An Unorthodox Approach to Parenting

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GesherEU has a new parenting group. We spoke to three members to find out how it helps them. 

When Jamie* was granted access to see his children for the first time in three years, he was excited to re-establish contact, but had no idea how he would interact with them, after so long apart. “My five-year-old boy isn’t growing up with me,” he explains. “He’s still in the Charedi community, which I have left. I felt clueless about what boys his age in the community like to play, or what gifts to take my children, and I didn’t want to get it wrong.”

To find answers to his questions, he joined GesherEU’s new online parenting group, where he could ask other people who had shared similar experiences, and get peer support. “People recommended things to me,” he says. “I ended up buying some Lego, which I could build with my son, and this week I bought some stickers. Last week, we played Playmobile, and I’m hoping to do some art with him next time. It’s all trial and error. Talking to the other members of the group gave me a better understanding of what I needed to do, and the issues I might face.” 

“While parenting today is challenging for everyone, for our members, it can be be even more challenging.”

Gesher EU founder, Emily Green, says she set up the parenting group because, “while parenting today is challenging for everyone, for our members it can be even more challenging.” She was inspired by Chavie Weisberger, who runs a parenting group at GesherEU’s American sister organisation, Footsteps.

“Our members face particular issues which those not from the Charedi community don’t experience,” she explains. “For example, for many members, the other parent still lives in the ultra-orthodox community and they get a lot of support – financial and legal – from that community, when the person who’s left has no resources, money or contacts. It’s always difficult to be a single parent, but even more so when the other parent still in the community tries to alienate the children and does everything possible to undermine you. Members are often involved in lengthy, high-conflict court cases, adding extra stress.

“The parenting group provides a safe space to discuss the issues and experiences of raising children in this unique situation. Supported by our welfare officer and a volunteer, members are able to provide peer support and advice to help others navigate this journey.”

Following a long court battle, Jamie now only sees this children every two weeks for an hour in acontact centre, with a supervisor present – though he hopes that will change soon. “I’m so happy to see them, and they always look really happy to see me too, but it’s stressful for me and stressful for them, being in a small room, with someone else there taking notes. I also have to pay £90 to the contact centre, every time I see them. But our relationship is growing and getting better and better.”

Like many men who’ve left the community, Jamie says the knowledge that leaving meant he’d have to leave his children behind made his decision that much more difficult. “Leaving them was very hard,” he says. “Your kids need you.”

After he applied for custody rights, he says false allegations were made about him to the police. “The community wanted to prevent me from seeing my kids. Fortunately, the police didn’t take the allegations seriously. But dealing with them was horrible because I didn’t speak English properly, didn’t know about technology, didn’t know anything. I had to deal with stuff that was far bigger than me.”

“When you come from a closeted community, it’s hard to be open.”

Volunteer Lisa Hiteshi, who facilitates the fortnightly parenting group evening Zoom sessions, says the meetings are informal. “The group is in its infancy. It can be very busy at times, but there are also times when people are shy and don’t know what to say. When you come from a closeted community, it’s hard to be open. We’re a social support group – more than just a parenting group because we don’t just discuss dealing with the children, but all the issues surrounding it. The child of a GesherEU member may still be being brought up in a very religious home, and going to a religious school. while the parent outside is no longer religious. The mother might say, you can’t eat at your father’s house because it’s not kosher. It’s not easy, and the kids get really confused.”

Schlomi* left the community five years ago, after his marriage ended due to religious differences: “My wife was very religious, while I questioned everything and ultimately stopped practising,” he explains.

By that time, they already had a daughter, now aged seven. “We were living in Belgium, and four months after leaving I decided to move back to London. It’s meant I’ve had to make a big effort to see my daughter regularly. I travel there every few weeks and spend the weekend with her.

“I have no regrets, but it’s made life very hard financially – especially during the Covid years when I was having to pay for expensive Covid tests every time I travelled. I’m grateful to GesherEU for giving me a loan to help with these costs.”

GesherEU also helped Schlomi to draw up an agreement with his ex wife regarding visitation rights and weekly Zoom calls with his daughter, which both have stuck to: “I’m lucky that my ex is reasonable, but her still being in the community does make things tricky,” he says. “For instance, she would never invite me to have dinner together with her and our daughter, or let me stay in the spare room – something that might happen in the non-religious world.

“When I visit, I have to stay in a hotel in the same road where she lives, and we are invited to a family in the community for Friday night dinners. At the moment, on Shabbos, I don’t feel pressured to take my daughter to synagogue, but she’s still young, and that might change.

For Sarah*, who has four children, now aged between nine and 16, the issues are different. She left the community five years ago, after experiencing domestic abuse. “When I began to question things, our relationship broke down,” she recalls. “My ex wanted me to leave the kids and just disappear. He could see where I was heading. Things escalated until he got violent and the police had to remove him.”

Sarah remained in the family home for a further two years: “My ex took two of the children with him, and I didn’t see them for 18 months. It was horrible,” she says.” There followed a lengthy court battle over custody: “I had a social worker and a child protection worker – a Cafcass worker – and they were in agreement that I needed to move because the whole community was supporting my ex to get what he wanted.”

Eventually, she won full custody of the children, but the very first weekend her ex had the children, he refused to return them. After another year going backwards and forwards in court, she won full custody for a second time, with the understanding that she had to move out of the area. She took the children and relocated to the other end of the city.

Her ex no longer has any regular contact with with the children. “After the second hearing, he only got once a month visitation rights because he’d made so many mistakes in his custody fight, even emotionally abusing the children. Over the years, he’s stopped his weekly Zoom calls and monthly visits, even though I’d like him to keep them up. He’s got remarried and had another child, and he doesn’t respond to anything from me asking him to see the children.”

“I wouldn’t be here today, if it were not for GesherEU.”

Sarah says GesherEU’s help was invaluable in helping her to cope with both the practicalities and the stresses of her protracted custody case: “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for GesherEU,” she states. “They were so supportive and helped me become a fighter, which I wasn’t before. They told me to fight for my rights, to fight for my children and, every step of the way, they put me in touch with people who could help me – counselling, a lawyer and a support worker.”

Jamie and Schlomi both worry about the future, as their children grow up immersed in the culture of the community they’ve left. “I need to wait and see what happens, and just hope for the best,” says Jamie. “I’m worried the community will brainwash them. I don’t care if they are religious, I just want them to get a good education and to be healthy.”

Schlomi is pragmatic. “As time goes by, new decisions will need to be made. I will always be there to love my daughter but I do worry she’s going to start not to feel comfortable with me at some point, because she’s being brought up in such a different way from how I live my life. I want her to have a good education and good linguistic knowledge, and I’ll pay for private tuition. I want her to have options in her life, so she doesn’t feel the way I did. And I hope she understands that I’m a good person, even though I don’t believe in what she is being taught to believe.”

Sarah says she wishes the parenting group had been around when she first left the community. “

“Had it been there when I left, it would have made such a difference knowing there were other people out there like me, somewhere to air my problems and share my feelings. I was spiralling into a dark place, and didn’t have anyone to talk to.

“It’s brilliant that the group was set up, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. GesherEU members have struggles that other people don’t have, and we can all relate to each other, whether it’s as a father, or as a mother, and whether or not our children are still religious. We all have similar circumstances and emotions, and just talking about them is so cathartic.”

For more information about the parenting group, which runs twice a month on Wednesday evenings, contact:

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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