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Santo, an advocate for those who leave, puts it differently. “In family court, the community makes sure that the best interests of the children and of the [Haredi] community are seen as one and the same by the court system,” she said.
Shulem Deen, 38, is a father of five children ranging in age from 11 to 19. Raised in Boro Park, Deen attended the Skver yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg as a teen. Later he moved to New Square, and at 18 he married a woman raised there.
When he was 30, he said, Deen began losing faith in the tenets of Orthodox Judaism, and in 2005, rabbis in New Square’s religious court ordered him to leave the community. He and his wife and children moved to Monsey, a less insular Orthodox community nearby. But it didn’t go well. His sons “don’t speak English at all, and the kids just didn’t fit in,” Deen said. He and his wife also eventually divorced.
“It wasn’t working for anyone,” he said.
Deen’s wife moved back to New Square, where her large extended family lives. And initially, Deen said, he and his ex-wife agreed they would both remain closely involved in their children’s lives. Deen would see his children twice a week and have them over for the Sabbath. But nine months after the split, his ex-wife petitioned for sole custody, just as Deen lost his longtime job as a computer programmer.
“My children started withdrawing,” he related. “One said, ‘Mommy said you want to turn us into goyim and put us in public school.’ They [the Skver community] were brainwashing the children.”
According to Deen, his ex-wife’s brother-in-law, who became an intermediary, told him they did not want him seeing his children at all. When he resisted, he said, they agreed to let him see the children six times a year and only until they turned 13.
“They strong-armed me into giving up,” Deen said. “I had no money, and she had all the community support to fight this. I realized it would be a losing battle.”