Esti Weinstein saga: Haredi community unfairly maligned?

June 29, 2016  

Channel 10 news reporter Avishai Ben-Haim, who works very closely with the haredi community (but is not haredi himself), thinks the press has committed a grave injustice in its coverage of the suicide of Esti Weinstein, saying that “basically everything you’ve heard about haredi wickedness in this matter is untrue.”

Weinstein was found dead in her car on Sunday after years of estrangement from her Gerrer hassidic family, and her story continues to make waves in Israeli public discourse. The circumstances surrounding the tragic event have sparked debate about the Gerrer hassidic community, its social norms and practices (especially as pertains to the treatment of women), and attitudes within religious circles to those who leave religious observance. 

Weinstein left a will explaining her reasons for taking her own life and a tell-all book about her life story. She accuses the Gerrer community of forbidding her children from having any contact with her once she left religious observance, and cites the disconnect from her family as the main cause of her emotional suffering, leading to her suicide. Many in the press have put the blame for the tragedy squarely on Weinstein’s family and the Gerrer hassidic and wider haredi community in general. The veteran channel 10 reporter thinks this is grossly unfair.

In a Facebook post, Ben-Haim spells out the results of his investigations into specific allegations made about the circumstances of Weinstein’s estrangement from her family and their conduct surrounding the funeral.

Ben-Haim opens with his impressions from the funeral itself:  

“This is what injustice looks like. We came to Esti Weinstein’s funeral today expecting to meet her evil and cold-hearted family and instead met a noble and sensitive family, we heard a eulogy from a loving haredi father and an explanation and request for forgiveness from a hurting haredi daughter.  

“All of this means that we need to rewrite the entire story of the past 48 hours and tell the truth: everything you heard about the wickedness of the haredi side was a lie.”

The Channel 10 reporter then goes into detail, discussing individual claims made in the press, going point by point through the events, in chronological order: 

“Something about this seemed fishy to me from the beginning. First it was claimed that the haredi family members were going to snatch the body to bury it on their own terms. I called and spoke with the family. They were shocked by the idea, ‘Of course not! Heaven forbid!’. I don’t need to tell you that no one actually tried to snatch the body.

“Next they said that Weinstein’s daughters broke off contact from their mother because of a cruel order from the Admor [leader of a hassidic community]. I called again, I spoke with the family, and they swore that there was no directive from the Admor and explained that this was not a religious issue at all, merely a human one. The girls were angry at their beloved mother who simply up and left them one day 7 years ago. Hence the estrangement.   

“Afterwards they said that the haredim are demanding she be buried outside of the cemetery walls. I called, spoke with the family, and they were shocked by the idea, ‘she was a good mother, we love her. We never had any such plans.’

“Then they said that they don’t intend to sit Shiva [week-long mourning period in Jewish law] for Esti. I called, spoke with the family, they were shocked by that idea too. No such thing had ever crossed their minds.

“Next, they said that the family is demanding a small and quick haredi funeral that will demean Esti’s memory. I called. Spoke with the family. They said this was untrue and that they had every intention of honoring their late mother’s wishes, having already made clear that they have no problem with there being flowers and songs at the funeral [as per Weinstein’s instructions in her will].

“Then the courts were petitioned to make sure that the funeral will be held with a secular atmosphere (not that songs and flowers really make a funeral ‘secular’), and it was reported that the secular side won as the court ruled against the haredi family. But the haredi family never sent anyone to the hearing to contest any of this and wasn’t even part of any fight. They didn’t want to fight about this and there was no need to ‘beat them’ in court, for as I’ve already written, the family wanted to honor Esti’s non-haredi wishes.

“After that, it was claimed that the family was boycotting the funeral, which would indeed be the height of cruelty. But then… well, then we saw a large group of haredi Gerrer hassidic women arriving at the funeral, sobbing, and sad Gerrer hassidic men, all standing to the side, quietly and politely, and waiting for the time when they will be able to take part in the proceedings. We heard the father eulogizing his daughter, and the eldest daughter Raheli eulogizing her mother. No haredi told Raheli that she wasn’t allowed to speak in this kind of forum because she’s a girl.

“It was then that I understood that this week, a grave injustice was committed among the Jewish people.” 

Some in the haredi blogosphere and beyond have reacted with skepticism to these revelations, claiming that the family was coached for their press exposure by Gerrer leadership desperate to counter all the bad PR they’ve been getting. However, Ben-Haim has certainly shown that at least some of the allegations made were simply inaccurate.

Ben-Haim’s post ends with a quote of the full text of Weinstein’s eldest daughter’s eulogy, excerpts from which were available before the funeral and were published by Arutz Sheva. 

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