not been documented), forcing members to wear shoes several sizes too small, extreme ostracism, fines, denial of food, confiscation of religious books as a punishment for misbehavior, forced separation between parents and children as young as six months old that often lasts for months and even years, and complete isolation from cult members’ non-cult-member families.

    Haredi leaders including the previous Satmar Rebbe and the rabbinic leadership of the Mea-Shearim-based anti-Zionist haredi umbrella organization Edah Haredit backed Helbranes and Lev Tahor for years, until finally admitting recently – after years of deying reports of child abuse and other crimes – that Lev Tahor is in fact a destructive cult.

    [Hat Yip: The Lion.]


  16. Young Ultra-Orthodox Jews Struggle Against Tradition

    New York City receives immigrants from all over the world, including New York City itself.

    A handful of young ultra-Orthodox Jews are struggling to leave their neighborhoods in Brooklyn to take up less religious or even nonreligious lifestyles in other parts of the city. They often hide their desire for a different life. When they do or say something, their families and communities might turn on them. Sometimes they're told they'll never make it if they leave.

    One young man fought to leave behind the only world he knew.

    Samuel Katz is 21, and he's accumulated his library of sacred texts, science books and classic literature gradually. Only religious books were allowed in the insular Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he grew up. New York City pulsed all around him, but he lived a world apart. Men and women were separate. Everyone ate strictly kosher. They spoke Yiddish almost exclusively.

    Katz and the other boys studied at a yeshiva, or Jewish school. There were no public schools, no concerts, and minimal interaction with anyone outside the community. But when he was 10, his parents divorced, and things changed for him.

    "We were a school of 1,300 boys," Katz says. "I was the only child from a divorced family. And I didn't want anyone to know because there was such a stigma on it. I was looking for some escape. So there was this library next to my house. Actually, my first secular book I read — I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. And I read it with a dictionary and I compared every word. Took me like a month or something."

    The more Katz read, the more he wanted to read. Books on psychology, human behavior and philosophy.

    "Nobody knew about it. Just my secret life," he says.

    Then, Katz went to a Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. He found himself staring at an evolutionary timeline of actual hominid skulls, and he imagined his head at the end of that line.

    Katz took an advanced physics class at Stony Brook University. He cherishes this page of his notebook, when his professor began teaching about electromagnetism.

    "You know, I've studied God's law all my life, and you're a Jewish male — I mean, you're the pinnacle of creation. And suddenly you're not the pinnacle of creation. You're the endpoint at this moment in time and something else will happen soon. It's hard to explain what that was like, but it was beautiful," Katz says.

    When he was 16, Katz went to a prestigious religious school in Israel, and he struggled. He confessed his secular interests to the dean of his school — a scholar whom he greatly respected.

    "And they put me in a single room so I don't corrupt anyone — so I don't talk to any other students. Friends came telling me — staff is asking about me, whether I'm saying things, which was miserable. I mean, it was absolutely terrible. Finally I just said, 'I'm going home,' " Katz recalls.

    When he got back to New York, Katz felt like he was leading a double life. He'd pray and study at temple, but he didn't tell his family that he was eating pork in private and that all he really wanted was to go to college. But he needed help getting his GED, which is where an organization called Footsteps came in.

    read the rest of the article at the link above

  17. Holocaust Survivors Blast Nazi Garb at Protest

    By ARON HELLER Associated Press

    ABC News - JERUSALEM January 1, 2012 (AP)

    Images of ultra-Orthodox Jews dressing up as Nazi concentration camp inmates during a protest drew widespread condemnation Sunday and added a new twist to a simmering battle over growing extremism inside Israel's insular ultra-Orthodox community.

    Religious extremists are facing increasing criticism for their efforts to separate men and women in public spaces, and Saturday's protest, in which a child mimicked an iconic photo of a terrified Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, added to the outrage.

    Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered Saturday night in Jerusalem to protest what they say is a nationwide campaign directed against their lifestyle. The protesters called Israeli policemen Nazis, wore yellow Star of David patches with the word "Jude" — German for Jew — dressed their children in striped black-and-white uniforms associated with Nazi concentration camps and transported them in the back of a truck.

    Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial denounced the use of Nazi imagery as "disgraceful," and several other survivors' groups and politicians condemned the acts.

    "We must leave the Holocaust and its symbols outside the arguments in Israeli society," said Moshe Zanbar, chairman of the main umbrella group for Holocaust survivors in Israel. "This harms the memory of the Holocaust."

    Six million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. About 200,000 aging survivors of the Holocaust live in Israel.

    Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10 percent of Israel's population. In the past, they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own neighborhoods. But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread to new areas.

    Extremist sects within the ultra-Orthodox community have been under fire of late for their attempts to ban mixing of the sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces.

    In one city, extremists have jeered and spit at girls walking to school, saying they were dressed immodestly. They've also battled with police over street signs calling for segregation and attacked journalists who have covered their neighborhoods. In recent weeks, a few young Israeli women have caused nationwide uproars for refusing the orders of religious men to move to the back of public buses.

    These practices, albeit by a fringe sect, have unleashed a backlash against the ultra-Orthodox in general, the climax of which came last week in a large demonstration where protesters held signs reading, "Free Israel from religious coercion," and "Stop Israel from becoming Iran."

    Rabbi Yitzhak Weiss, one of the organizers of Saturday's protest, said the use of Nazi symbols was intentional and aimed at highlighting what he said was a campaign by the secular media against his community.

    "The idea was to convey a clear and simple message: that wild incitement against the ultra-Orthodox community will not be tolerated," he told The Associated Press. "The Israeli media's incitement is reminiscent of the German media's before World War II."

    One of the protesters, Yaakov Israel, told Channel 2 TV that his community feels "persecuted" by the Israeli establishment. "We feel what is being done to us here is a spiritual Holocaust," he said.


  18. Ultra-religious schools test Israel's high-tech future

    By Maayan Lubell December 22, 2011

    JERUSALEM (Reuters) - There are no computers at Maoz Hatorah, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys school on the outskirts of Israel's bustling high-tech commercial hub, Tel Aviv.

    In the classrooms, English, mathematics and science lessons are kept to a minimum.

    "If we devote our time to secular studies there will be none left for faith," the headmaster said.

    Most ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys receive little education in secular subjects up to age 14 and none afterwards. The bulk of the school day is instead focused on religious instruction, in preparation for a life devoted to the study of Torah (Jewish law) that many will pursue as adult men.

    Some in Israel say this leaves graduates no chance to get a job or integrate into modern society.

    Critics are concerned the poor education of the state's fastest-growing population, known in Hebrew as "haredim" or "those in awe," threatens Israel's thriving economy and cutting-edge research and innovation.

    "There are two States of Israel in one," said economist Dan Ben-David, head of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research.

    "One is a state of high-tech, universities and medicine at the forefront of human knowledge. And then there are all the rest, who make up a huge and increasing part of Israel and who do not receive the skills or conditions to work in a modern economy."

    Though haredi schools are partly or fully state-funded, curricula are guided by ultra-Orthodox rabbis who resist outside intervention. Those have remained largely unchanged for the past 60 years.

    As a succession of Israeli coalition governments have relied on the support of ultra-religious parties for their survival, any move to reform haredi schools is politically dangerous.

    Haredim make up about 8-10 percent of Israel's 7.8 million population. Many are supported by the state and live well below the poverty line.

    They mostly reside in their own towns and neighborhoods, shying away from Israel's secular majority. Haredi men wear traditional black garb, a dress code that goes back centuries.

    With an average of eight children per family, haredim are a young demographic, and a fifth of Israeli primary school pupils attend haredi schools.

    "If they continue to get education below Third World standards, it will be the end of Israel," Ben-David said.

    As haredi women do not engage in full-time religious study, they are taught all subjects at school as girls and have an unemployment rate around 40 percent. But about 60 percent of haredi men do not work, devoting themselves instead to religious study.

    Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics issued a survey this month which said that only 31 percent of haredi primary schools taught science, 54 percent taught English and 83 percent mathematics.

    From the age of 14 most ultra-Orthodox boys attend "yeshiva" school where secular subjects are off the agenda.

    "It is a severe and very serious problem," Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said in September. "The educational system ... is failing to prepare Israel for the modern world and we're falling further and further behind.."

    Haredim see their education in a different light.

    They advocate a pious way of life, dedicated to keeping God's laws.

    "This is the reason we come into the world and it can't be done without studying Torah," said Rabbi Assaf Avitan, head of Maoz Hatorah school which teaches 500 boys, aged 3 to 15.

    Avitan said that at that age the school's priority is to instill the right values in the children, and argues the demanding education makes the children a quick study.


    read the full article at:


  19. Deborah Feldman's 'Unorthodox' Chronicles Years of Shocking Repression in Hasidic Jewish Life

    By Cavan Sieczkowski | IBTimes February 8, 2012

    Deborah Feldman had finally had enough. After 23 years of living in what she describes as an oppressive and insular community, she abandoned her Hasidic Jewish sect for a life of freedom.

    Deborah Feldman chronicles a life of strangling repression in a New York Orthodox Jewish household in her new book, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots," out Feb. 14. Her book delves into her past struggles, including sexual assault, an arranged marriage and a divorce.

    She described life in a Jewish sect that has turned its back on the modern world, as "a reaction to the atrocities of Holocaust," to The New York Post. Most members are descendants of Holocaust survivors who fled to America during WWII. She said: "Hasidic Jews in America eagerly returned to a heritage that had been on the verge of disappearing, donning traditional dress and speaking only in Yiddish, as their ancestors had done." The community emphasizes family life and reproduction in order to "replace the many who had perished and to swell their ranks once more. To this day, Hasidic communities continue to grow rapidly, in what is seen as the ultimate revenge against Hitler."

    Now 25-years-old, Feldman turned her back on the Satmars in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood just two years ago, emboldened by classes she took at Sarah Lawrence College where she read enlightening books like "Pride and Prejudice" and "Little Women." The books opened her eyes to a world that could be.

    Some might be surprised to hear that Deborah Feldman grew up in such a progressive city as New York, but the enclave has rules of its own. "They've passed more laws from out of nowhere, limiting women-there's a rule that women can't be on the street after a certain hour," Feldman told The New York Post. "We all hear these stories about Muslim extremists; how is this any better? This is just another example of extreme fundamentalism."

    Her mother had abandoned her and her father was mentally disabled, so she lived with her grandparents. She could only wear skirts that covered her ankles and high-necked blouses made of thick woven fabric so nothing would show her body. She could not read books in English because her grandfather claimed it was an "impure language."

    At 12-years-old, Feldman was sexually assaulted by a cousin, but she kept it a secret because she was made to feel as if it was something she had done wrong. "It's obviously all your fault and not his, and you need to keep quiet about it," she told The New York Post.

    As a young girl, she was ordered to obey and respect any and every adult in the community. Feldman said that this insular mindset paradoxically puts its children at risk. "There was this old man on my street who, every day on my way to school, would be sitting on this bench, and would call out to me and offer me candy," Feldman told the Post. "I told my grandfather, and he said, 'Well, he's older than you, so you have to talk to him out of respect.' The guy was, like, a pedophile," Feldman continues. "And we were taught to respect him." As a kid, she was told all outsiders hated her, and that if she spoke to anyone non-Hasidic, she "risked getting kidnapped and chopped to pieces."

    At 17-years-old, she Deborah Feldman was forced into an arranged marriage with a virtual stranger. At that time, she had never even heard the word "sex," much less learned anything about it.

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    "No one ever said the word 'sex,' or even 'vagina,' to me. We had no clue. We were like, 'It'll work out.' It never worked out," she said. "There is an actual rule that you learn before you get married that you are never supposed to look at genitalia. You can't look at yours, and you can't look at his. It's always dark. There's no hole in the sheet, but it's pitch dark and there's no looking and there's a lot of fumbling around, and you're wearing your nightgown rolled up to your waist."

    After she was married, she was required to shave her head and wear wigs, which Feldman rebelled against because it depressed her.

    "I only shaved my head for a year. I just got tired of seeing my head like that in the mirror. It felt really depressing - like an embarrassing secret. I have a hard time cutting my hair now, because I remember how long it took to grow it out the first time," she told The Post.

    Because of other particular rules in the Orthodox community, Feldman said that women are forced to "feel like this animal" due to their menstruation.

    "For two weeks every month, he can't touch you," she said. "If you're sitting on a sofa, you have a divider between you. It makes you feel so gross. You feel like this animal in the room. If there's a question about your period, you take the underwear and put it in a zip-lock bag, and give it to your husband. He takes it to the synagogue and pushes it into this special window and the rabbi looks at it and pronounces it kosher or nonkosher. It's so disgusting."

    Deborah Feldman had a child with her now ex-husband. Her son is 3-years-old now and when she left the community she took him with her. Her husband currently lives on the fringe of the Satmar community, as there is no place for divorced individuals.

    Her relatives reacted shockingly to the news of her publishing "Unorthodox." Feldman started receiving hate mail.

    "My family started sending me hate mail, really bad. They want me to commit suicide. They've got my grave ready," she told The Post. One email said "R U ready to CROKE [sic]." Another read, "We are most definitely going to rejoice in your misery."

    "But I think the book is a protection in this situation, because [my relatives] are terrified of having their actions become public. So it's an insurance policy, in a way," she said. "There's a reason why Hasidic people in New York get away with so much. There's this sort of tacit arrangement: They don't do anything the media can criticize."


  21. Ultra-Orthodox Shun Their Own for Reporting Child Sexual Abuse

    By SHARON OTTERMAN and RAY RIVERA, New York Times May 9, 2012

    The first shock came when Mordechai Jungreis learned that his mentally disabled teenage son was being molested in a Jewish ritual bathhouse in Brooklyn. The second came after Mr. Jungreis complained, and the man accused of the abuse was arrested.

    Old friends started walking stonily past him and his family on the streets of Williamsburg. Their landlord kicked them out of their apartment. Anonymous messages filled their answering machine, cursing Mr. Jungreis for turning in a fellow Jew. And, he said, the mother of a child in a wheelchair confronted Mr. Jungreis’s mother-in-law, saying the same man had molested her son, and she “did not report this crime, so why did your son-in-law have to?”

    By cooperating with the police, and speaking out about his son’s abuse, Mr. Jungreis, 38, found himself at the painful forefront of an issue roiling his insular Hasidic community. There have been glimmers of change as a small number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, taking on longstanding religious and cultural norms, have begun to report child sexual abuse accusations against members of their own communities. But those who come forward often encounter intense intimidation from their neighbors and from rabbinical authorities, aimed at pressuring them to drop their cases.

    Abuse victims and their families have been expelled from religious schools and synagogues, shunned by fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews and targeted for harassment intended to destroy their businesses. Some victims’ families have been offered money, ostensibly to help pay for therapy for the victims, but also to stop pursuing charges, victims and victims’ advocates said.

    “Try living for one day with all the pain I am living with,” Mr. Jungreis, spent and distraught, said recently outside his new apartment on Williamsburg’s outskirts. “Did anybody in the Hasidic community in these two years, in Borough Park, in Flatbush, ever come up and look my son in the eye and tell him a good word? Did anybody take the courage to show him mercy in the street?”

    A few blocks away, Pearl Engelman, a 64-year-old great-grandmother, said her community had failed her too. In 2008, her son, Joel, told rabbinical authorities that he had been repeatedly groped as a child by a school official at the United Talmudical Academy in Williamsburg. The school briefly removed the official but denied the accusation. And when Joel turned 23, too old to file charges under the state’s statute of limitations, they returned the man to teaching.

    “There is no nice way of saying it,” Mrs. Engelman said. “Our community protects molesters. Other than that, we are wonderful.”

    Keeping to Themselves

    The New York City area is home to an estimated 250,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews — the largest such community outside of Israel, and one that is growing rapidly because of its high birthrate. The community is concentrated in Brooklyn, where many of the ultra-Orthodox are Hasidim, followers of a fervent spiritual movement that began in 18th-century Europe and applies Jewish law to every aspect of life.

    Their communities, headed by dynastic leaders called rebbes, strive to preserve their centuries-old customs by resisting the contaminating influences of the outside world. While some ultra-Orthodox rabbis now argue that a child molester should be reported to the police, others strictly adhere to an ancient prohibition against mesirah, the turning in of a Jew to non-Jewish authorities, and consider publicly airing allegations against fellow Jews to be chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

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    There are more mundane factors, too. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews want to keep abuse allegations quiet to protect the reputation of the community, and the family of the accused. And rabbinical authorities, eager to maintain control, worry that inviting outside scrutiny could erode their power, said Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies at Queens College.

    “They are more afraid of the outside world than the deviants within their own community,” Dr. Heilman said. “The deviants threaten individuals here or there, but the outside world threatens everyone and the entire structure of their world.”

    Scholars believe that abuse rates in the ultra-Orthodox world are roughly the same as those in the general population, but for generations, most ultra-Orthodox abuse victims kept silent, fearful of being stigmatized in a culture where the genders are strictly separated and discussion of sex is taboo. When a victim did come forward, it was generally to rabbis and rabbinical courts, which would sometimes investigate the allegations, pledge to monitor the accused, or order payment to a victim, but not refer the matter to the police.

    “You can destroy a person’s life with a false report,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, a powerful ultra-Orthodox organization, which last year said that observant Jews should not report allegations to the police unless permitted to do so by a rabbi.

    Rabbinic authorities “recommend you speak it over with a rabbi before coming to any definitive conclusion in your own mind,” Rabbi Zweibel said.

    When ultra-Orthodox Jews do bring abuse accusations to the police, the same cultural forces that have long kept victims silent often become an obstacle to prosecutions.

    In Brooklyn, of the 51 molesting cases involving the ultra-Orthodox community that the district attorney’s office says it has closed since 2009, nine were dismissed because the victims backed out. Others ended with plea deals because the victims’ families were fearful.

    “People aren’t recanting, but they don’t want to go forward,” said Rhonnie Jaus, a sex crimes prosecutor in Brooklyn. “We’ve heard some of our victims have been thrown out of schools, that the person is shunned from the synagogue. There’s a lot of pressure.”

    The degree of intimidation can vary by neighborhood, by sect and by the prominence of the person accused.

    In August 2009, the rows in a courtroom at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn were packed with rabbis, religious school principals and community leaders. Almost all were there in solidarity with Yona Weinberg, a bar mitzvah tutor and licensed social worker from Flatbush who had been convicted of molesting two boys under age 14.

    Justice Guston L. Reichbach looked out with disapproval. He recalled testimony about how the boys had been kicked out of their schools or summer camps after bringing their cases, suggesting a “communal attitude that seeks to blame, indeed punish, victims.” And he noted that, of the 90 letters he had received praising Mr. Weinberg, not one displayed “any concern or any sympathy or even any acknowledgment for these young victims, which, frankly, I find shameful.”

    “While the crimes the defendant stands convicted of are bad enough,” the judge said before sentencing Mr. Weinberg to 13 months in prison, “what is even more troubling to the court is a communal attitude that seems to impose greater opprobrium on the victims than the perpetrator.”

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    Silenced by Fear

    Intimidation is rarely documented, but just two weeks ago, a Hasidic woman from Kiryas Joel, N.Y., in Orange County, filed a startling statement in a criminal court, detailing the pressure she faced after telling the police that a Hasidic man had molested her son.

    “I feel 100 percent threatened and very scared,” she said in her statement. “I feel intimidated and worried about what the consequences are going to be. But I have to protect my son and do what is right.”

    Last year, her son, then 14, told the police that he had been offered $20 by a stranger to help move some boxes, but instead, the man brought him to a motel in Woodbury, removed the boy’s pants and masturbated him.

    The police, aided by the motel’s security camera, identified the man as Joseph Gelbman, then 52, of Kiamesha Lake, a cook who worked at a boys’ school run by the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect. He was arrested, and the intimidation ensued. Rabbi Israel Hager, a powerful Vizhnitz rabbi in Monsey, N.Y., began calling the mother, asking her to cease her cooperation with the criminal case and, instead, to bring the matter to a rabbinical court under his jurisdiction, according to the mother’s statement to the court. Rabbi Hager did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

    “I said: ‘Why? He might do this again to other children,’ ” the mother said in the statement. The mother, who asked that The New York Times not use her name to avoid identifying her son, told the police that the rabbi asked, “What will you gain from this if he goes to jail?” and said that, in a later call, he offered her $20,000 to pay for therapy for her son if the charges were dropped.

    On April 24, three days before the case was set for trial, the boy was expelled from his school. When the mother protested, she said, the principal threatened to report her for child abuse.

    Prosecutors, against the wishes of the boy’s parents, settled the case on April 27. Mr. Gelbman was given three years’ probation after pleading guilty to endangering the welfare of a child.

    Mr. Jungreis, the Williamsburg father, had a similar experience. He first suspected that his son was being molested after he came home with blood in his underwear at age 12, and later was caught touching another child on the bus. But, Mr. Jungreis said, the school principal warned him to stay silent. Two years later, the boy revealed that he had been molested for years by a man he saw at a mikvah, a ritual bath that observant Jews visit for purification.

    Mr. Jungreis, knowing the prohibition on calling secular authorities, asked several rabbis to help him report the abuse, but, he said, they told him they did not want to get involved. Ultimately, he found a rabbi who told him to take his son to a psychologist, who would be obligated to notify law enforcement. “That way you are not the moser,” he said the rabbi told him, using the Hebrew word for informer. The police arrested Meir Dascalowitz, then 27, who is now awaiting trial.

    Prosecution of intimidation is rare. Victims and their supporters say that is because rabbinical authorities are politically powerful; prosecutors say it is because there is rarely enough evidence to build a criminal case. “The intimidation often works, at least in the short run,” said Laura Pierro, the head of the special victims unit at the Ocean County prosecutor’s office in New Jersey.

    In 2010, Ms. Pierro’s agency indicted Shaul Luban for witness tampering: he had sent a threatening text message to multiple recipients, urging the Orthodox Jewish community of Lakewood, N.J., to pressure the family of an 11-year-old abuse victim not to cooperate with prosecutors. In exchange for having his record cleared, Mr. Luban agreed to spend about a year in a program for first-time offenders.

    Mr. Luban and others “wanted the phone to ring off the hook to withdraw the complaint from our office,” the Ocean County prosecutor, Marlene Lynch Ford, said.

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    Threats to Advocates

    The small cadre of ultra-Orthodox Jews who have tried to call attention to the community’s lack of support for sexual abuse victims have often been targeted with the same forms of intimidation as the victims themselves.

    Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg of Williamsburg, for example, has been shunned by communal authorities because he maintains a telephone number that features his impassioned lectures in Yiddish, Hebrew and English imploring victims to call 911 and accusing rabbis of silencing cases. He also shows up at court hearings and provides victims’ families with advice. His call-in line gets nearly 3,000 listeners a day.

    In 2008, fliers were posted around Williamsburg denouncing him. One depicted a coiled snake, with Mr. Rosenberg’s face superimposed on its head. “Nuchem Snake Rosenberg: Leave Tainted One!” it said in Hebrew. The local Satmar Hasidic authorities banned him from their synagogues, and a wider group of 32 prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis and religious judges signed an order, published in a community newspaper, formally ostracizing him.

    “The public must beware, and stay away from him, and push him out of our camp, not speak to him, and even more, not to honor him or support him, and not allow him to set foot in any synagogue until he returns from his evil ways,” the order said in Hebrew.

    “They had small children coming to my house and spitting on me and on my children and wife,” Rabbi Rosenberg, 61, said in an interview.

    Rabbi Tzvi Gluck, 31, of Queens, the son of a prominent rabbi and an informal liaison to secular law enforcement, began helping victims after he met troubled teenagers at Our Place, a help center in Brooklyn, and realized that sexual abuse was often the root of their problems. It was when he began helping the teenagers report cases to the police that he also received threats.

    In February, for example, he received a call asking him to urge an abuse victim to abandon a case. “A guy called me up and said: ‘Listen, I want you to know that people on the street are talking about what they can do to hurt you financially. And maybe speak to your children’s schools, to get your kids thrown out of school.’ ”

    Rabbi Gluck said he had helped at least a dozen ultra-Orthodox abuse victims bring cases to the Brooklyn district attorney in recent years, and each time, he said, the victim came under heavy pressure to back down. In a case late last year that did not get to the police, a 30-year-old molested a 14-year-old boy in a Jewish ritual bath in Brooklyn, and a rabbi “made the boy apologize to the molester for seducing him,” he said.

    “If a guy in our community gets diagnosed with cancer, the whole community will come running to help them,” he said. “But if someone comes out and says they were a victim of abuse, as a whole, the community looks at them and says, ‘Go jump in a lake.’ ”

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    Traces of Change

    Awareness of child sexual abuse is increasing in the ultra-Orthodox community. Since 2008, hundreds of adult abuse survivors have told their stories, mostly anonymously, on blogs and radio call-in shows, and to victims’ advocates. Rabbi-vetted books like “Let’s Stay Safe,” aimed at teaching children what to do if they are inappropriately touched, are selling well.

    The response by communal authorities, however, has been uneven.

    In March, for example, Satmar Hasidic authorities in Williamsburg took what advocates said was an unprecedented step: They posted a Yiddish sign in synagogues warning adults and children to stay away from a community member who they said was molesting young men. But the sign did not urge victims to call the police: “With great pain we must, according to the request of the brilliant rabbis (may they live long and good lives), inform you that the young man,” who was named, “is, unfortunately, an injurious person and he is a great danger to our community.”

    In Crown Heights, where the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement has its headquarters, there has been more significant change. In July 2011, a religious court declared that the traditional prohibition against mesirah did not apply in cases with evidence of abuse. “One is forbidden to remain silent in such situations,” said the ruling, signed by two of the court’s three judges.

    Since then, five molesting cases have been brought from the neighborhood — “as many sexual abuse-related arrests and reports as there had been in the past 20 years,” said Eliyahu Federman, a lawyer who helps victims in Crown Heights, citing public information.

    Mordechai Feinstein, 19, helped prompt the ruling by telling the Crown Heights religious court that he had been touched inappropriately at age 15 by Rabbi Moshe F. Keller, a Lubavitcher who ran a foundation for at-risk youth and whom Mr. Feinstein had considered his spiritual mentor.

    Last week, Rabbi Keller was sentenced in Criminal Court to three years’ probation for endangering the welfare of a child. And Mr. Feinstein, who is no longer religious, is starting a campaign to encourage more abuse victims to come forward. He is working with two prominent civil rights attorneys, Norman Siegel and Herbert Teitelbaum, who are asking lawyers to provide free assistance to abuse victims frustrated by their dealings with prosecutors.

    “The community is a garden; there are a lot of beautiful things about it,” Mr. Feinstein said. “We just have to help them weed out the garden and take out the things that don’t belong there.”

    Friday: The Brooklyn district attorney is criticized for his handling of ultra-Orthodox Jewish child sex-abuse cases.


  26. Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jews rally behind accused in child abuse case

    by Zoë Blackler, The Guardian UK May 16, 2012

    New York - Until last year, Nechemya Weberman was a therapist in Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn. From the apartment building he owns in Williamsburg, he counselled teenage girls from ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. Girls, who through improper dress, flirtations with boys or a curiosity in life beyond the confines of their sects, were risking disrepute. In the antiquated world of the ultra-Orthodox, the stigma of immodesty can wreck a girl's marriage prospects and her future in the community.

    In 2007, two worried parents sent their 12-year-old daughter for counselling with Weberman, at the insistence of her school. For three years, the girl consulted him, seeing him often several times a week. The girl had been questioning her religious teachers, and her parents hoped that Weberman, who had raised his own pious, god-fearing children, would lead her back to the right path.

    Later this summer, a jury in Brooklyn – home to the largest Orthodox population outside Israel – will be asked to decide exactly what took place during those many counselling sessions. Whether Weberman repeatedly sexually abused the young girl as she alleges, or whether, as the defence claims, he is the object of misplaced revenge.

    Whatever facts emerge at trial and whatever the jury decides, most in this insular community have already reached a verdict. The majority are siding with the accused. On Wednesday night, several thousand members of Weberman's Satmar Hasidic sect are expected to attend a rally on his behalf. His supporters, with the full backing of the senior rabbis, are stepping up their efforts to fight the prosecution.

    That the Weberman case is going to trial at all is notable in itself. The Guardian has detailed how most sex abuse claims are handled inside the community, either brushed aside or resolved in the shadow religious courts, or by the silencing of victims through bribing or intimidation. Those cases that do reach the criminal justice system tend to end in plea deals negotiated out of public view, in line with the Brooklyn district attorney's contentious secrecy policy.

    As media attention on the issue intensifies, the Weberman case has acquired a much bigger significance, beyond the question of individual guilt or innocence. It will offer a rare insight into the increasingly bitter divide inside the community – between the majority that wants to continue the cover-up and the growing number speaking up. It will also illustrate the level of anger those who make abuse complaints face from members of their own community.

    Last Friday, the Yiddish paper Der Blatt ran a front page story announcing "Libel 75", Wednesday night's rally in the Continental Hall in Williamsburg. The piece called on the entire community to defend Nechemya Weberman from "a despicable, false libel" and rescue him from 75 years in jail. "The community will come out", it declared, to help raise $500,000 for Weberman's legal costs. Posters about Libel 75 have also been plastered across Williamsburg.

    If Weberman, now 53, is found guilty, he is unlikely to face 75 years in prison time. The charges against him, however, are severe. The indictment, which runs to 23 pages, includes 87 counts of sexual abuse. Of the 16 felony charges, the most serious alone, course of sexual conduct against a child in the first degree, carries a mandatory prison term of five to 25 years. Although not part of the prosecution, Weberman is also tainted by his lack of qualifications as he is not a trained psychotherapist.

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    Weberman's defence attorney George Farkas, who is billed to appear at Wednesday's rally, says Weberman is the real victim. A year before the allegations emerged, the girl - still underage - had an older boyfriend. Her father, concerned that the pair had embarked on a sexual relationship, secretly video taped them alone and the boyfriend was brought before a judge. Farkas says that although his client advised against the scheme, the girl blames him and wants revenge. She is being manipulated, Farkas says, by "nefarious, vicious people" out to bring Weberman down.

    Or as Der Blatt phrased it in more emotive terms: "As parents who have benefited from this devoted askan [community volunteer] and educator, the person we turned to first to rescue ours and others children when they started sliding [becoming non observant], we call on you: do not allow this askan to be, god forbid, sent to prison for life for his holy work rescuing Jewish children."

    But Judy Genut, a friend of the girl's mother, dismisses Weberman's version of events, even though she acknowledges that most in the community support him. "They can't believe that somebody dressed according to the tradition, who acts and talks and walks like a person who has the fear of God in him, would actually do what he accused of. It's mind boggling." The girl's mother had two sisters who "went off the path", Genut says, so when the story first spread, people dismissed it as the niece being "slutty" too. "The family didn't gather sympathy because of what the aunts did."

    'What's on trial is the idea that he can be protected and supported by the rabbis'

    Although the Libel 75 campaign is unprecedented in scale, Weberman is not the first recipient of a rabbinic fundraising effort. In March 2009, Rabbi Israel Weingarten was convicted in Brooklyn's federal court of raping his daughter from age nine to 18. Following a reportedly bizarre and harrowing trial (in which Weingarten attempted to defend himself at one point cross-examining the daughter) the jury found him guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. This past February, the blog Failed Messiah reported that a rabbinic delegation had visited Weingarten in jail. They took with them a proclamation of innocence, signed by a bevy of senior rabbis that blamed his incarceration on a "travesty of justice" and a "sinister plot" and that pledged to raise the money needed to win back his freedom.

    The instinct to rescue a fellow Jew from prison is hard wired in the Orthodox psyche, says community activist Isaac Shonfeld, an observant Jew from Brooklyn. The fundraising tradition has a name, Pidyon Shvuyim, and dates back to life in eastern Europe when Jews were frequently held to ransom on trumped-up charges by their anti-semitic governments. It isn't just that fear of jail trumps considerations of guilt or innocence, Shonfeld says. But also that many in the community, despite the evidence, still believe Weingarten over his daughter. In a strictly hierarchical, patriarchal, deeply religious society, it's unsurprising: Rabbi Weingarten is a male in late middle age, a scholar of the torah; his accuser was a young woman who is no longer Orthodox; and secular courts are regarded as inherently untrustworthy.

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    Nechemya Weberman's supporters have worked tirelessly to orchestrate the Libel 75 campaign and win the backing of two competing sets of rabbis, says Pearl Engelman, a Satmar Hasid from Williamsburg, whose own son Joel is an abuse survivor. "For the two factions in Satmar to unite on something like this is extremely unusual."

    "What's on trial here is not just Weberman," says Engelman, who believes the girls' account. "What's on trial is the idea that a [man like] Weberman can be protected and supported by the rabbis."

    According to several accounts, the girl's family is facing intimidation to prevent them testifying. Her father owns a Jewish phone directory, widely used in the community. He has been told that unless his daughter withdraws from the court case, advertising will cease and his business will collapse.

    The girl's new boyfriend, Hershy Deutsch, has also been threatened. Deutsch, who owns a pizza restaurant on Lee Avenue, says he was offered $500,000 to persuade the girl to recant. When he refused, he was told his kosher licence could be at risk. He says his landlord was pressured to evict him. "Giving blood money to deny a story is not going to stop the molesters molesting children," he says. Deutsch is using Facebook to mobilise a counter demonstration. He says he worries about his girlfriend, who is suffering terribly. She can't sleep, he says, haunted by memories. Deutsch says his girlfriend also turned down a bribe. "Every time she would go to a store, she would have an image of where that money came from."

    Judy Genut says she, her husband and other members of her family have also been harrassed. "A lot of people are angry that this came out because it brings us in a very bad light," she says. "Other people hear about it, and read about it and if we are the chosen ones, the moral compass of the world, then shouldn't we act morally? It's a very hard thing for us to swallow because there's so much good in our community and so many beautiful organisations.

    "So there's a lot of shame. And when people are ashamed they hide. And how do you hide? By not letting other people know that something like this is happening. Because if you don't talk about it, it's not happening, right? It hurts me so much. I mean, do we actually harbour our own perverts?"

    The Weberman case is a wake-up call for the community, she says, that nothing stays hidden anymore. "Children will learn there are people sticking up for them."

    George Farkas is adamant a jury will exonerate his client: "Weberman has a lot of support in the community because word has got out that this is a phony claim. People realise, there but for the grace of God go I. All of the evidence pointed to the fact he didn't do it. But [the DA's office] went ahead anyway. It's reprehensible. It's un-American. It's wrong."

    When Weberman was first arraigned, he pleaded not guilty, insisting his innocence. At that time, the girl and her family hoped he would take a plea deal. They would have welcomed a swift resolution. Now, the girl is determined to take the stand.

    "So there's going to be a trial," says Genut. "Things are going to come out into the open and it won't be a pretty story."


  29. Sex abuse accusations by teen stir uproar in Brooklyn Hasidic sect

    Monday, October 29, 2012,

    THE MOST high-profile sex abuse trial in years to hit Brooklyn’s insular ultra-Orthodox community is scheduled to begin this week. But hundreds of Satmar Hasids are backing the suspect, not the victim.

    Nechemya Weberman, 53, is charged with 88 counts of sexual misconduct for allegedly forcing a teenage girl to repeatedly perform sex acts on him when she was between 12 and 15.

    Weberman is a prominent Hasidic counselor, whose ancestor is credited with founding the first yeshiva in Brooklyn.

    “It’s going to be a very interesting trial,” said one of the seven attorneys who will argue Weberman’s high-stakes case. All are bound by a judge’s gag order, and declined to discuss details.

    Since coming forward last year, the woman, now 18, and her husband have allegedly been the target of a massive intimidation effort, which advocates have argued has long been an obstacle to reporting such cases in the community. More than 1,000 men showed up at a Williamsburg hall this spring to raise $500,000 for Weberman’s legal defense.

    But the couple has not wavered in their resolve, even after one man allegedly offered them $500,000 in exchange for their silence, and suggested they flee to Israel. Three other men ripped the husband’s kosher certificate from his restaurant, causing him to shutter the business.

    The incidents led to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’ filing the most serious witness intimidation indictments ever within the community, against the four men in July.

    Their trials are not expected until next year.

    The issue of witness intimidation — common in Orthodox enclaves — was highlighted earlier this year in a series of articles that led to criticism of how Hynes handles molestation cases within the community.

    Before 2009, only a handful of sex abuse cases came out of the Orthodox community, which prefers to handle matters internally through its civilian police and rabbinical courts.

    Then Hynes established a program called Kol Tzedek specifically targeting the sex abuse problem in the Hasidic community, which has resulted in over 100 cases so far, the top prosecutor has said.

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    In the Weberman case, as the lead member of the ardent Satmar sect’s “modesty committee,” the unlicensed counselor was allegedly helping the sixth-grade girl because she was believed to be unchaste.

    Prosecutors say there were six other women who were counseled by him as part of this “modesty committee” who complained about unwanted sexual advances. But the women would not proceed with pressing criminal charges.

    Weberman and the teenager’s father secretly videotaped her in bed with an previous boyfriend while she was still underage, which they took to the DA to file statutory rape charges against the man, both the defense and prosecution agree. The teenager threatened suicide, and the statutory rape charges were dropped.

    Weberman’s defense argues that the new claims against him are in retaliation for the videotaping and statutory rape charges.

    But Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice John Ingram found that argument “speculative and not supported by any facts.” He forbade any mention of the tape at trial.

    The Weberman case has stirred up strong emotions in the Hasidic community, which numbers some 250,000 people in Brooklyn. It’s the largest such group outside Israel.

    “The community felt we’re under attack because he’s supposedly a problem solver,” while the young woman had left the strictly religious lifestyle, said an acquaintance of the accuser.

    Hynes, who had previously came under fire for not releasing names of Orthodox men accused of abuse, has said intimidation of victims and their kin is rampant in that community.

    Weberman hails from a prominent lineage. One of his ancestors, Ben Zion Weberman, is credited with helping to establish the very first yeshiva in Brooklyn in 1917. “He is very well respected,” A.J. Weberman, a secular distant cousin who compiled the family history, said of the man facing trial.

    The publicity this case and similar ones have garnered is beginning to shift attitudes in the Hasidic community, insiders say.

    Awareness is on the rise, said Mark Appel, founder of the advocacy group Voice of Justice. “There is a major change happening,” he added.


  31. Photos of Accuser on Stand Disrupt Sexual Abuse Trial

    By SHARON OTTERMAN New York Times November 29, 2012

    The trial of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish counselor accused of repeatedly molesting a girl was disrupted on Thursday afternoon when four spectators in a Brooklyn courtroom were accused of taking pictures with their cellphones of the accuser on the witness stand.

    The four men, identified by prosecutors as Joseph Fried, Yona Weisman, Abraham Zupnick and Lemon Juice, were arrested and charged with criminal contempt in the second degree, a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to one year in jail.

    The accuser, who is now 17, has testified that she and her family had faced a pattern of intimidation from the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, since she alleged last year that Nechemya Weberman, the unlicensed therapist her parents had sent her to for counseling, repeatedly forced her to have oral sex during their sessions together from the time she was 12 until she turned 15.

    In June, prosecutors charged four Williamsburg men with attempting to silence her by offering her a $500,000 bribe through her boyfriend to drop her participation in the case. Intimidation of sexual abuse victims in the ultra-Orthodox community is common, prosecutors say, because going to secular authorities with charges against another Jew is considered treasonous. But arrests for intimidation are rare.

    Mr. Weberman’s accuser had already been provided with increased security after onlookers said they spotted Mr. Weberman staring at her threateningly through the window of a conference room as she rested during a break in the court session on Wednesday, said Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office. The defense denies that Mr. Weberman did this.

    Then at about 2 p.m. Thursday, court officers spotted a man taking a picture of the teenager as she testified, Mr. Schmetterer said. The judge, Justice John G. Ingram, ordered the jury cleared from the 20th-floor courtroom in State Supreme Court, and the cellphones of all onlookers in the courtroom were confiscated.

    The phones of the four men arrested had photos of the teenager that had been taken in the courtroom, and one photo appeared to have already been posted to Twitter, Mr. Schmetterer said. David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the court, said that Judge Ingram also admonished the men before allowing the trial to continue.

    While the district attorney’s office did not comment on motive, Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an advocate for abuse victims who was in the courtroom, said that the men arrested were Satmar Hasidim, some of whom supported Mr. Weberman. “This is intimidation,” he said. “The government should not let this slide away, because this is not an accident. It is done deliberately in an effort to keep the law system from functioning.”

    A version of this article appeared in print on November 30, 2012, on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: Photos of Accuser on Stand Disrupt Sexual Abuse Trial.


  32. Principal of Private Jewish School Convicted for Sexual Abuse

    by BrooklyNews.com December 3, 2012

    Brooklyn DA Attorney Charles J. Hynes today announced the conviction of Emanuel Yegutkin, 33, for sexually abusing three young boys over the course of 10 years. Yegutkin was convicted before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Dineen Riviezzo on 75 counts of charges including three counts of Course of Sexual Conduct Against a Child in the First Degree, two counts of Course of Sexual Conduct Against a Child in the Second Degree, and multiple counts of Criminal Sexual Act in the Second Degree, Sexual Abuse in the Second Degree, Sexual Abuse in the Third Degree, and Endangering the Welfare of a Child. The top charge, Course of Sexual Conduct Against a Child in the First Degree carries a maximum sentence of 25 years. Yegutkin will be back in court on December 17 to announce a sentencing date.

    District Attorney Hynes said, “This violent sexual predator faces the remainder of his life behind bars. This should serve as a clear message that those who would sexually abuse children in this county will be punished severely.”

    Yegutkin was a principal of a private Jewish high school in Brooklyn. He became a close friend of the victims’ family after attending the school where the victims’ father worked, and visited their home frequently. The victims did not attend Yegutkin’s school. From 1996 to 2005, Yegutkin sexually abused two of the boys when they were ages seven to 15-years-old, and in 2008, exposed the third boy to pornography. He forced them to perform sex acts including fondling and oral sex. Yegutkin was arrested in January 2009.

    At trial, the three victims testified against Yegutkin. The trial began on October 18th. The jury, consisting of seven men and five women, were in deliberations since November 29. They came back with a guilty verdict today, finding Yegutkin guilty on all 75 counts.

    The case was prosecuted by Rachel Schmidt, First Deputy Bureau Chief of the Sex Crimes Bureau and Lauren Traum, Senior Trial Attorney of the Sex Crimes Bureau. Rhonnie Jaus is Chief of the Sex Crimes Bureau.


  33. Hasidic mum says she trusted alleged child abuser

    By Sebastian Smith (AFP) – December 3, 2012

    NEW YORK — The mother of a girl who says she was abused by a powerful and respected spiritual counselor in a New York community of ultra-Orthodox Jews testified Monday that she never suspected the accused man, given their sect's radical restrictions on sexual behavior.

    In a dramatic moment, Rachel Krausz took the stand in the trial that has upended the normally closed Satmar branch of Hasidic Jews and pointed across the Brooklyn courtroom at Nechemya Weberman.
    Weberman, a heavyset 54-year-old with a traditional Hasidic beard and dark clothing, is alleged to have repeatedly abused Krausz's daughter for three years starting in 2007, when she was 12.

    Krausz said she could never have known what would happen when she sent her daughter to Weberman for counseling sessions, given his standing and the community's strict separation of the sexes.
    "Did you expect they would be behind closed doors alone?" the prosecutor asked in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

    "No," the mother replied.

    "Did you expect there would be locks on the doors?"


    Krausz explained that among Satmars, sex outside of marriage is a taboo subject. Asked if sex education was discussed at school or at home, she said: "Never."

    The alleged victim was sent to Weberman at the orders of her school, which said she had behavioral problems.

    According to Krausz, those were just the results of girlish frustration with heavy modesty rules.

    "It was hard on her. They were busy with pointless things like very thick tights. They had to go touch the tights to see what quality it was," she said.

    The girl got in trouble for having an open top button on her shirt.

    "The principal called her an epikorus," Krausz said, using a word meaning heretic.

    According to the allegations, Weberman used these counseling sessions to sexually molest the youngster, who for a long time was too scared to tell anyone.

    The defense says the girl made up the accusations to take revenge against Weberman for informing her parents that she'd revealed to him she was romantically involved with a boy -- something banned in their community.

    There has been a steady drip of child abuse allegations from the closed Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. But few end up at trial, in part, officials say, because anyone trying to go public with a complaint faces serious intimidation.

    Last week, four apparent Weberman supporters were questioned after being caught taking pictures inside the courtroom, including one of the young woman.

    Judge John Ingram issued a rare order barring anyone at the trial from having a cellphone, a measure more likely at a mob proceeding than anything involving religious figures.

    "I would remind everyone that it is against the law in the state of New York to take photos in court," Ingram said Monday. "Truly this is a very serious violation."

    Krausz told the court that her family had come under pressure because they were seen as having broken Satmar rules on keeping problems within the community. "In the Satmar, it's a bad thing. They don't allow it," she said.

    "When my husband went to the synagogue to pray, they would scream at him," she said. Even her granddaughter, aged five, has not been allowed back to school and her husband's business is suffering.
    In the public seating of the courtroom, every spot was filled with bearded men in traditional clothes or Hasidic women, several of them wearing wigs.

    Even under the careful eye of the court officers, tensions spilled over. "Go away! You don't belong here. Nobody wants you here!" one woman said to another trying to join her bench.

    Another woman approached and whispered: "It's very important we remain united."