I received a phone call a few weeks ago from a woman in the haredi world who is constantly involved in acts of kindness and charity, and thus constantly in hot water. This time, she had taken in a fourteen year-old girl who had run away from home. Let’s call her Devorah, our little lost girl, and the woman who took her in Zehava. Devorah lives in one of the outer suburbs of Jerusalem with her parents and four other siblings. Devorah and her 16 year-old sister decided to defy their parents by refusing to attend the local ultra Orthodox Bais Yaakov School for Girls because it doesn’t prepare girls to take their matriculation exams (bagrut) and thus a variety of well-paying jobs. Instead, the girls registered themselves in the Chabad high school in Jerusalem, also an Orthodox institution, but one that does prepare girls for matriculation.
Their parents were furious. In revenge, they decided to lock up all the food in the house in their bedroom, and to deny their daughters access.
Both girls were forced to wash floors after school to earn money for food and transportation to and from school. Often, they went hungry. Both looked forward to Shabbat, the only time the parents provided them with food. This went on for months, until the situation suddenly escalated. Devorah’s father, seeing that starvation wasn’t working, decided to present his case with physical force. The beating sent Devorah out of the house fleeing for shelter. She wound up at the home of one of her brother’s friends, under the sheltering wing of the boy’s mother, Zehava.
“All she wants is food to eat, and to be allowed to continue her studies. She wants to go to a foster home,” Zehava tells me. “I don’t know what to do. Can you help?”
Well, of course, my first question was what about her parents? How do they feel about their daughter having run away? Do they want her to go to a foster home? Zehava said she’d had one conversation with Devorah’s mother, which she initiated after a whole week of silence, even though Devorah’s mother knew where her daughter was. The mother seemed unperturbed and quite gracious. She had no problem with her daughter bunking out with strangers. Zehava has ten children of her own, and a tiny apartment in Meah Shearim, and so it wasn’t a permanent solution.
I called the Israeli Council for the Child, headed by Dr. Yitzchak Kadmon. The Council, which does really excellent work in promoting public policies to protect the rights of Israeli children as well as publicizing abuses, has counselors on hand to help those in need of advice concerning children at risk. Counselors, who were most helpful and sympathetic, told me exactly what to do: The social services unit in Devorah’s neighborhood had a special social worker for young girls in distress. The counselor gave me her name and number and advised me to get Zehava to bring the girl there as soon as possible. If she was at risk, a foster home would be arranged for her immediately, and her parents would be warned — even arrested — for their behavior.
I passed the information on, congratulating myself that the problem was solved.
Too easy. Devorah, terrified at her parents reaction to involving the authorities, refused to cooperate. Later that week, Zehava received a less than sympathetic phone call from Devorah’s father. Send Devorah home, he warned, or I’ll kill you.
So what happened? Devorah reluctantly packed up and went back home. It’s not so bad, she called to tell Zehava. She has a job as a housecleaner, and most of the time she has something to eat, even if it’s only bread. The beatings have stopped. But she isn’t able to go to school anymore. She doesn’t have the fare. She still isn’t willing to go to the local Beit Yaakov, which her parents claim is the reason for the way they’ve treated her. Her sister is still wandering around, sleeping each night with a different classmate, trying to hang in until she can graduate.
I think of Devorah sometimes, little lost girl, wondering if I’m right to keep resisting the urge to gather her into my home and give her a warm bed and lots of lots of nutritious food, the kind fourteen-year old girls need to grow into lovely young women. I can see her doing her math and English lessons by a bright desklamp, a cup of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies by her side, looking up every once in a while to ask some help with her homework, as she prepares to take her matriculation exams. Perhaps we would talk about college or Seminary, about careers, about new clothes, and cooking recipes. The kind of things I talked to my own daughters about when they were fourteen. And maybe, once a week, to help out, she might wash a floor or two, the way my own daughters did, right before shabbat.
I think of her often, little lost girl, and wonder: What to do? And how many more like her are out there?