Formerly Orthodox, and Struggling for Parental Rights

Divorce decrees granted by religious leaders heavily favor the still-devout parent

Wall Street Journal/August 11, 2014

By Melanie Grayce West

When Shloime Fisher started his divorce process three years ago, he found the proceedings to be "very civilized." Now, Mr. Fisher said, he faces an uphill battle to broaden his paternity rights.

What has made his situation different from the average soured divorce is that he wasn't only unwinding a marriage—he was divorcing the whole Orthodox Jewish community.

Most New Yorkers reach a divorce agreement through mediators or civil court—usually over several months, with an attorney's help. But those who leave the Orthodox Jewish faith, as Mr. Fisher did, must mediate their divorces through religious leaders, facing agreements that heavily favor the still-devout parent, experts say.

"From a religious perspective, certainly, there is a sense among Orthodox Jews that Jews are born with a special mission as God's chosen people," said Rabbi David Zwiebel, an attorney and executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing devoutly Orthodox Jews. "When a person who has been raised in that tradition walks away, it is considered a tragic outcome."

Mr. Fisher's custody agreement allows him just a few hours with his five children on alternating Sundays.

"People who leave the religious community end up signing away their rights," said the 32-year-old Brooklyn-based accountant.

Such a scenario isn't unusual in the ultraorthodox world, said Chani Getter, program coordinator at Footsteps, a New York-based social-services group serving former ultra-Orthodox Jews. She helps parents navigate custody agreements in a newly launched program that offers case-management help, advice on parental rights, family support and legal advice through a partnership with the New York Legal Assistance Group.

Today, the program helps more than a dozen parents, but leaders say that number is growing as Footsteps does. In the last decade, some 900 former ultra-Orthodox Jews have participated in the group's educational, career, family and social programs.

About 73,000 households in the five boroughs, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties—10% of all Jewish households—identify as Hasidic or Yeshivish, according to a 2011 report from the UJA-Federation of New York.

The typical custody-battle scenario, said Ms. Getter, involves a couple who married as teenagers, often through an arrangement, and quickly began a family.

But when one parent decides to leave the insular community—reasons vary from escaping abuse to wanting to attend college and pursue a career—the process tends to be extraordinarily difficult and emotional, said Ms. Getter. Transitioning into secular society can be particularly challenging, she said, since some ultra-Orthodox Jews have only a grade-school education and lack a mastery of English.

It is at that transitional moment when the harassment, intimidation and bullying can begin, said Ms. Getter and Fraidy Reiss, who founded and leads Unchained At Last, a New Jersey-based organization that provides legal services to women leaving arranged and forced marriages.

Grandparents often band together against the nonreligious parent, said Ms. Getter. And the wider community "will come out and raise money" so the spouse staying in the community can hire a lawyer, said Ms. Reiss.

Divorce decrees are often hastily drafted and pushed through a rabbinical court, said Ms. Getter, and often nonreligious parents don't know what they have signed—or don't care because they are so worn down.

"So many people are walking around with huge holes in their hearts," said Ms. Getter, who went through her own custody battle as she left the Hasidic community. "So many people stay because of the kids."

Given that religious observance plays such a dominant role in Orthodox Jewish life, with children attending Jewish schools and families hewing closely to Judaic traditions and rabbinical commandments, upending that religious foundation can affect a young child's long-term emotional well-being, said Rabbi Zwiebel.

A child also can experience "culture shock" when a parent becomes nonreligious, said Ezra Friedlander, chief executive of the Friedlander Group, a New York public-relations firm that represents many organizations in the Orthodox community.

"Divorce is the messiest business," Mr. Friedlander said. "I mean, after the Palestinian-Israeli [conflict], this is probably the messiest business."

Mr. Fisher's case finally landed in civil court earlier this year when his originally-agreed-upon visitation terms were restricted even more, he said. Eric Thorsen, an attorney for Mr. Fisher's ex-wife, Toby Fisher-Altman, declined to comment on her behalf.

With the help of his attorney and the emotional support of other Footsteps members, Mr. Fisher said he is seeking more time with his children—something he didn't even know was legally possible based on state laws.

Back then, he said, "I didn't try to put up a fight."

The key to obtaining a more equitable custody agreement—or at least one closer to those in the secular world—is to slow down the negotiation process, say advocates. That is the path Srully Stein, 22, followed when he divorced in September.

Mr. Stein met his wife for a few minutes before becoming engaged, he said, and he married at age 18. But despite a good relationship and his willingness to compromise on certain things to continue the marriage, he said, his desire to go to college left him facing divorce—and pressure to accept a quick decree.

He refused. Over time, a private lawyer and one provided by Footsteps helped Mr. Stein obtain a "normal agreement," he said, including weekly visits, joint custody, split holidays, joint decision-making on major life events and every second weekend with his son.

His ex-wife, Fraidy Horowitz, couldn't be reached; a family member declined to comment on her behalf.

Now, Mr. Stein, who plans to attend Columbia College in the fall, said his biggest challenge is navigating campus housing with a toddler.

"My goal was always college," he said.

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