Ultra-orthodox Jews: BBC offers an enlightening potrayal of women who want out

It’s often very tough to get the inside story on closed communities such as the Amish, the Scientologists and Hasidic Jews.

The big chink in the armor is when someone defects and that’s how BBC came up with its fascinating take about divorced Hasidic Jewish women in their multimedia presentation, “Scare the mother, save the child.”

The story starts with a photo of a woman who’s knocking at a door, her back to the camera. She’s wearing shoulder-length brown hair in a pageboy cut and it’s later when we learn that’s a wig, as married women in that culture don’t show their real hair. This is the only photo that runs with this piece. The rest of the images are lovely, sketched multimedia illustrations (all of which are  copyrighted, so we offer you a screen shot of the opening page). Then:

Inside the closed world of Hasidic Jews in the UK are stories of mothers who risk everything in order to leave their communities, with their children.
Emily and Ruth are two women who found themselves locked in lopsided battles - facing harassment, intimidation, and crowd-funded lawyers.
Neither of them realised what it would cost them.

The story goes on to tell of how the door finally opened into a room with two men sitting there. One spoke to her.

We hear that you intend to end your marriage, he said. Ruth would write down their conversation in a diary later. The men had been told that Ruth would be willing to leave her children with their father after their divorce. “No, that's not the case,” she replied, confused. This was not the conversation she had been expecting.
Then her interrogator mentioned some pictures.
“They said they had photos of me -- running around with this strange man. A man who is not my husband.” The implication was clear, if Ruth did not agree to leave her school-age children in her community then the news of her affair would be made public.

The Haredi are as shame-based a culture as any one you'd find in the Middle East. The article then jumps back to the story of Emily, another woman who left a bad marriage but whose Hasidic (also known as “Haredi”) community was pressuring her to hang in there.

First comes Ruth’s story: How she was married to a man she didn’t like at the age of 20 and ended up having several children. She becomes disenchanted with her marriage and wants to leave it, only to find out that members of her community are shadowing her, taking photos of her in public places and building a file against her so that a family court judge would rule that she cannot have custody of the children.

She wanted her kids to go to a more secularized Jewish school, where they could speak English instead of Yiddish and learn their way about the Internet, which was not possible in their Haredi school. Unexpectedly, an appeals court allows her to have custody.

The story then switches back to Ruth, whose marriage had also gone sour and who was also getting enormous pressure from her community not to divorce her husband. Or if she did, to leave the kids behind. The reporter talked with the person who was the mediator between Ruth and her estranged husband and the mediator corroborated Ruth’s version of the harassment that was keeping her up at night.

The reporter also talked with other Haredis, asking them if all women who tried to leave these communities were hounded so mercilessly. All the Haredis denied such things happen. I was impressed that this writer at least tried to get more than one side to this story. Some outlets would have concentrated on the departing women and painted everyone else as evil.

I found some other stories in the British press about Orthodox -- usually women -- who are married off in their teens only to realize that a cloistered life is not what they wanted.

Yes, I do wish there’d been an extra sentence or two explaining the importance of children in these settings and why Haredis who are unrelated to these children will contribute money to fight to keep them in. One reason why Orthodox Judaism in gaining in influence is because its followers are procreating more than other branches of the faith. The Guardian said last year that by the end of this century, ultra-Orthodox Jews will be the majority in the UK. That is negated when one person in a dissolving marriage is allowed to take the children with them. Elsewhere in the story, the Haredis talked of 17 children who had fallen to "apostasy" simply because they’d been moved out of the community by one parent.

Ruth ended up losing custody of her kids. There’s a few things I would have liked to have seen in this otherwise fascinating piece. Were Ruth and Emily at all devout? Did they fear any divine retribution in leaving their spouses or did leaving their husbands automatically translate into losing their faith? Is there any kind of marital counseling available inside the Haredi? Was the reporter allowed access to Ruth's and Emily's ex-husbands?

Here's another crucial question: Were there Haredi men who wanted to leave their marriages? If so, what did they do? One interesting tidbit I wish the story had elaborated on was how many Jewish men spend their days in Torah study and thus don't hold down a job or at least a full-time one. That obligates their wives to work, even while she's mothering a typical family of six or more kids that one finds in Haredi communities.

This lengthy piece was not done by the network’s religious affairs correspondent but by a science writer and a network producer. It didn’t major heavily on the doctrine but it was not condescending when it referred to the group’s roots in a kind of Judaism lifted from the 19th century. It’s worth a read, especially in a society where the rates of church attendance are vastly lower than that in the United States.

Do take a look at the clever way the illustrations are arranged in the story. If you scroll through them quickly, they appear to move.

BBC has struggled with its religious affairs coverage but in this instance, one of the world's most powerful news organizations delivered a winner.

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