Chayie Sieger never intended to become a rebel. In fact, for most of her life she was the ultimate conformist, someone who followed the rules and didn’t make waves. She was the last person anyone who knew her could imagine doing something to rock the world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. But that is exactly what she has done.
Sieger, 50, is a pleasant, soft-spoken Hasidic woman who has lived her entire life within a six-block area of Borough Park. She wears a brown wig, dresses in stylish but modest clothing, and dutifully observes all the laws and customs of her religion. She never questions the role of women in the Bobover Hasidic sect, and will even happily argue on behalf of such anachronistic practices as arranged marriage.
For seven and a half years, however, Sieger has been locked in a divorce battle so ugly, so mean-spirited, and so entangled in Jewish law and observance that it has achieved the status of urban legend in Orthodox communities from New York to Jerusalem. She’s an accidental activist, who made a decision to fight only when she believed she had no other choice.
Sieger’s close-quarter domestic skirmishing has escalated into a legal war that raises disturbing questions about the rights of Orthodox women, the integrity of the rabbinic courts, known as the betei din, and the ethics of a number of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who stand accused by Sieger of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to issue her husband the religious divorce ruling he wanted.
It has also raised some questions about New York’s civil courts, where her case has crawled through the system, its progress stymied by dozens of motions, appeals, judicial turnover, and endless continuances—a Hasidic version of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.
Her children don’t speak to her. She’s a pariah in her community, with many of her former friends agreeing with a lawyer representing the rabbis that she’s “the Tawana Brawley of the Orthodox community.” And her husband, though still not legally divorced from Sieger, married another woman in a religious ceremony in Florida.
For years, Sieger lived what seemed to be a typical existence in Brooklyn’s community of 50,000 Bobover Hasids. Daily life centered on the family and Jewish ritual. She took care of her two children, kept the house strictly kosher, prepared for the Sabbath every week, and once a month attended the mikvah—the ritual baths where a married woman purifies herself for sexual relations after her menstrual period. When she was supposed to cook, she cooked. When she was supposed to go to shul, she went.
The social schedule revolved around ritual. Someone was always celebrating a milestone: a birth, a bar mitzvah, a wedding. And the rest of the calendar was filled with religious festivals. The only thing that made Sieger a little unusual in her world was her profession. She is a contemporary businesswoman who learned the ins and outs of the nursing-home industry from her father and now operates a successful facility of her own.
But Sieger had a secret—she was trapped in a woefully unhappy marriage, suffering silently with someone she says is an unfaithful, quick-tempered, physically abusive husband. A man of obviously large appetites, Chaim Sieger weighed 325 pounds at one point (he’s five foot eleven) and gambled incessantly in the stock market and at the craps tables in Atlantic City—a high-roller Hasid with a comped penthouse suite. His manic gambling was so out of control, she says, that he bankrupted them several times, forcing her—in the early eighties when her son was 11 and her daughter 9—to have to earn some money. This was when she started working for her father.
In the late eighties, she discovered that her husband owned two Upper East Side co-ops. Chaim told her he’d bought them as an investment. Chayie Sieger claims she eventually found out he used the apartments for sexual trysts: his own and those of his fellow Hasids, whom he sometimes videotaped in action. During the last six months before she left him, Chayie tapped the house phones, and she has audiotapes of his phone conversations discussing the escapades.
On one tape, Sieger can be heard playfully telling a woman—whom Chayie Sieger claims was his girlfriend at the time—how much he misses her and desperately wants to see her. He tells the woman, who apparently worked in a hotel, that he wishes he could come and see her and they could go use one of the empty rooms. Or that she could come see him, but his wife could be home at any time.
On another tape, he can be heard excitedly pushing someone to have sex with a certain woman. When the man says no, Sieger says, “What, you don’t think she’s attractive? C’mon, tell her to get undressed. Do it, and turn on the video.”
Chayie Sieger stuck it out, she says, because she plays by the rules. Among Hasids, divorce is taboo. A breakup of a marriage would have a negative impact on the ability of the couple’s children to marry well. As children of divorced parents, they would be viewed as damaged goods, far less desirable as potential partners. So she waited. But her plan was clear. As soon as the kids were married and settled, she would be gone.
Finally, on a Monday in December 1995, she moved into her father’s house several doors away. Sieger knew that leaving her husband after 24 years of marriage was going to be difficult. She just had no idea how difficult. What Sieger hadn’t factored in was the severity of the Bobov response. First came the shock-and-awe campaign. The day she left was the day her son and daughter stopped talking to her. She maintains that her relationship with them had always been very close. She blames their abandonment on intense pressure from their father and members of the community. “In the last 25 years, I’m only the fourth woman in Bobov to leave her husband,” Sieger says. “And in each case, the woman lost her children. My children essentially went from A to Z in one day, and that’s not normal. I didn’t see it before, but I think that Bobov is a cult and my children need to be deprogrammed.”
Along with her kids, Sieger has lost essentially everything that was important to her. She hasn’t seen her grandchildren in nearly eight years (those born after 1995 she’s never seen). Lifelong friends cut her off. People she has known since childhood cross the street to avoid her. Invitations to the social events that are central to life in Borough Park stopped coming. “The reaction was so gender-biased,” she says. “No friends stuck by me. All of our friends became his friends.”
Sieger has become an outcast in her own world. “When everything goes smoothly, there is no better place to be than in an ultra-Orthodox marriage and an ultra-Orthodox community,” says novelist Naomi Ragen, an American who lives in Jerusalem and who has written three books about Orthodox women. “But when it goes bad, everyone is against the woman. No matter what goes wrong in the marriage, it is the woman who gets ganged up on and ostracized. There is no justice whatsoever.”
But perhaps the most bizarre reaction was her husband’s. At first, Chaim attempted to apply pressure to get her to reconsider (“He told me, ‘I’ll give you the kids back in a minute if you come back to me,’ ” she says). At the same time, he employed a charm offensive. He called, he sent flowers, and whenever she agreed to talk to him, he swore that he was a changed man.
Though she was the one who walked out, according to Jewish law only the husband can grant a divorce. As a result, there is a long-standing problem in the Orthodox world with women whose marriages end but whose husbands won’t give them a get, a Jewish divorce. Without a get, these women remain essentially chained to nonexistent marriages, unable to remarry an Orthodox man, while their husbands can go on and get rabbinic permission to remarry. These women are known in Hebrew as agunah, literally “chained woman.”
But once Chaim Sieger realized Chayie was serious, he also had a problem. A divorce would mean they’d have to divide their assets, and this was not an attractive proposition. According to a tenet of Jewish divorce law, any assets brought to the marriage by one party leave with that person if the marriage breaks up. Anything not acquired together during the marriage is not community property. The law is the same in New York civil court as well. And in this case, the lion’s share of the Siegers’ substantial assets was brought to the marriage by Chayie.
Her father, a native of Poland who did time in a labor camp in Siberia during the war, managed to escape to America and in the fifties went into the nursing-home business, eventually acquiring more than seven facilities, which are now controlled by a family trust.
The bottom line for Chaim was that his wife was not likely to be in a giving mood when settlement time came. She’d already made it clear to Chaim that she was not about to let him keep the two nursing homes the family had put in his name when it was advantageous from a business standpoint to do so.
Legally, he knew he didn’t have much leverage. He discussed his situation with Rabbi Jacob Meisels, a lifelong friend and yeshiva classmate, who, Chayie Sieger says, became her husband’s guide through the sometimes confusing maze of Jewish law. Reconciliation was tried first. She had one marriage-counseling session, without her husband, with Rabbi Solomon Herbst.