SECULAR-ORTHODOX TENSIONS The conviction of Chasidic Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in the kidnapping of a 13- year-old boy from his secular family in New Jersey has highlighted tensions in the emotionally charged relationship between secular and fervently Orthodox Jews.
It has also illuminated the clash of cultures that can develop when one family member – more typically a young adult than a pre-adolescent – become Orthodox while the rest of the family does not.
Shai Fhima Reuven disappeared on April 5, 1992, after his mother sent him to study for his Bar Mitzvah with Helbrans in Brooklyn.
The trial included statements from the boy, who testified that the had run away from his secular and physically abusive mother and wanted to join the altogether different world of Helbrans.
His testimony in the kidnapping trial revealed that he had first gone to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn with the assistance of a Helbrans associate, then moved to Monsey, N.Y., where there is a large fervently Orthodox community, and finally, to a yeshiva in Paris, where he remained until resurfacing in February 1994.
The issues raised during the course of the five-week trial resonated deeply for those involved with the complicated tangle of emotional issues around ba’alei teshuvah, or Jews who leave a secular life for a more religious one.
The fervently Orthodox community has a mystique about it which non-religious Jews find alluring at times, said observers.
“It is a world which clearly tells you what is right and what is wrong, and at a time of confusion tells you what to do,” said Esther Perel, a psychologist in New York, who is not fervently Orthodox but who has clients who are, including some who are newly religious.
“It has the allure of unconditional acceptance for people who often do not feel at home in their own home or integrated into their own family,” said Perel. This is especially true, she said, when there is an emotionally turbulent home environment.
According to Perel, cases of a child being kidnapped from a secular family and brought to a fervently Orthodox community “are not uncommon story.”
And when the child’s family is broken by abuse or divorce, it is not unusual for one rabbi or yeshiva community to be invited into the family, as in the case of Shai Fhima Reuven’s family.
The boy’s parents are divorced. His father, Michael Reuven, lives in Israel. Shai, who was born in Israel, was living with his mother, Hana Fhima, his stepfather, Jacky Fhima, and three half-siblings in New Jersey.
His mother, an Israeli not otherwise involved in the Orthodox world, took her son to Helbrans to study for his Bar Mitzvah.
“There is a certain vulnerability and predisposition on the part of family members to have an alternative family brought in,” said Perel. “This is one of the mystiques of the haredi (fervently-Orthodox) world, that if offers an alternative home and family.”
Shai Fhima Reuven, now 15 years old, testified that he would not return to his family. Since turning up again, he has been living with another Orthodox rabbi in Rockland County, outside New York City.
The boy filed a petition in Rockland County Family Court earlier this month seeking legal emancipation from his parents. He apparently now lives as a haredi Jew.
After testifying at the trial, his mother told reporters outside the courtroom, “This is a different Shai, it’s not my Shai. They changed him and turned him against his family.”
Observers who were interviewed for this article disagreed about whether the conversion to Orthodoxy of a young teen has different moral implications than it would in the case of a young adult who, everyone agreed, would be capable of making his or her own decision about becoming more religious.
“I don’t think that speaking with someone and changing his mind is brainwashing,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a group representing haredi Jews.
“It doesn’t seem to me that this was against the boy’s will,” said Shafran, who worked as a teacher of adolescent boys in yeshivas for two decades before joining Agudah.
“Children start thinking for themselves well before age 13. It seems like this is the case of a kid who came on his own to accept his heritage, which caused tension with his parents.
“If the rabbi did nothing but make available to him resources and his home because the boy was being abused, it’s nothing but providing a sanctuary” for the teen, said Shafran. “I don’t think the rabbi was acting immorally, even if it was illegal.”
Shafran said that he hopes Helbrans’ conviction is overturned on appeal.
Rabbi Daniel Syme, senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of the Reform movement, disagreed.
“Kidnapping is kidnapping,” he said. “I’m disappointed to hear that any individual within the Jewish community would justify that act as a humanitarian act. There are many other ways to assist children (who are) purportedly the victims of abuse, through the legal and social services systems.”
A sudden break with and a negation of the past is typical for those newly converted to the fervently Orthodox, said Perel. This can cause tremendous strain in a family, she added.
She questioned the practice of breaking away from family members in the course of becoming more Orthodox, as sometimes occurs in cases of ba’alei teshuvah.
She also said she favors working within the family system in some cases of abuse rather than automatically removing the child from his family.