Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Scare the mother, save the child 

Inside the closed world of Hasidic Jews in the UK are stories of mothers who risk everything in order to leave their communities, with their children.

Emily and Ruth are two women who found themselves locked in lopsided battles - facing harassment, intimidation, and crowd-funded lawyers.

Neither of them realised what it would cost them.

It was late when Ruth walked up to the front door. She was already nervous and the dark November evening wasn’t helping. Pressing the doorbell, she heard it ring faintly inside. Light shone through the curtains but minutes ticked by and no-one came out. Why weren’t they answering? She’d been invited.

Finally, she heard footsteps and watched as the door opened a crack.

“I thought to myself am I supposed to walk in?” A few anxious seconds later, she turned to leave. But before she had gone more than a few paces, the door opened fully.

A woman stood there silhouetted against the light of the corridor. “I know her and she knows me well but she didn't look at me, didn't greet me, instead she just pointed towards the dining room.”

The dining room had a long table stretching away from her, with two men sitting at the far end. These were the men Ruth had come to meet. They knew her family and she says they had offered to help her. Ruth was separating from her husband and the situation had been getting messy.

One man rested his head and arms on the table. He didn’t look up. The other spoke.

We hear that you intend to end your marriage, he said. Ruth would write down their conversation in a diary later. The men had been told that Ruth would be willing to leave her children with their father after their divorce. “No, that's not the case,” she replied, confused. This was not the conversation she had been expecting.

Then her interrogator mentioned some pictures.

“They said they had photos of me - running around with this strange man. A man who is not my husband.” The implication was clear, if Ruth did not agree to leave her school-age children in her community then the news of her affair would be made public.

Worse, the men would specifically tell her children “to let them know what kind of mother they had”. She doesn’t remember exactly what she said before leaving the room. She was too frightened.

Ruth always knew leaving her marriage would have consequences but, until that meeting, she hadn’t realised exactly what might be at stake. Before her marriage started falling apart, her life had been following a well-trodden path. Ruth - not her real name - had been born and raised in the strictly Orthodox, Hasidic community.

Today, she looks very different from how she used to - her black and white shoelaces have little skulls on them, for a start. It’s a world away from the modest clothing of the Hasidim, a large branch of the UK's Haredi community.

The word Haredi means one who trembles at God’s word. It’s a term that covers a wide range of smaller groups, all sharing a common factor - they live extremely devout Jewish lives.

It’s an insular, self-sufficient community. The UK has the largest strictly Orthodox population in Europe, although its size is hard to estimate and ranges from 42,000 to 51,000 people. It is, however, growing fast. A high birth rate within the community means that, by the end of the century, the majority of British Jews could be strictly Orthodox, according to a recent study.

There are Haredi groups across the UK, concentrated in London, Salford, and Gateshead. All are trying to maintain their 19th Century traditions in a modern world and religious laws govern everything from their attire to their diet. In some areas, Yiddish remains the dominant language.

It’s a devout life and Ruth wasn't the first person to struggle with it. Those like her, who have broken away, are starting to talk more openly about what happened to them. Some parents are also revealing the fierce resistance they met when trying to take their children with them.

But there was a time when Ruth felt like she was the only person wrestling with the expectations of those around her. At least, that was until she heard about Emily’s case.

A lot of people within the community have heard about Emily’s case, even though she changed her name after leaving it. It’s not often that Hasidic women make headlines. But Emily’s story of leaving the community was different. It changed things.

Ruth’s story and many others, start with that of Emily Green’s.


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