For Those Trying To Leave Ultra-Orthodox Communities, Courts Can Play Major Role

Chavie Weisberger grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Monsey, New York, where she raised her three children after her 2008 divorce. But as she began questioning her faith and her sexuality, her neighbors told the religious authorities there that she was allowing secular behavior in her home.

How Religious Courts Impact Trying To Leave The Ultra-Orthodox Community

Her estranged husband sued for custody and won, in a secular Brooklyn court — it upheld a religious court document she signed at the time of her divorce. Weisberger didn’t realize that in it she’d agreed to raise her children Hasidic.

Ultimately, another court overturned that decision and restored full custody to Weisberger.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Weisberger (@iamchavie) about the issues faced by Hasidic men and women who leave the community, and is also joined by Lani Santo (@notinabox_ls), executive director of Footsteps, a social services organization that provides social and financial services for those transitioning to a secular lifestyle.

Interview Highlights

On protection from the outside world

Chavie Weisberger: “I would say I was very protected. I didn’t have a lot of understanding of larger ideas of how people lived. I didn’t have access to education past my high school education, which was in an all-girls ultra-Orthodox school. My exposure to secular ideas and people was very, very limited.”

On questioning her lifestyle, and reaction from people in the community

CW: “I think a big part of the process for me was very internal. It was me starting to question if I was going to live a life that was honest and raise my children according to the values that I really believed in. Then, how would I do that in a way that I can live fully and honestly and was protective of my relationship with my children? And, eventually, that started expressing itself externally. And that’s when, you know, neighbors in the community started having strong reactions.”

On the contract she had signed in religious court agreeing to practice her faith and raise her children Hasidic, and how it ended up in secular court

CW: “The original agreement that I signed in the beth din, which is the Jewish court of law, is seen as negotiation or an arbitration agreement, and then was just presented in front of a judge and signed. And that’s why it had such legal binding later when when my ex-husband took me back to court to fight for custody of our children.”

On her defense in court

CW: “Ultimately, best interest of the children has to override any preexisting agreement. Since I was the children’s primary caretaker all these years, and the children were comfortable with the lifestyle changes that were slowly happening for us as a family, it made sense that the children should be allowed to continue in that vein.”

On how often it happens that men or women have to go before courts because they’re moving away from their faith

Lani Santo: “We see this happening in almost every case of individuals who are choosing to leave, especially Hasidic communities. There’s almost always a contested divorce. And I think part of what’s important to understand is that people are signing things that are not explained to them. They don’t have counsel on the beth din. There might be a room full of rabbis with long beards, and for a woman, especially, an intense power imbalance there. But for both men and women they’re told, ‘Just sign this and you’ll be free of a marriage that’s not working out for you.’ They don’t know what they’re signing.”

On the nature of these cases

LS: “Judges will ask whichever partner, spouse seems to be becoming less religious. And time and time again, the argument of best interest of the child, as interpreted as maintain the status quo in their life, is what’s being upheld above all else, as opposed to seeing that as one of a number of different factors, including who the primary caretaker of the children has been, including the right of a child to have a relationship with both parents and the right of a parent to have a relationship with their children no matter their religious identity. And I think, in a lot of the cases that we’re seeing, judges are favoring issues of freedom of religion, and they’re also not necessarily looking at a First Amendment issue of freedom from religion.

On how children might feel, or be treated by their community, based on how their parents live

CW: “I think you bring up an excellent question. And while I do agree with you that we try to minimize stress and trauma from children’s lives and keep things as stable as possible, in an ideal world, people wouldn’t be married off at a really young age to someone they don’t know before they have a chance to really explore who they are, and how they want to raise their children, and what their futures are going to look like. And so ideally, we wouldn’t be in this position where children are now being raised by parents who have opposing values and lifestyles. But once we’re at this place, and there are children involved, ideally the courts should support navigating a way to support children to be living with both of their parents in their lives in as meaningful a way as possible. And children are smart, and they’re resilient, and they’re really capable of understanding these nuances of who their parents are.”

On the challenges of living outside of the Hasidic community

CW: “When I initially started making changes in my lifestyle, I lost my job that I had in the community, I lost the support of my family and friends and I really felt like I had to start all over.

“I try very hard to shut out the voices of people who are not supporting me and my children and the journey of living a rich and full life. I can’t say that that affects our day-to-day experience.”

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