Monthly Archives: August 2017

NY Court Awards Partial Custody of Hasidic children to OTD Divorcee, Setting Precedent

New York State Supreme Court’s “Appellate Division: Second Judicial Department” today awarded partial custody of three Hasidic children to their divorced OTD (off the derekh) mother, Chava Weisberger, overturning a lower court ruling that had awarded full custody to their observant Hasidic father on the argument that she had abrogated a 2008 divorce settlement to raise the children Hasidic.

Chava (Chavie) Weisberger

The case is unusual in that the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division –the second highest in the New York State Unified Court System– not only agreed to hear the appeal in the first place, but then decided to overturn the verdict of the lower county-level trial court. Appellate courts are generally disinclined to overturn trial court rulings unless the appeal involves a matter of legal principle.

Chava’s judicial victory is being celebrated by both the OTD sector and the LGBTQ sector, since she identifies as lesbian and her sexual orientation was pertinent in the dispute.

Background

Emunas Yisroel, 4310 16th Ave., Brooklyn, NY

The Weisberger couple, Naftali and Chava Weisberger, had married in 2002, relocating from Monsey to Borough Park, Brooklyn. The families of both are central figures in the Emunas Yisroel congregation located on 16th Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets, and the young couple were originally “Munis”.

After bearing three children together, Mrs. Weisberger revealed to her husband in 2005 that she was attracted to women. The couple attended marriage counseling to no avail and so eventually agreed to divorce. The agreement, –referred to in court documents as “stipulation of settlement”– that was drawn up in 2008, prior to their divorce, called for the children to be raised Hasidic and for the parents to observe the following shared custody arrangement:

  • Mother would be the primary custodian of the children.
  • Father has the right to a 2-hour visitation with the children once a week.
  • Father gets to have the children every other weekend from Friday afternoon until the departure of shabbos.
  • Father has continuous custody of the children for two weeks in the summer.
  • Children alternate custody between the parents on Jewish holidays.

The Three Weisberger Children Whose Custody Was in Dispute

The agreement also obligated the father to pay $600 per month in child support to the mother, which the father did not abide by according to Chava’s later testimony.

But the father soon remarried, begat children from his new wife, and did not exercise his right to alternate weekend custody of the children. Instead, the mother continued to be the the almost-exclusive caregiver as she had been during the marriage when her husband was mostly absent from home.

In the fall of 2012 Chava brought a transgender “friend”, designated “O” in court papers, in as a roommate. During the father’s short visits with the children the children related how O helped bathe them and talked to them about sexuality. In October 2012 the mother started dressing the children “goyish” and trimmed their peios shorter than usual (but did not, apparently, withdraw them from the hasidic school they were attending). She came out to her children openly as lesbian. The father alleges also that she allowed the children to violate shabbos and eat non-kosher.

Alarmed at his children’s precipitous estrangement from their native Hasidic lifestyle, the father filed suit in November 2012 to compel the mother to abide by the “religious upbringing clause” in the divorce agreement, or else relinquish custody of the children. The father argued that although he had known that she was lesbian when the stipulation of settlement that gave her shared custody was drawn up, he had expected her to keep it a secret from the children and to conduct herself in a Haredi/Hasidic fashion in their presence.

A month after the father filed suit a temporary consent order was reached between the litigants that the father would begin exercising custody over the children on extended weekends (Thursday-Monday), while the mother’s custody would be restricted to Monday thru Thursday.

In the meantime, Chava initiated a suit of her own seeking to modify the religious upbringing clause in the stipulation of settlement. She wanted to pull the children out of their hasidic schools and send them instead to “progressive, Modern Orthodox schools that are inclusive of gay individuals”. (Chava presently works for Eshel, an organization that advocates for acceptance of LGBT folk in Orthodox communities.) Her legal argument was that there had been a “change of circumstances” since the stipulation of settlement, and according to New York State law that entitles a court to revisit the agreement and modify it to accord with the best interests of the children at that time.

In return for the change-of-school concession, Chava conceded the father’s bid for custody on every shabbos and yom tov, (although she did seek visitation rights on secular holidays) and she agreed to keep kosher with the children both within and without the home.

But the Supreme Court in 2013 denied Chava Weisberger’s request. The judge declared that the change of circumstances was caused by the mother’s transition from the Hasidic lifestyle and that the mother’s conduct had violated the stipulation of settlement. Most importantly the court held that the religious upbringing of the children was “a paramount factor” in custody determination. Since both parents had agreed –at the signing of the stipulation of settlement– that a Hasidic lifestyle was in the best interests of the children, and since the mother was no longer conducting herself in a Hasidic fashion, she was therefore no longer entitled to custody over the children (according to the state’s “best interests of the children” standard applied in situations where there had been a “change of circumstances” since the time the original agreement between the parties was made).

The trial court’s ruling was not immediately carried out. It appears that the father was more interested in compelling the mother to conduct herself in Hasidic fashion in the children’s presence than in actually having sole custody, and the ruling was therefore “stayed” (=delayed). But the verdict was a defeat to Chava Weisberger and to the communities she identifies with: OTD/Footsteps and LGBTQ.

In Chava’s appeal to the Appellate Division, Chava was represented by the New York Legal Assistance Group, an organization that “provides high quality, free civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers who cannot afford attorneys”.  She also secured the aid of a bevy of deep-pocketed organizations that sought to take a stand on the case as a matter of ideological principle. The following organizations assisted her financially and/or through the filing of an “amicus curiae” (=friend of the court) on her behalf:

  • Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization that is committed to “achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and everyone living with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work”.
  • New York Civil Liberties Union, an organization that promotes immigrant rights, LGBT rights, racial justice, reproductive rights, and disabled person’s rights. It has pursued legal action in defense of the right to film police, against NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program, against solitary prison confinement, and more.
  • Footsteps, an organization that assists people in their quest “to explore the world beyond their insular ultra-Orthodox communities”. Chava (aka Chavie) Weisberger is both a “member” of the Footsteps community and employed as a “community engagement associate” by the organization.
  • Unchained At Last, an organization that “helps women and girls leave or avoid arranged/forced marriages and rebuild their lives”. The organization is an affiliate of and partially funded by Footsteps.

The essence of the Appellate Division’s argument today is that:

The weight of the evidence does not support the conclusion that it is in the children’s best
interests to have their mother categorically conceal the true nature of her feelings and beliefs from
them at all times and in all respects, or to otherwise force her to adhere to practices and beliefs that
she no longer shares.

In other words the father cannot force the mother to conduct herself in a Hasidic fashion when in the presence of the children. The court ruled that the status-quo shared custody arrangement in which the mother had custody of the children Monday thru Thursday cannot be challenged by the father on the grounds of the mother’s religious conduct.

But the court did not side with the Chava completely. The court upheld the lower court’s rejection of her bid to withdraw the children from the Hasidic schools and enroll them in progressive schools instead:

The weight of the evidence demonstrates that it is in the children’s best interests to continue to permit the father to exercise final decision-making authority over the children’s education and to continue to permit him to require the children to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy while they are in his custody, or in the custody of a school that requires adherence to such practices.

As to how the children should be raised, the court ruled that it is in their best interests to be raised Hasidic while in their Hasidic schools and while in the custody of the father. But the mother was only obligated to “keep a kosher home and to provide the children exclusively with kosher food”, something she had agreed to do on her own initiative in her 2013 Supreme Court motion. While the children were in her custody Chava was entitled to “exercise discretion” with regard to their religious upbringing, i.e. she need not direct them to observe all religious practices, let alone all Hasidic ones.


Key points in the Appellate Division’s ruling today:

  • It affirmed the trial court’s finding that a change of circumstances had occurred since the signing of the stipulation of settlement and that “a modification of the stipulation of settlement is therefore necessary to ensure the continued best interests and welfare of the children”.
  • It rejected the lower court’s ascription of undue weight to the “religious upbringing clause” in the stipulation of settlement, considering it a “paramount factor” in custody determination. Rather, declares the Appellate Division ruling, religion is one factor among many that courts should consider in awarding custody, so that if a child is already accustomed to a particular religious lifestyle, the court can decide to give custody to the parent that supports that religion, based on the religious factor. But the mere fact the the parties had agreed to raise the child in particular way does not make it enforceable in court since the court only looks out for the best interests and welfare of the children –not the enforcement of an agreement– once there had been a change of circumstances:

    “No agreement of the parties can bind the court to a disposition other than that which a weighing of all of the factors involved shows to be in the child[ren]’s best interest”.

  • It rejected the father’s assertion that awarding him sole custody of the children was in their best interests, since the mother had been the primary caretaker and the father was largely absent from the children’s day-to-day lives. Unsupervised visitation by the mother was not detrimental to the children, even if she comported herself in a religious manner that was inconsistent with the original stipulation of settlement:

    “The mother has been the children’s primary caretaker since birth, and their emotional and intellectual development is closely tied to their relationship with her. The record overwhelmingly demonstrates that the mother took care of the children’s physical and emotional needs both during and after the marriage, while it is undisputed that the father consistently failed to fully exercise his visitation rights or fulfill his most basic financial obligations to the children after the parties’ separation.”

  • It repudiated the lower court’s view that the father violated the terms of the stipulation of settlement. “To give the children a Hasidic upbringing” (stipulated in the stipulation of settlement) does not mean that the woman must “practice any type of religion, dress in any particular way, or to hide her views or identity from the children”.
  • Even if the woman did violate the terms of the stipulation of settlement by her own conduct being un-Hasidic, it would be unenforceable in court, because “it is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise”.

Finally, the Appellate Division made a curious and somewhat puzzling statement:

“There is no indication or allegation that the mother’s feelings and beliefs are not sincerely held, or that they were adopted for the purpose of subverting the religious upbringing clause, and there has been no showing that they are inherently harmful to the children’s well-being.”

According the Appellate Division’s logic that all that matters is the welfare of the children, stipulation of settlements be damned, it is not clear why it would matter if the woman did deliberately and subversively conduct herself un-Hasidic in order to derail the children from the Hasidic path. As regards to “inherently harmful”, that is a subjective judgement. The father certainly would argue the un-Hasidic conduct is morally “inherently harmful” and there is no objective way to prove or disprove that.


Impact of the Appellate Division’s ruling

The “Appellate Division: Second Department” has jurisdiction not only within its own “department” (=region within the state) but throughout the state, so long as an appellate division in another department does not explicitly contravene it. This means that the court’s opinion can be used as a precedent in trial courts throughout the state.

In divorces within the haredi sector that involve one parent that is leaving the community, it is common for a bes din or communal expert to mediate between the parties and to bind them through a contractual agreement as to how the divorce should be settled (e.g. division of property, child custody, and child-rearing practices). Litigation in court immediately upon divorce is against halokho. The mediation/arbitration path also averts the acrimony, expense, and time that litigation in a secular court inevitably entails.

All such contractual agreements signed as part of a divorce settlement between an observant and going-off-the-derekh spouse are now in effect void. By definition, the wayward spouse is “in transition” away from the community and could therefore later claim a “change of circumstances” and seek judicial relief to nullify the contract and for the court to impose a new arrangement that is “in the best interests of the children” (according to whose standards?). Any resultant change in the status-quo –regardless of whether it is or isn’t in the best interests of the children, and regardless of which measures are used to determine that– is bound to be beneficial to the OTD spouse and detrimental to the observant one, since the status quo always favors the spouse that remains religious more so than the spouse that is departing the community and liberalizing his or her behavior.

The court’s distinction between a spouse’s own conduct and that which he or she teaches the custodial child is ground-breaking. An OTD parent may openly flout religious conduct in their own behavior while nominally being supportive of it in their children’s behavior.

Also, there is never a valid way for a divorcing spouse to ever bind oneself contractually to a particular religious lifestyle in furtherance of a stable and predictable upbringing of their child, and for such a contract to be enforceable in court. The court will automatically reject a bid to enforce such a contract citing the unconstitutionality to enforce religious conduct.


Weisberger v. Weisberger

Fire Erupts in Barrons Bungalow Colony

Simis of London donated new clothing for the Horowitz family at Barrons bungalow colony.

A fire erupted on Monday in the Barron’s bungalow located on the on the Rt 42 hasidic corridor in Fallsburg, NY. The fire, caused by an electronic heater, completely engulfed the bungalow of the Horowitz family and damaged an adjacent one. The heater was used, even though it is summer, because it often gets windy and cool in that region of upstate New York this time of year, especially in the evening; and the bungalows are not insulated.

The Horowitz family –which comprises eighteen souls, including the parents– is an esteemed one within the Bobover sect, headquartered in Borough Park. The actual bungalow colony is owned and operated by the Shopron hasidic sect, which is anchored in Williamsburg and affiliated with Satmar. But, in line with common Hasidic practice, the colony’s operators accept all families so long as they abide by its strict rules, e.g. the modesty rule that forbids the wearing of podzhelos. The fire occurred when Mr. Horowitz was not at the colony, as is the case on weekdays when men stay in city for work.

Joseph Waldman

Following the fire, Joseph Waldman –an eminent Zalmanite activist and philanthropist, and owner of the fashionable boutique children’s clothing shop Simis of London— agreed to donate thousands of dollars worth of clothing to outfit the large family that suddenly found itself clothless. Sources confirm that $2,500 worth of merchandise was donated from the Woodborne Simis branch, one of three in the New York metro area.

Critics opine that Waldman is eager to accrue the goodwill of the general populace after a prolonged and bitter war that he fought with the official organs of Satmar in Kiryas Joel through the Nineties and Oughts. In recent years, his rehabilitation in the Satmar community has been facilitated by his siding with Zalman in the Aaron-Zalman Satmar Succession Feud.


See Also

TheYeshivaWorld

Hasidic Expansion in Fleischmann’s Prompts Altercation with Locals

The village of Fleischmanns in upstate New York was the scene of an altercation this past shabbos between Hasidic vacationers and local residents. The conflict centers on the recent Hasidic expansion in the village, a natural result of the rapid growth of the hasidic sector, but one that long-time residents of this laid-back idyllic village dislike.

The Village of Fleischmanns in Delaware County, New York; year-round population: 351

Fleischmanns is the site of one of the first bungalow colonies to be acquired by the Satmar hasidim in America after WWII, continuing a century old tradition of New York City Jews vacationing in the Catskills in the summer. Over subsequent decades dozens of additional bungalow colonies had been purchased in the region by a variety of hasidic congregations and entrepreneurs.

But a surge of Hasidic construction, acquisitions, and renovations of Catskills properties has been taking place lately. It is prompted by the natural growth of the Hasidic community through uncontrolled reproduction, relative affluence and a trend to manifest it through summer vacations, and the recent Aaron-Zalman rift which requires a duplication of existing entities to serve the needs of whichever faction loses title to the existing property.

Mendelowitz-owned Hotel Properties, including the former Flagstone Inn and Northland Hotel

The Mendelowitz family had thus recently purchased a couple of old hotels in Fleischmanns and, renovated them, and made them available for hasidic vacationers. To serve the needs of the Hasidim, the hotel proprietors had erected an eruv around the hotel area to enable guests to carry on shabbos.

But even ostensibly Orthodox Jewish neighbors of the Mendelowitz property were inimical to the hasidic gentrification in their midst. The altercation that erupted this past shabbos was over the hotel’s eruv string that had apparently been severed by a Jewish doctor that lived nearby, claiming that the string ran through his property. Three hasidic men from the Mendelowitz family confronted the old Jewish doctor, hurled insults at thim and accused him repeatedly accused him of being mehallel shem shomayim berabbim (profaning the name of Heaven publicly).

The confrontation was filmed by the doctor’s family and subsequently published on the Internet. Three clips can be viewed on the SatmarStrip Club Facebook page:

But in an unusual twist, while the hotel’s proprietors may have expected sympathy within the Hasidic community, there wasn’t much of it going around among Hasidic WhatsApp denizens. The video reflected poorly on the Mendelowitz trio who are seen haranguing the old man without apparent cause (the men do not specify what the issue is).

One hasid later issued an open letter of apology toward the man:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saul Klein Identifies Luxury as the Great Pitfall for Hasidim

In a telephonic lecture this past Tishoh beav, Saul Klein excoriated the haredi trend to pursue luksus (luxury) at the expense of basic necessities and a profanation of God’s name. The 40-minute lecture was given in a program called hotzi shiur (half measure) accessible on the Kol Mevaser telephone hotline. Klein belongs to the Old Guard, harboring memories of R. Joel Teitelbaum and the formative years of Satmar hasidus in America. He has distinguished himself as an expert in haredi education and he is also a columnist on the Aaronite newspaper Di Zeitung.

Klein cited several examples of the luksus he despises:

  • An advertisement in a hasidic paper showing a burger with the subtitle “decadent”.
  • An advertisement for a haredi group cruise on a yacht, with a concert, and with gourmet meals served by uniformed white-gloved servants.

He reminisced how in the old days people would wrangle over who would get to pay the least –a mere $50 for the summer– for a bungalow, whereas nowadays the contest is for the bigger, better-furnished and most expensive “bungalow”. He wistfully recalled the days when the mere purchase of a car was considered flaunting one’s wealth and dubious, whereas now two  “luxury Lexus” cars (alliterative pun intended) are acceptable.

Aside from the crass ungodly materialism such a lifestyle entails, Klein criticized it on the grounds that its adherents neglect to abide by more basic communal and familial financial commitments, e.g. the one who was behind four months in tuition but somehow had the funds to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashonoh.

People are naturally xenophobic, says Klein, e.g. the post 9-11 animosity toward Muslims. When we flaunt our wealth and employ legally questionable methods to maintain our profligate lifestyle, we trigger the ire of the gentiles and sometimes even that of modern Jews.

When the federal government hands down an indictment against a Hasid accused of defrauding a welfare program, “the media do not go to Saul Klein to get an expert explanation; they go to Samuel Heilman” and what Heilman tells them is that Hasidim lead a legally-defined poverty-laden life by choice, even as the community’s coffers are full and even as many recipients of welfare programs have plenty of money for other things. What Heilman does not acknowledge, bemoans Klein, is that the costs of maintaining a haredi lifestyle are so high that even with the underreporting of income haredim are still indigent and morally justified in seeking government aid.

Nevertheless, Klein exhorts, if we would economize more and not splurge on unnecessary material comforts we would not be compelled to seek government aid fraudulently and the resultant antagonism toward hasidim could be averted.

Samuel Heilman is the author of a dozen books on hasidism, including the recently published Who Will Lead Us whose ripples have been felt among hasidim, e.g. this KaveShtiebel forum thread

Kol Mevaser lectures are popular with Internet-barred young hasidic lads who resort to Kol Mevaser’s telephonic technology to access words of wisdom by haredi rabbis and experts, as well as a steady stream of news.

Myths and Facts about Conscription of Yeshiva Students

Statement 1: The IDF is arresting haredim who do not conscript.

Myth.

The arrests that can be seen in many Youtube-published videos are for obstructing traffic or throwing rocks at police during anti-conscription demonstrations. The IDF does not currently try to apprehend military service evaders and it is doubtful that it ever intends to do so.

Statement 2: The objective of the new Equality of Burden conscription law is to lead haredim into apostasy through assimilation into secular society.

Myth.

The new law was prompted by an outcry on the part of mainstream Israeli society that haredim are not participating in their civic and military responsibilities. Worse, they largely rely on government handouts for survival. The purpose of the law is to redress this perceived unfairness in the “sharing of the burden” (hence the law’s name), not to change the nature of haredi lifestyle.

Statement 3: The military is creating and enforcing new, more stringent regulations that implicate many haredi men with “law of conscription” violations.

Fact.

The new law makes it very plain that the objective is to increase haredi enlistment. As part of that endeavor, the military is making it harder to evade service. e.g. by requiring that a yeshiva meet specified criteria in order for its students to qualify for postponements. The hope is that those who don’t qualify, e.g. they are studying full time or are not enrolled in a large enough yeshiva, will join the army.

Statement 4: The haredi political parties in Israel are silent on the matter because they fear the government will cut off funding or otherwise punish haredim if they protest.

Fact.

The 2012 Plesner Committee had proposed much harsher haredi conscription terms, e.g. that 80% of haredim would be enlisted by 2016 on pain of incarceration and financial penalty, and dodgers would, additionally, forfeit welfare aid. Netanyahu did eventually succumb to haredi party pressure to dissolve the committee but it sparked a backlash from the champions of haredi conscription. UTJ (United Torah Judaism) was held over a barrel to accept the present conscription terms, codified in 2014, on pain of the enactment of the original, much harsher terms if it resisted.

Statement 5: The new law stifles Torah study.

Myth.

The law hardly does so. For one, the new law provides for the continuation of postponements until the age of 21, thus giving haredi students the privilege (vis a vis their secular counterparts) to immerse themselves in Torah study for an additional three years beyond their official graduation from school at age 18. Secondly, the length of enlistment is now reduced from 36 months to 32 months. Thirdly, the law makes an exception for 1,800 of the most gifted students to receive a full exemption even if the conscription targets are not met. Fourthly, haredim (and only haredim) have the option of choosing civil service instead of military service, which may enable them to continue studying torah for themselves in their spare time on the job, e.g. a firefighter can study Talmud in the firehouse while on call.

Lastly and most importantly, the notion that 100% of enrolled haredi students are actually studying Judaic literature is fanciful. Every dean and impartial observer knows that there is a good percentage of students who virtually never learn a single minute of their time spent “between the walls of the besmedrash”. They chatter away with their havrusa or idle their time elsewhere all day long. The law was not meant to impede sincere students from studying, even though a case for that could be made. The law is meant to siphon off the weakest elements from the besmedrash, those who are not academically oriented anyway and who probably secretly crave the pragmatism and adventure of military service.

Statement 6: The effect of the new law is to make haredim who serve less faithful to the haredi lifestyle.

True.

It is hard to square the physical-fitness and combative mentality that the military imbues in its charges with the effete haredi mentality of academics, neglect of bodily needs, and submission to God’s will. There is, indeed, bound to be a change of perspective by haredi students upon serving in the military. But such a transformation is hard to quantify and may be minimal given that haredim serve in all-haredi typically-non-combat units. Also, those haredim who are inclined to enlist may already be at odds with the prevailing haredi submissive mentality and are not being militarized by the army.

However, the assertion that haredim are apt to abandon their commitment to haredi practice altogether is not true. There is no evidence, nor anecdote for that. There is absolutely no pressure to trim a beard, eating non-kosher food, be in the company of women, or violate any other core haredi principles.

Statement 7: The Equality of Burden law is spiteful. Its advocates seek to impose a burden or punish the haredim because they harbor hostility towards them.

Myth.

It is true that there are some secular elements who harbor intense hatred toward haredim, but they are in the minority in Israeli society and they do not stand behind this law. (They would consider the law far too mild to support it.) Not only was the law not meant to hurt the interests of the haredi sector, but it in fact is supportive of their interests. For example, the new law gave an instant, unconditional exemption to all haredim over age 22 so that they could get a job without being hampered by not having served in the military. The new law also permanently lowers the age-based exemption to 26 so that even those who illicitly don’t serve could get a job and earn money.

Interview with Abraham Klein Sheds New Light on the Malky Klein Drug Overdose

In a 70-minute interview last week, Abraham Klein, father of recently deceased Malky Klein relates the full story of his daughter’s life which ultimately led to a fatal overdose on heroin last month. Many details about the girl emerged in the interview, including the circumstances that led to her ejection from high school and a more lenient observance of Orthodoxy.

It all started with poor academic performance in middle school, albeit no classroom behavioral problems. Her bad 8th grade report card and high school entrance exam score made it difficult for the family to find a high school willing to accept her. The school that had originally agreed to take her rejected her days before the semester began. Another school that subsequently accepted her expelled her within a matter weeks initially citing a variety of reasons: she was bringing expensive nosh to school, buying expensive gifts for friends, eating pizza in the store instead of first bringing it back to school, and changing backpacks too frequently. Eventually the school stated the true reason: she was “klotzing” in school all day and was not attentive in any of the classes. Even after much pleading by Mr. Klein to let Malky stay, even offering to pay for a resource room that would offer special help to Malky and her ilk, the school balked and insisted that Malky leave immediately.

After months out of school, since the school that expelled her refused to wait until the family could find a suitable replacement, malky was enrolled in a new school that had just been founded by what Mr. Klein calls “a very special person” (although that person had previously been involved with the school that rejected her). Malky caught a second wind at the school and her parents were much encouraged when with the help of multiple tutors Malky was able to perform adequately and eventually pass the 9th grade N.Y. State Regents exams.

But the heroic effort that Malky exerted to live up to the standards expected of her took a very high toll on her psyche. In early tenth grade on the eve of Yom Kippur Malky appeared for the pre-fast meal in leggings to the puzzlement of her parents. A few days later she left the house in leggings to meet with a life coach. She refused to go back to school.

She eventually enrolled in a special school, but that’s where she was first introduced to psychotropic substances which, she later explained to her dad, numbed her pain at always being perceived as the stupid one. For all the apparent merriment and social popularity she had in earlier years, it couldn’t overcome the profound pain she felt from being an underachiever.

In California, where she stayed at a rehab home, she attempted to continue keeping Orthodox practices, but it proved difficult. Staff there withheld candles from her for shabbas candle lighting, and the kosher food given her was subpar especially when contrasted with the general food. After a few weeks of Malky cooking her own food, she succumbed to having her food cooked by the attendant staff who used treif utensils.

Malky recovered and relapsed from her drug addiction a number of times. She was hesitant to return to Borough Park and be forced to confront the stares and judgement of her community, but eventually acquiesced. A week after her return from the California rehab home she overdosed on a Friday night when her father was in shul and died.


A number of other OTD (off the derekh) individuals have led a drugged life and met their death from an accidental overdose, as have many other Americans. But the Malky Klein episode is attracting special attention for a number of reasons:

  1. Malky did not suffer any physical abuse or social rejection. She had a warm, loving home and plenty of friends.
  2. Malky did not seem to reject her Orthodox religion out of ideological objection.
  3. Malky grew up in a religiously moderate home to affluent parents who were very attentive to all her needs.

What gives then?


Rachel Freier, the hasidic recently-elected Brooklyn judge, pondered this question in a column a few days ago on Vosizneias.com. Prior to her judgeship she had founded an organization called B’derech (on the path) that “assists kids at risk in the chassidic community”; so she has credentials in this field.

She points to two reforms schools should make in order to avert a repeat of the Malky Klein tragedy.

  1. Children should be able to “freely ask questions [about yiddishkeit] without fear of criticism”. Teachers and parents should be prepared to answer such questions, and if they are not they should praise the child for asking a question that requires research.
  2. Create vocational learning environments (e.g. hair design, construction, auto repair) for children “who cannot sit in class for so many hours”. Also, instead of labeling those who are academically deficient “learning disabled” and singling them out for tutoring and resource room help, they should be retained in the “average” classroom and the gifted ones should be pulled out for special instruction.

On point one there is no evidence that Malky belonged in the category of “those who ask questions” and that she was rejected because of that. It seems that Rachel is prompted to mention it based on other experiences she had dealing with “at risk” kids in her B’derech tenure.

As to the substance of it, point one presumes that haredi ideology is objectively correct and if one questions it, it is done out of sheer ignorance, not in a genuine investigation as to its merits. Moreover, what this attitude ignores is the possibility that even if haredi judaism is in fact the ideal and most optimal lifestyle system in the planet for most people, it isn’t necessarily so for all. (Just as she acknowledges that some students are best placed on a vocational track, even though it is inferior to the academic one.) For some students, none of the sophisticated answers that a teacher and parent may come up with to justify the fundamental precepts of the faith –even if 100% sound– are satisfactory. Is there an educational route for such students that is most beneficial to them, either within or outside of the community? It’s analogous to asking a judge to recuse herself. Are you ever willing to do so, Ruchy?

The second point is one that is being increasingly mentioned by educational critics nowadays. In fact, many decades ago, “tracking” was de rigeur. Students were tested through their primary and secondary school education to determine what education track was right for them. Non-academically oriented students were routed to vocational schools that prepared them for skilled work right out of high school. Their curriculum did not include much grammar and math and did nor prepare them for college.

What changed is the emergence of the very “self-esteem” movement that Freier invokes to try to reform the current practice. Students that were shunted to the vocational track felt inferior since they knew that they were the dumb ones and were forever destined to hold less-paying jobs and be in lower social esteem. The elites felt that that was wrong. Concurrently, the “no child left behind” (NCLB) attitude (codified into law in 2002) blossomed and bore fruit. Under that doctrine there is no such thing as a child who is inherently incapable of “getting it”; rather, it is the schools and the teachers who are ill-prepared to teach everyone. Together, the consensus emerged, starting from the 80’s, that all children should be placed on an academic track and that all children could succeed in that track if the school espoused the “correct” educational philosophy and used appropriate pedagogical tools.

What the haredi sector is perhaps unaware of is that it hopped on the same NCLB bandwagon concurrently with mainstream American society. What’s worse is that while NCLB has officially been withdrawn in the Obama era through Race to the Top, it thrives unmolested amidst the haredi sector.

Historically there was no communal expectation that all bohorim should learn torah as an exclusive vocation until they got married. Those who were not inclined to torah study halted their education in their early teens, and learned a trade instead. Such folk were perfectly accepted within the fabric of the community, not being judged inferior in the matchmaking process. Even in America, as late as the 1960’s, many hasidic boys would learn a trade and get a job before getting married, an act that put their future wives at ease knowing that their husbands were capable and poised to provide for the family on day one.

What we need then is an official denunciation of this immensely pernicious NCLB attitude. We ought to declare publicly and confidently that not everyone should embark on an academic track in their life. For girls this means less English and math, and for boys it means less gemoro tosfos and meforshim. Instead they should spend their time learning a trade, be it computer programming, graphic design, web design, or whatever and graduate from high school immediately prepared to enter the labor market as a skilled or semi-skilled observant Jew.

Satmar Brothers Divided Over How to Cope with Conscription of Yeshivists

It would have been hard to imagine this a few years back, but R. Aaron is now emphatically opposed to activist campaigns to protest the conscription of yeshiva students in Israel, such as the demonstration his brother R. Zalman organized in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in June. Despite his fealty to the Satmar dynasty’s legacy opposition to all things Zionist, Aaron believes that mass demonstrations against Yeshivah conscription –whether in Israel or the United States– are futile so long as key Rabbis in Israel are acquiescent to the practice, as evidenced from their silence on the matter.

Background.

Conscription of Yeshiva students in Israel is nothing radically new. Compulsory conscription of all military-aged Jewish men to the armed forces (known as tzahal) has been normative in Israel since its foundation in 1948. At the time, however, a concession was quietly granted to the small haredi leadership at the time that so long as its students were engaged in torah study they were to receive a dihuy (postponement). But haredim had a deeper motive to evade military service: a fear of assimilation into the mainstream non-observant Israeli culture that would likely stem from serving alongside hilonim (non-religious folk).

Hence the practice emerged for haredi boys to keep renewing their yeshiva-based postponement until they were married with children and old enough for the armed forces to permanently exempt them from service. The practice was somewhat cumbersome, requiring students to annually check in with the local conscription office and prove they were still in Yeshiva. If a yeshiva student sought an early exemption, e.g. based on a medical condition, the process was even more exacting, requiring a much-scrutinized examination and report from a doctor attesting to the matter.

Another tactic often adopted was for the yeshiva boy to agree to enroll in the military but to then immediately and persistently request accommodations for their haredi lifestyle, e.g. the attendance of mikveh every day or edah-haharedis-certified food. This caviling attitude usually was effective and such yeshiva men typically succeeded in obtaining the much-coveted petur (exemption) in a matter of days. That’s because the Israeli military recognized that service in the armed forces required that soldiers be willing and patriotic; there was no point in coercing someone to serve, especially when they acted eccentric and were uncooperative thus compromising the order and discipline in the ranks.

In recent decades, however, a growing chorus among mainstream Israelis began demanding reform in this practice. The original concession, not codified in law, was meant to apply to a small coterie of sincere Torah students (which, incidentally, the seculars did not believe would survive into modernity) and only temporarily until they could finish their studies. Over the decades, as the haredi community grew in size and proportion to the general population, and as the custom solidified for no haredi men to ever serve regardless of whether they were sincere about their studies or not, the matter raised eyebrows. “Why should we risk our lives for our country and the haredim be absolved?” railed non-haredi society indignantly.

The Tal Committee was formed in 1999 to find a formal legislative solution to the dilemma. The Tal Law that was consequently passed gave yeshiva-study-based postponements legal validity but it also stipulated that at age 22 yeshiva students should get job training and either enlist in the military for an abridged 16-month period or perform “national service”, albeit with no penalty for failure to comply. Many seculars were irate at this unequal treatment now officially granted to haredim under the dubious “toratom umanutom” (torah is their trade) doctrine. When it became apparent that haredim were not enlisting even for a short stint at age 22 and in special haredi units, the law was doomed. The Israeli High Court declared it unconstitutional in 2012 and instructed the government to revamp it. The High Court was okay if the law treated haredim differently from seculars, but only if the objective was an eventual more equal sharing of the burden.

The new conscription law enacted in 2014, titled “Equality of Burden”, calls for a gradual annual increase in the number of haredi enlistees. If that quota is not met then all haredi military-aged men (except for 1,800 most gifted) are subject to immediate compulsory conscription. The law thus encourages yeshiva deans to prompt the bottom ~20% of its body to enlist thereby saving the rest from conscription. The law was attenuated by an initial “adaptation period” of three years before enforcement would begin, making 2017 the first enforcement year.

Haredi Reaction In Israel.

The haredi sector was alarmed and furious when the new law was first enacted in March 2014. A massive demonstration against the law was organized in Jerusalem by an unprecedented ad-hoc consortium of the assorted divisions, factions, and sects within haredi jewry.

But the unity was not to last. The leader of the Lithuanian division of haredi Jewry in Israel (organized politically within the UTJ party as Degel Hatorah), R. Yehuda Leib Shteinman, was unperturbed by the “decree against torah” emanating from the Israeli government. He apparently decided that the government’s conscription demands were not unreasonable and he therefore refused to participate or condone any resistance to the law. While he demurred from openly sanctioning enlistment, he did not contest it either, thus permitting fertile ground for government efforts to bear fruit: it soon became normative for tzahal-uniform-dressed young men to appear in the synagogue to partake in prayer and study sessions. Some even had the hutzpah, under government inducement, to attempt to recruit their fellow haredim. A special unit within tzahal dedicated to the needs of haredi soldiers was formed: nahal haredi.

Moreover, the reaction from other rabbis, including the hasidic ones affiliated with the Agudas Israel party, soon became muted as well. It did not behoove them to openly denounce R. Shteinman a leader of tens of thousands and universally recognized for his piety and erudition. What’s more, the government and other parties (primarily Yesh Atid, the one that campaigned for the new conscription law) kept an attentive ear to any open criticism of the new law emanating from the haredi sector and were poised to strike back with threats of withholding government funds or otherwise proposing legislation to scale back the haredi welfare state. With nothing to gain and everything to lose from open resistance to the law, an eerily ambivalent silence soon became normative for most haredim even for those who quietly exhorted their own not to be coaxed into enlistment by the roving bands of haredi-dressed soldiers. (Defiantly public denunciation of the law by a dean subjects his yeshiva to be delisted and its students to become ineligible for a dihuy).

Enter R. Shmuel Auerbach.

After the passing of Degel Hatorah’s 1990’s leader, R. Shach, an open rift had emerged within the Ponevezher Yeshiva and its thousands of Lithuanian alumni: the Kahaneman faction (affiliated with the family that originally founded the yeshiva) eventually appointed Rav Shteinman as the dean, and the Shmuel Markowitz faction (Markowitz being a brother-in-law of Kahaneman) revered R. shmuel Auerbach, son of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

R. Auerbach and his supporters –not bound by any comity after decades of wrangling with the Kahaneman wing of the Lithuanian sector– balked. R. Auerbach came out openly against R. Shteinman and the latter’s acquiescence to conscription. Other Old Yishuv sects followed his lead, including the Edoh-Haharedis-affiliated Toldos Aharon, Toldos Avrohom Yitzhok, and Dushinsky; as well as Satmar.

In the battle between Auerbach and Shteinman on Yeshvist Consciption the daily newspaper Hapeles has taken Auerbach’s zealous stance, while Yated Neeman (official Degel Hatorah publication) has taken the Shteinman side.

American Response

Whereas the Auerbach faction in Israel is in the minority and somewhat wary of dissent toward the preeminent R. Shteinman, the Lithuanian sector in America is more emboldened. Under the hegemony of R. Malkiel Kotler, dean of the famous Bais Medrash Gavoah (BMG) Yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., a bevy of Rabbis arrayed themselves in vocal opposition to haredi conscription on behalf of their Israeli brethren. A formal missive was composed in May 2017 by the rabbinical members of the Council of Torah Sages (Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah) asking their Israeli counterparts why there is silence in the face of such an oppressive law and what the American communities can do to help. Signatories to the letter include Eliyoho Ber Vachtfogel, dean of S. Fallsburg yeshiva; R. Aaron Feldman, dean of Ner Yisral yeshiva in Baltimore; R. Aaron Schechter, dean of the Hayyim Berlin yeshiva; and the Novominsker Rebbe, president of the Council.

While the Lithuanians were awaiting a formal response from the Israeli Council of Torah Sages, R. Zalman Leib Teitelbaum launched a resistance campaign of his own in the spirit of an abiding Satmar hostility to everything Zionist. More than a half century ago, during the lifetime of R. Joel Teitelbaum, the first anti-Zionist campaign was launched and it was on an issue very similar to the current one, namely, the conscription of women (giyus bonos). At the time Satmar argued that the real intention of the Zionists was lascivious in nature, as it was then not yet normative globally for women to serve in the military. Under immense opposition from Satmar, the government eventually caved and agreed to excuse women who claimed an exemption due to their religion. Triumphant in victory, the Satmars had followed that campaign with a number of others to mixed success, including one against the “apostasy of the Yemenite children”, the destruction of allegedly millennia-old Jewish graves, and against profanation of the sabbath in Jerusalem.

R. Zalman, as an heir to the Satmar throne, no doubt felt that the current campaign against conscription of yeshiva students naturally aligned with the Satmar Opinion (known as the shittoh). Accordingly, he organized a mass rally at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to demonstrate against it. The theory went that the Israeli haredim are muzzled either because they are partners in the government or because they are afraid of the political consequencesBesides, the Zionist regime did not care about its own people and the turmoil they may cause internally but would be embarrassed by vocal resistance stemming from American Jews and be impelled to capitulate.

The rally was the first of its kind in modern times. Demonstrations against Israel by Satmar in previous decades were held in public streets in Manhattan (an exception is the one held in MSG in the late 70’s). The campaign for the rally was meticulously well organized and was to include other haredi sects, who, surely –it was believed– would go along with a protest against such a detestable practice as conscription of yeshiva students. Money was raised, logistics were arranged, and diplomacy was conducted with other sects to negotiate the terms of a consortium of haredi sects united in their opposition to yeshivah conscription.

To the consternation of the rally organizers, however, no outside endorsements were to be had. The expected Lithuanian support for such a campaign turned out to be a mirage. While many of them were brave enough to commit their signature on the letter sent to the Israeli Council of Torah Sages, they did not have the gall to partake of a rally openly defiant of R. Shteinman. Some of the small Satmar-aligned hasidic sects hemmed and hawed before giving an answer, wary of being the only ones following a Satmar initiative. They all ultimately wriggled out, including such classic Satmar-aligned stalwarts as Pupa, R. Mottele-Vizhnitz, Bobov-45, and Skolen, the latter of which had issued a lukewarm letter endorsing the rally but his followers were a no-show at the rally. The only Lithuanian leader to “beautify the oyven-uhn” was R. Aaron Schechter but his followers did not appear either.

Zalman’s rival brother and adversary R. Aaron Teitelbaum also declined to partake in the event. He nominally took the position –as published in Der Blatt– that mass anti-zionist demonstrations must encompass a panoply of haredi sects, as is traditional; that since the Lithuanians are not on board with the program it is better not to embark on it; that open protests would derail any effort that was allegedly quietly being made to soften the conscription decree. As he later put it: “Trump phones Bibi and asks him ‘what do you say to what is going on with all the protesting over conscription? why are you doing this to your Torah students?’ and Bibi responds ‘nothing is going on. Nobody is being forcefully removed the besmedrash. If you don’t believe me, you are welcome to tour the hundreds of yeshivot and kolelim here in Israel. They are filled to the brim with an unprecedented high number of tens of thousands students.”

(Critics have now detected a pattern of the Satmar brothers automatically rejecting any public initiative launched by the other thus precluding Aaronite support for this rally regardless of its merit. Another theory attributes Aaron’s antipathy for the rally to a decades-old enmity toward the rally’s chief advocate in Israel, R. Shmuel Auerbach. Back in the 1990’s when R. Aaron was Rabbi of Kiryas Joel and had approved the formation of the Kiryas Joel independent school district in order to qualify for full state education funding for its Shaare Hemlah school, some haredi elements (Kashau, R. Mottele-Vizhnitz) had voiced outrage at Aaron’s removal of the mezuzos from the school’s facilities. When R. Aaron sought an endorsement from the generally lenient R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, it was Shmuel Auerbach –R. Shlomo’s son– who dissuaded his father from issuing the dispensation.)

The Zalmanites found themselves at the brink of doom. They faced the specter of embarrassment at a failed rally to the glee of its Aaronite enemy. But it was too late to try to pull out either. They therefore gave it all they had, pulling out all stops within their ranks to fill the seats of the Barclays stadium. It was all hands on deck for the bohorim, yungerleit and senior citizens in Zalman’s community and all who were close enough to Zalmanites to save them from embarrassment. The Zalmanites were thus able to fill the stadium and could boastfully point to photos of the event showing a sea of black grab and hats as proof of its success.

A short while after the Barclays rally, it was Aaron’s turn to celebrate. The American Moetzes had received an official response to its letter from its Israeli counterpart. In it, R. Dov Landau, dean of the eminent Slabodka Yeshivah, and others, declare that there is no grave conscription problem; that the American Rabbis should not believe the lies and propaganda promulgated by the agitators; that their interest is best served by silence on the part of the Americans. In consequence of the response, R. Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, who had been one of the signatories of the original American letter now issued an apology and recanted his critique of the Israeli leadership on the matter.

Summary

On the question of whether there is a “decree of conscription against yeshiva students”, the camps are diametrically opposed to one another, not just ideologically but factually. Aaron Teitelbaum and the Shteinman folk believe there is no problem. Zalman Teitelbaum and the Auerbach folk believe there is.