Free at Last
Would G-d give her freedom?
It was the first time I decided to keep in touch with a congregant I didn’t know, a girl who was almost murdered by her husband. She married the local goyishe boy from the mall, rebelling against the Israeli army’s rigid rules, and felt that the yoke of her ancestors had become abhorrent to her. Somehow this felt right even though every common sense within her screamed that this course of immaturity was a stick of dynamite ready to explode.
Somehow, at only twenty years old, she found herself married and a baby on the way. The Jewish fire within her understood that the only way to rectify this decision to marry out of her faith was to push him to convert. It was putting the cart before the horse, but she was pulling at straws, and the thought of trying to understand sincerely what was right vs. wrong was left on the back burner. She had to make this right for her Jewish heritage: generations of her family’s struggle and fight for their Judaism were not to be gone in the blink of an eye.
However, as her two-year anniversary passed, so was her trust in him. Time and time again, he tried to murder her, but the last time he almost succeeded, and she reached out to her local Chabad to see if somehow we could help. Five months ago, we did, and with great personal self-sacrifice, we got her out of the country and back to the Jewish homeland: Israel.
I usually don’t keep in touch with a congregant I don’t know, but the stirrings of what it means to be a Chabad rebbetzin zealously fought within me to be in contact with her daily. “It would be,” I thought, “that until things were better resolved, her peace and freedom could meet at the same place.”
Worried that she acted in haste, she would have these discussions, entertaining dangerous thoughts, almost pleading with me that she would make it right with her almost-murderer and that she could convince him to love her, and then everything would be alright.
There were many people that I’ve helped from abuse, but this was way out of my comfort zone. It was gruesome and worried me constantly, and I found no comfort or peace for many months. I didn’t know if I could do it; I didn’t know if I could persuade her. Could I really help her break free? Could she really be free at last?
Thoughts raced in my head: “How do you even persuade someone you don’t know? Why would she take my opinion over many others, especially since she wasn’t interested in my words?” I had no choice. I convinced her with great difficulty to run away to Israel to save her life and that of her daughter. I made my decision, a decision that meant that I was going to be in touch with her. There was a different language between us and her very far overseas, but the challenge stood with me to make it a reality.
It was uncomfortable in a way, I’m not one for lip service, but this was the only way to make an impact on creating a gaping doubt in her mind that she could not go back to this man, her almost-murderer. I had to have the guts to go out of my own comfort zone and call him out for what he was.
I was playing with fire: here I was, a shy, quiet American rebbetzin, and she was an Israeli woman soldier with a tad of a Moroccan temper. I had no choice, but we had to forgo the formalities, to forgo everything that made sense on paper, because I had to have a relationship with her; there was no way around it.
As her Chabad rebbetzin, I had to keep her safe at all costs. I had to find in myself that feeling of protecting the congregants that I’ve known for years and those who have become family. She had to be this type of a congregant even if I’ve known her for only one Shabbos. I had to bring out this hovering mother within me over a child that didn’t want me, but for me, I knew that it was between life and death; she couldn’t return to this monster.
I tossed and turned at night for months, petrified that she would come back to America and what her fate would bring. Shadows in my sleep haunted me. Would we get there in time? Would she let me know if she was coming back?
Rather, to my surprise, she began to get used to her own homeland, where she felt like a mismatched shoe for so long, and began to embrace her heritage and make peace within herself. Week after week, we spoke, even with the unbearable time difference. My whisperings to her: “Focus on the holidays, find a job in Israel, focus on that and not on him.”
It started happening, she was accepting that she couldn’t go back to this monster. I shudder to think of the apartment that looked ransacked as we left it in such a hurry, fleeing it with her life and ours on the line. At the end of the day, if she decided to come back to him, it would be the end for her.
As time passed, she got comfortable with living life and enjoying not being controlled or in fear. Shortly after, Hashem helped her see reason, and she became more comfortable in her own skin again. Then it happened, and his lawyer got in touch with her; there was a hearing, and he played his cards well, accusing her of kidnapping, our biggest fear since we knew it was a possibility.
The whole room felt like it was swallowing us up whole; stuck though we felt, we needed to find a solution fast to keep her safe and away from him. Echoing in our ears, this huge earthquake of information was coming back to haunt us, but we put in place safeguards just in case and waited to see if it would hold.
As her Chabad rebbetzin, I told her- and she trusted me- that she would be safe from kidnapping charges. All the miracles that happened- so eloquently done that Hashem placed them before us- was it all to be brought down by a judge who felt sympathetic for this man? Some good news then trods her way; it wasn’t so simple, but because we, on purpose, made her a two-way ticket to prevent the kidnapping accusation from being an issue.
Even through the chaos, we were very careful in how we planned her escape. There was hope that she wouldn’t be charged for what seemed like a misunderstanding, even though the judge knew the claim of her bringing against her spouse criminal charges was true, and she had proof of her innocence.
Something crossed our minds about how to get her out of his clutches for good, finally. Can he work with us? Could there be a real solution without the judge? I kept having bad dreams of things not working out when one day, I asked my husband if there was something new that he wanted to share with me. I just had a feeling that something had come up, but I wasn’t sure what. He reluctantly told me that he had set up a meeting with her soon-to-be ex to see if this could be worked out outside the courts.
I asked him, “Where are you going to meet?”
“In the Chabad house tonight around eight o’clock.”
I paused, holding my breath. “I don’t like the whole situation because he could have a gun,” I whispered, not wanting to mention the fear in the room.
This meeting really worried me, but what choice did we have? Our congregant needed us. Could the rabbi make a deal with this monster? We wanted him to go to court and get jail time as he deserved, but sadly he had good lawyers, and she didn’t, and the only hope for her freedom was this being settled out of the courts. We then could push that she get full custody, travel, and not worry about any issues.
How did I know that the rabbi would be safe? I thought to hide downstairs in the Chabad house just in case. Although I knew if he sensed police, or something else going on, he wouldn’t show up, and my idea didn’t seem so realistic after all.
The picture was clear but harsh to me. The rabbi had to meet alone with him and somehow convince him to give up his right as a parent and get his get-out-of-jail-free card. Would this troubled and dangerous man give up such a thing? Would he agree to give her freedom and get his own as well?
It was good that almost half a year had passed, and he was ready to move on. He agreed that he would give full custody as long as she dropped the criminal charges against him.
He kept waiting. What was he waiting for? It bothered me like a tornado in my eye view. The timer would run out. Was that his goal? Was it so she would be charged with kidnapping and forced to come to the states?
She was very worried, and it was flowing from her that she now finally understood that he was not a good person, let alone a person to go back to. We began getting nervous. What was taking him so long to sign the papers? She even said she was thinking of going to court, because she felt that maybe she could win!
She made the mistake of writing in her letter to the lawyer that she would allow him half custody. I held my breath, thinking to myself, “What custody to such a monster?” As much as courts want fathers to be involved in having custody, this was no father to have custody.
That very day, the rabbi messaged me and told me it was done. “After all these months, you can finally breathe now. She is free!” The judge wrote up the papers, and her husband was ready to sign away his custody rights in the divorce papers. He even requested, with no one asking him, he wrongly chose that he wouldn’t even give a penny for medical attention if needed.
A few more weeks passed, and with a watchful eye, witnesses took note, and both signed the papers from the U.S. and Israel. She was free, but was I?
How can I consider freedom not to be in touch with a wonderful Jewish troubled woman? No, I felt strongly to keep our friendship going, this mother-daughter relationship from this sea to hers; our connection and understanding of each other were just beginning. The relationship between a Chabad rebbetzin and her congregant was an unbreakable bond.
Even if we barely spoke the same language, it was the language of the heart and soul, a Chabad rebbetzin overcoming all of the boundaries and struggles for her congregant. What might appear as a five-second congregant, she deserved peace, freedom, and to be among her people, to find out what it really means to be a Jewish woman, and to know what it is to be loved unconditionally.
A bittersweet moment: she was free at last! Would she still reach out and continue the relationship? I know from my side I would always keep coming with Shabbat shalom messages and a deep push to have a voice in her life.
It was her turn in a peaceful, free life to reciprocate. Would She? I sensed this question nagging at me months earlier, but now I knew confidently that she was now a friend and part of the Chabad family, and that meant she would be in touch with her rebbetzin.