Custody of Five Girls Awarded to Father in Israel

Five Israeli girls who have been living off and on in Maryland since 2010 will return to Israel and live with their father, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled on July 1.

Judge Yvette M. Bryant awarded Yoel Weiss sole legal and primary physical custody of the five girls, who are between the ages of 5 and 14.

Their mother, Yocheved Weiss, who lives in Baltimore, will have telephone and video chat visitation with the three younger children no less than twice weekly. She was not granted physical access to the children.

Divorce cases are pending in Baltimore and Jerusalem. Yocheved Weiss filed an appeal to the custody decision on July 9. A visitation hearing is scheduled for Nov. 19 in Baltimore.

The case, originally filed by Yocheved Weiss in November 2012, ultimately hinged on the court’s judgment that Yoel Weiss appeared to be a more nurturing caretaker to the children, several of whom testified that they wanted to return to Israel and not live with their mother.

Attorneys representing both parties could not be reached for comment about the decision.

The family first came to Baltimore, moving from Ramat Beit Shemesh in the foothills of Jerusalem, in the summer of 2010 to help out a member of Yocheved Weiss’ family. Joel Zuckerman, an attorney for Yoel Weiss, said in a previous interview that he thinks the couple was having problems when they first came to the United States. The father, the only member of the family without dual citizenship, arrived with a six-month tourist visa, which was not extended. His wife would not help him apply for a green card, Jerusalem court documents show.

Bryant wrote in her decision that Yocheved Weiss was dishonest about the move to Maryland and did not intend to return to Israel.

The couple separated in August 2011, at which point Yocheved Weiss was granted a restraining order and temporary custody. In October 2012, Yoel Weiss, who was living illegally in the U.S., flew back to Israel with the three oldest daughters without telling his estranged wife.

Yocheved Weiss “was dishonest regarding her plans (essentially lying to the entire family) when she moved the entire family from Israel, and [Yoel Weiss] was sneaky with his plans to return the children to Israel,” the judge found. “The court does not find that [Yoel Weiss] intended to deprive [Yocheved Weiss] of access to the children since she has dual citizenship and has the ability to return to Israel. The court finds the parties’ respective acts of treachery, as applied to this custody matter, is a draw.”

Yoel Weiss had previously been granted temporary custody by a regional rabbinical court in Jerusalem, but the three girls were later sent back to America in April 2013 after the Baltimore City Circuit Court awarded Yocheved Weiss temporary custody and ordered their return.

According to Bryant’s order, the girls were to be permitted to return to Israel after they met with two court agencies last week. After the custody ruling and prior to their return, they stayed with a family friend in Pikesville, as arranged by their father.

The court also ordered all five girls, Yoel and Yocheved Weiss undergo psychological evaluations in order to make visitation recommendations. The two oldest daughters refused to have contact with their mother and were not included in her visitation rights.

During the custody hearing, which took place over the course of five days in April and May, the court heard testimony from various members of the Jewish communities in Baltimore and Israel as well as several of the girls, who painted a picture of Yocheved Weiss as a mentally and physically abusive mother who yelled at and threatened her children and was disruptive in several school environments. During the case, the court issued an order prohibiting Yocheved Weiss from discussing the case with her children or showing any disappointment with her children’s testimony.

Jamie Metzler, a clinical social worker who spoke with the two oldest daughters, said they reported to him that Yocheved Weiss spoke to them angrily and humiliated them and that it had been going on for at least two years.

Sharon Dienstock, a teacher and adviser from the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, testified about a time that Yocheved Weiss was “loud and angry” and came backstage before a performance on Jan. 11, 2014, threatening to ground her oldest daughter if she didn’t pose for a picture with her mother. The Pikesville woman who the girls were staying with prior to their return to Israel testified that she was once threatened with a restraining ordered by Yocheved Weiss for saying hello to the girls at a public library.

Sara Itzkowitz, founding principal at the Bnos Yisroel School of Baltimore, testified that Yocheved Weiss came to the building with her second youngest daughter and caused a scene, telling her daughter that Itzkowitz was the person preventing her from going to school and wearing a uniform like her friends. She had to be escorted out by a rabbi.

A cousin who the two oldest girls went to live with in May 2013 said the children, who had not re-enrolled in fall 2012, did not attend school until around Thanksgiving that year.

Naomi Kornfeld of Ramat Beit Shemesh said that when Yoel Weiss returned to Israel with three of the girls, they were welcomed back into the community and quickly reintegrated. The girls were relaxed and happy and traveled with their father, she said.

Court documents noted that not once did Yocheved Weiss mention that she loves her children or that she wanted to help them mature. The court had trouble finding her credible since her testimony differed from others and sometimes contradicted her own.

“This court finds that [Yoel Weiss’] home is the home that offers the greatest assurance that each day will afford the same level of nurture, security, consistency, steadfastness with the children’s practice of the family’s faith, extracurricular opportunities, exposure to extended family members whom they enjoy, adventure and a mental and physical abuse-free environment,” Bryant wrote.

For more background on this case, read “Fate of Five Girls Hangs on Circuit Court Case,” May 16.

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