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.
At the same time, Chayie says, Herbst was trying to get her to sign an arbitration agreement. When both of these things failed, Chaim Sieger found another avenue to pursue—an obscure, rarely used 1,000-year-old procedure known in Hebrew as a Heter Meah Rabanim, or Decree of 100 Rabbis.
Basically, the Heter was devised to enable a husband whose wife was somehow not able or not willing (“recalcitrant”) to participate in the process to obtain a divorce and remarry. According to experts on Jewish law, it was intended for use in extraordinary cases in which the wife had run away or been institutionalized or somehow incapacitated. Because it is such an extreme measure, the document requires the signatures of 100 rabbis in three different countries.
Though none of these conditions appears to have existed in the Siegers’ marital dispute—and there is great controversy in the Jewish community about whether the decree should be used under any circumstances—Chaim managed to secure a Heter. The document was issued by a bet din (rabbinical court) that operates under the aegis of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, a small, right-wing organization that has achieved some notoriety for its strident, outrageous public statements about non-Orthodox Jews. But why would the court issue this document? Why would 100 rabbis sign off on it?
The most serious charge in the 27-page English translation of the Heter is that Chayie Sieger was “not fit to live with and have sexual relations with” because she failed to attend the mikvah; more precisely, she would pick fights with her husband to delay or avoid going. Short of calling her a whore, this is the worst thing you can say about an Orthodox woman. “It’s ridiculous. If I can’t be trusted to go to the mikvah,” Sieger says, “then the food in my house probably isn’t kosher either. It’s like saying I’m not even Orthodox.”
The Heter also charges that she was unable to care for her children because she was more interested in her career (“even though Mr. Sieger supported her with dignity”), and that she filled her house with “quarrels and embarrassment,” turning it into “an insane asylum.” According to the Heter, she did this by waking her husband up in the middle of the night, turning the radio on really loud, and pouring water on him while he slept.
Sieger believes that the rabbis who run this court were bribed by her husband to issue the Heter. She filed a $13 million civil suit in 1998 charging them with accepting bribes that ranged from $50,000 to as much as $215,000. She also charged them with defaming her and essentially ruining her life by leaking information contained in the Heter in Borough Park.
“All my life I’ve trusted rabbis, believed in them,” says Sieger. “So why wouldn’t people believe what’s been said about me? After all, if the rabbis are saying these things, then they must be true.”
Sieger believes her husband paid the rabbis to issue the Heter and its damaging accusations so he could use the document to blackmail her into giving him what he wants in the divorce settlement. In other words, he would tell her the Heter existed, then offer to have it torn up if she accepted a get on his terms. However, she chose to fight rather than give in. “Look,” she says, “husbands are entitled to be greedy, vindictive, angry, or whatever. But they shouldn’t have rabbis to help them act on those impulses.”
For their part, Rabbis Aryeh Ralbag, Haim Kraus, Hersh Meir Ginsberg, Elimelech Zalman Lebowitz, and Solomon B. Herbst vehemently deny Sieger’s charges. Well-known Washington, D.C., attorney Nathan Lewin, who has litigated many highly charged cases involving Orthodox Judaism, is handling their defense with a bare-knuckles bravado that seems to indicate a personal passion for the case. (Herbst is represented by Louis Tratner.)
“She’s managed to mislead and bamboozle everybody with her stories,” says Lewin, a compact man with white hair and a trim white beard, whose fees for defending the rabbis are being paid, in large part, by Chaim Sieger.
Chayie Sieger’s response is succinct: “Nat Lewin would represent a monkey, as long as it’s male and has a beard.”
It is clear from the legal briefs, the various motions, and the mountain of deposition transcripts that the defense position is that Chayie Sieger is making everything up. But if she is indeed lying about everything, what about the police report from the 66th Precinct that was filed when she’d gone in after she says Chaim had beaten her?
“I don’t believe Chaim Sieger beat her up,” says Lewin, an observant Jew who says he knows of cases where women inflict wounds on themselves. “I have seen other instances when women make false claims about what their husbands do.”
While Chayie Sieger’s original sin in the eyes of the Bobov community was walking out on her husband, her second, perhaps even more serious transgression was to seek relief in the secular courts. To understand how serious an offense this is considered in Hasidic communities, you only have to know that a poster popped up all over Borough Park that said, in Hebrew, IT IS A COMMANDMENT TO KILL A MOSER (an informer, someone who tells stories outside the community). “Rabbi Daniel Frommel took me to his synagogue in Brooklyn and showed me the poster,” Sieger says. “He told me I was the target for going outside the rabbinic courts.” Ironically, Sieger herself agrees that Orthodox Jews should not use the secular courts. “I never would have gone outside if there had been another choice. But I was desperate, and I knew there was no chance I was going to get justice any other way.”
Chayie Sieger was not quite 18 when a family friend suggested to her parents that she meet a young yeshiva student named Chaim. Perhaps, if the unofficial matchmaker was right, they would like one another. In Borough Park, where Hasidic Jews do things the same way they did them hundreds of years ago in Eastern Europe, this was the first step in arranging a marriage.
As it turned out, Sieger was quite taken with her “blind date,” whom she remembers even then, when he was barely 20, as a very charming smooth talker. And so, on their third heavily chaperoned meeting at her house, they had a l’chaim: a toast to the couple’s engagement. It was June, and the following March, filled with hope and expectation, the two young Hasids were married. The year was 1972. Twelve months later, they had a son, and two years after that a daughter.
But very early on in their life together, there were signs of trouble. Nine months after the wedding, when Sieger was six months pregnant, she says, a woman who worked with her husband called and said she had had an affair with him. The woman claimed she was calling because she felt guilty and because she thought it was a terrible way for a supposedly pious man to behave.
When Sieger confronted her husband with this information, she says, he didn’t even flinch. He said the woman was angry because she hadn’t gotten a weekly paycheck she believed she deserved and this was her way to get even. “I made excuses from the very beginning,” Chayie Sieger says. “I heard what I wanted to hear and believed what I wanted to believe. It took a long time, but eventually I realized there’s no fixing this guy.”
Still, Sieger says, she suffered quietly, never telling anyone what was going on. Even when she finally left and her son and daughter turned on her, she would not let them hear the details of their father’s secret life on the audiotapes. The only people who knew the truth, she says, were her father, her brother, and Solomon Halberstam, the Bobov grand rebbe.
In June 1996, six months after she had moved out, Sieger went to the Bobover rebbe’s daughter and requested a meeting with her father. She hoped that if she told Halberstam her story, he would help her get through the difficulties in the best way possible.
And so, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon she went to a house at the corner of 48th Street and Fifteenth Avenue. The building contains both the synagogue and the rebbe’s home. They sat down at the dining-room table in his modestly furnished second-floor apartment.
She asked the rebbe, who was dressed in the traditional chalat, the black silk belted robe, to talk to her husband and help her secure a get. The rebbe asked her what the problems were in her marriage and told her to speak candidly.
“I talked to him about Chaim’s bizarre behavior,” she says, “and explained that for a long time I thought I could change him. But after years of trying, I finally realized I couldn’t. He was very sympathetic and very disappointed in Chaim. ‘How could I not have known?’ he asked. I was surprised by how warm he was on a personal basis with a woman.”
The rebbe told Chaim he should give her a get, and his daughter told Chayie she should go to see Rabbi Herbst for counseling. “In the meantime,” she says, “Chaim was telling everyone nothing happened. We just had a little fight and it’ll all be fine.”
In the rabbinic tribunal system as it’s currently practiced in America, there is no central authority—no oversight, nor any avenue for appeal. And simply refusing to show up if someone starts a proceeding is not as easy as it sounds. “If you and I have a dispute, it is very difficult for you to refuse to come to court,” says Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, professor of Talmudic law at an affiliate of Yeshiva University.
“Essentially, I have you over a barrel. If you don’t come, there can be rabbinic sanctions. For example, you can be prohibited from being called up to the Torah. And there are social sanctions as well. You’ll stop receiving invitations.”
If you refuse to go to court, other ultra-Orthodox people may even stop doing business with you. They will assume you can’t be trusted, and if there is a disagreement of some kind, they’ll have no recourse because you won’t appear in court.
In this case, Chaim Sieger went to a rabbinic court run by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and asked them to preside over his divorce. They agreed to take the case and sent Chayie a hazmannah, which is something between a summons and an invitation to appear.
Sieger says she was told by a knowledgeable rabbi that she would not get a fair hearing from this court. He told her to instead opt for a zabla, which is, in essence, going to arbitration. She picks a representative, the other side also picks a representative, and then the two of them pick an arbitrator to hear the case. She then notified the court of her intent to seek a zabla.
Beyond this point, however, events become impossibly murky. The rabbis’ side argues that Chayie Sieger never followed through on the zabla request and that she didn’t respond to the next two hazmannahs they sent. Jewish law states that if the notices are ignored, the court can then act without the participation of the delinquent party.
Chayie Sieger says that she was never given proper notification of the proceeding or sufficient time to respond.
Lewin has argued in court that Sieger’s lawsuit against the rabbis should be thrown out because it violates the separation of church and state. “This whole debate is over something that only matters to religious people,” he says.
“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.”