After Esti Weinstein was found lifeless in her car, discussions raged online about what motivated her to end her life. Some blamed the restrictive Gerrer community for the creating the circumstances that led her suicide. Others rushed to say, “We cannot judge! It is their lifestyle! It is their culture.” As if somehow, they are an alien culture beyond our understanding or concern. As if calling out damaging behaviors of a community is the same as hating a community.
But this is not about “lifestyle.” This is about abuse, at many levels. And there are times when the Jewish community is not only allowed to pass judgement, but required to do so.
Ger promulgates an extreme set of rules called takanot. Instituted after World War II in a number of Hasidic sects, the takanot of Ger are the most restrictive and are even at odds with Jewish law, according to most, in the area of marital intimacy. They control the lives of the Hasidim (followers) in everything from wives having to walk behind their husbands, to husbands not calling their wives by name, to how often a couple can be intimate (no more than twice each month).
In theory, any couple can opt not to follow any rule that they do not like. However, in actuality, the structure of the community and the expected obedience often leaves couples without choice. This is not unique to Ger. In Satmar, customs such as head-shaving for married women is enforced by community leaders with modesty patrols and mikveh attendants who are charged with enforcement and snitching.
In this way, the community is kept under the control of the leadership, and people who do not follow the rules find themselves threatened with things such as isolation, children’s expulsion from school, or loss of a job.
After Esti’s suicide, investigative articles and the book she had penned about her life reported details of a difficult marriage and her struggle with the takanot’s effect on her as a person and on her marriage. She also wrote of the extreme suffering she endured from her forced isolation (post-divorce) from six of her seven children. It was this isolation, she claimed, as the reason she could not go on. The same alienation commanded by community leadership has been the major factor in the suffering and even suicide of other women and men who have left Hasidic marriages and communities.
The Next Esti?
Rachel is another Gerrer Hasida who also wanted out of her marriage. Divorce, despite being permitted by Jewish law, is forcefully discouraged in Ger and other Hasidic sects. After Rachel requested a divorce, the rabbis sent her to therapists and psychologists who tried to convince that her she was crazy — to the point of pressuring her to take psychiatric medication.
After Rachel mustered the courage to file for divorce in the Israel’s rabbinic court, the heads of the hasidic community called for everyone close to Rachel to sever ties with her, including her grown children, parents, and siblings. And they did.
Over the course of the years during which she sought assistance from the court, Rachel continued to live in her home with her husband and children. Under directives from community leaders, the family ignored her existence. She ate meals alone in one room while her husband sat at the shabbat table with their children in another.
Despite begging, Rachel’s husband refused to divorce her. Rachel continued to suffer near complete isolation and get refusal with the local Rabbinic Court and its dayanim complicit in both. It wasn’t until Rachel, represented by the Center for Women’s Justice, filed a suit in a secular court for emotional damages that her husband agreed to a divorce, on condition that she pay hundreds of thousands of shekels in extortion money.
Rachel got her divorce. But she is still being tormented. The rabbinic court is now deciding on custody of her minor children and once again, it is allowing the Gerrer leadership to run the show.
Unlike Esti, Rachel remains a dedicated Gerrer follower. And yet, for the crime of divorcing against the will of the Rabbi, she is being alienated from her children who miss her. See this heartbreaking letter from her son who states that he loves his mother but is being forced to not speak to her out of fear of what they will do to him if he disobeys.
The community has sent letters to the rabbinic court saying that Rachel is not a good enough chasidah (female chasid) to have custody of her children, letters which the dayanim have accepted as evidence but refuse to include in the official case files. This is illegal and a breach of court procedures.
Now, one of Rachel’s children is about to get married. Rachel was not invited to the wedding, and is experiencing deep pain because of it. During court proceedings, the father announced that the Rabbi of Ger in their city is the one who will decide if Rachel can come to the wedding. And so, she waits, her fate in the hands of those who seem want to make an example out of her.
In both cases of Esti and Rachel, Gerrer leadership violated Jewish law and falsely presented the people involved. In Esti’s case, her husband forced her into abusive sexual encounters with other men against her will, yet they turned her into the one who to shun for violating Jewish law for fleeing. In Rachel’s case, despite there being ample reason for divorce, they did their best to prevent it. In both cases, they worked to alienate the children and vilify the mother. They violated halacha in favor of control.
Not Our Problem?
There are many villains here. From the leadership of the community that commands the abuse, to the community that fulfills its command. From the dayanim on the religious courts that add legal strength to the abuse, to the the silent majority who says nothing and does nothing to save the Estis and Rachels of the Jewish community.
To ignore this abuse is to be a party to it.
To say, “We cannot judge,” is to discard our morality and God-given intellect and obligation to discern right from wrong.
We are obligated as Jews, to stand up for those being harmed.
If we are silent, if we allow this to happen, we cannot react with shock when we find the next Esti: alone, bereft, and unable to suffer any longer, alienated from her children by the leadership and community that betrayed her and the silent majority that allowed it to happen.