Rachael Neustadt: "We are together as a family again. Now we just need time to heal"
Mother brings kidnap sons home after landmark two-year court battle
Happiness: Rachael Neustadt with her three sons (Photo: Lara Minsky)
Flanked by a child psychologist and court officials, Rachael Neustadt stood nervously at the doorway of a Moscow apartment, praying that the two sons from whom she had been separated for almost two years would be on the other side.
For much of that time, her only contact had been via Skype when the ex-husband who kidnapped them decreed.
Even a handful of visits to the Russian capital were carefully controlled by the boys' father, who went into hiding with them eight months ago.
"When that apartment door opened, I was very emotional," she said.
"I was so relieved, I was so excited.
"I thought, 'this is it'.
"My ex-husband wasn't there at the time - he had left the kids with his mother."
So strong was the emotion that followed the reunion, she struggled to put it into words.
"This is a very, very personal memory," she told me.
"The personal abduction experience is my sons'. It's not for the public."
Daniel Jakob, eight, and Jonathan, six, left their home in Hendon, north-west London, in December 2012.
Ilya Neustadt, 37, assured his ex-wife that they would return after a Chanucah holiday to visit his family in Moscow.
When the two-week deadline to return passed, she began to worry.
In the picture above, a screengrab from a Moscow-based TV station, Ms Neustadt is seen holding Jonathan while her ex-husband grips his hand (Photo: Facebook)
What followed was an international legal battle to bring back her two boys. Mr Neustadt, a Russian academic, ignored eight English High Court Orders to return his sons to the UK - leaving Ms Neustadt with no option but to see them on his terms.
He would monitor all Skype calls, turn on the TV to distract the children and showed no interest in getting to know their youngest son Meir, who he left behind.
Distraught, Ms Neustadt launched a social media campaign and lobbied MPs, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and even newspapers to back her case.
She hardly slept, often making calls and sending e-mails until the early hours.
"Sure I had dark thoughts," she said. "But I never gave up hope.
"When you are in love with your children and committed to them, you will overcome any challenges to help them."
In November, her lawyers managed to get a court order in a landmark case which invoked the 1996 Hague Child Protection Convention for the first time between the UK and Russia.
Mr Neustadt, a former London Metropolitan University lecturer, had appealed the decision and lost.
He immediately went into hiding with the boys - and all contact ceased.
"For seven-and-a-half-months I didn't hear anything from them," said Ms Neustadt.
"Police were looking for my sons, but they hadn't been registered at a doctor or dentist clinic, nothing.
"We thought that maybe he took them to Israel, the United States, Germany or Canada, but in the end it was easier for him to stay in an unregistered apartment in Moscow.
"They were kept indoors for the greater part. They were told, 'it's too dangerous to go outside'.
"So they stayed inside and watched TV all day long. There were no outings to the park, no play-dates. They didn't go to school or see anyone their own age. That's what it's like to be a prisoner."
In late June, authorities tracked down the hideout. Ms Neustadt, who is Orthodox, waited for Shabbat to end and boarded a flight to Moscow to stand beside bailiffs as they knocked on the flat door.
There, she found her sons with their paternal grandmother, Irina Magilevskaya, who had helped conceal the children.
"This was always a two-person show," she added.
Finally, the boys returned home with their mother at the start of the month. On Monday, the media were allowed to reveal the turn of events, which sparked celebration across the UK Jewish community.
"I've had so many personal calls, texts and e-mails. Everyone has been amazing," she said.
She said the eldest two sons have bonded well with their two-year-old brother Meir, but it has been an overwhelming experience for them all.
Neither Daniel Jakob nor Jonathan have spoken English for months, but they are slowly starting to pick-it-up again.
Last Friday, she took them to see their old classmates at the Nancy Reuben Primary School in Hendon. The next day, they marked Shabbat with a visit to the nearby Alei Tzion synagogue.
Ms Neustadt, 36, a former teacher, said: "Obviously, there are negative ramifications of the abduction, but I'm in touch with child workers and psychologists.
"Everyone at the school was so warm and fantastic, they came over and said 'hi'.
"Daniel Jakob and Yonatan were so excited to go because they haven't had contact with anyone their age.
"They said they didn't remember the kids who were their best-friends, but they went back to them and played so well. They now have the freedom to have friends and go to school."
She added: "People's prayers were answered. The whole community stood with me in a difficult situation.
"They were incredibly supportive in so many ways from funding legal fees to davening. Not just for me, but for the boys.
"They don't know it yet, but so many people were wishing them well. Someday, they'll look back and see how many people were supportive of them."
"Yonatan has already started speaking English and Daniel Jakob is slowly getting there."
Both boys will rejoin the Orthodox Jewish school in September.
Texas-born Ms Neustadt, who missed both of their birthdays while they were away, is now focusing on enjoying everyday motherhood duties, those she sometimes feared would never come.
"As a family, we are so happy to be reunited," added Ms Neustadt. "For a child, it's not about where you live. As long as you are surrounded by people who love you and treat you well.
"On the one hand, I'm very excited they're back and we're spending everyday together. In some respects, it's as though they never left. A loving parent has an imprint on a child and that imprint is so strong - it's incredible.
"We now need time to heal and be together. It's been challenging and it will take time, but we will face it together."
The reunion was welcomed by the Chief Rabbi, who said: "I am absolutely delighted. Rachael and her children will now, at long last, be able to enjoy a happy, healthy and stable family life."
Michelle Bauernfreund, chair of Alei Tzion, said: "We were thrilled to see Rachael reunited with her sons."