|Families stroll in Stamford Hill, North London (file photo)|
As an Orthodox Jew, it is my firm belief that to be Jewish is to serve God through His Torah. That means being observant of Halacha. Which is based on the Torah as interpreted by the sages and religious Jewish thinkers and scholars throughout each generation. That is how Orthodox Judaism is practiced today.
This is not an option for us. It is a requirement. And - one - reason I support reaching out to non observant Jews. I am also very supportive of ‘in-reach’. Reaching ‘out’ to religious Jews that are vulnerable to the draw of a secular lifestyle. And yet I am troubled by an announcement out of London, by the Charedi community of Stamford Hill that deals with a special type of in-reach. From The Independent:
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 problem I have is that this initiative does not seem to factor in the overall well being of the child. It is strictly about making sure that in any custody battle where one parent is religious and the other is not, that the religious parent will get custody. So that even if the religious parent is the abusive one, they will still fight to get him or her custody. Which if true, I would be in extreme opposition to.
One might ask, if keeping the child religious is the main concern, then why allow any non observant parents any access, let alone any form of custody?
The answer that we must first be concerned about the physical and emotional well being before we think about the spiritual well being. But even if the child's spiritual well being were the main concern, it doesn’t always work out that way. If a child is in an abusive relationship with a parent, what are the chances that they will stay religious anyway? In what way is placing a child with an abusive parent justified just because they are the observant one? How can an abusive parent even be considered observant in the first place?
It is also no secret that this community considers the ‘outside world’ to be evil. Any exposure to it is considered to be detrimental to the child’s Neshama (spiritual well being). Which can easily mean that they actually do consider an observant abusive parent to be better than a non abusive unobservant parent. Furthermore I have to ask if they even consider an observant parent to be unfit if they choose an observant - but non Charedi Hashkafa? As this article points out:
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…
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.
If that was in fact the case, I have to wonder if this group will advocate for the Charedi parent – even if he or she is the abusive one.
It is also very troubling the way this community reacted to a woman filing for divorce that revealed being beaten and raped by her husband throughout her marriage:
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.
It’s not that they denied her claims, it seems. It’s that she exposed them to the world. Which appears to be a bigger sin in their eyes than the beatings she suffered throughout their marriage.
It is for these reasons that I am skeptical about the stated mission of this group. It sounds righteous to be advocating that custody of children should given to religious parents. All things being equal, I too would advocate for that. But in no way should that be our only concern. If I were to support such a group, it would have to first assure me that the physical and emotional well being of the child was as important to them as the spiritual well being.
We should never say that the parent’s religiosity is all that matters. Because even if your goal is spiritual well being of the child, leaving them with an ‘observant’ but abusive parent is quite likely a ticket right out of observance anyway.