Chief Rabbi’s secret mission for mother in twins custody battle
Revealed: Rabbi Mirvis flew to Vienna to help British woman caught in decade-long fight for children
by JENNIFER LIPMANJANUARY 06, 2022 10:53
The Chief Rabbi secretly flew to Austria in an unprecedented mercy mission to help a British mother at the centre of a decade-long custody battle, the JC can reveal.
Moved by the plight of Cambridge graduate Beth Alexander, 37, who has seen her 12-year-old twin sons just once in person in the past five years, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis led an unpublicised delegation to Vienna to directly appeal to her former husband and local Jewish leaders.
Desperate to try to effect change on her behalf, the Chief Rabbi vowed that if what it took was him getting on a plane and going in person, he would do so.
In an extraordinary step, Rabbi Mirvis spent time with her twins, who were on a summer camp at their Jewish school, assessing their welfare and sending photographs back to Ms Alexander, who at that time — 2018 — had not seen them in two years.
The rabbi’s delegation offered to meet Ms Alexander’s ex-husband, doctor Michael Schlesinger, 42, but he allegedly refused. Instead they sat down with communal head Rabbi Biderman and raised Ms Alexander’s case, including her desire for the Austrian Jewish community to put pressure on Mr Schlesinger.
But while community leaders expressed sympathy, they told the British delegation they were powerless to intervene.
Ms Alexander told the JC that after the couple had separated, she felt the Austrian Jewish community had closed ranks around Dr Schlesinger.
After years of failed attempts to secure custody and meaningful contact through the Austrian legal system, Ms Alexander had high hopes for a new application by her that delivered its verdict last week.
But the court denied her application for contact in its entirety — a verdict that she says took her to “breaking point”.
The news prompted a wave of outrage and sympathy from the British Jewish community, with a Facebook group set up to support her attracting 4,000 members in six days.
In his first public statement on the affair, the Chief Rabbi told the JC this week: “One cannot fail to be moved by Beth’s plight … This latest setback adds yet another layer to a longstanding injustice and Beth should remain in all of our prayers.”
In summer 2018, two years after Ms Alexander was stripped of the visitation rights for which she had spent four years battling, she had lost faith in any legal resolution and agreed that Rabbi Mirvis should go to Vienna, accompanied by former Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush, a longstanding champion of Ms Alexander.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis’s intervention was kept under wraps, for fear that the mother would be accused of seeking publicity.
Following the visits, the team continued to correspond with Dr Schlesinger both directly and via an intermediary for many months to try to secure opportunities for Ms Alexander to speak to her sons, but made little progress.
“We wanted to negotiate diplomatically behind the scenes because I find it all so humiliating, this shouldn’t be a matter of public exposure,” said Ms Alexander. “But I think now’s the time to tell.”
Since 2016, she has only seen her sons in person once, for a short, supervised visit last summer that she told the JC was “very traumatic, very painful”.
“They were a bit estranged from me,” she said. “I cried my eyes out when I left, it almost broke me.”
She was informed by the court last month that “a right of contact as requested by the mother is not in the best interests of the children”.
The relationship was left to the discretion of their father, who she claims has blocked her from regular calls or video chats with her sons.
Speaking this week, Ms Alexander expressed gratitude to the Chief Rabbi for attempting to reunite her with her sons, and urged the wider British Jewish community to support her campaign.
Last year Ms Alexander took her case to the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit and her expectation was it would be heard by a different judge.
Ms Alexander had halted her legal fight after the 2016 ruling, seeking to rebuild her life in the UK.
“I was being pushed the to the brink. I think had I stayed in Vienna I wouldn’t have survived,” she said.
She knew the odds might be against her in the latest application. “But if there was one last avenue open to me to gain access to my children, I had to try it. I need to be able to look them in the eyes one day and tell them that I tried absolutely everything in my power.”
But she found herself thwarted, even after travelling to Austria to give evidence despite Covid restrictions.
Her initial application requested holidays together in England. She then amended this to offer to fly to Vienna for bi-monthly visits.
“I told the judge I just want a regular fixed day for phonecalls since he constantly blocks my calls,” she claimed.
“I insisted how important it is to be part of their lives in the build up to their barmitzvah, how much they’re going to need the emotional support of their mother through their teenage years, I said I want and need to be there for them.”
The Vienna court’s ruling, issued on 14 December, set out Ms Alexander’s requests for “an ongoing right of contact” of two 15-minute conversations a week, and the right to regular unaccompanied personal contact with the twins, including during holidays.
But it also said that a 2016 offer of accompanied visits for two hours a week at a supervised contact centre — “which the mother has yet to name” — had been revoked at Ms Alexander’s request.
Judge Göttlicher said Dr Schlesinger had “not committed a breach of the mother’s right of contact”, and that the children had “developed a decisive willingness against such contacts, as well as against holiday contacts in Austria”.
While the document recorded Ms Alexander’s position “that this willingness is influenced by the father and his family”, the judge said the court had concluded “that the children have based their opposition on their real experiences”.
She added that the boys “do not have good memories” of their recent trip to see Ms Alexander.
The latest ruling explained the 2016 custody decision by citing Dr Schlesinger’s fear that Ms Alexander “would take advantage of the contacts in order to once again initiate the media campaign”, or even “keep the children back during visits to Great Britain”.
However, it also noted that Ms Alexander’s new application repeated previous accusations that she had been treated badly by the father and “had seen no other way than to withdraw from Austria”.
It recorded her statement that “the father only allowed sporadic calls at his whim” and “used the children as a means to exert power and control over her”. In contrast, Dr Schlesinger told the court that he allowed regular contact.
Despite her harrowing experiences, Ms Alexander has not given up.
Her message to her sons is this: “Mama loves you so, so much, I’ll never stop fighting for you. I’m waiting to bring you home.”
Dr Schlesinger was contacted for comment.