Nasty Jewish divorce spirals into an international incident
A custody battle in Vienna has split a family, pitted British and Austrian rabbis against one another and looks set to continue well into next year
LONDON — Beth Schlesinger was at a Vienna play center with her 2-year-old twins, Samuel and Benjamin, when the phone rang. Her husband, Michael, had won custody of the children, social services said, and she needed to hand them over immediately.
Because her lawyer was away, Schlesinger phoned the only friendly face she could think of, a local rabbi, and headed home. The scene, she says 18 months later, was “barbaric.” Four policemen turned up with her husband as she fed her sons supper, and the children were taken without any of their belongings. She was crying, she says, and so was the rabbi.
Because she had not been awarded visitation rights, it was eight weeks until she saw the children again.
Since then, the couple — who had a Jewish divorce, but are still civilly married — have conducted a bitter custody battle that is beginning to draw media attention in Austria, and in the Jewish press in the UK, where Beth Schlesinger grew up. Her supporters, some of whom launched a public campaign on her behalf last month, claim that removing the children was highly irregular, and that they should be returned.
“There are many concerns about how this case has been handled, how outside parties have interfered and how the judge has acted in a most partisan manner,” says Rabbi James Kennard, a British rabbi who taught Beth in high school and is now principal of one of the world’s largest Jewish day schools, Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, Australia. He has been in close contact with Schlesinger and calls the case “tragic.”
Michael Schlesinger, a trainee doctor, did not return phone calls, and his lawyer did not respond to an email.
Beth, 28, and her Austrian husband separated in February 2010, after three years of marriage. Schlesinger claims she fled to a women’s shelter, and that the marriage dissolved after the police were called to their apartment the following day. The custody dispute originates in Michael’s claims that his wife was mentally ill and suffered from post-partum depression. A court in Vienna commissioned an 80-page psychologist’s assessment, which concluded that Beth was indeed mentally unwell, delusional in her claims about how her husband treated her, and that she was not capable of raising children.
She now sees her sons every second Sunday and once during the week, with no overnight visits.
A gynecologist has told the court that there was no post-partum depression, and two privately commissioned psychological assessments have found that Schlesinger does not suffer from mental illness. A court-commissioned report, issued in mid-November, has said the same, with Dr. Werner Leixnering concluding that she had “neither at the time of examination nor at any time in the past, any form of mental illness.”
But Schlesinger — a Cambridge graduate — is not getting too confident.
The latest report, she says in a phone interview, “makes me feel positive, but I’ve been positive so many times in the past… Every minor victory, there’s a counterattack.”
She says four civil divorce hearings are scheduled before June, but no custody hearings.
While she will not comment on why she thinks the original report came out so resolutely against her, she notes that the same doctor issued a very similar evaluation of another mother, nicknamed “Alexandra L” in the Austrian press, whose 4-year-old twin sons were taken from her as a result. That assessment was also disputed by two subsequent reports, which found no evidence of mental illness.
Her own “sweet, gentle” children were well cared for in her home, she says, citing a social services report issued in May 2011 after nine home visits, which concludes that “the children are well-developed for their age. They are alert and responsive… They are in no way at-risk children.”
In her husband’s custody, she says, her sons are being taken care of by two au pairs.
She alleges that the women, from the Philippines, do not speak German, and only basic English, and that partially as a result, her children are not speaking properly yet. At age 3 and a half, they are also still in diapers.
“It’s such a mockery,” she says. “I was scrutinized within an inch of my life. Then two complete strangers are brought in to look after the children, whom the court knows nothing about.
How did she get into a marriage that ended this way?
Growing up in Manchester, in northern England, in a modern Orthodox family, Beth Alexander attended a local Jewish school and then earned a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Cambridge University. She also spent a gap year at Yeshiva University’s Stern College in New York.
She met her husband in 2006, when Beth was 22 and Michael was 26, at a weekend retreat run by the European Center for Jewish Students in Paris.
Her first impression, says Beth, was of a “sweet Jewish boy.”
“He seemed to share my values, seemed to be at my religious level, seemed very caring and loving.”
They were engaged within three months. In hindsight, she says, she was “wrong” and “naive” to tie herself to someone so quickly.
“I hardly knew him,” she says. “We had met three or four times, including a week in Vienna and many phone calls, but in my religious circles, it was assumed that if someone presents themselves as a religious person, if you want the same things out of life… I took him at face value.”
Her parents, she says, were concerned that the couple did not know each other well enough, and tried to persuade her to pursue the relationship in Vienna before marrying him. But the couple wed anyway.
“He told them he doesn’t want me to go [to Vienna] as a single girl, and that he would look after me,” she recalls.
She quickly realized she’d made a mistake, she now says, but “I always made excuses for him — maybe he was just nervous about the wedding, maybe he was overwhelmed. The whole marriage was like that. I didn’t want to believe it was happening.”
As the relationship broke down, she says, she found it hard to extricate herself.
“I stayed because I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t want to be divorced, especially after my parents had begged me not to marry him,” she says. “Eventually, I did tell my parents, but they were far away. It was hard for them to understand what was really happening.”
Living in a foreign country also put her in a relatively weak position. Her German was basic, her husband controlled the finances and she was a stranger to the community, although she says she did have many friends.
Had the police not intervened, she admits, “I would never have had the courage” to end the marriage.
“Eventually I would have had to leave, but I was frightened,” she says. “It was really hard.”
Once the couple separated, says Schlesinger, her priority was a civil divorce.
“I immediately knew I wouldn’t get a get — I just assumed,” says Schlesinger, referring to the religious divorce that can only be issued by a man to a woman. “I didn’t even raise it. I just assumed I’d be an agunah [a ‘chained wife,’ still married] forever more.”
She changed her mind in August 2011, after Kennard convinced her to fight for a religious divorce. According to Schlesinger, her husband refused to cooperate, and she was told by a local rabbi that she would receive a get only if she dropped her custody suit. She refused, however, and soon rabbis in the UK were taking her side, including the former head of the London Beth Din, or religious court, Chanoch Ehrentreu, who eventually issued the get. London’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper began covering the battle.
Schlesinger claims not to know why her husband relented on the religious separation, granting her a divorce in late March, but by then he had custody of the children, which from her point of view was a completely unexpected development.
“It came as a total shock,” she says. “I thought the [psychiatric] report was just a formality. I had been told there was no question that the children would stay with me, that Austria is very pro-mothers. Until then, their father had mostly had supervised access, and had never even had an overnight visit.”
On this issue as well, she says her main support came from outside Vienna, at least at first. Schlesinger says she had stopped going to synagogue.
“After my children were taken, it was just too painful to bear going there alone, without my boys. I went on Yom Kippur 2011, but felt very uncomfortable. My good name and reputation had been destroyed,” she says. “People were confused. They didn’t know what to think.”
It took a year until she decided to return to synagogue, after a rabbi from home “encouraged me to face going again. The first few weeks were very difficult… Now they welcome me, support me and want to help. I even look forward to going.”
Getting support from Viennese rabbis, however, has proven more complicated. After publicly criticizing the local Chabad for allegedly supporting her husband, she was attacked during the summer by British Chabad rabbis for “maligning” the movement.
According to Kennard, “Beth’s friends and supporters are astonished at how some of the rabbis in Vienna have refused to involve themselves in reaching a resolution for the sake of the children, or have even acted in support of one party against the other. Fortunately, Beth is now finding more support amongst the Viennese community, and from some of the rabbis.”
A rabbi from Manchester, Jonathan Guttentag of Whitefield Synagogue, was moved this summer to write to three of his Viennese colleagues to implore them to offer Beth more help.
“From our perspective, we can see a young lady living far away from her parents and family, having gone to get married in a foreign country and community, with that marriage broken down, now deprived of custody of and access to her children,” he wrote.
“She finds herself now set against a former spouse who has the advantage of local family support, natural community affinity, and knowledge of the civic law situation… There are always two sides in any situation, and one would expect a [religious community] and its leadership to ensure that reasonably fair play is being maintained.”
Today, Schlesinger claims, she counts Austria’s chief rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, as a supporter.
But she has never felt alone. Her parents visit regularly, and her two brothers helped start the publicity campaign on her behalf. In mid-November, they staged a demonstration outside a London synagogue the Austrian ambassador was scheduled to visit, although he did not, in the end, turn up. About 40 people did, however, and Schlesinger says that additional, larger events will follow. Almost 7,000 people belong to a Facebook support group, and she has launched a blog about the situation.
Meanwhile, her apartment remains exactly as it was when the children lived there, with their toys, clothes and beds still in place.
“The reminders of the children are everywhere. It’s bittersweet because I am reminded of them the whole time, but it keeps me hopeful they are coming back,” she says.
Her initial fears that the boys would forget her have so far been unfounded.
“I’m amazed — it’s so reassuring,” she says.
“I know that justice will prevail,” she goes on, “and that we will win in the end. I just know it.”