Following Up: Overcoming Tug of War of His Family and Rabbi

New York Times/April 1, 2001
By Joseph P. Fried

The emotions were explosive, the words rancorous, the plot a tormenting tale of legal twists and melodramatic turns. Headlines highlighted a battle between a teenager's nonreligious Jewish parents and ultra-Orthodox Jews for the boy's heart and mind - with bitter episodes like the youth's disappearance from his family for two years and a rabbi's conviction and imprisonment for kidnapping.

In 1992, Shai Fhima Reuven, 13, vanished after his mother, Hana Fhima, an immigrant from Israel living in Ramsey, N.J., sent him to receive bar mitzvah instruction at a Brooklyn yeshiva run by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, leader of a small Hasidic sect.

Ms. Fhima and the boy's father, Michael Reuven, who lived in Israel and was divorced from Ms. Fhima, charged that the rabbi and his followers had abducted and brainwashed a secular Shai to convert him to their zealous brand of Judaism.

Rabbi Helbrans's lawyers said at his 1994 trial that he had not aided in Shai's disappearance but had given sanctuary to a boy fleeing a deeply troubled family in which his stepfather had beaten him and his mother.

The rabbi was found guilty of kidnapping, jailed for two years and deported to Israel - despite testimony from Shai, who had resurfaced after two years in places like a yeshiva in France, that he had voluntarily run away after the Helbrans family showed him "what a normal family was."

Now 22 and living in heavily Orthodox Monsey, N.Y., Mr. Reuven repeated last week that he had been neither been abducted nor brainwashed. "I was following the religion, not Helbrans," he said.

"I'm religious, but not the way I was" when living among Hasidic people until he was nearly 17, he said. "I follow the Sabbath, but don't have side curls and don't dress in black."

Mr. Reuven said he reconciled with his parents five years ago and had good relations with them. He lived much of the five years in Israel, he said, working in a hotel and serving in the army.

At times during that period he stayed with his father, he said, and at times with his mother, who divorced his stepfather and returned to Israel.

Mr. Reuven, who hopes to attend computer school, said he and his parents did not talk about the past rupture. "They feel I was brainwashed. I don't," he said, "so we let it alone."

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