“I don’t care whether Mrs. Sieger wanted these rabbis to decide this matter or not. And whether she agreed to participate or not is irrelevant. The whole notion that these rabbis are three thugs off the streets who’ve come in and taken somebody who hasn’t voluntarily gone to a rabbinic court is ludicrous.”
When there have been problems with the rabbinic courts, the primary corrupting influence has been money. Some of the courts have suspect reputations, and one widely respected expert in the Jewish world told me off the record that the court in the Sieger case has “a reputation for having its hand out.”
“A rabbinic court that charges money for its services is really an oxymoron,” says Tendler, who talked to Chayie Sieger five years ago about getting involved in her case but ultimately did not because of time constraints. “It is actually against Jewish law for these rabbis to charge anything for their services, and yet it’s gotten very expensive. They sometimes charge as much as lawyers now.”
In the past, when Jews lived an insular existence and had their own institutions, these rabbinic courts received salaries that were paid by the community. There was also, as there is in Israel today, a higher authority to deal with controversial or disputed decisions. But while America is a secular state, Israel is a Jewish state, with a chief rabbi and government oversight of religious institutions.
In the case of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, the court that produced the Heter for Chaim Sieger, there are two questions at the heart of the case: Were they bribed by Chaim Sieger to produce the result he wanted, and even if they weren’t, did they act properly and responsibly in accordance with Jewish law in issuing the Heter Meah Rabanim?
“A rabbinic court that knows its business would never have gotten involved in this,” says Tendler, “until a civil court had acted in their divorce case. This court did not follow protocol. They jumped the gun.”
Tendler says that in any marital dispute where there are complicated issues to be resolved, like a disagreement over assets, a Heter is unacceptable. “The Heter is a very extreme step that shouldn’t even be considered until years and years have passed without a resolution.”
Then there is the peculiar matter of the 100 signatures. Rabbi Ralbag testified that he threw them away because there was no reason to keep them. He also said he could not remember the name of a single rabbi who signed the document other than his fellow court judges.
“A Heter is so rare,” Tendler says, “that any rabbi who is involved in one and does get 100 signatures would probably frame them and hang them in his living room.”
During his deposition, Chaim Sieger said he never bribed any of the rabbis and paid only a relatively modest fee of $5,000 for their services. But circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise. Near the end of January 1998, about seven weeks after the Heter was issued, Chaim Sieger withdrew $945,000 from an account at Chase Manhattan Bank in cash, cashier’s checks, and money orders.
When questioned about this by Chayie’s lawyer, he said he couldn’t remember what he did with the money. Perhaps, he blithely said, he was making interest-free loans to friends. There are, however, no records to support this. That very same week, Rabbi Ralbag, who testified in his deposition that his annual salary is around $35,000, suddenly came into $40,000. He then invested that money in stock in an Independence Savings Bank initial public offering.
Ralbag at first offered no explanation for where the $40,000 came from. Ultimately, he said it was a gift from his parents. So far, however, he has not submitted his parents’ bank statements or a gift-tax filing. The same day that Ralbag deposited his sudden windfall, Rabbi Ginsberg, whose stated salary is $11,000 a year, deposited $50,000 into an account at Independence. He has so far offered no explanation for the source of his money.
Chayie has charged that her husband transferred $500,000 to an account belonging to Rabbi Meisels. Meisels, who is not named in the lawsuit, kept $215,000 for himself and then distributed the rest, in several cases through an intermediary, to the rabbis who took care of the Heter. Chayie Sieger has copies of bank statements, canceled checks, and money transfers to back up her claims.
Rabbi Herbst, who did not sit on the rabbinic court but served as a marriage counselor to the Siegers and, when that wasn’t working, introduced Chaim Sieger to Rabbi Ralbag as someone who knew about Heters, also had enormous good fortune that same fateful week as Ralbag and Ginsberg. Herbst also invested $50,000 in Independence stock.
Herbst, who testified that he makes about $25,000 a year, submitted bank records in the name of Congregation Kehal Premishlan, Inc., which he said was “his congregation,” dating from 1992 to 1993. He also submitted bankbook photocopies that showed a balance hovering around $20,000 over a four-year period. Not exactly sufficient funds for his investments. Particularly given that it appears he made a second purchase of Independence stock, also in January, this time totaling $215,000.
In addition to the financial “coincidences,” there was the sworn testimony of a man named Frederick Frankel who said he went to Rabbi Ralbag to discuss getting a Heter and that Ralbag told him it would cost $100,000. “He [Ralbag] told me he needed a $10,000 deposit to start the process,” Frankel said, “and I asked him basically who to make the check out to, and he told me it had to be cash . . . And he said that normally the whole $100,000 is in cash, but at a minimum, 50 percent of it had to be in cash.” Frankel never went any further.
In January 2002, New York State Supreme Court judge Martin Schoenfeld, ruling on Nathan Lewin’s motion to have the case dismissed, found that there was more than enough evidence to take the bribery case to trial. Despite the weight of the circumstantial evidence, the defense argues that all of this adds up to nothing more than coincidence. Lewin says the Independence IPO was a very hot topic in Brooklyn’s Orthodox neighborhoods and that “everyone in Borough Park was investing in it.”
A large part of the defense strategy has been to depict Chayie Sieger as an unstable, manipulative shrew. Abe H. Konstam, Chaim Sieger’s divorce lawyer, laughed derisively when I asked about Chayie Sieger. He referred to the “well-documented shenanigans she has perpetrated” and said all his client wants is his freedom. Then he refused to talk to me any further.
His reference to Chaim Sieger’s desire to have his freedom was particularly curious. Though the Siegers’ divorce case has yet to come to court in New York, Chaim is already remarried. And he has two new babies. Not long after the Heter was issued, Sieger traveled to Florida with his girlfriend and they were married by his friend Rabbi Jacob Meisels. According to copies of American Express bills that were produced during the legal wrangling, the newly married couple threw a party at the Doral in Miami that cost, for catering, flowers, music, and travel expenses, upwards of $200,000.
Why Florida? One possible explanation is the state does not recognize religious marriage ceremonies. Therefore, since Chaim and Chayie Sieger are not divorced, he could still “remarry” this way, without, presumably, being charged with bigamy. Chaim Sieger’s lawyer vehemently denies that his client is remarried, though he refuses to comment further. He would not, for example, explain how it is that Sieger is living with a woman and their new babies in the middle of the intractably religious world of Borough Park, if they’re not married.
Chayie Sieger’s decision to take her husband and the rabbis to court was opposed by virtually everyone. Even her own daughter essentially told her to tough it out. “She said I’d put up with it for 24 years and was still in one piece, so why couldn’t I just continue to put up with it?” she says.
Several days after this conversation, her daughter-in-law, a Canadian who now lives in Borough Park, came to visit. She told Sieger that if she didn’t reunite with Chaim, she would leave her son and go back to Canada.
“I was shocked,” Sieger says. “I told her I’d taken a lot on myself and didn’t want to take it on anymore.”
As Sieger tells this story about her children on a recent steamy summer morning, her eyes fill with tears. She speaks haltingly, sitting in her meticulously arranged office in the Bronx nursing home she owns.
But just when she seems about to lose it, she regains her composure and the look on her face hardens. “All my life I’ve played by the rules, and this is the position I end up in,” she says. “No family should be destroyed the way mine has been. They have made me a wife without a husband and a mother without children. This is what’s pushing me to see this through. I’m going to fight till the end.”