Rabbinical Court in Israel Separates Siblings in Bitter Divorce Case

Netanya Rabbinical Court rules three of the children would live with father, two with mother

The rabbinical court in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

Until five years ago, Tamar lived with her husband and five children, the oldest of whom was 11 at the time. But after the couple divorced, the Netanya Rabbinical Court ruled that three of the children would live with their father and the other two would live with her, splitting the family.

“They took three of my children out of my life and separated siblings in a decision that will impact them for their entire lives,” she told Haaretz.

Tamar filed a complaint with the judicial ombudsman, who found it justified, but her children still have not been returned to her.

When the divorce proceedings started, the rabbinical court ruled that all the children would live with Yael, but her ex-husband could not accept it. “One day he simply took three of the children with him, took their things and moved to a different house, not far from where I live,” she said. She then turned to the court demanding that it enforce its ruling.

“The natural custody of minor children is with their mother, and as long as a different decision has not been made, the father must return the children immediately to their mother,” the rabbinical court wrote in its verdict at the time, adding: “The court does not accept unilateral action and such behavior without permission from a judicial body.” But the ruling was not enforced.

Tamar turned again to the court, which ruled this time that she should go to the police to demand implementation of the court’s ruling.” But according to Tamar, the police told the matter was not under its jurisdiction. “Although my ex-husband took the law into his own hands, the court did not enforce its ruling and actually allowed him to make decisions that harm the children, who live apart from their siblings,” she said.

The court then asked the welfare authorities for a report on the custody issue and they determined that the children living with the father would stay with him. The court made clear that this was a temporary decision and ordered a social worker to report back in three months. But the new report was only issued three and a half years later. It later turned out that the social worker was told there was no need to file the required report because, she was told, the case had been closed.

Attorney Maya Rotenberg, who specializes in family law, told Haaretz that the decision to separate siblings is unusual and potentially harmful. “This can happen when the children ‘vote with their feet’ and refuse to live with one of the parents, when the parent from whom the child was taken doesn’t fight the decision or because of the lawyers who handled the case,” she said. The rabbinical courts don’t always look into the true best interests of the children, especially in religious families, she said. “Sometimes they tend to transfer the children to the father, and in many cases don’t look at the interests of the mother,” she added.

The Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Retired Judge Eliezer Rivlin, the chief judicial ombudsman deemed Tamar’s complaint justified, calling the situation “an ongoing failure” …on both the judicial and administrative levels.”

Rivlin described the various failures, including the fact that the social worker was wrongly told by the rabbinical courts administration that the case had been closed and she did not need to file a report. He also discovered that the courts administration had not informed Tamar of some of the hearings in the case, so she could not present her arguments in time.

Rivlin said that while the actions of the courts administration were not under his authority, “it cannot be ignored that the many complaints created a feeling of discrimination on the part of the complainant and fear that there was a guiding hand behind the failures.” Rivlin called on the director general of the rabbinical courts, attorney Shimon Yaakobi, to “examine the actions of the courts administration and take the required steps.”

Rivlin also took the rabbinical judges to task for canceling an order that had barred the ex-husband from leaving the country, in a hearing that took place on short notice that Tamar could not attend.

He rejected some of Tamar’s claims, saying that they had come from a “lack of her understanding of the court’s rulings and court procedures, but on the whole, found her complaints justified.

Rabbinical Judge Avraham Schindler, who presided over the case, has since been promoted to the High Rabbinical Court.

The rabbinical courts administration said in response: “Careful not to go into the details of the case, which are confidential and sensitive, we clarify that the rabbinical court’s decision on custody was in keeping with the recommendation of the welfare authorities, after a professional and in-depth report was made, which included many visits to the family’s home. In this case, as in others, the rabbinical court dealt with it with sensitivity, patience and understanding toward the parties and their children. All the decisions made were for the good of children as a top priority.”

With regard to lifting the order banning the husband from traveling abroad, the courts administration said Tamar had requested the ban, which was “issued as temporary relief,” and that the ex-husband had “requested urgent temporary relief from the order preventing him from leaving, because of the real damage to his livelihood that would ensue by preventing him from traveling abroad for five days and participating in a construction bid. He offered all of his possessions as collateral for his return. The court was persuaded that the request was justified and thus orders the cancellation of the hearing that had been set.”