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.
They said they had photos of me – running around with this strange man. A man who is not my husband
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.
Emily’s doubts about her marriage started just before her wedding, in north London. She was due to marry a man she had met twice. He was 20 and so was she.
It’s normal for Haredi marriages to be arranged – boys and girls are kept apart while growing up. It’s usually up to a matchmaker to help potential couples find each other. “My father was trying to find a really special sort of, you know, catch,” says Emily.
But her first meeting with her future husband had not gone well. They had met at her grandmother’s house. He had looked smart, keeping to the strict dress code of a white shirt, long coat, black trousers, and an undershirt with added ritual tassels to remind him of God’s commandments.
“I remember thinking oh, he’s tall,” says Emily. She speaks quickly, and always looks people in the eye as she talks. “I’d always wanted a tall husband because I’m quite short.”
But then the conversation started. Her prospective husband had kept looking nervously at the table. In fact, almost anywhere in the room but at her. Men are supposed to avoid making eye contact with women who are not their wives and it can be a hard habit to break.
I remember feeling increasingly bored, we had nothing really to say to each other
They had talked a bit about school and his experience of studying in Israel. “I remember feeling increasingly bored, we had nothing really to say to each other.” She lost no time in trying to wriggle out of the engagement. “I said to my father, look he’s a very nice boy but I don’t see myself being able to live with him.”
Emily always speaks her mind, a trait that has got her into trouble before. But instead of convincing her father, he ended up persuading her. It’s always difficult in the beginning, he told her. It would be fine.
It was a June wedding. Emily’s recollections of it are still sharp, 16 years on. Her parents had spared no expense. It was staged in a grand venue with white pillars and chandeliers. About 500 people attended and the party flew by in a blur of dancing and food.
I was actually shaking by the time the wedding ended because I think I just knew what was going to happen
At the end, Emily stood on the doorstep in her white lace dress watching the guests leave. Her dark hair was tucked neatly into a wig for the first time.
Most Hasidic women will use one to cover their hair, starting from their wedding day. “I was actually shaking by the time the wedding ended because I think I just knew what was going to happen,” she says.
Emily watched as her sisters were ushered into a people carrier and “I remember having this crazy thought, I just want to go in your car. I just want to go home, anywhere, just not… with him, alone, and have to have sex with him.”
I don’t remember much of what happened. I think I just blacked it out
The sun was rising by the time the newlyweds reached their marital home. The light filtered into their bedroom, where two single beds with fancy dark wooden headboards had been pushed together. “You’re supposed to only have sex in the dark,” explains Emily. “He got all worried, maybe it’s not correct. Maybe it’s not going to be valid.”
“So I’m lying there, you know, I’m in bed and I was like OK, let’s at least get it over and done with, and then he starts calling his rabbi.” It’s normal to ask your rabbi for help about intimate things. They are experts in solving the riddles of how to follow ancient biblical laws in a 21st Century world.
“The rabbi said it’s OK as long as the curtains are closed and then we – I don’t remember much of what happened. I think I just blacked it out.”
It took just a fortnight of married life for the word “divorce” to start spinning around Emily’s head. But a month later she had become pregnant and the excitement of a baby had pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind. Instead, Emily focused on looking after her family.
It’s common for married men to keep studying, especially in the early years of marriage. A life devoted to religious learning is highly respected so women often end up as the main breadwinners for a time. Emily worked as a teacher at a private Haredi school.
By the time of her 10th wedding anniversary, Emily had all but given up on the idea of divorce. “It was always playing on my mind,” she sighs. “But I remember thinking, I can’t do it to the kids.” They had a big family. Six or seven children is normal, even eight is not uncommon.
It was almost about trying to find ways of not spending too much time together as a couple
Focusing on the children kept her busy. “It was almost about trying to find ways of not spending too much time together as a couple,” she explains. Her marriage just felt like one long argument.
In what little spare time she had, Emily quietly went about bending the rules and customs that governed most of her life. She smuggled a wi-fi router into the house and hid it behind the cupboards.
The Haredim are wary of the influence of modern media. TV and cinema trips are forbidden in the area that Emily was from. The internet is also frowned upon, especially around children. Parents are expected to hand in their smartphones and laptops before their children start school, to have them installed with filtering software. It’s crucial to keep the home safe for children – the internet could expose them to anything.
Emily got online anyway. Her curiosity about the world led her to the US drama Desperate Housewives, watching it in secret on a work laptop. Spurred on by the sense of liberation she had found online, Emily’s nagging doubts about her unhappy marriage started to dominate her thoughts.
That same summer, a decade after her wedding, she headed to the ritual bath after a particularly long, hard day at work. The mikveh is a monthly ritual for all married Hasidic women, who attend seven days after their period has finished.
The mikveh Emily visited looks, from the outside, like a regular terraced house, with a high green hedge around the entrance. Inside there’s a room with a pool in the centre, usually watched over by an older woman. “You come out and then the idea is that you’re pure, clean again,” she explains briskly. “You come home to your husband and usually you end up having sex.”
But as she sat in the waiting room, as she had done countless times before, thinking about what would happen when she got home, something snapped. “The sex at night, it was awful,” she says. “It was like, I’m just not doing this. I can’t.” Emily got up, took out her phone, and called her husband.
“I’m coming home,” she said, and left before taking the ritual bath. After a decade of marriage, Emily declared she wanted a divorce. “My husband said to me. ‘You’ve got everything going for you, we have lovely kids, financially we are OK.’ On the outside of it, it looked like we had, you know, a great life. He couldn’t understand.”
But all Emily could think of was that if their love hadn’t grown in 10 years, it wasn’t going to. “I remember thinking, this is not how I am meant to live, it can’t be right. It can’t be OK.”
The Haredi community says that the altar cries when a couple separates. It’s rare but it does happen.
Emily’s father blamed Desperate Housewives. “It was one of the things he shouted,” she says. “That’s where you got it from!” The news had gone down as well as expected and her house was in uproar.
Her parents had come round to talk about the children. “My father said to me: ‘You’re going to go to court? You want to fight? You’re going to have a stupid legal aid lawyer. We’re going to get the best lawyer and you’re going to see. You’re going to get the children taken away from you, you’re going to be alone and you’re going to have a nervous breakdown.’”
It didn’t seem like her parents were just upset about the divorce. Emily says they accused her of wanting a different sort of life for her children, one that wasn’t Haredi. She’s the kind of person who gets angry when she’s scared and the accusation made her furious. “I said why does it mean I don’t want to be a mother?” she says. All she wanted was a divorce. “I care about my children very much, you know, for me as a person, my children come first.”
She began to feel that people were gathering around her husband. Not just her own parents, but her friends too. People she had known all her life. Then the secretary of the school, where Emily worked as a teacher, called. The school’s rabbi wanted to speak to her.
That was the first time I felt like OK, I need to leave the community
“I automatically knew this was going to be bad.” The rabbi, she says, questioned her about her private life and said it would be better for her not to come to work for a while. She refused and was struck by a profound sense of injustice. “That was the first time I felt like OK, I need to leave the community.”
Events escalated quickly after that. Emily’s parents began to say they wanted to take the children abroad, away from her. Meanwhile, she couldn’t find a way to compromise with her husband about family arrangements. As their main caregiver, she hoped to have the children live with her.
Emily also wanted a less religious education, at a modern Jewish school, as opposed to a Haredi one. Its defenders say Haredi schooling allows children to grow up free from the pressures of the outside world and safe from dangers, such as drugs.
Emily strongly disagreed. She says her son could hardly write in English. Moving schools would mean that he would be among classmates who used the internet, had smartphones, watched TV. It might even mean mixed-sex classes. Determined to give her children a different sort of education, Emily went to court, the normal process for any couple in dispute.
There are Jewish religious courts in the UK but family matters must go through the regular family law courts. No journalist can publish what goes on in front of a family judge so it’s not possible to explain what happened in the court room.
But outside of it, several thousand miles away in fact, things began to get a little strange.
It was the father’s turn to look after the children so Emily visited New York where a friend was ill.
The pair were walking together down the street when someone started taking pictures of them. “He had a beard. He was wearing a cap and he seemed quite religious, but obviously trying to sort of hide himself a little bit.” He didn’t stop when they turned a corner. Spooked, Emily’s friend shouted: “Hey, what are you doing?” The man ran away.
When Emily left New York, after having to extend her stay, she did so on a Saturday. It meant she would be breaking the Sabbath or Shabbos for the first time in her life. The Haredi community take their day of rest seriously. Even small modern conveniences, such as turning on a light switch or using a phone, are to be avoided.
Emily, however, was planning to spend it sitting in the sprawling grey maze that is JFK airport, before stepping on to a transatlantic passenger jet. A few hours later, as the sun set, marking the end of the Sabbath, Emily stared out of the plane window. She was starting to embrace the feeling of defiance.
There was this guilt, and a bit of like, you know, there’s no going back
“It was weird. It was quite liberating actually. Obviously there was this guilt, and a bit of like, you know, there’s no going back.” Once back in London, her sense of feeling stifled returned with a single phone call. “I heard that you travelled on Shabbat,” said a friend. “There are pictures.”
Emily believes she was being followed but she can’t be sure. And even if she was being tailed, it’s unclear who might have arranged it. She says the aim was to discredit her character in front of the family court.
While the English court is secular, it must take into account the fact that the families it deals with might not be. Parents can be required to stick with religious rules if it’s judged to be in the best interest of their children, as keeping things consistent can help reduce conflict. But it is not always easy for parents to do. Especially if the rules are part of why someone left their community in the first place.
Although the Haredi community does not speak with one voice, or indeed always see itself as one entity, the BBC spoke to some leading members in the Stamford Hill area of London, which has the largest concentration of the city’s Hasidim. A view that was expressed several times was that, when they married, Emily and others like her agreed to raise their children in the community.
A parent is free to leave, they say, but they don’t have the right to disrupt their children’s lives, especially if it means alienating them from the rest of their family and taking them far away from a life they are used to. Some children would also naturally choose to stay with what they know.
I hugged them and for the first time I felt like this huge sense of relief
They added that the parent staying within the community might see their children being exposed to a culture that could be harmful to them and that it’s natural for them to be concerned.
The night before her final court hearing, Emily slept badly. It was 2012 and her case had gone all the way to the Court of Appeal. As soon as she heard the final ruling, Emily rushed home to see her children. “I hugged them and for the first time I felt like this huge sense of relief,” she says.
The court had decided Emily’s children could live with her, outside of the community. She could also send them to the school of her choice. The question of what she would have done if it had gone differently, still makes her feel sick. “I used to think I’d just have committed suicide. It would have been a trauma for me. I don’t think I would ever recover from it.”
Her children might live and go to school outside of the community but they would always have ties to it. They would see their father regularly.
But just as Emily’s life was settling down, her phone rang. It was a woman she had never met before, called Ruth.
She was in trouble and the battle for her children was about to turn ugly.
Ruth had been unsure about calling. But home life had been getting tricky and she desperately wanted advice. “We met for a few hours,” she says, fiddling nervously with her bracelet. “I thought it was pretty amazing, what she had been through.”
Back then, Ruth still covered her hair. The skull-print shoelaces would come much later. She had read about Emily’s case in the papers and was hoping for a similar outcome in her own battle to keep her children.
Like Emily, Ruth had had an arranged marriage. But unlike her, Ruth’s realisation of a matrimonial crisis came slowly. Her last pregnancy had been difficult. She had spent most of those nine months crying, as her husband grew more and more distant. “I finally came to terms with the fact that we did not have a good marriage,” she says quietly.
Ruth was constantly unhappy, feeling as though she had to tread on eggshells around her husband. For years, she had tried hard to make the relationship work. But she felt nothing she did had ever been right in her husband’s eyes. It had taken a long time to accept the feeling that she was being emotionally abused.
Ruth had already started to rebel – taking the contraceptive pill without consulting a rabbi, and learning to drive. By the time she had met her future partner John, an Orthodox Jew though not Haredi, and started a non-physical relationship, she had already resolved to leave her marriage. “Everything I had been brought up to believe had started to disintegrate.”
She tried again to make her marriage work, for the sake of her children. But, eventually, she found the courage to ask her husband for a divorce. In Orthodox Jewish law, only the man can officially dissolve a marriage. It can leave some women chained for years. Ruth’s husband did not want to let her go. Ruth flatly refused to obey and reunited with John.
It didn’t take long for proceedings to take a frightening turn. The meeting in November, where she had been summoned to meet the two men who tried to persuade her to leave her children behind, was just the beginning. Their threat to go public about her relationship with John hadn’t been an empty one.
It felt suddenly I was not a person. I was a monster that they had decided had to be attacked
Her friends started calling at all hours to try to persuade her to go back to her husband. Then her family cut her off. Her father wrote a letter to her siblings, telling them not to help her. One morning, John found all four of his car tyres slashed. He never discovered the culprit but it happened again and again. He started to worry he was being followed whenever he met Ruth.
The BBC spoke to the expert that was hired to mediate between Ruth and her ex around this time. He had seen her being harassed and said that her experience was not unusual. There had been other cases where bugging devices, tyre slashing and private investigators had all been used.
“It felt suddenly I was not a person. I was a monster that they had decided had to be attacked,” says Ruth. “And the thing with my children was I very much felt that that was a punishment. We can’t stop you from doing something like this, but we can hurt you as much as we can.”
The relationship with some of her children began to break down. She says they were put under huge amounts of pressure. “This whole talk of the community was about their mother,” she adds. This “public shaming of me, also shamed them”.
My children were changing before my eyes
Ruth says her children “were changing before my eyes”. One by one, they began to say that they wanted to live with their father instead of with her. Desperately, she tried to get them to change their minds. Next came the allegations against her. Members of the community accused her of criminal activity. And then they accused John too.
There were a number of official investigations, all of which concluded that the accusations were unfounded. Both Ruth and John were cleared of any wrongdoing but by then, the damage had been done. Ruth was devastated. She says people, some whom she knew, as well as strangers, had been encouraged to lie and make false accusations against them.
No-one came forward to help her. “There was no mercy for me,” she says. She would find it difficult to trust these people again.
Fights over children can cut deeply. When the BBC spoke to leading community members about harassment of this sort, they seemed shocked, and said it was completely out of character. If someone from the community had seen illegal behaviour, they would have put a stop to it, they said. Angry family members might take matters into their own hands.
But there was no central coordination, they said, adding that actions such as these go against the values of a community where crime is rare and people are used to looking after each other. The value of kindness, of giving, is fundamental to the Haredi way of life. There is a network of organisations ready to step in when someone needs a hand and fundraisers are held several nights a week. People are willing to give up a lot of money to help, even if they have little themselves.
One woman said she was astonished at the generosity shown to people who leave the community – young people who don’t obey the laws often continue living at home even if it causes conflict within the family.
Of course, the Haredim don’t have a copyright on messy divorce proceedings. Whenever a couple choose to separate, in any walk of life, anger and resentment are almost always in the emotional mix. If the warring couple has children, the risk is that it’s they – the children, who are dependent and vulnerable – who end up being unwitting proxies in their parents’ disintegrating relationship. That’s where the courts come in.
The role of the family law courts in England and Wales is to look at the individual circumstances in each separation and decide what is in the best interest of the children. It means both sides need to put forward their best arguments to the court, while also picking apart those of the opposing side.
To do that really well, in any part of the country, requires lawyers. Expensive lawyers.
Down the road from an Asda supermarket, on the corner of a leafy street in Stamford Hill, stands a large synagogue. It’s a majestic red brick building with a slate grey roof, white domes and pillars. This year, on a warm day in August, it was overflowing with people.
The news had spread quickly that the grand rabbis from three Hasidic sects had flown over from Israel. There were crowds of people, mostly men, trying to get a glimpse of large TV screens placed on the other side of the railings. It was possible to hear the speakers from several streets away – in fact, the sound was the first sign that anything unusual was happening.
It would be later reported that more than 1,500 people had attended. This trio of senior clerics had not come on strictly religious duties – they were here to help raise money. There are fundraising events several nights a week in Stamford Hill but this one was different. The event was an emergency appeal to raise £1m to fight court battles to prevent children from leaving the Haredi community.
Flyers for the event were explicit about its importance and purpose. “No one is exempt,” said one leaflet. There was also a letter circulated from a leading rabbi in Stamford Hill. “To our great pain, and our misfortune, our community finds itself in a terrible situation – 17 of our pure and holy children where one of the parents, God rescue them, have gone out into an evil culture, and want to drag their children after them.”
“This is a decree of apostasy and this situation has motivated our rabbis who are in Israel… to come here in a personal capacity to increase prayer and to gather money for legal fees.” Each person was asked to donate £500. Anyone who gave more than £5,000 would get a special certificate.
The BBC spoke to parents who believed that the fundraiser was aimed partly at them. Legal aid cuts have left many of them struggling to pay for lawyers. Some have had to represent themselves in court, and found themselves up against a team of lawyers.
This type of imbalance was called a “financial injustice” by a judge in a recent case involving Haredi parents. “The mother does not receive public funding, and pays the legal costs from her own pocket. The father’s legal costs are paid for by his community and (for the current application) by his parents.” Fundraising for legal cases has been happening for years.
There is one charity in particular involved in family cases when a partner is leaving the community. The charity, Ezer Leyoldos, says it pays legal bills as “part of a wider package of support for all the family”. Indeed, it says its actions are sometimes asked for by the court and its sole focus is the interests of the children. Its services, including family therapy, help “make the children’s transitions between their Haredi world and their secular worlds easier,” says Irving Lichtman, the charity’s head.
“The parent who leaves the community is not in any way disadvantaged by this,” he adds. However, as with the big one-off fundraiser, the shadow of apostasy – a highly emotive terms that means one’s abandonment of faith – looms. In fundraising materials the charity has said it wants to “save whole families from ruin and children from shmad”.
The word shmad can be translated as “apostasy”. It’s hard to know what effect this fundraising has on court battles as it’s the best interests of children that is still the guiding principle. Ideally, both parents should have a relationship with their children regardless of the outcome in court, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
When the children get older, it can also be harder to enforce contact. Something that Ruth knows only too well.
Ruth lost the battle for her children. The courts decided that they should stay in the community and all but one chose not to see her anymore.
Her feelings about them are complicated: “I think that they are victims of the community but they are also perpetrators in their own way,” she says, sitting in the living room of her new house.
I had stopped being somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s friend – I was a monster that needed to be destroyed
“I had stopped being somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s friend, somebody’s… I was a monster that needed to be destroyed, and that’s the way it felt. And that’s the way I think my children were encouraged to see me.”
It took a while for the news about her children to sink in. She stayed in bed that weekend, unable to do anything. “However much they all want to forget about me and forget about my existence, they’re still my children.”
She still hopes they will change their minds.
Emily feels frustrated that she wasn’t able to help Ruth. Her case had attracted so much attention within the community, she had hoped it would lead to a change.
I look at [Ruth] and I think that could have been me. It’s sort of like a close brush with death
Emily’s house is crammed with pictures of her children. A row of small shoes against the wall is one of the first things past the front door. “If my children had been older, I’d have been in exactly the same position,” she says.
“I look at [Ruth] and I think that could have been me. It’s sort of like a close brush with death.”
Emily might have her children but she has no contact with the rest of her family. She hasn’t been able to forgive them for what happened. “It’s like I’m dead,” she says.
She is not invited to family celebrations and misses out on important moments like her son’s Bar Mitzvah. Lavish events like that tend to happen in the community, when her children visit their father.
There are things from her old life that she misses. “I desperately wanted my marriage to work. There’s something about it that is very kind of attractive and romantic… if you’re so excited to be with him and you’re having loads of kids and everybody’s helping each other.”
The sense of community is hard to replace. Emily has helped start a support group called GesherEU for people like her. “Gesher” means “bridge” in Hebrew. It is, however, a campaigning group of people with bad experiences, according to some in the community.
Community members we spoke to argue that the stories of people who leave cast the community – a vulnerable minority at risk of anti-semitic attack – in a bad light and that it’s unfair. Emily says her group is to help people who are starting again outside the community, often without friends, family, and sometimes without their children.
She has since had another baby, whose father is not Haredi. “I’ve been a single mum and I just wanted to relive it and not have to have that fear.” Her baby sits on her lap as she talks. “I called him Raphael,” she says. “It means healing.”