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Recent Developments

Bombshell in Italian Custody Battle: Father Revealed as Convert to Catholicism

Jonathan Rosenblum

Agudath Israel Petitions Italian Officials To Overturn Anti-Orthodox Custody Decision

NEW YORK - As an Italian appeals court prepares to consider the custody case of two Orthodox Jewish children separated from the charedi mother who raised them and placed them with their non-observant father, a stunning development - the father's reported conversion to Catholicism - has prompted renewed calls for the Italian authorities to ensure that the children will not be forcibly torn away from their faith.

The case concerns the 14 and 10 year-old daughters of Moshe Dulberg and his former wife, who is now remarried and a practicing Orthodox Jew. The girls, who were spirited by their mother to Israel and lived with her there for eight years before an Israeli court returned them to Italy, were ordered placed with their father earlier this year by a court in Genoa. It has now been revealed that Mr. Dulberg has apparently severed his ties to his Jewish heritage by formally converting to Catholicism. This striking development, along with reports of extreme steps that Mr. Dulberg has taken to prevent his daughters from maintaining their Jewish religious lifestyle - including forcing them to listen to New Testament readings - has heightened the sense of World Jewry's urgent concern for the welfare of the two children.

In missives to Italy's prime minister, president, ambassador to the United Nations and ambassador to the United States, Agudath Israel World Organization's director of international affairs, Professor Harry Reicher - himself a professor of international law at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law -- alerted the Italian officials to the serious problems the Genoa court's decision raises under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Italy is a party.

That agreement, like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaims the right to individual freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Another international agreement, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, explicitly applies those rights to children. Professor Reicher also cited an article in the latter convention that insists that "a child belonging to [a religious] minority... shall not be denied the right... to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language."

"The Court," asserts Professor Reicher, "has not only ignored these basic tenets, but has set about a course of 'social engineering' to 'wean' the girls away from their strongly professed and sincerely held Jewish heritage."

The Genoa court seemed to imply that it views Orthodox Jewish religious practice as unacceptable and that the mother's Orthodox Jewish life was prima facie proof of her parental incompetence; it ruled that their father see that the girls "re-enter models of cultural life and alternative conduct: by reading books of all kinds, familiarization with elements of cultural communication..."

The court, moreover, was told by psychologists that Orthodox Jews view "exploitation and abuse of children" as legitimate, and refused the local rabbi and former Israeli Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman the right to testify to the contrary about Jewish belief or practice. It has been charged that the court.

Further, the court virtually severed the girls from their mother, denying them any contact with their past life, a situation Professor Reicher characterizes as "horrific." Their mother is allowed to speak to each daughter for no more than ten minutes twice a week, and only in Italian. Her ex-husband tapes the conversations. The girls are permitted to see their mother only three times a month, in a location designated by their father and in the presence of people chosen by him. Again all conversation must be in Italian.

Making the matter even more troubling, notes Professor Reicher, is the fact that the girls feel threatened by their father, who was described by a preliminary psychological exam three years ago as "immature," "narcissistic," and prone to "uncontrolled bursts of aggression," and that they desperately want to live as Orthodox Jews with their mother.

In transcripts of telephone conversations with a third party, one of the girls describes her father as "frightening" and as threatening his daughters with physical punishment for their determination to rejoin their mother.

Testifying before the Genoa Minors' Court, the same girl stated that "My life was happy in Israel. The other girls in the school in Genoa live a very different life-style than the life I lived in Israel... I wish to point out that on the day of the first hearing before the court for minors, my father came home and told me, 'You have no hope any more.'... In Israel I was much more free than I am here."

Before the same court, her sister asserted that, "The people who love me are 1) my mother, 2) my sister." And, in a letter to her mother: "I am longing for you so much... [Father] is screaming all day, it's impossible to stand him, he's absolutely crazy and he says that we will never go back to Bnei Brak..." The girls are reportedly afraid to talk to anyone in the local Jewish community for fear that such contacts will be used as an excuse to cut off their last ties with their mother.

With a hearing of an appeal of the court decision scheduled for December 2, Agudath Israel and other organizations, like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Orthodox Union, are asking Italian officials to recognize the devastating human impact of the Genoa court 's decision. In his communication, Professor Reicher urged those officials to intervene and insist that the country's "international obligations be upheld, and that the girls be afforded every opportunity to practice their religious beliefs freely, and without fear or interference."

"The eyes of the Jewish world are upon your country and its judicial system," the Agudath Israel World Organization missive concluded. " We urge you to do everything within your power to reverse the terrible course that this case has taken thus far."

The new revelations about Mr. Dulberg's religious affiliation, contends Professor Reicher, provide all the more reason for the the Italian court - which referred to Mr. Dulberg as a "pure Jew, who observes the commandments" - to reverse its original ruling.

AM ECHAD RESOURCES


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