A family's nightmare touches 3 continents

October 15, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer Doug Struck of the Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this article.

Allegations of child-snatching and molestation are not unheard of in custody fights. So why have Orthodox Jewish leaders in three states and on three continents become so deeply involved in the case of Goldberger vs. Goldberger, a husband-wife battle being played out in Baltimore courtrooms?

The answer, in one sense, is simple: Both husband and wife have roots in a New Jersey town that is home to the world's largest rabbinical college. And they lived in Israel and England before moving into Baltimore's close-knit Orthodox Jewish community.

But the reasons go deeper than that. Goldberger vs. Goldberger has aroused passions in Jewish communities from Northwest Baltimore to Jerusalem because it apparently violates two fundamental principles of Orthodox Jewish law. The law forbids one Jew from participating in the jailing of another and discourages Jews from airing disputes in public courts. That's what a Beth Din, or rabbinical court, is for.

In this bitter family conflict, Mr. Goldberger has been indicted on charges of kidnapping and molesting his children. He has countered with charges that his wife, who has pressed the case against him, is mentally ill.

"It's hard for anyone to know what was going on behind closed doors," said Eliyohu Krohn, speaking about the case before a recent prayer service at Congregation Machzekai Torah off Park Heights Avenue. Still, he said, "There was no reason for anyone to take it out on the street. That's the pain here."

Before Aron and Esther Goldberger began trading public accusations their arranged marriage was as traditional as any within the Orthodox Jewish community.

Mrs. Goldberger is the daughter of Rabbi Moses Eisemann, who is well known in American Orthodox Jewish circles. Under the terms of the 1980 marriage, Mr. Goldberger was to be a religious scholar and, following custom, the Eisemann family and the Orthodox community would support the couple and their family, according to court records.

"She was and is a beautiful woman and I fell in love with her immediately," Mr. Goldberger wrote in 1990, when he still held out hope for a reconciliation.

The couple had two girls while living in New Jersey and three boys after moving to Jerusalem in 1983, court records show. With the couple expecting a sixth child in 1989, pediatricians examining the boys, ages 5, 4 and 2, discovered evidence of physical abuse and reported it to social service workers, said Mrs. Goldberger's lawyer, Susan Carol Elgin.

Mr. Goldberger, however, maintains that he is innocent and that it was members of the Eisemann family who called Social Services in October 1989, making public an allegation that he and others believe should have been kept within the Jewish community.

A month later, Mr. Goldberger and four of the children, including the boys, moved back to Israel. Although he says he left with his wife's blessing, he was later indicted on kidnapping charges.

Mrs. Goldberger paid private investigators to track her husband and children, who passed through Belgium and eventually landed in London.

Word of case spreads

After Mrs. Goldberger moved to England, a Beth Din there gave her custody of the children in July 1990 and directed Mr. Goldberger to give his wife a divorce under Jewish law, an order he ignored. By then, the wife had filed for a civil divorce in Baltimore courts. The husband responded by seeking visitation rights and saying his wife was mentally ill.

Word of the case traveled in Orthodox circles, with the wife producing affidavits from rabbis and former classmates of Mr. Goldberger in New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Israel and Baltimore to back her claim that he used his religion as an excuse to avoid work.

"He strikes me as a stubborn and obstinate fanatic," Rabbi Yisroel Reznitsky, executive director of the Torah Institute of Baltimore, wrote in one affidavit. "I have never known him to do an 'honest day's labor' and am not sure about his true religiosity which he purports."

Claims that Mr. Goldberger is a religious fraud are "ill-founded," said William T. Kerr, who represents him in the civil proceedings. "I don't mean to say he's not capable of being manipulative, but I think in his mind his pursuit of religiosity is genuine."

As word of the dispute spread, leaders in Baltimore's Orthodox community began taking sides. Last year, more than 20 rabbis signed a petition, hung in Baltimore synagogues, questioning the sincerity of Mr. Goldberger's religious beliefs.

The petition, printed in Hebrew, reads in part: "It is also a commandment for each and everybody to distance him, and it is forbidden to befriend him, and nobody should have any business with him at all, except of those relatives after whom he has to mourn."

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