Ultra-Orthodox Jews launch million-pound fundraising bid to stop children living with ‘irreligious parents’
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are raising £1m to prevent “pure and holy” children from leaving the strict faith community and living with “irreligious parents” in an “evil culture”, The Independent has learned.
The fundraising 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.
The Independent has seen flyers for a fundraising event in the Stamford Hill area of London that call for the community to back the bid, saying: “Rescue The Children Convention: We now need one million pounds and therefore the community is requested to join in with a minimum sum of £500.”
A copy of the flyer obtained by The Independent
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.”
Leaflet distributed in North London, calling for donations ()
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.”
They added that the knowledge the community will try and keep a child with a believing parent acts as a deterrent for anyone questioning their faith and considering leaving: “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.”
Last year, the community came under scrutiny when it emerged one school threatened pupils with expulsion if their mothers drove them to school on the grounds that it was “contrary to the rules of religious modesty” for women to drive. An investigation by The Independent earlier this year found more than a 1,000 children in Charedi communities are attending illegal schools where secular knowledge is banned and they learn only religious texts, meaning they leave school with no qualifications and often unable to speak any English.
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 the woman 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 too.
She said that once she did speak out and seek custody of her child, community members spread rumours she had been sexually promiscuous. “A member of the community threw eggs at me for disclosing the violence and allegedly bringing shame upon the community,” she said. The woman was granted custody and left the country soon after to begin a new life with her child.
Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith To Faithless an advocacy group for ex-religious people, told The Independent: “Faith to Faithless has come across many parents for whom leaving their faith has had huge consequences for their relationship with their children. Many have had to “go back into the closet” in terms of their lack of faith, even from their own children, simply to protect this bond.
“Leaving faith can put the financial and social weight of the whole religious community against the parent: it is part of the systematic prejudice faced by non-religious people from religious communities. Leaving the Ultra-Orthodox community can be particularly difficult as these parents can be isolated, may not know what their rights are or have the financial and emotional support required to fight these custody battles.”
He added: “We call on the Government and civil society to do more to protect non-religious parents and their children, who may not have the resources to challenge the discrimination they face.”