The Haifa Rabbinical Court has removed two children from their mother’s care, frozen her visitation rights and transferred custody to their father after claims that the mother no longer leads a religious lifestyle. The father stated that his ex-wife registered the children, aged 5 and 8, for therapeutic swimming taught by a woman and fed them nonkosher food, breaking the promise, as per their divorce agreement, to raise them religious.
The mother told Haaretz that she was forced to sign an agreement that tied custody to leading a religious lifestyle in order to receive the divorce.
The couple divorced about three years ago. Initially the rabbinical court gave the mother custody and ruled that the children would sleep at their father’s house twice a week. Even after the divorce, the couple kept arguing, filing a series of lawsuits against each other at the rabbinical court. Last year the father claimed that the mother had incited the children against him and that her partner was sleeping in her home. The court gave him custody and allowed the children to sleep at her home twice a week.
In May the father claimed that the mother was living a secular lifestyle, and the court froze her visiting rights. The therapeutic swimming lessons for the older child were canceled unless they could be taught by a male instructor.
The father has previously been convicted of violent crimes and the social welfare authorities have recommended that the children be in their mother’s custody. According to an opinion of the welfare authorities, the children don’t want to live with their father.
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Since the father gained custody, the welfare authorities have submitted two expert opinions saying that they should be with their mother. The local social worker wrote that “The children talk about their father’s violence against them, and particularly toward the older child.” She said that the father isn’t cooperating with them and denies everything, and she recommended “transferring custody exclusively to the mother and changing the visiting times, so the father takes his children only once a week.”
In another expert opinion, the welfare services recommended restoring the mother’s visiting rights and later even deciding on joint custody. “There seems to be a deep and close relationship between the mother and her children,” the expert’s report said. It added that the older son strongly opposes his father. It also stated that the mother has cooperated with the process while the father refused to do so.
By law, the rabbinical court has complete authority to decide on child custody and reject the recommendations of the welfare services. If one of the parties first opens a case with the rabbinical court rather than a civil court, the latter cannot intervene. If one party wants to appeal, it can turn to the Great Rabbinical Court. An appeal of that court’s decision can be brought to the Supreme Court, but it intervenes only rarely, when it believes that the rabbinical court acted without authority.
The rabbinical court rejected the expert opinions. After the first recommendation to transfer the children to their mother’s exclusive custody it ordered to end her visiting rights with the children, except in a special center, over to her violation of the divorce agreement. They referred specifically to her registering the children for the therapeutic swimming classes, which are mixed gender, the consumption of nonkosher food in general and on Passover in particular, and the cutting of the boy’s sidecurls. The rabbinical court also came out against the second recommendation about restoring the mother’s visiting rights - and ordered the welfare services to discuss the father’s complaints.
According to a 2012 indictment against the father, he made threats against his wife after she took his car for a trip. “The husband threatened to burn her clothes and then contacted her mother and threatened her: ‘I’m coming to slaughter you and your family. I’ll burn you and you should know that all her clothes and her child’s clothes were burned.’” The father was also convicted of threats against a civil servant and against the secretary of his community.
At the time he claimed in court that he suffers from mental illness. After he brought confirmation of his mental illness, the court imposed a lenient sentence. In the custody battles at the rabbinical court, he claimed that the mental illness claim was only an act for the civil court. “That only shows that the man has a criminal mind,” said the mother. Her representative has asked the rabbinical court to reveal the father’s mental state, as he receives a disability allowance from the National Insurance Institute. She says that he gets it because he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. The representative said that the rabbinical judges have been ignoring their requests and conducting themselves in a strange manner. He intends to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The rabbinical courts administration said that by law, family cases are confidential and are held behind closed doors, and the case should not be discussed in the newspaper. The rabbinical court system opposes cooperation with the media in divorce disputes, in which there are two sides with different versions. They said that these cases include a variety of private and intimate considerations, with confidential welfare reports that cannot be discussed by law.