An international custody case in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City will determine if five Israeli-born girls between the ages of 5 and 14 will return to their birthplace and live with their father or remain in Baltimore with their mother.
Yocheved Weiss, the girls’ mother, is suing Yoel Weiss for custody. While there was a brief separation when they lived in Baltimore, the couple has been apart since the father moved back to Israel in October 2012 with three of the children. The girls have since returned to the United States for the duration of the custody hearing, as ordered by Israeli and American courts.
According to court documents and attorney Joel Zuckerman, who represents Yoel Weiss, the couple married in 1998 a few years after meeting in Moscow. They bought an apartment in Ramat Beit Shemesh in the foothills of Jerusalem, where they lived from 2002 until July 2010.
That summer, with one of Yocheved Weiss’ family members having legal issues, the entire family moved to Baltimore to help. Her husband, the only member of the family without dual citizenship, arrived in the country with a six-month tourist visa, which was not extended. When he tried to apply for a green card, his wife wouldn’t help him, filings with the Family Court in Jerusalem show.
“I don’t think [Yoel and Yocheved] were happy campers when they came to the United States,” Zuckerman said.
Attempts to reach attorneys representing Yocheved Weiss for comment on the case were unsuccessful.
Yocheved Weiss worked as a political consultant in Washington, D.C., while Yoel Weiss worked as a teacher at a yeshiva and kollel. The couple first separated in August 2011, when Yocheved was granted a restraining order and temporary custody. During Passover in April 2012, Yoel moved back into the house but did not leave even though it was supposed to be temporary, court documents said.
A dispute with Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore that fall apparently resulted in the couple’s school-aged girls not starting school. On Oct. 11 of that year, Yoel Weiss flew back to Israel with the three oldest daughters, now 7, 13 and 14. They stayed in England for a short time prior to returning to Israel.
“The kids weren’t happy here, the kids wanted to be in Israel,” Zuckerman maintained.
But while the girls’ father successfully obtained temporary custody from a regional rabbinical court in Jerusalem two weeks later, his estranged wife claimed that his action amounted to nothing more than international abduction. According to filings, the day Yoel Weiss left for Israel, he had been visiting with his parents from overseas; along with the five girls, they left to spend a day in Washington, D.C., telling Yocheved Weiss that they’d be home late.
That night, Yoel Weiss’ parents dropped off the two youngest daughters, reportedly not saying a word about where the other children were. When one of the remaining girls said their father was on an airplane, Yocheved Weiss called the State Department. Her in-laws reportedly admitted to driving their son and missing granddaughters to the airport and helping them purchase plane tickets.
In an addendum to her application to the Hague Abduction Convention, Yocheved Weiss argued that since her estranged husband did not have a current visa or green card, his departure from the United States was a tactic with which to gain custody of their children.
“Our immigration attorney had repeatedly told us that if he left America without the right to be here, he would likely not be allowed back for 10 years,” she stated in the filing. “Yoel, therefore, fled the country with three of our five children, knowing that he would not be able to return.”
In December 2012, the girls’ mother won temporary custody from the Baltimore City Circuit Court, which also ordered the children’s return to the United States.
During the legal maneuverings, Yocheved Weiss lost her job. She found work as an independent consultant, working about 15 hours per week, according to an affidavit filed by her legal team in May 2013.
Yoel Weiss has argued that the family had always intended to return to Israel, but his wife has maintained that things changed in 2012, when the family signed up for synagogue membership, the kids were registered for private school, and school uniforms and winter clothes were purchased. Yocheved Weiss has claimed the family was comfortable in Baltimore and was planning to stay.
While the three daughters returned to the U.S. in April 2013, their father maintains that they wanted to go back to Israel. As court proceedings began last year, he petitioned for an attorney to represent the girls’ interests in court. Yoel Weiss’ attorneys, who wrote that two of the girls had been living with an adult cousin because they refused to live with their mother, were granted the request.
“The children, who are Hebrew-speaking Orthodox Jews, are apparently having a rough time adjusting to life in Baltimore,” said the order, stamped by the court in August 2013.
The custody hearing resumed this week in circuit court, and Zuckerman said he expects the judge to make a decision by the end of the month. Divorce cases are pending in Maryland and in the rabbinic court in Israel.