The Gerrer Hassidic community has recently been in the spotlight following the suicide of Esti Weinstein, a woman who left her religious life but suffered mental anguish after being ostracized by her family and children.
Following this tragedy, the Center for Women’s Justice has drawn attention to the struggle of another woman from the community to divorce her husband and to keep at least shared custody over her unmarried children.
Rachel, not her real name, is 48 and was married to Yitzhak, also not his real name, for close to 30 years, living in Ashdod which has a large Gerrer community.
Soon after getting married, Rachel became unhappy and realized that she did not want to remain with her husband. But after expressing her dissatisfaction with the marriage she was repeatedly told not to push for divorce proceedings by community rabbis, including the rebbe, or grand rabbi, of the hassidim.
She was also made to visit therapists and psychiatrists as part of efforts to keep the marriage intact, and efforts were made, particularly by her husband, to convince her to take psychiatric medication, although she consistently refused to do so.
The pattern of behavior in the Gerrer community in which communal leaders seek to prevent divorce at all costs, including encouraging discontent spouses to use psychiatric medication, appears to be widespread.
Throughout the divorce and child custody process, Rachel has remained religiously observant and also remains part of the Gerrer community.
When Rachel finally filed for divorce in 2013, leaders of the community instructed her family to cease contact with her, including her adult children, siblings and other relatives, essentially ostracizing her from her close relatives and her community.
One of her relatives was also threatened with being fired from his job in a Gerrer institution.
But Yitzhak refused to grant a divorce to Rachel, despite the fact that the couple had become estranged, did not sleep in the same bedroom, and despite Rachel’s clear desire to end the marriage.
“I don’t want to live with him. It’s torture and hell for me. Have mercy on me. He does not love me. He hates me,” she told the judges of the state rabbinical court in Ashdod.
The judges however sought to persuade her against divorce, warning her of “the severity of the couple’s potential divorce, especially in the haredi circles of the Gerrer Hassidic community,” during a court hearing, and encouraged her to seek reconciliation with her husband in accordance with the wishes of the community leaders.
When the rabbinical judges realized that they could not convince Rachel to reconcile with husband, they tried to persuade her not to divorce until the rest of her children were married, one of whom is currently only 12 years old.
Unwilling to accept these conditions and because of Yitzhak’s ongoing recalcitrance, Rachel approached the Center for Women’s Justice which has successfully brought legal suits for damages against recalcitrant husbands in the family courts.
Such suits demand monetary damages for emotional anguish and lost opportunity resultant from divorce refusal, and have proved an effective tool in persuading recalcitrant husbands to grant a divorce.
In the face of the law suit, Yitzhak eventually agreed to grant Rachel a divorce although on condition that she withdraw the suit and that he be granted a greater share of assets from the dissolution of the marriage.
Rachel agreed to this because of her desire to divorce, despite losing several hundred thousand shekels as a result.
Since the divorce was finalized, some of Rachel’s married children and other family members reestablished contact with her, and the family ties have been restored somewhat.
However, Rachel was not invited to the wedding of one of her son’s which took place earlier this month, despite repeated requests to the father and to Gerrer leaders.
According to one of Rachel’s representatives at CWJ, she was distraught at the thought of not being able to go to her son’s wedding, was crying constantly and said that she did not want to interact with anyone around her.
Eventually, she decided to turn up at the wedding uninvited and was greeted by her son and had photos taken with him.
Although the divorce was successfully concluded, ancillary issues including child support payments and child custody are still being heard in the Ashdod Rabbinical Court.
And here too, Rachel has experienced improper practices by the rabbinical judges which seemingly favor Yitzhak’s position.
There are currently four children of the couple who are unmarried, three boys and one girl. One of the boys is over 18 and so there is no custody issue pertaining to him, while the two youngest children are boys aged 11 and 13.
Those two boys along with a girl, aged 16, are supposed to be in temporary joint custody until the final ruling.
But although the joint custody over the two boys is working correctly, various elements within the Gerrer community have sought to influence the daughter to avoid being with her mother, reportedly claiming that she is “less hassidic” than her father.
In particular, officials in the daughter’s school are thought to have instructed her how often to visit her mother and for how long, on the advice of the father.
Rachel’s representatives in the rabbinical court requested that they be allowed to cross-examine the principal of the daughter’s school and an educational adviser at the institution, both of whom are thought to have been involved in influencing the daughter’s position toward her mother.
The principal and adviser submitted a document directly to the rabbinical judges which was not shown to Rachel’s representatives, following which they were exempted by the judges from having to appear in court for cross-examination. The document was not entered into the child custody case file, in contravention of rabbinical court regulations.
In addition, the head of the Gerrer community in Ashdod, Rabbi Shmuel David Gross, submitted his written opinion on the child custody issue directly to the rabbinical judges. The judges again declined to show the document to Rachel’s representatives, although finally agreed to do so with one of the judges physically holding the document while her representatives read it.
Once again, this document was not included in the case file.
The next hearing is scheduled for September, but Rachel’s representatives believe a final ruling remains a long way off.
“Gerrer Hassidic women who seek to end their failed marriages must overcome implacable objections from their recalcitrant husbands and conservative community who view divorce as a blight that must be avoided at all costs,” said Dr.
Susan Weiss, founder and director of CWJ.
“And, to make things even worse, Gerrer women who want a get [bill of divorce] must struggle with a patriarchal rabbinic court that backs both husband and community without question.”
A spokesman for the rabbinical courts network declined a request for comment by The Jerusalem Post.