Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Kidnapping of Yossele Schumacher – A Domestic Quarrel that Divided Israel in the 1960s

The Yossele Schumacher affair was basically a domestic quarrel that got out of hand. It took two Supreme Court decisions, a nationwide police search and ultimately a joint Mossad-Shin Bet operation to find the kidnapped boy. The affair exposed a rift between religious and secular Jews. The cry "Where is Yossele?"directed in defiance towards ultra-orthodox (Haredi) Jews became a rallying call, if not a battle cry, for the secular Israeli public of the early 60's. The father of this writer remembers vividly seeing a truck full of soldiers in one of the main streets of Jerusalem singing this chant when they saw a Haredi man walking in the street.

Since the affair was initially an internal Israeli one, the vast majority of documents we are publishing here, including police reports, letters from both sides to the president and to Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, stenograms of government meetings and more, are in Hebrew. See them on our Hebrew blog.

Yosef (Joseph or 'Yossele', an affectionate Yiddish nickname) Schumacher was born in 1952 in the Soviet Union. In 1957, Yossele and his parents, Ida and Alter, came on aliya. Due to economic hardship the parents left Yossele with Ida's father, Nachman Shtarks, who lived in the Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula.  Shtarks was a former prisoner in the Soviet gulag, where he was tortured for his steadfast religious beliefs. He didn't falter.
After settling down and improving their economic status, the parents asked the grandfather to return their son. The grandfather refused. Shtarks wanted Yossele to learn in a Haredi yeshiva. He believed that his son-in-law (with whom he wasn't on the best of terms) was a communist and wanted to return to the Soviet Union. He claimed that Alter was subjecting his grandson to Shmad – forced conversion to another religion (in this case – to Communist atheism). Shtarks received a Psak Din (a religious verdict) from Jerusalem's chief rabbi, Pesach Zvi Frank, which allowed him to keep his grandson in his custody, in order to prevent him from being forced to leave Judaism. (It later became clear that Rabbi Frank was not in full possession of the facts.)

After filing a complaint with the police, the parents took the case to the Supreme Court of Justice. The Supreme Court issued a Habeas Corpus order on 10/2/1960, ordering the grandfather to return the child to his parents. The grandfather refused. The court issued another order a month later demanding the immediate return of the boy and instructed the police to carry out the order. The grandfather did not comply, basing his objection on Rabbi Frank's Psak Din. In May 1960, the court ordered the arrest and imprisonment of Nachman Shtarks until he complied with the order. The grandfather remained in jail until the end of the affair in autumn 1962.

But what had happened to Yossele?  After the complaint to the police and the first verdict, the boy was taken out of his Yeshiva in Rishon leZion and moved to different locations, including the Haredi village of Kommemiut (in the south of Israel, near Ashqelon) and later the city of Bnei Brak.

New faces entered the fray, such as Neturei Karta (Guardians of the Walls in Aramaic), the extreme anti-Zionist Haredi group, which joined the efforts to hide the boy and invited a Frenchwoman--a convert to Judaism named Ruth ben David--to help them in their efforts to smuggle the child abroad. Ben David (whose original name was Madeleine Ferraille) was a successful Maquis resistance courier during World War II and managed to smuggle Yossele out of Israel as her daughter (here is an article from the Jerusalem Post about her).  Passport control at Lod airport was looking for a boy – not a girl.

Yossele was moved to several European countries – Switzerland, France and Britain. In July 1960, a police report mentioned the possibility that he was in London, from hints in postcards sent by Shtark's son Ovadiah who lived there. In March 1962, the principal of a boarding school in Gateshead, a major center of the Haredi community in England, complained to the Israeli ambassador in London, Arthur Lourie, about a search of the school. Feldman wrote that the local police and representatives of the Haifa police had descended on the school during morning prayers and held all those present for questioning, although there was no evidence that the boy was there.

Meanwhile Yossele was transferred to New York, under the supervision of the Satmar Hasidim, who (like the Neturi Karta) were virulent anti-Zionists. Meanwhile the parents' lawyer, Shlomo Cohen-Zidon, formed a public committee to return Yossele to his parents, and a wide range of public figures were approached to try to end the dispute. 

Due to the Israel Police's failure to find Yossele and rising tensions between religious and secular Israelis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the head of the security services, Isser Harel (the overall director of both the Mossad and Shin Beth) to find the boy. Dozens of Mossad agents and volunteers were sent to Jewish communities in Europe, especially Haredi ones. Ruth Ben David's name came up and Harel believed that she could be the key person in the affair. Ben David was lured to a house in France and was held there for weeks, while Mossad agents tried to convince her to tell where Yossele was being held. Ben David refused to cooperate and only when Harel himself arrived and convinced her that it was for the boy's own good, she agreed to tell them the truth. Harel was so impressed that he offered her a job in the Mossad – but she declined.

Yossele was found in Brooklyn, New York in the residence of Rabbi Zanvil Gertner, a Satmar Hassid. He was reunited with his mother in the Israeli consulate in New York.
Following the return of Yossele to Israel, the government decided to stop all legal proceedings against the people involved in the kidnapping, except for Shalom Shtarks, Yossele's uncle, who denied involvement and left Israel to live in Britain. After his involvement was revealed, he was extradited to Israel after a long legal battle (here are the minutes in the House of Lords concerning the extradition of Shtarks), in which he claimed that as a resident of Jerusalem, Israel had no jurisdiction over him (which didn't endear him on to many of Israel's citizens). He was sentenced to 3 years in jail, but received a pardon in 1963. These moves were made to reduce tensions among the Israeli public. 
                                             Here is a part of a newsreel showing the return of Yossele to Israel
Yossele Schumacher joined the IDF in 1970 and served as an officer in the artillery corps. He worked in IBM Israel and lives today in Sha'arei Tikva (near Rosh Hayin).


  1. I was a child at the time, but I remember the hardship and cruelty by the Shin Bet to all those who aided and abetted the Shtraks family. Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, the dean of the Yeshiva in Luzern, Switzerland, who accepted Yossele as a student under a false name, was persecuted by the local Jewish community at the request of Shin Bet. He was forced to resign his position, and for the rest of his life he lived as a private citizen although universally recognized as the greatest rabbinic scholar in Switzerland. Ovadia Straks was forced to give up his position as a shochet for the orthodox Jewish community in London. And Reb Nachman Straks who had led fearless resistance to the KGB and NKVD in Soviet Russia, teaching Torah and keeping Breslover chassidus alive, spent his "golden years" in an Israeli jail. It was a time when Israel did not have enough money to feed its citizens, but had deep pockets to spend millions chasing after one sweet young boy whose only crime was to be fond of religious grandparents. Ruth ben David was prevented for years from publishing her memoirs because they contained descriptions of the villas and estates the Shin Bet acquired in France just in order to trap Yossele's guides! An interview a few years ago with Yossele tells that he still has fond memories of the loving people who took care of him in his youth, and he has kept in touch with the Gertner family in NY until today.

    1. Apparently Yossele has grown up to be tolerant, loving, Jewish and secular. He does appear to have fond memories of people who took care of him. I doubt that he would have become so loving and tolerant if he had stayed within a community that vilified all outsiders.

      Israel continues to pay a very high price for allocating family law matters to the religious courts. This is just one early example of the chasm between average Israeli values and Haredi values.