A family's nightmare touches 3 continents


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."

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of Congregation Shomrei Emunah said he signed the petition because Mr. Goldberger reflected poorly on the Jewish community. "My own personal feeling is when the man was ordered to do something by a rabbinical court and the Circuit Court, he should do so or he'll have to face the consequences," the rabbi said.

Interest in the case extends half a world away. An Oct. 2 article in the weekly newspaper In Jerusalem notes that Mrs. Goldberger's father, Rabbi Eisemann, has incurred the wrath of some followers for taking a family squabble to the secular courts -- and for allegedly reporting his son-in-law to Baltimore Social Services workers.

"Wanted posters denouncing his action have been plastered throughout" religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, the article states.

Menachem Friedman, professor of sociology at Bar Ilan University in Jerusalem and an expert on the ultra-Orthodox, said the strong feelings surrounding the issue can be traced to ancient times. In those days, Jews kept their conflicts internal because going before a gentile court and swearing before a non-Jewish god was to recognize a gentile sovereignty.

The most amazing reflection of the widespread interest in the case, say the Baltimore lawyers in the custody fight, is the ability of two people who do not hold jobs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue their legal battles.

Esther Goldberger, 31, finds raising six children to be a full-time pursuit and apparently gets money for legal fees from her family, said Ms. Elgin.

Mr. Kerr said Mr. Goldberger, also 31, cannot easily find work because he has been ostracized in the Jewish community and because his customs and appearance would make it difficult for him to find work elsewhere. "Aron has his black robes that he wears and they're all he owns. He's not your average member of the community," Mr. Kerr said.

Mr. Kerr and other lawyers for Mr. Goldberger are paid by his backers in England and New Jersey. It's money that could be better spent, argue Mrs. Goldberger's attorney and a lawyer appointed by the court to represent the six children.

"This man has raised over $150,000 in a year's time -- for what?" said Ms. Elgin. "His children need therapy for what they've gone through. He hasn't paid a dime for that. Yet he fights on. What's his cause?"

Fund-raising efforts for Mr. Goldberger's legal efforts are coordinated by Michael Rottenberg, a board member of Beth Medrash Govoha, the Lakewood, N.J., rabbinical college.

"Unjustifiably humiliated"

"I really felt he was unjustifiably humiliated to the lowest level a human being can be," said Mr. Rottenberg, who said he did not know Mr. Goldberger before he was asked by both sides to mediate the dispute. He added, "The children are not deprived. Whatever they had before, they have now, even more."

He said the Orthodox Jewish community was largely on the wife's side when the matter first became known, but since then "even the people who think he may have done something wrong feel he should not be in jail."

Last month, Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti sentenced Mr. Goldberger to three years for contempt of court for ignoring an order to pay more than $4,000 a month in child support. That sentence was stayed after Mr. Goldberger's lawyers filed an appeal, but he was locked up again when the child-abduction charges, which had been placed on the inactive docket in 1991, were reactivated by a prosecutor. Mr. Goldberger spent three weeks in jail before he was released on $50,000 bail -- just in time to observe Rosh Hashana. His kidnapping trial is scheduled for Oct. 26.

Mr. Goldberger was indicted Oct. 1 on sexual abuse charges, even as supporters in Baltimore and London negotiated with a rabbi in New York to try to find a way to settle the matter. He surrendered at the Baltimore police Central District last Thursday morning -- a day after he observed Yom Kippur by praying at Congregation Machzekai Torah.

After spending most of three days behind bars, Mr. Goldberger was released Saturday on $50,000 bail. He is scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 22 on the sexual child abuse charges.

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