LM – The following is a very lengthy expose into the world of many Hasidic cults; and the methods used to force those wanting to leave the community into submission. The article is an unsettling glimpse into the reality for many women within the ultra-Orthodox community who have found themselves wanting their freedom. We have reposted several pages of the expose though we recommend you read the whole thing.
Audio: Available upon request. Could not be posted here as MP4.
Scare the mother, save the child
Inside the closed world of Hasidic Jews in the UK are stories of mothers who risk everything in order to leave their communities, with their children.
Emily and Ruth are two women who found themselves locked in lopsided battles – facing harassment, intimidation, and crowd-funded lawyers.
Neither of them realised what it would cost them.
It was late when Ruth walked up to the front door. She was already nervous and the dark November evening wasn’t helping. Pressing the doorbell, she heard it ring faintly inside. Light shone through the curtains but minutes ticked by and no-one came out. Why weren’t they answering? She’d been invited.
Finally, she heard footsteps and watched as the door opened a crack.
“I thought to myself am I supposed to walk in?” A few anxious seconds later, she turned to leave. But before she had gone more than a few paces, the door opened fully.
A woman stood there silhouetted against the light of the corridor. “I know her and she knows me well but she didn’t look at me, didn’t greet me, instead she just pointed towards the dining room.”
The dining room had a long table stretching away from her, with two men sitting at the far end. These were the men Ruth had come to meet. They knew her family and she says they had offered to help her. Ruth was separating from her husband and the situation had been getting messy.
One man rested his head and arms on the table. He didn’t look up. The other spoke.
We hear that you intend to end your marriage, he said. Ruth would write down their conversation in a diary later. The men had been told that Ruth would be willing to leave her children with their father after their divorce. “No, that’s not the case,” she replied, confused. This was not the conversation she had been expecting.
Then her interrogator mentioned some pictures.
“They said they had photos of me – running around with this strange man. A man who is not my husband.” The implication was clear, if Ruth did not agree to leave her school-age children in her community then the news of her affair would be made public.
Worse, the men would specifically tell her children “to let them know what kind of mother they had”. She doesn’t remember exactly what she said before leaving the room. She was too frightened.
Ruth always knew leaving her marriage would have consequences but, until that meeting, she hadn’t realised exactly what might be at stake. Before her marriage started falling apart, her life had been following a well-trodden path. Ruth – not her real name – had been born and raised in the strictly Orthodox, Hasidic community.
Today, she looks very different from how she used to – her black and white shoelaces have little skulls on them, for a start. It’s a world away from the modest clothing of the Hasidim, a large branch of the UK’s Haredi community.
The word Haredi means one who trembles at God’s word. It’s a term that covers a wide range of smaller groups, all sharing a common factor – they live extremely devout Jewish lives.
It’s an insular, self-sufficient community. The UK has the largest strictly Orthodox population in Europe, although its size is hard to estimate and ranges from 42,000 to 51,000 people. It is, however, growing fast. A high birth rate within the community means that, by the end of the century, the majority of British Jews could be strictly Orthodox, according to a recent study.
There are Haredi groups across the UK, concentrated in London, Salford, and Gateshead. All are trying to maintain their 19th Century traditions in a modern world and religious laws govern everything from their attire to their diet. In some areas, Yiddish remains the dominant language.
It’s a devout life and Ruth wasn’t the first person to struggle with it. Those like her, who have broken away, are starting to talk more openly about what happened to them. Some parents are also revealing the fierce resistance they met when trying to take their children with them.
But there was a time when Ruth felt like she was the only person wrestling with the expectations of those around her. At least, that was until she heard about Emily’s case.
A lot of people within the community have heard about Emily’s case, even though she changed her name after leaving it. It’s not often that Hasidic women make headlines. But Emily’s story of leaving the community was different. It changed things.
Ruth’s story and many others, start with that of Emily Green’s.
Emily’s doubts about her marriage started just before her wedding, in north London. She was due to marry a man she had met twice. He was 20 and so was she.
It’s normal for Haredi marriages to be arranged – boys and girls are kept apart while growing up. It’s usually up to a matchmaker to help potential couples find each other. “My father was trying to find a really special sort of, you know, catch,” says Emily.
But her first meeting with her future husband had not gone well. They had met at her grandmother’s house. He had looked smart, keeping to the strict dress code of a white shirt, long coat, black trousers, and an undershirt with added ritual tassels to remind him of God’s commandments.
“I remember thinking oh, he’s tall,” says Emily. She speaks quickly, and always looks people in the eye as she talks. “I’d always wanted a tall husband because I’m quite short.”
But then the conversation started. Her prospective husband had kept looking nervously at the table. In fact, almost anywhere in the room but at her. Men are supposed to avoid making eye contact with women who are not their wives and it can be a hard habit to break.
They had talked a bit about school and his experience of studying in Israel. “I remember feeling increasingly bored, we had nothing really to say to each other.” She lost no time in trying to wriggle out of the engagement. “I said to my father, look he’s a very nice boy but I don’t see myself being able to live with him.”
Emily always speaks her mind, a trait that has got her into trouble before. But instead of convincing her father, he ended up persuading her. It’s always difficult in the beginning, he told her. It would be fine.
It was a June wedding. Emily’s recollections of it are still sharp, 16 years on. Her parents had spared no expense. It was staged in a grand venue with white pillars and chandeliers. About 500 people attended and the party flew by in a blur of dancing and food.
At the end, Emily stood on the doorstep in her white lace dress watching the guests leave. Her dark hair was tucked neatly into a wig for the first time. Most Hasidic women will use one to cover their hair, starting from their wedding day. “I was actually shaking by the time the wedding ended because I think I just knew what was going to happen,” she says.
Emily watched as her sisters were ushered into a people carrier and “I remember having this crazy thought, I just want to go in your car. I just want to go home, anywhere, just not… with him, alone, and have to have sex with him.”
The sun was rising by the time the newlyweds reached their marital home. The light filtered into their bedroom, where two single beds with fancy dark wooden headboards had been pushed together. “You’re supposed to only have sex in the dark,” explains Emily. “He got all worried, maybe it’s not correct. Maybe it’s not going to be valid.”
“So I’m lying there, you know, I’m in bed and I was like OK, let’s at least get it over and done with, and then he starts calling his rabbi.” It’s normal to ask your rabbi for help about intimate things. They are experts in solving the riddles of how to follow ancient biblical laws in a 21st Century world.
“The rabbi said it’s OK as long as the curtains are closed and then we – I don’t remember much of what happened. I think I just blacked it out.”
It took just a fortnight of married life for the word “divorce” to start spinning around Emily’s head. But a month later she had become pregnant and the excitement of a baby had pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind. Instead, Emily focused on looking after her family.
It’s common for married men to keep studying, especially in the early years of marriage. A life devoted to religious learning is highly respected so women often end up as the main breadwinners for a time. Emily worked as a teacher at a private Haredi school.
By the time of her 10th wedding anniversary, Emily had all but given up on the idea of divorce. “It was always playing on my mind,” she sighs. “But I remember thinking, I can’t do it to the kids.” They had a big family. Six or seven children is normal, even eight is not uncommon.
Focusing on the children kept her busy. “It was almost about trying to find ways of not spending too much time together as a couple,” she explains. Her marriage just felt like one long argument.
In what little spare time she had, Emily quietly went about bending the rules and customs that governed most of her life. She smuggled a wi-fi router into the house and hid it behind the cupboards.
The Haredim are wary of the influence of modern media. TV and cinema trips are forbidden in the area that Emily was from. The internet is also frowned upon, especially around children. Parents are expected to hand in their smartphones and laptops before their children start school, to have them installed with filtering software. It’s crucial to keep the home safe for children – the internet could expose them to anything.
Emily got online anyway. Her curiosity about the world led her to the US drama Desperate Housewives, watching it in secret on a work laptop. Spurred on by the sense of liberation she had found online, Emily’s nagging doubts about her unhappy marriage started to dominate her thoughts.
That same summer, a decade after her wedding, she headed to the ritual bath after a particularly long, hard day at work. The mikveh is a monthly ritual for all married Hasidic women, who attend seven days after their period has finished.
The mikveh Emily visited looks, from the outside, like a regular terraced house, with a high green hedge around the entrance. Inside there’s a room with a pool in the centre, usually watched over by an older woman. “You come out and then the idea is that you’re pure, clean again,” she explains briskly. “You come home to your husband and usually you end up having sex.”
But as she sat in the waiting room, as she had done countless times before, thinking about what would happen when she got home, something snapped. “The sex at night, it was awful,” she says. “It was like, I’m just not doing this. I can’t.” Emily got up, took out her phone, and called her husband.
“I’m coming home,” she said, and left before taking the ritual bath. After a decade of marriage, Emily declared she wanted a divorce. “My husband said to me. ‘You’ve got everything going for you, we have lovely kids, financially we are OK.’ On the outside of it, it looked like we had, you know, a great life. He couldn’t understand.”
But all Emily could think of was that if their love hadn’t grown in 10 years, it wasn’t going to. “I remember thinking, this is not how I am meant to live, it can’t be right. It can’t be OK.”
The Haredi community says that the altar cries when a couple separates. It’s rare but it does happen.
A stranger in New York
It was the father’s turn to look after the children so Emily visited New York where a friend was ill.
The pair were walking together down the street when someone started taking pictures of them. “He had a beard. He was wearing a cap and he seemed quite religious, but obviously trying to sort of hide himself a little bit.” He didn’t stop when they turned a corner. Spooked, Emily’s friend shouted: “Hey, what are you doing?” The man ran away.
When Emily left New York, after having to extend her stay, she did so on a Saturday. It meant she would be breaking the Sabbath or Shabbos for the first time in her life. The Haredi community take their day of rest seriously. Even small modern conveniences, such as turning on a light switch or using a phone, are to be avoided.
Emily, however, was planning to spend it sitting in the sprawling grey maze that is JFK airport, before stepping on to a transatlantic passenger jet. A few hours later, as the sun set, marking the end of the Sabbath, Emily stared out of the plane window. She was starting to embrace the feeling of defiance.
“It was weird. It was quite liberating actually. Obviously there was this guilt, and a bit of like, you know, there’s no going back.” Once back in London, her sense of feeling stifled returned with a single phone call. “I heard that you travelled on Shabbat,” said a friend. “There are pictures.”
Emily believes she was being followed but she can’t be sure. And even if she was being tailed, it’s unclear who might have arranged it. She says the aim was to discredit her character in front of the family court.
While the English court is secular, it must take into account the fact that the families it deals with might not be. Parents can be required to stick with religious rules if it’s judged to be in the best interest of their children, as keeping things consistent can help reduce conflict. But it is not always easy for parents to do. Especially if the rules are part of why someone left their community in the first place.
Although the Haredi community does not speak with one voice, or indeed always see itself as one entity, the BBC spoke to some leading members in the Stamford Hill area of London, which has the largest concentration of the city’s Hasidim. A view that was expressed several times was that, when they married, Emily and others like her agreed to raise their children in the community.
A parent is free to leave, they say, but they don’t have the right to disrupt their children’s lives, especially if it means alienating them from the rest of their family and taking them far away from a life they are used to. Some children would also naturally choose to stay with what they know.
They added that the parent staying within the community might see their children being exposed to a culture that could be harmful to them and that it’s natural for them to be concerned.
The night before her final court hearing, Emily slept badly. It was 2012 and her case had gone all the way to the Court of Appeal. As soon as she heard the final ruling, Emily rushed home to see her children. “I hugged them and for the first time I felt like this huge sense of relief,” she says.
The court had decided Emily’s children could live with her, outside of the community. She could also send them to the school of her choice. The question of what she would have done if it had gone differently, still makes her feel sick. “I used to think I’d just have committed suicide. It would have been a trauma for me. I don’t think I would ever recover from it.”
Her children might live and go to school outside of the community but they would always have ties to it. They would see their father regularly.
But just as Emily’s life was settling down, her phone rang. It was a woman she had never met before, called Ruth.
She was in trouble and the battle for her children was about to turn ugly.
To read the article in its entirety click, here.