Jewish Chronicle, 19.7.2012

Vienna divorce mother faces backlash

The British mother at the centre of a divorce case that has pitted her against members of the Austrian Jewish community has expressed shock at the reaction of Chabad to her plight.

Beth Alexander, a Cambridge graduate who married her Viennese husband Dr Michael Schlesinger six years ago and had twins with him, said she has been emailed by several people “unhappy that Chabad is being tarnished”. With the help of British rabbis, she has been granted a get but is still embroiled in a battle for custody of the three –year-old boys.

In reaction to alleged interference in the case by Viennese Chabad head Rabbi Jacob Biderman, Ms Alexander said last week that she had been told people were considering withdrawing donations from Chabad.

Ms Alexander was contacted by the Cambridge Chabad rabbi Reuven Leigh, who she knew from her university days, who said there was “no justification” for the comment.

In an email he said: “I am very disappointed about the route you have taken your campaign and am personally offended about the comments in this article and many others made on the Facebook group. If you intend to continue on this path please do not continue to include me in your emails.”

She was also messaged by Dublin Chabad rabbi Zalman Lent, who said he was “saddened that part of this important campaign is now an attempt to malign an entire movement”.

He also told her: “Rabbi Biderman says that matters are out of his hands and in the hands of the courts. That may or may not be the case, but that is a matter to be taken up with him personally, not by trying to lay the blame on an entire movement.”

“I didn’t say I want people to boycott Chabad,” said Ms Alexander. “There’s nothing controversial in it and yet they’ve misinterpreted it as a campaign against Chabad worldwide.”

But she added that it was “not good enough to say Chabad doesn’t have any responsibility” given that Rabbi Biderman was part of the Chabad network. “He should be held accountable,” she said.

Explaining his comments, Rabbi Leigh said he was talking as an individual. “It is inappropriate to malign an entire global movement because it is unable to intervene in a complex and nuanced case,” he said. “Many Chabad rabbis have spent countless hours on this case including Rabbi Biderman. For Chabad to be singled out is misplaced.”

Ms Alexander said the campaign to help her, which includes a Facebook group that has attracted 6,800 members and a petition that has reached 858 signatures, has meant that the rabbis in Vienna are feeling the pressure.

This week the office of Austria’s chief rabbi Eisenberg sent an observer to monitor the handover for Ms Alexander’s visits with her sons. “I’m hoping this is going to be a regular thing. It was a massive step forward because it’s showing my ex-husband that the Jewish community is aware and also makes sure he can’t cancel,” she said. “The rabbis here feel they have to do something. They realise the world is watching.”

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