When Helen Sieger died on the day before Passover this year, at just 57 years old, in a hospital used for inmates of Riker’s Island, it was a sad end to a life with many sad chapters.
Helen — or Chayie — Sieger’s story was well-known in Haredi circles in Brooklyn. But when her saga became the subject of a New York magazine feature story in 2003, she became a household name.
After nearly a quarter-century of being a dutiful wife to Chaim Sieger, mother to a son and a daughter, and part of Brooklyn’s Bobov Hasidic community, when her husband remarried without granting her a Jewish divorce, she sued him and the rabbis who, she alleged he bribed, in civil court. The rabbis had provided Chaim Sieger with a heter meah rabbonim, permission from 100 rabbis allowing her to re-marry without granting his wife a Jewish divorce, or get.
In 1995 Chayie Sieger did something Bobov women had almost never done: She left her husband, who according to the New York magazine story, was a serial philanderer and gambler, to move to her father’s home a few doors down.
At first her husband tried to woo her back, the magazine story says, because he had much to lose: the considerable family assets. According to both New York State and Jewish law, assets brought in to a marriage by one party or the other belong to that person if the marriage is dissolved. They do not become community property. Virtually all the assets the couple had were brought in by Chayie, who had inherited several of her family’s nursing homes and also money, which she used to buy yet another nursing home. Even the two facilities that the family had put in Chaim’s name would belong to Chayie.
Two years later, after being informed that she would accept a get from him, Chaim Sieger obtained the heter, which allowed him to remarry without giving Chayie the get. He promptly did. The heter described her as an unfit mother and said she “turned her home into an insane asylum.” It had been circulated in the Bobov community before she heard about it. The day she left her husband she lost contact with her children, grandchildren, friends, community relationships, everything. She became an outcast.
“Her children turned against her because they had to make a choice between staying in the community or having a relationship with her. Since she was viewed as a traitor in that community [for leaving her husband,] they had to shun her,” says Rivka Haut, an advocate for those chained to dead marriages.
She also became a heroine to women victimized by Orthodox divorce rules, which allow only a man to grant a Jewish divorce and leave some women chained to dead marriages, unable to date or remarry.
“She was one of the very few who was able, and gutsy enough, to sue these prominent rabbis in civil court,” said Haut. “Unfortunately, she failed. There were so many obstacles against her. But she tried.”
Chayie Sieger sued the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, naming the rabbis who, she said, accepted bribes from her husband in the tens of thousands of dollars, and defaming her and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. She lost in a decision that said the separation of church and state prevented the secular court from getting involved.
She was later ordered to pay her husband more than $8 million, based on the value of the Kingsbridge Heights nursing home they jointly owned in the Bronx. It was a nursing home they bought with money inherited from a trust set up by Chayie’s family. She appealed the order and lost in a 2007 decision. In 2008, Chaim Sieger sued her for more, claiming that Kingsbridge was worth more than previously valued. He lost that lawsuit.
By then, Chayie Sieger was contending with other serious legal trouble. She was arrested in August 2008 and charged with grand larceny for trying to bribe hospital officials to send patients to her nursing home, and on felony charges for refusing to pay into her employees’ workers compensation insurance fund, which violated state law. She skipped bail and last August was discovered living in a Miami hotel under an assumed name.
She was taken to Riker’s Island and died this April in Elmhurst Hospital, a Queens, N.Y. facility used by the New York Department of Correction for seriously ill inmates. She had been battling cancer and died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, according to a news account in the Riverdale Press.
It was a week before she was supposed to appear in court. She died alone and had not been able to speak to her children or grandchildren since 1995, sources say.
Her son, Abraham Sieger, who manages the Regeis nursing home in the Bronx, which is owned by Chaim Sieger, initially said he would speak about his mother and asked me to call him back later. He later did not return phone messages and, through attorney Robert Georges, who represented Chayie Sieger in her most recent legal battles, both he and his sister declined to comment on their mother’s death. Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, one of the rabbis sued by Chayie Sieger for organizing her ex-husband’s heter meah rabbonim, did not return a message.
And Rabbi Hersh Ginsberg, president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and the lead defendant named in her lawsuit against them, told The Sisterhood that “I never get involved in” the heters. “She put on many rabbis (names), any name that she felt anything to do with it, and by me she was wrong.”
“It was a frivolous case,” Ginsberg said.
So why did she bring it, I asked? “I don’t know. She was envious of her husband, I think it was something with the business,” Ginsberg said.
“She always told me that her reason for fighting was that she wanted to use her money to prove to her children that she was right,” Haut told The Sisterhood. “She felt if she won her legal case she felt her children would see she was right all along and allow her to have contact with her grandchildren.”
But with all the sadness of Sieger’s story, she did achieve some success, Haut said. “She did a lot toward shutting down those illegal batei din (religious courts) that were making money off it (issuing heter meah rabbonim). Her lawsuit helped expose them and stop a lot of that. She accomplished a lot but sadly never knew about it.”
Chayie Sieger's Pioneering Life, Riker's Island Death