Pidyon shvuyim is a great mitzvah. It occupies one of the first areas in Shulchan Aruch, Hilchos Tzedakah. The Talmud (Bava Basra 8b) says that captivity is worse than starvation and death. The Rambam writes that anyone who ignores ransoming a captive is guilty of transgressing a number of Torah commandments, “You shall not harden your heart,” (Devarim 15:7); “Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother,” (Vayikra 19:16); and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Vayikra 19:18) among others.
The following story is heart wrenching. Julie Goffstein married Peter Goffstein shortly after they graduated from college. He hailed from St. Louis, Missouri, and she came from Toledo, Ohio. They married and settled in Cincinnati, where Peter became a real estate developer. They became ba’alei teshuvah and had six sons. They were pillars of the community and helped build the dormitory and mesivta in Cincinnati. When guests came to visit in the community, they were housed in the Goffstein’s house.
In 2008 Peter had second thoughts about frumkeit. He asked Julie, now Batya, to join him on his path. She refused and filed for divorce. Julie Goffstein had been a stay-at-home mother while Peter Goffstein was the breadwinner. A judge initially gave her temporary physical custody.
“Wife is designated the residential parent and legal guardian of the minor children,” an order written by Magistrate Judge Greg Thiele on July 27, 2010, stated. “The above award is temporary only and creates no presumption in law.”
In Hamilton County, Ohio, where her divorce was heard, a decision is initially made by a magistrate, or junior judge, before a senior judge affirms or augments the decision.
Through the legal process, Batya went from having temporary custody of all of the boys to having custody of just the two older boys but having Peter have control over where the boys went to school. At first the judge allowed the boys to stay in yeshiva through eighth grade. However that was changed because Batya’s religious beliefs prevented her from enrolling the boys in public school. Her refusal eventually led to her losing custody and even going to jail for contempt of court. As of now she hasn’t seen the youngest children in four years.
Clearly, here is a case of pidyon shvuyim.
Is There A Limitation to Pidyon Shvuyim?
The community should assist to ensure that these children can come back to their Torah heritage. But is the expense too great? Is there a limit on the community’s responsibility?
There is a fascinating Gemara in Gittin (45a) that states, “One may not ransom captives for more than their value because of tikkun olam.” It seems that this is a special rabbinic enactment that was made in order to protect the community.
What does the term “more than their value” mean? The answer is that it is determined by the value that these captives would fetch on a slave market that existed during those times. In modern times, it would probably be translated to the current value of a salary for a long period of time.
The Gemara gives two explanations for this halacha. The first is “because of the [financial] burden on the community.” The second is so that more captives should not be seized. In other words, it would endanger Jews in the future because kidnappers would be encouraged to take Jewish souls.
The Maharam M’Rottenberg, who was held in captivity, was concerned about the burden that he would be placing upon the community and forbade anyone to redeem him for an excessive amount. He also did not wish other rabbinic figures to be subjected to kidnapping.
The Application To Our Case
In applying these two reasons to our case of children being raised without Torah and without their mother, the first reason may apply, but the second reason would not be applicable. Also, the Gemara does not paskin as to which view is normative halacha.
The sums needed here, however, are not astronomical. It is estimated that the mother’s legal fees would lie somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000. Thus, this would fit into “within their value” and would not be considered an undue stress upon the community.
Rav Yitzchok Yoseph, shlita, son of Rav Ovadya Yosef, zt’l, paskened that this is a true and complete case of pidyon shvuyim.
The husband subsequently married a non-Jew moved to Florida, and now there is a chance for us to right this horrible wrong. Batya has a good legal team set up to help her regain custody (and/or visitation) and take the children out of public school and bring them back to their birthright of Torah and Yiddishkeit. But she needs our help. Working as a secretary on a meager salary, she cannot afford the costs associated with a protracted legal battle.
A Dire Precedent
This is one of those situations where all Jews must come together to assist this woman in regaining her children. Dr. Fred Friedman, from Premium Health in Brooklyn, who knows her case well, says, “I can vouch for this remarkable woman. She cries herself to sleep every night at the loss of her children. She is completely balanced and has a heart of gold as well.”
We need leaders in the community to step up to the plate. Anyone who wishes to help out this situation can send a check made out to “Chabad Charity Fund” (Rabbi Wolowik’s fund for individuals) who graciously agreed to have the checks made out to them. Please indicate “Goffstein Fund” in the memo. The checks may be mailed to Chabad of the Five Towns, 74 Maple Avenue, Cedarhurst, NY 11516.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com