Italian custody battle tears girls from Orthodox mother

ROME — A controversial ruling that separated two Israeli girls from their fervently Orthodox mother and placed them into the custody of their non-observant father went before an appeals court in Genoa last week.

The case has triggered outrage in the Jewish world because of what is being characterized as the anti-religious bias of the Genoa Minors Court that made the original custody ruling.

"We strongly suspect that the custody order was born from an ideological approach, intolerant and repulsive as regards Jews in general, not only those who are Orthodox," said Rome Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, who was been asked to address the appeals court where the hearing opened last week.

The lower court dismissed the mother's claim to her daughters because, it said, she belonged to a "religious cult."

Instead, it ordered the father to wean the children from Orthodoxy and make sure that they "gradually re-enter alternative cultural and behavioral models."

Complicating matters are unconfirmed reports that the father has converted to Catholicism and is attempting to raise the girls as Christians.

The girls, now 14 and 10, are the daughters of Moshe Dulberg and his former wife, Tali Pikan, both Israelis who lived in Genoa.

The couple were divorced in 1991, and custody was awarded to the mother.

She eventually joined a Chasidic group and became Orthodox. Her ex-husband tried to regain custody of the children because of her embrace of Orthodoxy.

Spiriting the girls out of Italy, she returned to Israel, where she remarried a fervently religious rabbi.

The girls lived with their mother in Israel for eight years, until the Israeli Supreme Court ordered them returned to Italy in April for a final custody decision. The Italian court placed them with their father.

During the hearing in August, the girls testified that they wanted to remain with their mother. Psychologists called to testify on the father's behalf said this intense attachment was proof that Orthodox Judaism was a cult.

The custody ruling strictly limited the mother's contact with the girls, forbidding her even to speak to them in Hebrew.

She is permitted to speak on the phone to each daughter for no more than 10 minutes twice a week, only in Italian, and to see the children on a very limited basis. The father may tape the conversations.

Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union and other international groups have issued protests against the ruling.

In September, the Conference of European Rabbis issued a strongly worded statement expressing "complete rejection" of the court's decision and its stigmatization of Orthodox Judaism as a religious cult.

"This assertion is libelous and utterly untenable and will be acknowledged as such by religious authorities throughout the world," it said.

"The injustice of placing these children into an impossible situation including the restricted manner in which they are allowed to communicate with their mother is a total denial of their human rights as well as of their Jewish tradition," it said.

In recent letters to top Italian officials, the Agudath Israel World Organization said, "The eyes of the Jewish world are upon your country and its judicial system.

"We urge you to do everything within your power to reverse the terrible course that this case has taken thus far."