When a chasidic husband and wife in the midst of a bitter custody battle want to go their own very separate ways, what’s in the “best interest” of their three young children who have only known the religious and cultural cocoon of upstate Monsey?
That question, a thorny one even when the parents’ breakup is amicable, takes on added emotional freight in the case of Kelly Gribeluk (Myzner) vs. Guillermo (Moshe) Gribeluk, the couple that until recently shared a home in the Satmar enclave. There are allegations that the father is physically, and perhaps sexually, abusing the children. And there is the mother’s vow, relayed in court documents, to take the three boys away from the only religious community they have known and instead raise them in a secular Jewish environment.
Add to that allegations that the father has a hair-trigger temper and flies into fits of rage, and that the mother was carrying on an affair with her husband’s 19-year-old nephew and you have a vivid portrait of a family coming apart at the seams. Then consider the fact that the family court judge hearing the case has received sizeable campaign contributions from Rockland’s powerful Orthodox community, and the story becomes that much more dizzying.
Caught in the crossfire are her three sons, all of whom suffer from severe ADHD and require special care. They say they don’t want to live with their father. But a Rockland County family court judge — convinced that raising the boys in two different worlds would be catastrophic — recently ruled otherwise, awarding custody to Moshe. The ruling is on hold, however, pending a new Rockland County Child Protective Services investigation that found evidence that Moshe had been hitting the boys.
For now, the boys, ages 5, 7 and 8, are in legal limbo, living with a foster family in the chasidic community. Over the last few weeks they have been shuttled from one foster home to another, causing them obvious trauma: Myzner told THe Jewish Week that, according to their caseworker, the youngest has reverted to defecating in his pants. Kelly was not informed where they are and has no way to contact them.
“You can’t imagine what I’m going through,” Myzner said. “I don’t know where my boys are, if they’re being given their medicine, if they’re eating. … It’s incredible that someone is doing this to us in the name of ‘the children’s best interests.’”
Guillermo Gribeluk’s attorney, Eric Thorsen, told The Jewish Week his client “vehemently and unequivocally denies” all the allegations of abuse and is seeking to have the children returned to his custody.
In court papers submitted this week, Thorsen wrote that Myzner’s motion is “just another example of [her] ongoing ruthless and completely baseless campaign … causing completely false and baseless allegations to be made against [Gribeluk] in an attempt to alienate [him] from the parties’ children’s lives … [Myzner’s] use of these young children as pawns for her own selfish goals, including trying to ‘win’ custody after the trial court awarded custody to [Gribeluk], and her repeated bad faith attempts to take the children away from their father and to alienate their father, is despicable and should not be condoned.”
It was Kelly Myzner’s own broken home that brought her to the Satmar community in the first place.
At age 21, when her secular Jewish family was tearing itself apart, she found an unlikely home and a deep sense of comfort in the Satmar community. Introduced to the community through her work as a mortician in a religious funeral parlor and with her parents in the midst of a tumultuous divorce, she became an eager ba’al teshuvah, or returnee to the faith.
The chasidic way of life seemed to offer the security and purpose she longed for. “It seemed beautiful to me,” Myzner said, “the feeling of being in a community, a family. … It was everything I was looking for.”
Eager to partake in the lifestyle in earnest, she studied Satmar customs and laws, and quickly found a shidduch. By age 27, she was married with three kids.
But it was not a happy marriage. Both sides had their faults, but according to Myzner, her husband — who suffered from clinical depression and ADHD, and was taking antipsychotic drugs — had a dangerously bad temper. He would fly into fits of rage, punching holes in the wall, destroying furniture; he also had little restraint when it came to corporally punishing the kids, she said. “It didn’t matter — I love my kids, and for them I was going to pull through,” she said.
Guillermo claimed in court papers that Myzner was impossible to please, and that she was uncompromising when it came to his breaching some of the rules of Satmar life, such as his watching television.
But things changed for Myzner one night in November 2011, when her then-5-year-old middle child complained about pains in his private parts. “Tati touched me here,” Myzner recalls him saying. When she questioned the child, he said it was not the first time.
“I just … froze,” she said. “I didn’t know what to think.”
Myzner took the child to a pediatrician, who reported the story to Child Protective Services. An investigation began, and Gribeluk was forced to leave the house. On Nov. 30, 2011, Myzner filed for sole legal and physical custody, effectively ending the marriage.
It’s hard to tell what came next: if the community turned against Myzner first, or if it was Myzner who broke with a way of life that had at first rescued her, then brought her only pain. Either way, sides were picked. While the Monsey community rallied behind her husband, raising money for his lawyers and caring for all his needs, her own friends and acquaintances shunned her. She began receiving threatening phone calls; surveillance cameras from a neighboring house were turned in the direction of her windows. The message was clear: you are no longer one of us.
Her children were also suffering. The initial allegations against Gribeluk were deemed unfounded by CPS, and he was awarded unsupervised weekends with the kids. According to Myzner, they often returned from these visits with bruises and marks on their backs, buttocks and genitals. One time, she said, her youngest son came back with a broken finger. Another time, the oldest had an angry red welt on his penis. “Tati bit me here,” he told his mother, and burst into tears.
When the custody case reached the courtroom of Judge Sherri Eisenpress, its ambiguities became apparent, and the actions of both parents — particularly Myzner’s — came under tough scrutiny.
The testimony of Myzner’s key witnesses — her psychiatrist, her neighbor, her mother, the children’s nanny and all the people who were involved in the family’s life — were deemed by the judge to lack merit. The judge also dismissed the children’s statements that they did not want to stay with their father “because he hits me,” suggesting that they likely had been coached. When presented with the marks on the oldest son’s private parts, the judge berated Myzner for traumatizing the boy by taking the pictures. The question of how he came by the bruising in the first place seems not to have been addressed.
In many cases of this kind, the primary caregiver — usually the mother — is awarded primary custody. And in this case, Eisenpress acknowledged Myzner had been the children’s primary caretaker, and that they were “extremely bonded” to her. She acknowledged Myzner appeared to be “far more involved and vigilant” in the children’s care than their father, who admitted in court to occasionally “spanking them with the hand.” The judge acknowledged that “reports of the Father’s bad temper and rages were likely accurate.” Still, Eisenpress seemed more concerned about preserving the consistency of the children’s religious life — that keeping them in the Satmar fold would be in their best interest.
The fact that Myzner seemed, in the judge’s mind, to be alienating the children from their father, and the fact that she was having an affair with her husband’s nephew and said she wanted to leave the religious community and live with him, disturbed Eisenpress. “This Court cannot conceive of how the Mother would think that it would be beneficial to her children, who have been raised in a very strict religious manner, to see her living out-of-wedlock with their Father’s nephew,” the judge said in court papers. “If the Mother were to ignore the rules and requirements that the children are forced to follow to remain in their current community and school while with the children, it could lead to catastrophic consequences for children who are already clearly struggling with a multitude of issues.” Myzner told The Jewish Wek that the nephew has returned to his home in Israel and that the affair is over.
Dr. Richard Price, the father’s Orthodox psychiatrist, testified that it would be “difficult psychologically and tremendously confusing for children raised in a religious home to live between two different worlds,” as did a forensic psychologist, Dr. Mark Mednick. The judge agreed. In April, she ruled that primary custody over the children be transferred to the father.
“I think the judge is wrong — I think she is in error as a matter of law,” said Myzner’s original attorney, Daniel Schwartz. “Religious consistency is not as important to the children as the consistent care they get from their mother.
“Between me and you,” Schwartz continued, “this is a case I try not to think about after 10 p.m. If I do, I just can’t fall asleep. At the end of the day, there’s still a boy with marks on his penis, which he got while he was with his dad, and we just don’t know what happened there.”
On May 7, Child Protective Services issued another petition of neglect against Gribeluk, after the children came back from their father covered in bruises. “His father was in the room with him, telling [the child] that he was going to be living with him,” the CPS report reads. “He [the child] became upset, told his father he did not want to live with him, and the respondent told him that he was. The discussion went back and forth between the respondent saying yes and the child saying no, and then the respondent ‘beat him up with his hands.’
“When asked where he was hit, [the child] disclosed that ‘Tati [Daddy] hit me everywhere.’”
Myzner’s case, though unique in its harrowing details, represents a common phenomenon, according to advocates of those who break from the religious life.
“When a parent leaves the chasidic lifestyle, the community comes together to keep that parent away from the children, in any way possible,” said Shulem Deen, editor of Unpious.com, a website for those who have left the chasidic world. (Deen has written about the case on his site.) “For them, it’s a battle over the children’s religious souls.” Deen, who left the chasidic world five years ago and is now estranged from his own five children, has set up an online fundraising campaign to help Myzner appeal the ruling.
While resistance from the community is to be expected, it is alarming that the judicial system, a supposedly impartial arbitrator, is also structurally biased against those who leave the religion, advocates charge. “Since it’s always considered in the best interest of the children to keep as similar a life as possible, custody always goes to the parent staying in the community,” said Freidy Riess, the founder of Unchained At Last, an organization helping women leave arranged or forced marriages. “There’s supposed to be the separation of church and state, and there’s supposed to be a freedom of religion, but in essence what’s happening is that the courts are punishing anyone who wants to leave.”
However, in her ruling, Eisenpress stressed, “Again, this Court makes no judgments about the Mother’s personal choice to leave the religious community, but it appears that the Mother has not thoroughly considered the effects her intended actions will have on the children.”
For some, the case of Kelly Myzner vs. Moshe Gribeluk is not only a matter of law — it’s about politics. In areas where the Orthodox Jewish community has a large population that votes as a bloc, such as Rockland County, elected judges are often beholden to a very single-minded and powerful community. According to a recent Newsday article, Eisenpress in 2011 raised nearly $125,000 from Rockland County’s Orthodox Jewish community for her judicial campaign.
All of this is of little interest to Myzner, who says she wants to appeal the original custody ruling. “I’m not against anyone, I don’t want to offend anyone,” she says. “I just want my kids back.”