Losing Her Religion - and Her Children

A rabbinical court granted 'Ayala's' husband custody when she lost her faith. One woman's struggle against the religious system.

Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
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Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

Curiosity is a celebrated trait among the secular, but is considered dangerous in the ultra-Orthodox world. And God, if he exists, is Ayala’s witness that she possesses plenty of it. According to her husband, a pious yeshiva student, that curiosity is the mother of all sins. It is the reason he is demanding that Ayala be forbidden to see her six children − so as to ensure that she will not transmit even an iota of her inquisitive nature to them.

For close to a year, she has been waging a battle in a rabbinical court to get her children back. Because all the cases in rabbinical courts are heard in camera, Ayala has to use an assumed name for this interview. She is a beautiful woman, smiling, energetic and warm. It’s hard to imagine her stuffed into a wig, obedient and prudish. But everyone who knows Ayala is used to seeing her shift between the exterior codes: when she meets with her children, she dons the guise of a Haredi woman.

Her story begins in the usual way for a girl growing up in a Haredi home: schooling in a branch of the Beit Yaakov educational network for Haredi girls and an arranged marriage at the age of 18 to a yeshiva student from one of the extreme sects of the Sephardi segment of the Eda Haharedit. His occupation: Torah study 14 hours a day, from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. Their first child, a boy, was born nine months after the wedding, followed by five other children at approximately 18-month intervals.

“I was very ideological,” Ayala says. “I wanted my husband to learn and devote himself, and I didn’t mind staying home with the children all day. When they were asleep I did transcription work in the house in order to provide for the growing family. That is what I believed I was supposed to do, even if it was hard. Our life as a couple was not easy. He is insular and unsociable. He cut me off from my girlfriends, because he refused to visit them on Shabbat, and he barely agreed to let them come to us. It was the same with my family. In the Haredi world, women have to live their lives according to the husband, and so it was.”

Life at home was as difficult for Ayala as her social life. “He could not express emotions; everything was done coldly. Intimate life was hard, too. It wasn’t until later that a woman told me that what he did is called rape. I didn’t understand that it was rape, because I didn’t resist. The idea is that a woman is forbidden to oppose her husband in any situation: as much as the husband wants, the way he wants and whenever he wants. Even if you are not feeling well. So, how can it be rape if you say yes?”

It is important for Ayala to emphasize that not all Haredim “are like that,” and that this is not a law in the religious world, or in Judaism. “There are many lovely sides to Judaism, but there are also people who are vile under the auspices of the Torah, people who know how to bend the tenets to their own use. You can find religious authorization for every kind of behavior and every perversion − it depends on the person himself and on how he wants to behave.”

Seeking to resolve their differences, the couple went to a rabbi. God is testing you, the rabbi told Ayala. “I truly believed that this would gain me a good place in heaven,” she says. Life went on, though Ayala occasionally snapped and the couple returned to the rabbi. He persuaded her each time that she was a righteous woman and urged her to soldier on.

“It is not customary to complain, certainly not against one’s husband,” she explains. “You have to paste a broad smile on your face and walk around as though everything is just fine. That’s how it is with the Haredim: they sweep everything under the carpet, until they trip over it.”

Losing God

Things could have gone in the same vein, she says, “if only I had continued to believe that there is a God, and that I was doing everything for him. Believing helped me all those years; otherwise you don’t have the strength to go on.” Ayala did not lose her belief overnight; the process was long and gradual. But she never imagined that losing God would mean the loss of her children as well.

The starting point of her journey outward from the depths of the Haredi world lay in her insatiable curiosity. “I love to learn − everything, no matter what − so I asked my husband if we could learn together. I tested him before his exams or asked him to tell me what he was learning while I worked in the kitchen. Those were good times. When we learned together we got along excellently. About six years ago, as we were studying together, we arrived at a discussion of outlook and faith. We read Maimonides’ ‘Guide for the Perplexed’ and I had some questions. When I asked them aloud, he said I was crazy, that women do not ask questions, for as the Gemara says, ‘Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he taught her frivolity.’ He threatened to stop learning with me. After that we studied only the weekly Torah portion and the Jewish laws. The era of Jewish philosophy was over.”

Nevertheless, she says, “I continued to read more and more on the Internet. The questions pounded in my head, and when someone asks questions, it is impossible not to provide answers. Many Haredi women who are told it is forbidden to ask questions simply do not ask them. I could not stop asking. Once my appetite was whetted, I could not be stopped. I read as much as I could, and in a process that lasted for a year and a half I slowly lost God. I felt depressed, because the ground was pulled from under my feet. I felt I was not normal and thought there were no other people like me in the world. It was a long, painful process.” She relates this part of her story skillfully: it is obvious that this is not the first time she has satisfied people’s curiosity about this aspect of her journey.

The next stages are less easy to talk about. During the period of asking questions, Ayala became pregnant again, for the sixth time. This time it was a daughter, after five sons. Happy about the future baby, she reached the end of her term without any problems. But then she had the feeling that something was wrong with the fetus. She went from one doctor to another and was told by all of them that the baby was fine, “just a little hyperactive, nothing more.” After a few tense days, she gave birth to a dead girl. On that day, her doubts about God’s existence ended for good. His absence was confirmed.

“This was after a year and a half of doubts and uncertainties about God,” she recalls. “I told myself that this is his opportunity to prove to me that he exists. That whole night I did not feel the baby moving. My husband was asleep and I had no one to talk to. For the first time in my life I prayed to God in my words, the first prayer I had truly felt. I told him, ‘I don’t know whether you exist or not, but if you want to bring me back into your party, this is your chance. If you exist, you know what I am going through for you. I know you don’t perform miracles and will not be able to give me back my daughter, but no one will know about that. Only the two of us know that there is a problem, so it will not be called a miracle. I won’t tell anyone; do it for me. I have invested so many years in you, now invest in me.’

“Of course, nothing happened, and I gave birth to the dead baby without seeing God. For a Haredi woman who sees God when she is doing the dishes, washing the floor, when her child gets a scratch or in any of the most minor situations in life, to go through a whole birth without seeing God is meaningful. From my point of view, I received the final confirmation that he does not exist. That put the lid on my faith.”

The traumatic childbirth experience also provided the final confirmation of her husband’s lack of consideration. “He told me that when we leave the hospital, I have to smile and show everyone that all is from heaven and for the best. I remember that as we were leaving, with me drenched in tears, a Haredi man my husband knows went by, and he ordered me to turn around so that the acquaintance would not see that I was crying.”

‘My prison’

The period that followed was the most excruciating yet. Without faith, Ayala could no longer bear life’s hardships. “I did not believe I would be rewarded in heaven. Suddenly I remained alone with my fate.” She asked permission from a rabbi to use contraceptives, as she felt she was no longer capable of becoming pregnant after losing the baby. However, the rabbi refused to sanction this; he had heard about her “heretical” reflections and believed another child might give her something else with which to occupy her mind. Four months after the disastrous delivery, Ayala again became pregnant. It was another boy.

Two years ago, she happened to see an article about an Internet forum called “Haredim against their will” ‏(in Hebrew‏). Her curiosity piqued, she waited until her husband left for the all-night eve-of-Shavuot tikkun, involving the study of Jewish sources, and organized a domestic tikkun of her own, in which she read the forum’s entire archive.

The writers are religiously observant people who have lost their faith, but do not want to break up the home. The result is that they live as Haredim against their will. “My eyes were opened − I was not the only crazy one,” Ayala says. “There are others like me in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv. Suddenly I had legitimization for the whole process I had undergone. A few days later I registered myself in the forum, became active in it and met some of the people personally. I, too, thought that I would not wreck my family under any circumstances and therefore would live as a Haredi against my will.”

Ayala thought of her situation as “my prison,” but felt that as long as she could bend the bars a bit to see the world outside, she could make do. She started to listen to nonliturgical music, joined a city library and asked her husband if she could enroll in the Open University. “How does a Haredi woman persuade her husband about studies? She tells him that in three years she will have a degree that will generate a good living.” Ayala received a scholarship and started to study sociology. “That was my way to preserve my sanity without wrecking the home,” she says. But her husband and the community were leery. One day she was invited to a neighborhood functionary who took out a checkbook and offered to pay her whatever she wished if she would discontinue her studies. Ayala’s refusal sparked her complete ostracism by the Haredi world. From that moment, no one in the neighborhood spoke to her. At the same time, her husband discovered that she was in contact with the Internet forum − she was photographed by a private investigations agency hired by families of some of the forum’s members during one of the group’s outings. He demanded a divorce.

This was the start of Ayala’s still-ongoing legal saga. In addition to marriage and divorce, a rabbinical court is entitled to deliberate matters related to child custody and alimony, provided no previous claim in this regard has been submitted to a Family Court. It often happens that one of the sides wants the divorce proceedings to be heard in a particular court, so he or she rushes to file a complaint in the court of choice ‏(see box‏).

Ayala was the first to launch divorce proceedings − in a Family Court − but then her husband agreed to give the family a chance to set things right. For a few months, they tried to restore domestic peace. The Family Court closed the case, and five days later, her husband launched divorce proceedings in a rabbinical court, demanding custody of the children.

Ayala’s lawyer, Moshe Ben-Shimol, filed a complaint citing dishonesty in the husband’s actions. According to the complaint − which was rejected − the husband pretended falsely that their relationship was about to improve, whereas his real intention was to get the case transferred to a rabbinical court. “We believe that Ayala’s husband thought that if the case were heard in Family Court, his chances of being given custody of the children would be poorer than in a rabbinical court, because children of this age are usually raised by their mother. He therefore got the case transferred to a rabbinical court by totally invalid means,” Ben-Shimol says.

Less than second-class

Ayala hoped that things would not come to a divorce, because “to be children of divorced parents in the Haredi world is awful. It’s a lot less than second-class.” For four months she lived with her husband under the same roof, willing to take the insults he hurled at her in front of the children.

“He was hurt, and he mocked and humiliated me,” she says. At this point, Ayala began to be followed and photographed, in an attempt to cast aspersions on her as a parent. In another wily move, the children’s father complained to the social-welfare authorities that Ayala was neglecting the children by studying for university exams. “In a conversation I had with the social worker, she understood that I was not neglecting the children. She advised me to leave the house and not endure this daily humiliation. For the children’s sake I did not want to renounce my faith completely, but the Haredi society kicked me out. The absence of faith itself did not interfere with my continuing to live there − it was the hard life with him and the ostracism by all the others that made it impossible. If things had been good for me there, I would have stayed.”

A Haredi rabbinical court began to hear the divorce case eight months ago. “Since then, the rabbinical court has done everything possible, by means fair and foul, to prevent her from seeing her children, with the entire Haredi street mobilized in this story,” Ben-Shimol says. “With each request, the husband is given 21 days to respond and to gain precious time, in which the children barely see their mother and undergo wild brainwashing. Twenty-one days is a long time for children not to see their mother, yet surprisingly, in other cases, when the rabbinical court wants things to move quickly they occur with a few hours.”

At first, the rabbinical court decided to place the children under the joint custody of both parents. Ayala abandoned her studies, found a job as a secretary in a computer company and moved into an apartment in the same neighborhood, which she shares with another woman. She thought a new life was about to begin for her: the children would be with her from Saturday evening ‏(after the end of Shabbat‏) until Wednesday, and with her husband the rest of the week.

Her apartment is modest and not especially elegant, but pleasant. The balcony is jammed with things: a small bicycle, a mattress for a child’s bed, “secular” books alongside books on Jewish philosophy.

Ayala’s flatmate cordially offers a snack. The kitchen is packed with food, in case the children come. The building itself houses mainly Haredi families. A mother with twins ignores Ayala elegantly on the path leading into the building. An outsider could hardly imagine the turbulence that seethes below the seemingly placid encounter between the two women. Toward evening, the street bustles with human activity, mostly of Haredi men returning home, as well as little girls in long skirts and boys with tzitzit − fringes of the small tallit, or prayer shawl, worn under the outer garment − sticking out. All in all, it’s a tranquil picture of a pleasant residential neighborhood.

But behind this tranquillity, too, a storm lurks. In the past few weeks, posters about Ayala have begun to appear on some of the notice boards in the neighborhood. “His wife has been ensnared in Satan’s net,” they say, “and after she became a total heretic, she wants to drag her children down with her. Her innocent, just husband has launched a bitter war for the young children to grow up for God and his Torah. This is costing him a fortune. He has indeed triumphed, but where can he go with a huge hole in his pocket???”

Ayala’s children live, go to school and wander around in this neighborhood. They have certainly seen the posters and know that they refer to their mother.

On the day after Ayala moved into her new apartment, she received a handwritten notice, signed by a rabbinical court judge. The notice stated that joint custodial rights were being suspended immediately and informed Ayala that a hearing on the subject would be held the following week. In the hearing, the husband’s representatives stated that Ayala was taking drugs, but in the same breath it was also decided that she would be allowed to see the children on Sundays and Mondays and to visit them in her former home at any time.

“This is a disturbing decision in itself,” Ben-Shimol says, “because if a person can raise her children on Sunday and Monday, then why not on Tuesday, too?” Ben-Shimol demanded that Ayala be tested for drug abuse. If she were indeed found to be taking drugs she would give up the children, he told the court; but if not, the previous equal custodial rights would be restored. The court declined this offer, and the charges remained hanging in the air. Drug abuse is not the only trumped-up charge Ayala has had to cope with. In another hearing, the court was told that an alehouse was operating in her apartment, and recently she was accused of joining a cult.

The children stayed with Ayala once, but then were told that God does not protect their mother’s “accursed house” and that something terrible will befall them if they go there. Since then they have been afraid to visit. “From the viewpoint of the Haredi street, it would be better if the children were insane and were not raised by me, because I am not religiously observant,” Ayala explains.

A source familiar with the case and with the workings of rabbinical courts confirms this: “The rabbinical court does not consider itself a court as such, but a rabbinic institution. They want to save Ayala’s children from becoming nonreligious and care nothing about their welfare. They will go to any lengths to ensure that the children remain with their father and in the Haredi milieu. They will balk at nothing. The needs of small children are of no interest to them. It’s not an orderly court, but shtetl behavior. You have to understand that the members of a rabbinical court are under terrible pressure from the Haredi street, which will not forgive them for allowing children to be removed from a Haredi home into a secular home. This is an ironclad principle for them, and any other form of pressure is far less potent.”

Ayala relates that, at this stage, she agreed to accept any compromise: “To forgo everything, to repent, to do whatever is needed in order to be with my children.” Her husband refuses to talk to her. Indeed, he did not invite her to the bar mitzvah of her firstborn son or to the birthday party for their 3-year-old. On the day of the bar mitzvah, the boy himself came to Ayala’s apartment and asked her to attend. She went with two women friends, who wanted to give her support in the face of the looks of reproof she had to contend with from everyone else. She missed the little one’s birthday, as she only found out about the celebration afterward.

“When I asked the nursery-school teacher why she didn’t invite me, she said that he told her not to let me know. The whole Haredi world is collaborating with him, and there is no organization that can help me.”

On visits to the children at their home − in Haredi attire, of course − Ayala must endure her husband’s verbal abuse. He follows her everywhere, and the children look to him for permission before answering her questions. Sometimes he throws her out in the middle of a visit, always with a different pretext. On one occasion, for example, he claimed that her telephone wasn’t kosher. ‏(Smartphones are considered nonkosher because one can surf the Internet with them.‏) Under the law, sanctions are supposed to be imposed on anyone who does not uphold custodial arrangements that have been decided upon. “We are asking for the terms to be enforced, but it is not happening,” Ayala and Ben-Shimol say. Ayala asked for an objective welfare worker to check the children’s condition, as currently the welfare official is a Haredi man. “I am not asking for anything that is not coming to me,” she says. “All I want is for the case to be dealt with by social workers who are not associated with the rabbinical court. I also want the children to see a psychologist, to help them cope with the difficult period they are undergoing. But the court refuses.”

At this point, Ayala delivers a monologue, which recurs in various versions: “I am their mother and I love them. I am ready to raise them like Haredim and to observe all the rules when they are with me, so they will have the stability they need. Right now they are in a bad way. Every child has the right to grow up with his mother, and my children are no exception. I am not trying to make them become nonreligious, all I want is for things to be good for them.”

Ben-Shimol adds: “During recess at school the children run off to their mother. They go to say hello to her without anyone seeing. Great mental pressure is being exerted on them.”

For some time, Ayala wanted to petition the High Court of Justice against the behavior of the rabbinical court, but did not have the money to pay the court fee. Recently, she obtained the necessary funding through an organization called Mavoi Satum, which, as its website ‏states, “opens the dead end” for “agunot ‏(women whose husbands have disappeared‏) and mesoravot get ‏(women who have been refused a Jewish divorce‏).” Ben-Shimol is representing her pro bono.

On June 2, she filed a petition requesting the High Court to order the case removed from the authority of the rabbinical court, to issue a restraining order under which the children will be removed from the custody of their father and to appoint a neutral social worker to examine both parents. “We are not asking the court to decide whether the children will be transferred to the mother or the father, but to appoint an objective individual to examine the fitness of the mother and the father, to examine the situation and to arrive at sensible decisions,” Ben-Shimol explains. “If the court decides that the father should raise the children, we will give up. But I am convinced that this will not be the case, because the only reason it is happening now is that the father is a Haredi and the mother is not.”

It is inconceivable, Ben-Shimol says angrily, that in Israel in 2013, a mother’s children should be taken from her only because she has different beliefs from her husband. “And on top of everything else, this is being done by an official, state-financed judicial tribunal. It is not a private court, but one in which every Jewish citizen is liable to find himself. People should take to the streets against this; politicians must take action. Rabbinical courts should be stripped of the right to make decisions that are liable to conflict with our way of life. Why is the question of child custody heard in rabbinical courts? Why are we willing to have a religious-legal body – on which there is no place for women and which is dominated by a Haredi worldview – judge us in our civic lives?”

Asked whether he is optimistic about the possibility that Ayala will be allowed to raise her children, Ben-Shimol replies, “Yes, because I believe that this story can bring people into the streets and induce politicians to throw down the gauntlet and take action. It’s a bit late in Ayala’s case, because the children have already been brainwashed, but we have to try. This is a story with national themes − we have to change the system.”

Ayala says that for her, the optimal situation is for the children to remain Haredim, “because that is the situation in which they were raised and that is what they know.”

Still, she would be happy if they also learned mathematics, English and geography. “Those subjects will make it possible for them to find their way in life by themselves. Whatever they choose will be fine with me. I will accept them as they are, because I know what a terrible feeling it is when you are not accepted as you are. I miss the children, the way in which they shared their lives with me. I was their sounding board. Sometimes I come to my apartment and it is so very quiet. I miss hugging them and kissing them. I have a great deal of love to give them, so many things to tell them.”

Ayala is effectively in limbo, Ben-Shimol says. “She is not Haredi and not secular, she is in a hard place in the middle. To be secular is not only not to be Haredi. In the day-to-day world, to be secular is to connect with a different culture and way of life from what you have become used to as a Haredi person, and it is a long, hard process.”

Ayala has a somewhat different take on the situation: “I don’t think a secular world exists. Rather, there is a world that is not Haredi, which has no uniform rules and with which I am completely unfamiliar. I enjoy it when I manage to conduct a conversation about religion with secular people, just an ordinary conversation.

“I believe that I will be able to conduct a regular life, even though I am starting relatively late, at the age of 32,” she says defiantly.

Ayala has a Facebook page, and a month ago she replaced her fictitious username with her real name and added a photo of herself.

“I reached the conclusion that exposure is easier than hiding and being afraid that people will find out,” she says. As for which secular-world experiences she would like to try, she says she hasn’t yet been to a theater performance or to a large-scale musical event, “in Caesarea or something like that.” She also wants to drive a motorcycle, “but all very slowly, because first of all it’s important for me to organize my life and get my children back.”

Zamlen Kwitner, a senior ombudsman in the rabbinical courts, states in response, “Because confidentiality applies to cases heard in the rabbinical courts, I cannot reply to your questions without breaking the law. However, because the complaints that were made known to you create a distorted picture of the panel of judges that is dealing with the case, I checked the ‘facts’ on which the complaints that were conveyed to you are based. I am very sorry to have to say that there is no truth to the complaints, some of which are based on a mistaken interpretation by the complainants. If the complainants apprise you of all the decisions, you will see that there is no factual basis for the complaints.”

Uncivil courts

The rabbinical courts in Israel pass judgment according to the halakha ‏(Jewish religious law‏) and other Jewish sources. The courts are empowered to pass judgment in cases of conversion to Judaism, last wills and marriage and divorce between Jews. The divorce cases can also involve alimony, visitation rights, the division of property and custodianship. However, the details of the divorce can also be worked out in a Family Court, which is actually a Magistrate’s Court where the judges are experts in the family sphere. This duality sometimes leads to what is known as a “race of authorities,” when one of the sides rushes to be the first to file for divorce in the court of his choice ‏(secular or Haredi‏) − whichever he or she thinks will better their prospects.

All rabbinical court hearings are confidential, as they deal with sensitive family affairs. By the same token, the judgments are also confidential and are not made public, in contrast to the judgments handed down by the other courts in Israel. In addition to the public injustice this causes, by creating opaqueness instead of transparency, confidentiality is also the bane of lawyers, as they are not aware of precedent-setting rulings that might assist them in their arguments to the court.

The law setting forth the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts was enacted in 1953, but is actually an inheritance from Ottoman times, when each of the religions in Palestine was empowered to pass judgment on its adherents according to its religious laws. The law states, “Matters of marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel who are citizens or residents of the state shall be under the exclusive jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts.” Thus, even a Jewish couple who were married in a civil ceremony outside Israel in order to evade the Rabbinate, or for any other reason, must go through a rabbinical court to get a divorce.

The situation is that a religious body is conducting the civil affairs of Israel’s inhabitants.

An Orthodox woman praying (illustrative)Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
The poster against Ayala that has appeared on neighborhood notice boards. 'Holy war,' its headline says. 'Save souls from falling into corruption,' it warns. Credit: Haaretz

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