A fund-raising drive has been launched in the UK by ultra-Orthodox Jews to raise £1-million to prevent children escaping from strict faith communities and living with ‘irreligious parents’ in an ‘evil culture’.
The Independent reports that drive has been established to fund the legal fees of divorcing parents involved in child custody battles with ex-partners who want to join mainstream society.
Flyers for a fundraising event in the Stamford Hill area of London call for the community to back the bid, saying:
We now need one million pounds and therefore the community is requested to join in with a minimum sum of £500.
The flyers were accompanied by a letter of support from a local rabbi stating they wish to fight cases involving 17 children:
To our great pain, and our misfortune, our community finds itself in a terrible situation – 17 of our pure and holy children where one of the parents, God rescue them, have gone out into an evil culture, and want to drag their children after them.
This is a decree of apostasy and this situation has motivated our rabbis who are in Israel … to come here in a personal capacity to increase prayer and to gather money for legal fees, and to achieve this a convention has been organised of prayer and also to collect money.
The Charedi community is notoriously insular and practices a 19th-century interpretation of the faith. Engagement with the secular world is deeply taboo, Yiddish is spoken as the primary language and arranged marriages are standard practice.
Men wear 19th-century Eastern European dress including long black coats and black hats, while married women must dress modestly and cover their hair.
Campaigners and former community members have told The Independent the tactical funding of legal fees tears families apart by denying those wishing to leave the religion access to their children as a punishment for no longer believing in ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
They say the practice unfairly skews child custody battles in favour of the funded parent who remains in the faith groups, rather than enabling custody to be decided on the basis of the best interests of children. Many who join mainstream society have little grasp of the English language or legal system as well as no financial resources, they are severely disadvantaged in court cases and can struggle to understand or articulate their experiences or get adequate legal representation.
A spokesperson for GesherEU, a charity supporting people wishing to leave Charedi communities, told The Independent:
Child custody cases instigated by a parent leaving the community are seen as a huge threat to the Charedi community, knowing that people can leave the community and take their children with them and give them a decent secular education and live successfully outside of the community.
It is very common within the Charedi community for the religious parent to receive full financial support throughout the court process to ensure the children remain within the community. The parent who stays religious will receive fully funded solicitors and barristers with the sole intention of ensuring the children remain resident with the parent who stays in the community.
The religious parent will be pressurised into filing for full custody and even lie in court so that the other parent is seen as ‘an unfit parent’ and lose custody/contact with their children. Often parents who leave will experience domestic violence as the religious parent will resort to threats and emotional and physical abuse to try and coerce their spouse to remain married and living within the Charedi community.
An event like this is a clear warning to those thinking of leaving as well as a scare tactic: ‘If you leave we have all the money power and resources to fight you and ensure your children stay within the community are alienated from you.’ This does work to some extent and deters many who would otherwise leave knowing they will be facing a legal battle with possibly devastating consequences.
The Independent has seen details of legal cases brought before British Family Courts in recent years whereby the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has funded legal fees of a “believing” parent in the hope that they will be given custody of the children above the other parent. In a 2013 ruling, a judge told the court:
The mother and father come from the … Charedi community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. A major reason for the marriage breakdown was that the mother no longer wished to follow the strict tenets of that community. She remains an orthodox Jew but wished for a way of living for herself and the children which allowed greater diversity of educational, personal and economic opportunity. Her wish has come at a price. Her own parents and siblings are no longer in contact with her.
The financial cost of this litigation is significant. The mother does not receive public funding, and pays the legal costs from her own pocket. The father’s legal costs are paid for by his community and by his parents … This is a grossly disproportionate misdirection of the father’s available financial resources. It is also a wearing down of the mother’s resources. I did not make a costs order on this occasion but, if these or similar disputes are continued, the court may have to intervene with costs orders in future to prevent further financial injustice to the mother.
A court case last year exposed the extreme pressure individuals feel when leaving the community as a woman sought to divorce her husband after alleging sexual and domestic violence, and gain custody of their daughter. Court records seen by The Independent show the woman was unable to read or write English and was represented on a voluntary basis by lawyers due to lack of funds. It is not known how her ex-husband’s legal fees were funded.
The ruling notes that the woman says she was beaten and raped repeatedly throughout her marriage but:
Was inhibited from speaking out about her abusive experiences contemporaneously because of the culture in which she was living … where she would have no audience and no sympathy.
The woman told the court that when she attended a GP’s appointment for vaginal pain incurred by rape, her husband attended with her to translate English for her, meaning she was unable to get help there.
A member of the community threw eggs at me for disclosing the violence and allegedly bringing shame upon the community.
The woman was granted custody and left the country soon after to begin a new life with her child.