Father adopts religion, but loses son
Court lets kidnapping mom keep son in Europe. 'I saved him from Chabad fanatics,' she says
Einat Fishbein • Ynet
A five-year custody battle ended recently when a 17-judge panel at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasberg determined that Noam Shuruk, whose mother kidnapped him to Switzerland after his father joined the Chabad community, is to remain in her care.
The decision gave rise to claims of anti-Semitism and miscarriage of justice by both the State Prosecutor's Office and the father, who say the judges ruled in favor of the mother because the father is Israeli and ultra-Orthodox.
The mother, Isabelle Neulinger, recounted the kidnapping in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth. She said she had hired a smuggler for the sum of $30,000 to take her and Noam to Sharm El-Sheikh after they had crossed the border from Israel into the Egyptian Sinai peninsula.
"The smuggler crossed the border like a tourist, on foot, and waited for me on the other side," said Neulinger. Meanwhile, she hid sleeping Noam, just an infant at the time, under a pile of diving suits and prepared to drive across the Eilat-Taba border.
"When I reached the border crossing I was shaking. I felt like the midnight express. I knew that if I didn't succeed, they would take Noam away and send me straight to prison. I was covered in cold sweat. I pretended to be a Tel-Avivian going for a weekend in Sinai," Neulinger said.
"To this day I don't know how they (i.e: border security) failed to see the baby. If they had even looked through the window they would have seen him. They returned my Israeli passport and I said goodbye. I knew I would never come back."
Neulinger and her son, both Swiss citizens, crossed the Egyptian border using Swiss passports. Then the smuggler drove them to Sharm El-Sheikh and left them there. "I had two days until the flight to Geneva and I started to call everyone I knew in Israel, to tell them what I had done. Before that I told no one. I just disappeared one day," she said.
Five years ago Neulinger kidnapped her only son from his father, Shay Shuruk, a resident of Tel-Aviv who decided to adopt a religious lifestyle. A legal battle ensued, with the State of Israel and the father on one side and the mother on the other, which was decided seven months ago.
It was then that Switzerland's Supreme Court ordered that Noam be returned to Israel. But two weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights overturned the decision with a special panel of 17 judges, and ordered that the now seven-year old Noam remain with his mother. The decision is irreversible.
"I feel hugely relieved, and extremely exhausted," Neulinger admits. "For me, this has been like a giant game of chess. I have lost a few times, looked for different strategies, and there were many moments of desperation and loneliness. There were times when I arrived home from work, put Noam to sleep, and cried for hours because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to raise him alone while working and fighting to keep him with me."
For Noam's father it was no easier. "It was heartbreaking," said Shay Shuruk in a measured tone. "I was sure they would rule in our favor and that I would be flying to Switzerland to bring my son home after five years of delayed justice. I will move forward, but I am broken inside. I lost my son. Even the final picture I had taken with him, at a photo booth during a trip we took a few days before he was kidnapped, has faded."
For the State of Israel, too, the court's decision signifies a great loss – of the state's sovereignty and its rule of law. Every year the Justice Ministry is plagued by 40-50 kidnapping cases from or to Israel, and 300 cases are currently unsolved.
Most of the kidnappings are by mothers, and the Strasburg court's decision therefore sets a dangerous precedent which may end up encouraging such crimes.
Fortunately Noam, who has become well-known in the Swiss press, remains blissfully unaware of the commotion revolving around him. He was immediately taken in by his mother's family and will start first grade this year. Neulinger describes him as extremely smart and curious, and when he asks about his father she tells him it is "too complicated" for him to understand right now. Maybe some day you'll meet him, she says.
A love story gone wrong
It all began with a decade-old love story, when Neulinger, who is a 50-year old Jewish citizen of Switzerland, came to Eilat for a vacation. Her late husband had died a short while earlier, and she wanted to make a fresh start in what she remembered as "the land of kibbutzim and sandals".
When she arrived she found that the land she remembered from her childhood had greatly developed. "Even the espresso was good," she jokes. She decided to immigrate, and after three months found herself in Tel-Aviv. "I fell in love instantly," she says.
In an apartment by the sea, surrounded by family members and former Europeans like herself, Neulinger was soon at home. She began to work for the hi-tech company at which she was employed in Switzerland, which had opened an Israeli branch, and soon she met Shay.
The 39-year old actor was living in her building and teaching phys-ed at a nearby school. They began dating and soon fell in love, and were married after just eight months.
"He was charming, funny, nice, very handsome, and just an all-around wonderful guy," Neulinger recalls. "We traveled to Switzerland together before the wedding and everyone was just charmed by him."
After they were married, they began to keep the Jewish tradition. At first it was Neulinger, who wanted to celebrate holidays in a religious manner, and then Shuruk, who decided he wanted to keep the Sabbath.
The couple met Rabbi David Aziza, a Chabad rabbi who specializes in bringing young residents of Tel-Aviv closer to the Jewish religion. After Noam was born Shuruk, whose wages were lower than Neulinger's, offered to quit his job to take care of the baby, in order to save money on a sitter.
'He threatened to kill me'
"That was my big mistake," the mother recalls. "I was working, providing, breast-feeding, and I thought he was doing what any other father would do with a child – going to the park and such. After a while I discovered that they had been spending all their time at the (Chabad) center, where (Shay) would study and stand in the street, convincing people to lay tefillin, with the child in his arms. It was all downhill from there. Aziza, his mentor, affected him. He asked me to go to the mikveh (ritual bath) and I agreed, and then to keep kosher and cover my head, and I did it all because I thought it would help."
But Shuruk claims the couple had agreed upon marrying that their home would be properly Jewish, and that it was Neulinger's parents who scared her into thinking they were going too far. "She had a hard time being a mother in the beginning," he explains. "I saw that the best thing for her would be to go back to work and for me to take responsibility for the boy and the house. I raised that child faithfully for a year – I was his father and his mother."
But then, Neulinger says, Shuruk began to disappear at night and early in the morning for prayers, as well as to bring her special soap to scrub her hands with before she touched Noam. "He said he wasn't sure my milk was kosher enough because he didn't know what I ate outside the house, and that I wasn't pure enough to touch the baby," she says.
She confronted Aziza, and told him she wanted her husband to go back to work to provide for his family. "He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I suggest you join us or we're going to have a problem'," she says.
The final straw, says Neulinger, was when Shuruk ordered her to wear a skirt. It was then she acquired the services of a lawyer. "I started a secret process behind Shay's back. I kept a low profile, and slowly we filed custody appeals, alimony, requests, and a stay of exit order until Noam reached 18. I was afraid he would kidnap him to some Chabad community in Brooklyn."
Eventually Neulinger got a divorce, and received custody of Noam. But she says her life "changed from a dream into a nightmare" when Shuruk refused to leave their home. "He threatened me with horrible things – that I would lose everything, that I would have my child taken away," she says.
After she complained to a social worker, Neulinger says, Shuruk came into her bedroom at night and threatened to kill her. The father adamantly denies the claims, saying they were fashioned by Neulinger at the time to get him out of the house.
"Once I had my divorce, I decided to run away," says the mother. "I couldn't take any more of the abuse and the threats."
'Shay was brainwashed by Chabad cult'
When Neulinger left Israel, Shuruk was just a Chabad member starting out. But today he is a well-known rabbi in Tel-Aviv, and can be seen riding his rollerblades around the city in a black suit and traditional hat, and a long beard. He is currently on his third marriage, during which he fathered another child, in addition to two others from his second marriage.
Neulinger was shocked to discover the change he had undergone. "I believe that if he had not been brainwashed we would still be living happily in Israel," she says. "He was a pure and clean soul before he became fanatic."
When the mother tried to renew Noam's passport, she discovered she was wanted by Interpol. The Israeli government had informed Shuruk that Neulinger had broken the law by taking Noam from him because they were both his guardians, and that the Hague Convention held that she must return him to Israel immediately. He began the battle for his son.
But it was a losing battle at first, with the mother convincing the Swiss court that Shuruk was an unsuitable guardian on the grounds that he could not provide, and belonged to a "cult" – Chabad.
"I truly believe it was a danger to him," she claims. "If we had gone back he would be a member of Chabad now and I would be in jail."
Eventually, Switzerland's federal court ruled in Shuruk's favor, but Neulinger appealed to the Court of Human Rights, which granted a stay. She lost, however, and in 2009 appealed to the court's Grand Chamber – a panel of 17 judges and the highest authority in the country, and hired two expert lawyers to argue her case. "I took loans I will be paying until the day I die," she says.
Meanwhile the years passed, and the Grand Chamber could not ignore that Noam had become rooted in Switzerland while debating his best interest. The judges also had to consider that Neulinger, if returned to Israel, was likely to spend almost 20 years in prison.
The decision was nearly unanimous, with only one judge in favor of returning the mother and her son to Israel.
'An anti-Semitic decision'
"They brought in a psychologist who stated unequivocally that moving the child to Israel would tear him from his life and cause him irreparable damage," said her attorney, Yigal Zander. "The father did not bring in an expert opinion for rebuttal, and this worked against him."
He added that Shuruk, with his rollerblades and strange ways, cut quite an intimidating figure in the judges' eyes. "I also believe Israel's conduct during those days, with the Turkish flotilla, was unhelpful. People see us as a conflicted and complicated place with a leadership that has no idea what it's doing," he said.
"Bottom line – it's a decision against Israel."
Ironically, Shuruk's attorney agrees. "The judges' knowledge about Israel was extremely lacking," he said. "If they had heard of Israel it was only bad things, and anti-Semitism leaked out from every single word of their ruling. They didn't want to give us a right to speak, then they insisted we write only in French – they were hostile from the beginning."
He added that Neulinger had described the ultra-Orthodox community as a third-world cult, and Israel as "a country filled with camels and sand dunes".
"I funded this trial out of my own pocket, because I believed this boy should be returned to Israel. I saw it as saving him from the Swiss inferno, and the hatred of the French people," he says.
The State Prosecutor's Office claims its appeals were entirely ignored by the court, which decided to take into account the time span Noam had spent in Switzerland in spite of the fact that this had been due to lengthy court procedures.
"The court decided not to return the child to Israel while completely ignoring the father's rights. The court actually turned the debate into a custody hearing, in complete violation of the spirit of the Hague Convention and its orders," the office stated.
'He just wants another soul for Chabad'
But in the five years that have passed, Neulinger says, Shuruk never tried to contact his son. "He never came here or contacted us," she says. "He fought for Noam, but without showing any interest in him. I don't believe Noam interests him at all, he just wants another Jewish soul for Chabad."
Still, Shuruk says he misses his son. He claims he had not tried to visit him for fear that the police would follow him and arrest him for the slightest wrongdoing.
Neulinger, for her part, fears Noam will be kidnapped back to Israel. "I'm always looking over my shoulder," she says. "Anyone who watches Noam knows he can't be left alone for a second."
When confronted with the irony of this, as she herself had kidnapped Noam five years ago, Neulinger is defensive. "I kidnapped him to save my life, and to save him from a fanatical community," she says. "(Shuruk) was completely crazy."
The mother intends, however, to tell Noam about his father. "When he's 18 he will be able to do whatever he wants, even go to Israel, or become a Chabad rabbi if that is what will make him happy," she says. "My responsibility right now is to distance him from this environment and give him the choice when he grows up. I just keep thinking how he will respond to this 'mishugina' (i.e: crazy person) when he sees him."
Despite all this, and despite the fact that Neulinger has agreed to let Shuruk see his son only under tight watch, the father prays for his return. "In my view, there is no logic here, so this is obviously a test," he says. "Fear of God is measured when there is a test."