Rabbis plead to help mother

By Jessica Elgot and Simon Rocker, June 28, 2012
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Senior Manchester rabbis have rallied to the aid of a young British mother in Vienna, who has been denied custody of her twin sons in a divorce dispute.

The registrar of the Manchester Beth Din, Rabbi Yehuda Brodie, and Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, of Whitefield Hebrew Congregation, have appealed to rabbis in Vienna to mediate.

Cambridge graduate Beth Alexander, from Manchester, married her Viennese husband Dr Michael Schlesinger six years ago and moved to live with him in Austria.

But after a bitter separation and court hearing, Ms Alexander lost custody of her three-year-old sons, prompting the Manchester rabbis’ intervention.

Vienna’s Chief Rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, said this week that he was “trying to convince Dr Schlesinger to agree to a rabbinic mediation. In rabbinic courts it is mandatory to hear both sides in order to guarantee a fair trial. I assure you, that I am totally unbiased in this case.”

Dr Schlesinger has temporary custody of the two boys and the matter is still working its way through the Austrian courts.

Ms Alexander, who has not yet been granted a civil divorce, said that she had been denied a get — religious divorce — until British rabbis intervened, and contended that the rabbis in Vienna had refused to help her or her husband come to an out-of-court agreement.

She was told by the head of Vienna Chabad, Rabbi Jacob Biderman, that her husband would be prepared to grant her a get only if she dropped her battle for custody of the children, and was “willing to leave him in peace”.

The get was eventually issued at a court convened by Dayan Ehrentreu, former head of the London beth Din, who flew out to Vienna last month.

Rabbi Biderman has told the rabbis supporting Ms Alexander that he is unwilling to become personally involved in the case.

Ms Alexander said: “The Jewish community have closed ranks around [Dr Schlesinger] to protect him. The way the community here has acted has been diabolical. These children need a mother.”

In the original court documents, Dr Schlesinger said the children were “at risk” in the custody of their mother and had developmental problems.

Custody documents say Dr Schlesinger believed his wife had suffered mental health problems and post-natal depression, claims which she denies.

Rabbi Guttentag, whose wife had taught Ms Alexander at Yavneh Girls High School in Manchester, said he believed such claims were “not fair or just.”

In a letter to Vienna rabbis — including Rabbi Biderman and Rabbi Eisenberg — Rabbi Guttentag said: “We can see a young lady living far away from her parents and family… who 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 kehillah [community] and its leadership to ensure that reasonably fair play is being maintained.”

Rabbi Brodie suggested this week that Dayan Ehrentreu should be invited back to Vienna to help mediate in the case.

“My primary concern is the wellbeing of the children. Dayan Ehrentreu is admirably suited for this purpose.

“Dayan Ehrentreu’s involvement in this would, of course, be dependent on the rabbinate of Vienna extending a welcome to him to look into this and their willingness to join with him in dealing with this sad matter. I sincerely hope that this will be forthcoming.”

Ms Alexander said: “It makes me so proud to be British how everyone has rallied round. I owe everything to these British rabbis.

“They did everything in their power to get me my get, and then they said, ‘Now we are going to get you your children back’.”

Last updated: 11:07am, June 28 2012