Monthly Archives: August 2017

Brakel Doomed After Being Banned by Rabbi Sternbuch

R. Moshe Sternbuch, Head of Edoh Haharedis rabbinical court

R. Moshe Sternbuch, Chief of the Jerusalemite “Haredi Community” rabbinical court and its second-in-command, issued a long-awaited and highly-influential halakhic decision today banning the brakel breed of chicken. The decision spells doom for the brakel’s investors who have plunged an estimated three million dollars into the enterprise.

The controversy over the brakel has been raging for some time now. About three years ago, investors first imported the brakel from Belgium to Israel, but there never was a consensus among the leading Haredi rabbis in Israel that the brakel breed is preferred over the prevailing Cornish and Plymouth Barred Rock breeds that had been imported from the U.S., or that it was even permitted. After much development expenditure by investors to make the breed commercially viable and after building a slaughterhouse in Ashdod specifically tailored for this breed, some rabbis came out against it. As the highest-ranking acting officer in the Edoh Haharedis (after its leader, R. Yaakov Tuvia Weiss has become incapacitated) R. Sternbuch wields enormous power on such kashrus decision since the Edoh is the most popular kosher-certifying entity in the Israeli Haredi sector, and one that is followed by many in the Orthodox Sephardi sector as well.

R. Wosner Responsum against the hybrids

It all began some twenty years ago when the late R. Shmuel “the Levite” Wosner issued a revolutionary responsum in which he expressed grave concern over the cross-breeding of kosher chickens with unknown species in order to produce hybrid breeds that matured faster, laid bigger eggs (for egg-laying breeds), and had more meat on their bones (for “fattened” chickens):

“It is a grave matter before us that species whose purity is not verified are mixed with mesorah-received species and are sold and slaughtered as fowl that have a mesorah, without anyone noticing the difference… Therefore we ought to be vigilant and adhere to a strict supervision that we should bring to slaughter only fowl from a source that is verified to be free of mixture with [other] species, and that the chicks grow only from a species on which the mesorah is clear without any doubt regarding either the male or the female. The Name, blessed is He, shall rescue us from  obstacles and any violations of the sanctity of Israel” (Shevet Halevi responsa, Part 10, Section 113).

Barred Plymouth Rock

The Wosner responsum did not have any immediate impact on the prevailing norm of chicken selection and breeding, but it did prompt entrepreneurs, with R. Wosner’s encouragement, to embark on a global mission in pursuit of the holy grail: a “pure” (non-hybrid) chicken breed that had a mesorah (tradition) of being kosher. To prevent the enterprise from being profit-driven, R. Wosner reportedly implored them that the new chicken “should not cost a penny more”. A pure breed by the name of brakel endemic to Belgium was eventually identified. The purity of the breed had been maintained by it never having been exported to other regions, nor exploited commercially.

A specimen of the breed was brought before R. Wosner who “declared joyously that this was the shape of the fowl that they grew in courtyards before the war”, according to the present testimony of R. Moshe Saul Klein, a disciple of R. Wosner and member of his Bene Berak Besdin.

Cornish

Other prominent Rabbis, too, were early supporters of the brakel. Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, R. Wosner’s counterpart in the Lithuanian sector of Bene Berak, has been supportive of the initiative from its inception. In Jerusalem’s Edoh Haharedis –an institution whose endorsement would be ultimately necessary to make the brakel initiative profitable on a mass commercial scale– an early supporter was R. Shlomo Yehudo Hirsch, a motz (righteous teacher) in the organization.

Other Edoh rabbis were were less definitive in their support, if at all. The court’s highest-ranking officer, “Giant” (gavad) R. Yitzhok Tuvia Weiss, had given his blessing to the initial search for a pure breed, but he has recently been ill and indisposed, and it isn’t clear that he has endorsed the brakel specifically. In the meantime, after much investment in the project, another motz and kashrus supervisor in the Edoh, R. Shmuel Bransdorfer (son of R. Meir Bransdorfer), came out firmly against the brakel. It appears that the brakel’s investors deliberately refrained from submitting the brakel query to a plenary session of the Edoh out of fear that the court would do the project more harm than good. Instead, their strategy was to pick endorsements from select rabbis and popularize them among the Haredi masses in order to get them to begin purchasing the brakel, despite its greater cost, and then present the issue as a fait accompli to the Edoh and any other rabbis who were still holding out or opposing it.

R. Nissim Karelitz, one of the brakel’s chief supporters.

The brakel’s investors and its supporting rabbis had to perform a high wire act: convince the masses that the brakel was not only kosher but somehow superior in kashrus to anything else, without maligning the normative Cornish and Barred Rock as treif hybrids. That would be defaming the entire Haredi community, including many giants of Israel — even R. Wosner himself, who allegedly continued eating the normative chickens until his death. (In R. Wosner responsum he had found a dispensation to eat the hybrids only with great difficulty, as a bediavad.)

The Edoh’s brakel detractors reinforced the opinion of the brakel’s chief antagonist: R. Moshe Yehudo Leib Landau from Bene Berak. Although Landau is not a prestigious Rabbi by way of his erudition, he wields tremendous power in Bene Berak on kashrus matters by inheritance from his father, the late R. Yaakov Landau, “chief Rabbi” of Bene Berak, under whose comprehensive watch no food could enter the town without his kashrus certification.

Excerpt of R. Sternbuch’s Decision

R. Sterbuch’s ruling on the matter was in recent weeks much anticipated. R. Sternbuch has been researching the subject for months now and taking testimony from slaughterers, experts, rabbis and others. A leading Sephardi Rabbi, R. Shlomo Mahpod, had visited R. Sternbuch to consult him on the matter. Now that R. Sternbuch has ruled against the brakel, the Sephardim will almost surely not eat it either, thus almost certainly consigning the brakel project to the dust bins of history.

Sternbuch opens his letter by stating that the fact that the entirety of the House of Israel eats the current species is sufficient to ensure its kashrus, for “far be it from us to cast doubt on the Israelite people, on giants and righteous ones, for the duration of many years, and say that they all stumbled by the consumption of impure fowl. This matter [dominant custom] is superior even to a mesorah. Therefore, we need not deliberate whether the fowl is kosher but rather why it is kosher”.

Baladi (Egyptian) Hen and Egg

In Sternbuch’s letter, he repudiates the testimony of those who claim to remember having slaughtered a brakel-breed chicken in the 50’s and 60’s. Based on his research in the matter, the brakel had yet to be introduced to Israel, so that was impossible. The correct identity of the bird recalled being used decades ago, says R. Sternbuch, is the baladi, a native of Egypt and one that looks remarkably similar to the brakel. Also, the slaughterers of the bird in the 50’s did not verify that there was a mesorah on the bird before slaughtering it. They simply slaughtered whatever bird the customer brought before them without confirming its kashrus, even though “that was not the bird that was present in the entire country… and it is obvious that this is not defined as a mesorah, since a mesorah is only when they eat it in the entire country based on a mesorah received from their ancestors”.


See also

R. Sternbuch’s Decision

R. Wosner Opinion

Karelitz Opinion

Klein Letter

The Brakel Controversy: R. Landau Forbids. R. Karelitz Permits

A controversy is presently stirring in Israel among haredi Rabbis and poultry experts: Is the “brakel” kosher?

The Brakel

The Brakel (alternately spelled braekel) is a breed of chicken originally confined to Belgium. It does not appear to have been a familiar breed to European Haredi Jews before WWII (notwithstanding some recent testimony to the contrary) and it is presently “new” to the Israeli kosher poultry market.

The braekel’s introduction was precipitated by a decade-old responsum by R. Shmuel Wosner. It had come to his attention that commercial chicken breeders at the time were cross-breeding their slaughter chickens to achieve commercially desirable traits, e.g. fast flesh growth, at the expense of the chicken’s longevity and overall health. This made the commercial raising of chickens for slaughter cheaper and more efficient.

R. Wosner was very concerned about the assmiliation of new strains of chicken on which there was no mesorah into the stock. Only reluctantly, with great apprehension, did he issue a dispensation.

His responsum set off a frenzied search among kosher activists and entrepreneurs for a purely bred chicken that had a mesorah. Eventually the Brakel from Belgium was found and identified as a pure breed. It had been domesticated only locally for centuries and chiefly for its egg-laying capacity; but the question still remained as to whether the bird had a mesorah — a tradition of being kosher.

R. Yehezkeel Roth examines the brakel

Berel Weiss, an affluent quasi-Hasidic businessman from Los Angeles, had sponsored the brakel project. With the endorsement of both R. Yehezkel Roth, a prominent dayyan (judge) in Borough Park, and R. Wosner from Benei Berak, he had invested thousands of dollars researching the bird, importing it to Israel, experimenting with mass production methods, and streamlining it commercially.

But in the brakel’s kashrus is hotly contested in Israel. R. Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau, the eminent head of the Hasidic besdin in Bene Berak, came out emphatically in opposition to the brakel, calling it, hyperbolically, a piglet, not a chicken. R. Landau Lithuanian counterpart in Bene Berak, R. Nissim Karelitz, on the other hand, has aligned himself with the majority of the Rabbis, including R. Wosner, who are permitting, even encouraging the adoption of the brakel as the new chicken breed for the Haredia mass market.

Brakel thread test: if the bird splits its toes on the thread it’s a sign of predation, and it’s forbidden.

But the biggest impediment to the brakel’s adoption isn’t the outspoken R. Landau but R. Moshe Sterbuch, vice principal of the Jerusalemite edoh haharedis besdin. The Edoh Haharedis is far and away the most prestigious and authoritative kashrut certification agency for the Haredi sector in Israel. No mass marketing of any foodstuff to Haredi sector can occur without the food being certified by the edoh. And R. Sternbuch is so far withholding his imprimatur for the brakel even after others in the edoh besdin are following the prevailing rabbinic view in Israel that the brakel is permitted.


Halakhic Analysis

Fowl Kashrus Rules in Shulhon Orukh Yoreh Deoh section 82.

The Torah 24 species of fowl as forbidden. Properly, according to Rabbinic interpretation, this implies that there is a presumption of kashrut for any fowl not on the list, as long as it is not known to be predatory. But since the identity of the the 24 forbidden species has was forgotten over the centuries, the Rabbis devised a three-signs test by which a non-predatory bird can be confirmed kosher. However, the preeminent Ashkenazic halakhic decisor –the Remoh– rules against relying on the three signs:

Even if it has these three signs it should not be eaten because we suspect that it is a bird of prey, unless they have a tradition by which their ancestors transmitted to them that it is kosher (S.A.Y.D. 82:2).

Hence the Ashkenazi practice that a mesorah (tradition) is required for a bird to be considered kosher. For any given bird, unless it has traditionally been eaten by the community or was traditionally known to be kosher, the three signs are insufficient to determine kashrus.

The question with the newly-introduced brakel chicken is two-fold: a) is it considered a new species, distinct from other chicken breeds? b) if so, is there a mesorah for it?

There is a responsum by the Hasam Sofer (Yore Deah #75 “uledidi”) — a definitive authority in the Haredi Ashkenazi Hungarian sector– that:

“there is no need for a Mesorah on each and every chicken. Rather, all chickens that appear like a breed that we do have a tradition for is acceptable, unless there is a demonstrable difference that may indicate that they are two different breeds.  Then we would require a separate tradition for that breed.” (cited in a YWN article).

According to the Hasam Sofer, then, the “if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck” heuristic can be relied upon here that the brakel is a chicken –a species on which there is a mesorah of kashrus.

But there is, additionally, a mesorah, according to the present testimony of numerous ritual slaughterers and Rabbis. They assert a recollection from many decades ago that a brakel-like chicken was the standard fare then in the community.

R. Sternbuch is known to be a contrarian. He does not shy away from issuing unpopular halakhic opinions –whether dispensatory or constrictatory– when he authentically believes in it. In the case of the brakel, he contends that there are sufficiently substantial differences between the brakel and the normal chicken –e.g. “the legs are rounder and the wing shape is different”, according to a Sterbuch gabbai cited in the above YWN article– to doubt its classification as a chicken.

Federal Indictment of Satmar-Aaron School Officers in Fraud of At-Risk After-School Meal Program

A federal indictment was filed on August 10, 2017 in the Eastern District of New York against two officers in the Aaronite-Satmar Williamsburg school system: Elozor Porges and Joel Lowy. The indictment alleges that the officers submitted false reimbursement requests to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) for a joint federal-state food program called Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). CACFP reimburses after-school care centers for snacks and suppers it offers its children (up to age 18).

The program has its roots in the year 1994, when it was begun as a pilot program in certain high-drug and high-poverty areas. It was meant to draw “at-risk” youths away from crime-prone street activities and into educational and craft activities instead. The free snacks were meant both to spur the operation of such programs by reducing or eliminating their food cost and to lure youths into such programs.

The CACFP was incrementally expanded through the decades before plateauing in 2010 with the congressional Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. At that time the program offered suppers to a qualifying program anywhere in the Unites States so long as more than 50% of students in a sponsoring program’s “attendance area” were eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunch. Students attending such programs do not have to submit any paperwork to qualify.

Central United Talmudical Academy (CUTA), the official entity that operates Aaronite Satmar schools in Williamsburg, enrolled three of its school in the CACFP program: Wythe school, Sandford school, and Franklin school. For the two-years time specified in the indictment, Jan. 2014-Dec. 2015, CUTA was “reimbursed” by NYSDOH around three million dollars under the program.

Although not explicitly stated in the indictment, it seems that the CACFP child-care program run by CUTA was a mere extension of the school day. The government allows it under the following guideline:

A school that operates longer than the traditional school day may be eligible for At-Risk Afterschool Meal reimbursement, provided that it operates a school day that is at least one hour longer than the minimum number of school day hours required for the comparable grade levels by the local educational agency in which the school is located (At-Risk Afterschool Meals, USDA, 2016, p.13).

The way the program is administered is that the “child care center” or the “sponsor” must submit monthly claims for reimbursement for the cost of the meals it provides. For each monthly claim, submitted either by mail or electronically, the provider must state the number of days the program was in operation, the number of students in attendance, and the number of meals served.

CUTA filled out all the paperwork and was reimbursed at the standard rate ($2.98 per supper for the school year 2014-2015). The problem was that no suppers were actually served in any of the schools on any of the five weekdays it claimed (Sun-Thur). The custom in Haredi schools is to dismiss girls and pre-yeshiva students around five or six o’clock, which allows for their return home to eat supper with their families. (Teenage yeshiva students are offered supper at school so that they can continue their Talmudic studies afterwards before returning home around ten in the evening.)

The federal indictment contains four “counts”, one for each of the monthly reimbursement claims from January-May, 2014. The CUTA officers are being charged with committing “mail and wire fraud” since the fraudulent claims were trasnmitted by USPS mail and by wire, i.e. electronically over the Internet.


Analysis

In the announcement of the indictment on Aug 17, 2017 government officials made a moral claim for the prosecution:

  1. “Former CUTA Executive Director Porges and Assistant Director Lowy allegedly obtained $3 million from a federal program designed to fund meals for needy children by claiming to have served meals they did not serve, thus undermining a program designed to assist the most vulnerable members of our community,” stated Acting United States Attorney Rohde.  “We will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to root out fraudulent schemes that misuse public funds.”
  2. “The Child and Adult Care Food Program strives to provide for at-risk children, and as school officials, Porges and Lowy should have strived to do the same,” stated Assistant Director-in-Charge Sweeney.   “Instead, they allegedly falsified documents to gain approximately $3 million in reimbursement for meals that were never served. To defraud programs designed to help those in need is simply inexcusable, and we will work relentlessly with our law enforcement partners to thoroughly investigate these frauds.”
  3. “As charged, these defendants stole food from children in need by diverting millions of dollars in public funds intended to pay for their dinners,” stated DOI Commissioner Peters. “Public funds must be spent for public purposes and, when they are not, DOI will expose the fraud and arrest the wrongdoers. DOI thanks our dedicated law enforcement partners on this case: the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Office of the Inspector General for the United States Department of Agriculture.”
  4. “The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) was created to provide nutrition assistance to children and adults who are truly in need,” stated Special Agent-in-Charge Dinkins.  “Those involved in fraud and abuse of USDA feeding programs will be investigated by our office to the fullest extent.  In this joint investigation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York City Department of Investigation, we worked together to identify and hold accountable those who sought to profit from the CACFP through illegal schemes.  The USDA, Office of Inspector General will continue to dedicate investigative resources, working with our law enforcement and prosecutorial partners, to protect the integrity of these programs and bring to justice those who commit fraud.”

The theme in all the above statements is that the program was intended for children “in need” and families that are “vulnerable” and that CUTA undermined the program and stole from children who were truly in need. But this emphasis on children in need is puzzling since the allegation is merely that CUTA did not use the funds for the reimbursement of the meals it claimed to have served, not that the funds were not used to help children in need, which the Satmar kids in question indisputably are, both dejure and defacto.

What the government is omitting from the picture, either deliberately or by ignorance, is the way Haredi schools are operated in America in present times and the motivation for this “crime”:

Counties collect real estate taxes from all its residents but the revenue is allocated for the educational needs of ONLY such residents who elect to send their kids to secular public or charter schools. School boards believe that it is a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, which is construed to require a separation of church and state.

The result is, paradoxically, a state discrimination against religious people who seek to foster and preserve their religious identity by enrolling their children in private religious schools. With private religious schools NOT being funded by tax dollars (to which religious parents contribute as well), parents of its pupils must pay a financially straining tuition while other parents get a free pass — a tuition that doesn’t cover the full cost of running the school. The practical upshot of this is that Hasidic schools in New York are perpetually strapped for cash and are impelled to seek relief through tax dollars in any way they can, even through sketchy means.

It is true that a sophisticated apparatus has emerged within the Hasidic educational sector to bilk government programs for all it can. What isn’t true is that the Hasidic children are not needy, or that it’s unfair for Hasidic schools to receive such educational funding. In terms of neediness Hasidic children are demographically one of the neediest in the nation. A high reproductive rate and an affinity for kolel study and aversion to a wide swath of lucrative professions within the occupational spectrum accounts in part for Hasidic poverty. But, with respect to education especially, the state’s refusal to forthrightly grant funding to Hasidic schools, creates an enormously burdensome financial strain on the Hasidic population, and the policy is ultimately impoverishing in itself.

Brooklyn spent a jaw-dropping $17,000 per year per pupil in its public school system. Every Hasidic child who is diverted to a private school is a municipal saving of $17,000 and a shift of that cost from the public to the parent.

Hasidic schools economize, to be sure. They save administratively; they save by eliminating “special-needs” programs that consume a disproportionate sum of money in public schools; they save by skimping on salaries, and so on. But the other way to save is by squeezing every ounce of juice they can from every government program they can get their hands on.

While the federal indictment is technically and legally correct, there is little to no moral impetus in it. The smug, self-righteous claptrap moralizing in the government’s announcement is repulsive. So is the government’s dissembling assertion that the funds are being embezzled by those who seek to “profit” from it (quote 4 above). Who profits from it? The schools are non-for-profit organizations, and not a single school officer has waxed wealthy from their school-derived remuneration.

Let’s be clear here: The indictment is not against the Porges and Lowy individuals. It is against the school system at large. And the prosecution’s effect, whether intended or not, is to defund and impoverish the Haredi school system even further.

In OTD-Haredi Custody Disputes Courts Should Use “Marital Lifestyle Choice” as Standard

NOTICE: The following is an opinion piece prompted largely by the Weisberger v. Weisberger case. I urge you to read the HN factual report on it before you proceed, if you are not yet familiar with the case.


As the phenomenon of people leaving the their Ultra-orthodox communities increases, so does that of parental dispute over departees’ children. Many, if not most, Haredi people nowadays who make the choice to “go off the derekh (OTD)”, do so after they are married with children. This is because the custom is to marry young and bear children immediately. By the time someone is mature enough mentally established financially to consider leaving the restrictive haredi lifestyle they are encumbered by a marriage (assuming their spouse is not leaving along with them) and by children whose custody must be resolved as part of the divorce.

In recent years a number of high profile such OTD-driven custody disputes occurred, among them that of Perry Reich, Kelly Myzner, Deb Tambor, Shulem Deen, and now Chava Weisberger. OTD-driven custody disputes are more apt to become heated because of the unusually high stakes that are involved: Because the haredi sector is so staunchly dedicated to its doctrines and so exclusive of those who do not conform to its standards, it is willing to go great lengths to ensure that children born to haredi parents remain in the fold and are not compromised by a parent who has chosen to go wayward. Conversely, it is a very tall order for a wayward parent to raise their child in Haredi fashion when they themselves despise its lifestyle so much, as evidenced by their willingness to sacrifice so much for the sake of escaping its grip.

Unfortunately, when such disputes come before a court, courts are all too often at a loss about how to resolve it equitably.

The usual standard for courts to determine custody of a child when in dispute is the “best interest of the child” (heretofore referred to as BIOC) as this is the only standard specified in the statute. This is normally regarded as a fair and objective way to resolve a custody dispute. For example, if one parent has a good job, makes good money, and lives in a nice house, and the other is jobless, moneyless and shares a small apartment with roommates, the courts will consider the former as being better able provide for the best interests of the child.

But the BCIS standard doesn’t work all too well in Haredi-OTD disputes. Often, when the wayward parent first departs, custody of the children remains largely with the Haredi parent. It is only later, once the departee has established themselves in the new world and feels ready and able to provide for the child, that they contest the child’s Haredi custody. Thus, parental resources at that time are usually very evenly matched. If both parents are intelligent, both are responsible, both are emotionally attached to the child, both are willing and able to provide for the welfare of the child as they see it, how ought a court to choose between them in a situation where the Haredi-secular chasm cannot be bridged making joint custody impractical?

Not to speak of the added layer of complexity engendered by a stipulated divorce settlement. If at the time of divorce the parents “stipulate” (expressly state terms of an agreement) a settlement among themselves, without it being adjudicated by a trial judge, as to how the child should be raised, then the judge must take that stipulation of settlement (SOS) into account later when custody is disputed and decide what weight, if any, such an SOS should carry in the face of a statute that omits any mention of a contractual agreement between the parents as a basis for resolving a later dispute.

Indeed, in the recent Weisberger v. Weisberger case, the original hearing court ruled in favor of the SOS that stipulated the child be raised Hasidic, and therefore awarded sole custody to the father, Naftali; but the appellate court reversed that decision, deciding instead to ignore that SOS completely and go only with what it assessed to be the BIOC of the child at the time.


A New Standard: Marital Lifestyle Choice (MLS).

The BIOC is in my opinion clearly inadequate in Haredi-OTD disputes and courts who try to use only it are needlessly putting blinders on, while misconstruing the intent of the BIOC law and misapplying it.

What if a political dispute was at the root of a marital conflict that results in divorce and contested custody? What if one parent is a vehement Clintonian and the other a Trumpeteer? They are disgusted with each other over their political opinions, and are determined to fight for the right to raise their child according to their choice of political persuasion? Was the BIOC statute meant to resolve such a dispute? Could it even possibly be used fairly and objectively to resolve such a dispute? Wouldn’t a conservative judge be inclined to consider the BIOC to be raised conservatively and the liberal judge consider the BIOC to be raised liberally? Is such glaring subjectivity the intent of the law? Of course not.

I believe the most equitable standard in disputes that center on a diverging choice of lifestyle for the child is what I call “marital lifestyle choice” (MLC): whatever lifestyle choice the parents had agreed upon and espoused when they were happily married should trump the one being newly adopted by the dissenting parent. In other words the dissenting parent should not have the right to expose the child to his or her lifestyle choice if it radically conflicts with the one advocated by the “status quo” parent. Instead of awarding joint custody (as might happen under a BIOC standard) the judge should instead say to the dissenting parent:

I acknowledge that you’re a good parent. I acknowledge that you have the resources and will and dedication to provide for the child as much as the conservative parent. I acknowledge that in some way it is in the best interest of the child to continue to be exposed to your loving care. And yet I am denying your custody request. That’s because when you got married you engaged in an implied agreement that you will conduct yourself and raise your children in the manner that was then jointly espoused by the couple. Now you are the one breaking that implied contract. I am granting the dissolution of the marital contract since both of you agree on it and since it is untenable for you to live out the rest of your life with a person you abhor so much, but you may not drag you child with you on this journey. You had agreed for the child to be raised differently and I am now holding your feet to the fire on that.

What the BIOC tunnel-visioned judges are missing is that even according to the statute, which, unfortunately, does not include my newly devised “marital lifestyle choice” standard, it is not in the best interest of the child to be alternately exposed to two starkly conflicting ways of life. It is confusing, unstable, and detrimental to the child’s psychological welfare. All of us, especially children, crave coherence and consistency. Exposing a child to an Antifa parent one day and then to a Unite-The-Right proponent the other day is very confounding, regardless of who is right or wrong (not that the court has any mandate to make such a decision). The point is that it is always better for a child to be exposed to a single prevailing view than to two views that violently collide, and to the attendant rancor and vitriol between the views’ advocates that such exposure inevitably entails.

I suspect that the court’s indifference to the problem of conflicting messages stems from the multicultural ethos that presently reigns in our society. Our political and academic elite largely believe that exposure to multiple ways of seeing the world, be it in the way of language, religion, race, culture, nationality, etc. is beneficial both to the individual and to society at large. This idea carries over into the realm of a custody battle where the parents are staunch warriors on opposite sides: why not expose the child to both sides? I believe this is incorrect in the case of a child and in the case where the conflict is too virulent, even if we grant the premise that multiculturalism is generally a good a thing (something that is arguable in itself).


Mistakes Committed by the Appellate Court in Weisberger v. Weisberger

I believe the court made a series of mistakes in that decision (wherein it granted the OTD mother joint custody and absolved her from adhering to the religious upbringing clause she had agreed to earlier), as follows:

1. Blindly and exclusively using BIOC (best interest of children) as a standard.

As argued earlier, BIOC was never meant to be an arbiter in a custody conflict where a lifestyle choice is being contested. BIOC was meant by legislators to be applied in a case where both parents espouse more or less the same lifestyle but since they are both emotionally attached to the child they are seeking sole custody over them. In that case, the law –with the aid of a trained judge’s assessment– compels the parents to put aside their selfishness and act selflessly in the best interests of the child. We say to the poor parent, for example: “Yes, we know that you’d love to raise your child and be with them all the time. But wouldn’t you agree that the other parent has more and better resources to offer the child? Isn’t it better for the child to be with them rather than with you? Let’s go with that”.

2. Aborgating a Contract

The U.S. Constitution –a foundational document for our legal and judicial system– prohibits states from passing any laws that “impair the obligation of contracts”. For example, if a person borrows money from a bank and agrees contractually to pay 10% interest, and there is no state law prohibiting it, but the borrower then regrets it, feels aggrieved by the high rate and petitions the legislature for relief. The legislature cannot then retroactively lower the interest rate by voiding or modifying the contract. The contract stands. The state is, of course, free to make a law that prohibits the charging of a 10% interest rate going forward, and any persons entering into contract in violation of that law would not be able to sue for the enforcement of such a law-flouting contract. But legislation cannot change contracts that were legally sound when they were signed. Otherwise, people would have no faith in contracts.

The constitutional contract clause demonstrates the sanctity of contracts in American jurisprudence. The judicial system is supposed to be subservient to and merely interpretive of the legal system. If a legislator cannot impair a legally signed contract, then even more so a judge should not do so.

Judges improperly assume that the BIOC is inviolable. This assumption is unwarranted. The BIOC was meant to revolve a custody dispute in the absence of a contract. It is incorrect to interpret the statute to mean that even when the parties expressly stipulate a particular custody arrangement for the child, that they can then immediately turn around and seek judicial relief based on the BIOC standard. Such a complaint is preposterous! (Why did you agree to the contract if you intended to immediately seek to overturn it?) The only time seeking to overturn a SOS arrangement makes sense is if sufficient time has passed such that “circumstances have changed” and the complainant contends that they couldn’t have foreseen this change of circumstances at the time and are petitioning therefore for the dissolution or modification of the contract. In that case, it could be argued, legislators meant for the BIOC to –in effect– override the contract, because there is a very good and compelling reason to do so. (It would not be a violation of the Constitution, since all disputants who enter into SOS upon divorce are subject to the provisions of the then-in-effect law that allows for future modification of the contract by a judge if circumstances change unforeseeably.) Or, it could be argued, BIOC was never meant to override a contract. It was only meant to apply to custody disputes wherein neither party had yet to commit contractually to a particular solution.

Either way, applying the BIOC statute willy nilly, without any regard for the SOS, is morally improper and legally incorrect.

3. Contending that one can raise a child in Hasidic fashion when one does not personally comport oneself accordingly.

This relates to the Hasidic upbringing clause in the Weisberger SOS, which reads as follows:

“Parties agree to give the children a Hasidic upbringing in all details, in home or outside of home, compatible with that of their families. Father shall decide which school the children attend. Mother to insure that the children arrive in school in a timely manner and have all their needs provided.”

The appellate court ruled that the Hasidic upbringing clause does not “forbid the mother from living a secular way of life in front of the children or while at their schools” (quote from the hearing court’s decision):

The parties’ agreement does not require the mother to practice any type of religion, to dress in any particular way, or to hide her views or identity from the children (Weisberger v. Weisberger, August 16, 2017, p. 11).

This is in my opinion a preposterous distinction to make. How can a parent promote a particular way of life to an impressionable child without conducting oneself accordingly, at least when in presence of the child? Imagine a mother going around lying all day to people in front of their children and then instructing them “do as I say, not as I do. It’s bad to lie, don’t lie to people”. What parent or teacher has ever successfully inculcated any virtue into a child in such a way? I can imagine the sophister appellate judge smugly and contentedly saying “in my brilliant legal mind I just noticed what the obtuse untrained layfolk would never have noticed: providing a ‘hasidic upbringing’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the provider has to be hasidic herself. See how smart I am?”

No, you are not smart, judge. You are a moron! That’s not how education works. That’s not how real values and real, enduring virtues are instilled in the youth. It’s only in your perverted morally relativistic worldview that such a thing fancifully occurs. Not real values. Not in the real world. A parent’s conduct is the model of behavior for the child. It is integral to and inseparable from the child’s learned conduct.

4. Declaring that courts “may not compel any person to adopt any particular religious lifestyle” even in the enforcement of a contract.

The court writes as follows:

“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. Thus, a religious upbringing clause should not, and cannot, be enforced to the extent that it violates a parent’s legitimate due process right to express oneself and live freely. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (ibid).

Once again, this court is making a blatant and puerile error. Of course, we all know, that the state cannot enact any legislation that infringes on our fundamental freedom of conscience. But we are not talking here of the state initiating such an action. We are talking here of a person voluntarily binding oneself in a contract to a particular course of action, one which happens to limit or surrender some constitutional right. Can that person’s feet then be held to the fire to abide by that contract or not?

What if five people purchase a parcel of land and build a condominium. The people are all Orthodox Jews and wish to establish a milieu that is conducive to their lifestyle. They pool their money and resources for the project and stipulate in a contract at the outset that “nobody may drive a car on the sabbath into or out of the building parking lot”, or “nobody may perform work that violates the sabbath in public on the premises”.

Notice here that this contract’s suppression of the members’ freedom of religion is far from universal. Members are still free to violate the sabbath elsewhere, just not on the premises. In fact, the above contract even allows the violation of sabbath in the privacy of one’s home, just not in public view. And this contract has a very legitimate purpose: the free association and socialization of like-cultured people. This isn’t even primarily, nor expressly about religion. It’s about wanting to live in an environment that is supportive and respectful of one’s lifestyle choices. I don’t think anyone would make an argument that such a contract is constitutionally invalid or that it’s unenforceable in court.

Why is the Weisbergers’ SOS contract any different then, especially since the contract does not bind one another regarding what they do when the children are not present. In fact, as the court itself noted, it protects the parents’ private actions:

“Parties shall each be free from interference, authority and control, direct or indirect, by the other” (Weisberger Stipulation of Settlement).


The lower court was more or less correct in its decision that Chava Weisberger was compelled to conduct herself in Hasidic fashion in the presence of the children or else forfeit custody over them. I also like that the court stayed removal of the children from her custody pending her compliance with the ruling: if Chava changed her behavior within the weeks following the ruling and was sensitive to the children’s Hasidic values, then the lower court and the husband were more than happy to not remove the children from her custody. In other words, the court made clear that the preferred outcome wasn’t her losing custody over the children due to her Hasidic-insensitive behavior, but that the children remain under her care during the week and the children continue to be raised in Hasidic fashion consistently, even when in her custody.

Here’s why:

1. SOS not necessary for obligation to raise children Hasidic.

Even without an SOS, using the MLS (martial lifestyle choice) standard obligates Chava to raise the children in Hasidic fashion. By the MLS standard no written contract specifying anything in particular need ever take place. The mere fact that two people commit themselves to a time-indefinite joint project called matrimony, which involves having and raising children together, is sufficient to bind them to whatever course of life they are on at the time of marriage. If two Hasidim get married, it is an implied pledge by each of the spouses to conduct a hasidic household and raise the children in hasidic fashion all the way to adulthood (at which time they are free to pursue their own path in life). No spouse may unliterally break this solemn pledge.

It is important to note here that this does not mean that the children will be permanently trapped in the Hasidic orbit in contravention of Chava’s chosen liberal lifestyle. Nobody is disputing her right to personally harbor whatever values (e.g. lesbianism/transgenderism) she desires, and conduct herself accordingly when such conduct does not substantially degrade the children’s Hasidic culture. Children are not stupid. They figure out what the their parent is up to even if the parent does not expressly teach it and practice it.

There is no question that the Weisberger children –subject to such a joint custody arrangement in which one parent is not Hasidic, as they are– are more likely to attenuate or even drop altogether their Hasidic observance once they mature. And there is nothing that the Hasidic father Naftali, nor the government, can do about it; nothing in the law and nothing practically. Adults make their own choices and they are influenced by the values and behavior of family and friends. The Weisberger children are influenced by their mother’s values to some degree, and that influence only amplifies over time, and that is perfectly fine. I am even willing to indulge the argument that Chava should not be forced to “categorically conceal the true nature of her feelings and beliefs from [her children] at all times and in all respects” (appellate decision, p. 12). In other words, Chava does not have to scrupulously tippy-toe around her lesbianism at all times.

But that’s not the same as having a carte blanche to “exercise her discretion while the children are in her custody” (ibid), i.e. Chava may allow them to profane the shabbos, watch TV, be exposed to prurient content, so long as she thinks it’s fine. The only mandate that the court imposed on her in the religious sphere was “to keep a kosher home and to provide the children exclusively with kosher food” (ibid). What about everything else that Hasidic practice requires? It seems that the judge only felt comfortable binding Chava to something that she had proposed to the court “both in her motion papers and in her testimony” (ibid).

2. SOS purpose is to pin down child-rearing behavior more precisely.

In the absence of a settlement stipulated at divorce time, the “marital lifestyle choice” standard for parents’ child-rearing practices (even after divorce) is a wide enough tent to countenance a range of possible choices within the Hasidic devoutness spectrum. The liberal parent might argue, for example, that the boy should have slightly shorter peios or that their four-year-old (but not seven-year-old!) girl should still wear socks in public. Especially in Borough Park such practices are completely normal and so there’s no implied agreement by either side to choose one way over the other. That’s where an SOS can serve the purpose of clarifying more precisely the type of Hasidic upbringing the child should receive.

3. SOS, like all contracts, are binding on the parties.

If a stipulation of settlement is made at divorce time then it trumps freedom of religion, the marital lifestyle choice, and the best interest of the child as the court may assess it to be then or at a later time. If it affirms the MLS, as is true in the Weisberger case, then it gives a judge even more impetus to rule in favor of the MLS-SOS if the agreement is later challenged. If a divorce-time SOS were to contravene the MLS, then –like all contracts wherein a later one contravenes a previous one– the SOS would supplant the MLS.

Hence, in the Weisberger case, even if not for the MLS principle, Chava would be bound by her stipulation of settlement not to do anything that is clearly incompatible with a “Hasidic upbringing”. There are grey areas, but sending them to public school, for example, isn’t one of them.

4. BIOC does not apply here. Moreover, even if it does, it can be used deny Chava custody.

The “best interest of the child” standard does not apply here. As explained above, the statute was only meant to be applied in cases where a) the custody dispute is not over a lifestyle choice and b) there is no divorce-time SOS.

The statute was not enacted sheerly out of the goodness of legislators’ hearts to promote the best interests of children in general. If that were the case, then the government would make a law to scour all homes to identify and remove children living in poor conditions and place them in better homes for their best interests. We don’t do that. That’s because the government doesn’t really care about and isn’t responsible for our children’s best interests. We, the parents, are. BIOC is merely a tool to decide between contesting parents when they both have a prima facie strong claim for custody, but one may be acting selfishly regardless of the child’s interests.

In a case where wedge dividing the parents isn’t actual custody but rather the lifestyle that the child would be exposed to MLS ought to be the deciding standard.

But even if we grant that BIOC does apply here, it is not so simple to state “since the children have been with her for so many years and she has been the primary caregiver, therefore she should continue to have joint custody”. Since it is uncontested that the children shall continue to be raised Hasidic at least half the time –on weekends when in paternal custody– apart from their school time, then a very legitimate question ought to be raised as to how psychologically wholesome it is for such children to be exposed to a Hasidism-hostile environment at other times.

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.