In a bitter custody case that has sparked international Jewish concern, an Italian appeals court last week threw out a lower-court decision that granted custody of two Jewish children to their non-observant Israeli-born father, and not their Orthodox mother.
The reversal brought a sigh of relief from American Orthodox Jewish leaders who charged that the lower court in Genoa discriminated against Orthodox Judaism, likening it to a dangerous cult.
In a Dec. 24 ruling, the Italian appellate court declared that the lower court, called the Minors Court, did not have proper jurisdiction based on a technicality. (The Minors Court had ruled that the parents were never legally married because they were wed in a religious ceremony in Israel. But the appeals court overruled that determination.)
The appeals court ordered a new custody hearing, scheduled for April 12, in a different Genoa court.
“Finally, this is the first time there is justice in this crazy case,” declared the mother, Tali Pikan-Rosenberg, in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week from her home in Bnei Brak, a religious community near Tel Aviv.
But the “crazy case” case is extremely complicated and far from over, experts say.
Pikan-Rosenberg faces kidnapping charges in a Venice court for taking her children back to Israel in 1996.
And a case may yet be filed in Israel to overturn Israel’s decision to allow the case to be heard in Italy, said Pikan-Rosenberg’s attorney.
“The legal questions here are terribly complicated,” said Italian attorney Mario Gutierres.
Pikan-Rosenberg has been locked in a four-year battle with ex-husband Moshe Dulberg, who still lives in Genoa, over custody of their two daughters, Nitzan Dulberg, 14, and Danielle, 10. She says that since her ex-husband was granted custody by the Minors Court last August, she has had no time alone with her daughters during once-a-month visits, and is prohibited from speaking with them in Hebrew over the phone.
She also charged that her ex-husband recently converted to Catholicism, and is forcing the children, who for several years have been living an Orthodox lifestyle, to abandon Jewish practices and read from the New Testament.
“I have proof he is Catholic,” she said.
Dulberg’s attorney denied the charge Tuesday. “This news is rubbish,” Enrico Graego said from Genoa. “There is big disinformation from Mrs. Pikan.”
But Harry Reicher, director of international affairs for Aguadth Israel World Organization, an Orthodox advocacy group, said he has confirmed that Dulberg has converted.
“I’ve taken steps to verify it,” said Reicher, a professor of international law at the University of Pennsylvania. He said he has a tape of a Genoa priest admitting to converting Dulberg.
Reicher called the appellate court reversal “a mixed blessing.” He said the reversal throws out the “horrific orders concerning visitation rights and the egregious order concerning weaning the children from their Jewish heritage.”
But Reicher cautioned that the appeals court ruling, “leaves the status quo, with the children in the hands of the father, and no structured visitation rights.”
Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive director of the Orthodox Union, which mobilized an international publicity campaign via the Internet, also said the reversal is a partial victory.
“While this is indeed a moment of celebration at our united effort, the struggle for an appropriate environment for the children continues,” he said.
In their campaign, the Orthodox groups were joined by diverse allies, including New York Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s Appeals to Conscience Foundation, the Conference of European Rabbis, and Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“One of our overarching concerns was the demonization of traditional Judaism,” Rabbi Butler said. “The fact that this could go on today in Italy raises an alarming red flag.”
He noted that the Minors Court ruling virtually cut off the girls from their Orthodox mother and friends and directed them to see popular Italian movies and concerts — which Orthodox critics say violates their strict lifestyle.
Rabbi Butler noted that the court’s decision was made without any independent psychological evaluation of the children or the parents. And Reicher argued it violated international child protection laws.
A spokesman for the Italian embassy in Washington confirmed that his office tried to help the Orthodox groups state their concerns to the Italian government. Embassy official Giampaolo Cantini. He said his office has been deluged with e-mails from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But Cantini said the government’s position is that the case is in the hands of Italy’s judiciary.
He also disputed the notion that Italy is anti-Orthodox. “The law is impartial, it has nothing to do with religious bias,” Cantini stated. “The fact that the court of appeals has reversed it is proof of that.”
But Pikan-Rosenberg firmly believes she is being discriminated against because she is Orthodox. She became a baalat teshuva, or returnee to observance, about five years ago. She said her ex-husband successfully convinced the lower court she is in “a dangerous crazy cult.”
Pikan-Rosenberg said Italian psychiatrists paid by her ex-husband cited strict Orthodox Jewish practices, like wearing long skirts, and not watching television, to make her seem like a bad mother.
“They are trying to make me out as a crazy person because I am an Orthodox Jew and they don’t know our rules.” In 1998 she remarried for the third time to Rabbi Sriel Rosenberg.
She fears she will not get a fair hearing in April because her husband is now a Catholic living in a Catholic country.
She says she misses her daughters. “My daughters are there, crying they want mommy, and I cannot see them,” Pikan-Rosenberg said. Until April there is nothing do. This is like a crazy movie.”