A Boy Vanishes: Conversion Or Kidnapping? -- Orthodox Rabbi Is Indicted In Custody Battle

NEW YORK - For Hana and Jacky Fhima, the American Dream vanished in Borough Park, a section of Brooklyn occupied by tens of thousands of Hasidim, ultra-pious Jews whose long, black coats and broad-brimmed fur hats make the neighborhood look as if it were transported here from some 18th-century Eastern European village.

The Fhimas are recent immigrants from Israel. In February 1992 Hana took her son Shai for bar mitzvah instruction to one of the dozens of yeshivas, or religious academies, that dot Borough Park. Two months later, Shai Fhima, then 13, disappeared.

After a 10-month investigation by state and federal authorities, Rabbi Schlomo Helbrans, whose yeshiva Shai had attended, was indicted recently on charges of kidnapping and conspiracy, along with his wife, Malka, and one of his followers, Mordechai Weisz. The case is expected to go to trial later this year.

His fellow Hasidim packed the rabbi's bond hearing. Hundreds of others surrounded the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn, having heeded the call of cars with loudspeakers that raced through Hasidic neighborhoods, urging the faithful to come forth in a show of solidarity.

During their courtroom appearance, the rabbi, who is in his late 30s, and his wife seemed oblivious to the legal maneuvers. Standing in front of the judge's bench, they rocked back and forth mumbling snatches of prayer, in the meditative style of Orthodox Jews.

According to George Meissner, the rabbi's attorney, the Helbranses had been unjustly hauled into court by the machinations of a family too insensitive to recognize their son's desire to lead a fully committed religious life. Meissner claims that the Fhimas tried to extort money from his clients as the price of allowing Shai to remain a member of Helbrans' yeshiva. He also contends that his clients have no knowledge of Shai's whereabouts.

"Shai made a lot of friends at the rabbi's place," Meissner said. "He tried to run away from his mother before. I assume this time he succeeded and is with people who believe it's their obligation to help him fulfill his desire to be religious."

According to Hana Fhima, her family's tragedy began with a simple desire to find a better life in the New World. In 1989, she and her husband came to the United States with Shai, who is Hana's son by a previous marriage, and the three younger children Jacky and she had had. They took $60,000 they'd made by selling their apartment in Israel and opened a tile store in Paramus, N.J., unfortunately right in the middle of a recession.

The business failed, wiping them out and uncovering latent strains in their marriage. Out of work and with his ego wounded, Jacky began to abuse Hana, she said. On the advice of a local rabbi, she and the children took refuge in a battered-women's shelter in Hackensack, N.J.

She and the three younger children now live in a residential facility operated by the group Shelter Our Sisters. Jacky, 36, finally found work as a building superintendent in New York, and Hana began spending weekends at his place, so the children could see their father.

One evening, her uncle announced that he and his teenage son were going to hear a local rabbi speak, suggesting that Shai come, too. When they returned, the three reported that Helbrans had expressed an interest in Shai.

The next day, Hana received a phone call from Helbrans asking to meet her. At the yeshiva that day, she was told that because the rabbi was busy, his wife would speak with her first. Over tea, Hana said, Malka Helbrans suddenly said: "Give me your son to raise. He will be a great tzaddik."

According to Hasidic belief, a tzaddik is a holy man whose special piety makes him an intermediary between God and mankind. Scarcely recovered from Malka Helbrans' announcement, Hana was escorted into the rabbi's study hall. The two sat separated by a curtain strung the length of the room, Orthodox Jews holding to the strict separation of the sexes.

The rabbi began, Hana recalled, by asking how, as a Jewish mother, she could send her children to a public school. Then he handed her a book and told her to read a certain portion aloud. It was an account of the fate of those who live in sin and are condemned after death to cut the wood that stokes the fires of hell.

She said he promised that if she would let Shai become a member of his household, he'd find her an apartment nearby where she and Jacky and the other children could live rent free while putting their lives back together.

Hana admitted she was tempted by the offer, but said she agreed only to let Shai stay with the rabbi for a few days so he could be quickly prepared for his bar mitzvah, which was later that week.

At the end of the week, Hana insisted that Shai come back home with her, as public school would be starting up again. But when she showed up at the yeshiva, the rabbi's followers refused to let Shai go. Hana got a police officer, who took Shai out of the building, and she and her son returned to New Jersey.

But it was clear to his mother and others that Shai was profoundly changed by the experience. Milton Weinberg, a Reform rabbi, had met Shai when the boy came to one of his Hebrew school classes in the company of a schoolmate. Weinberg offered to introduce Shai to an Orthodox, but not Hasidic, family living in New Jersey so the boy might experience another form of observant Judaism. Shai declined.

"Here was a vulnerable kid, an Israeli plopped down into a non-Jewish suburban world, with no real father figure and living in a shelter," Weinberg said. "Then he falls in with an ultra-Orthodox group that claims to have an answer for everything."

Soon after returning to New Jersey, Shai ran away from home, trying to return to the Borough Park yeshiva, but his mother called the police, who intercepted him.

Then Hana started getting phone calls from Mordechai Weisz, a rabbinical student who said he'd met Shai at the Helbranses'. Weisz said that while he occasionally attended Helbrans' yeshiva, he belonged to a different synagogue in Williamsburg, another Orthodox neighborhood that's home to the Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic communities in New York.

Hearing that Shai refused to attend school, Weisz proposed that the boy spend Sabbaths with him, promising Hana that he wouldn't let Helbrans get near the boy. Hana consented, and for a few weeks that arrangement seemed to work. Shai went back to public school and seemed to be returning to normal. The night before he vanished, Lil Corcoran, a social worker at the shelter, took Shai and some other children to a New Jersey Nets basketball game.

"He was eating pretzels, drinking soda and wearing a baseball cap, and I said to myself, `Shai's back,' " Corcoran said.

"My gut feeling is that when Rabbi Helbrans saw him the next day, he probably . . . thought, `We're going to lose this kid,' " said Corcoran, who assumes the rabbi was involved all along.

Indeed, Shai spent the next day with Weisz, and when Hana went to Brooklyn to pick him up, neither her son nor Weisz showed up. Panicked, she called Weisz, who claimed he'd put Shai on a bus.

Hana called Jacky, who rushed to Helbrans' yeshiva. The rabbi wasn't there.

"The rabbi's wife told me: `Go away from here! Now he's my boy, not yours,' " Jacky said.

Jacky and Hana went to the police, who tried mediating through leaders of the Satmar community. Though not a Satmar, Helbrans had been close to their community because of a shared opposition to the state of Israel, which he and they think can be established only by the coming of the Messiah. It was because of that objection that the Israeli-born Helbrans immigrated to the United States a few years ago.

When the Satmars reported that they were unable to make headway with Helbrans, he was arrested.

The rabbi was soon freed because the Brooklyn district attorney's office said there wasn't sufficient evidence to indict him.

Eventually, a federal grand jury was convened, and dozens of Hasidim were called to testify. In February, the Helbranses and Weisz were indicted, but on state rather than federal charges, on the investigators' assumption that Shai is still somewhere in New York.

The Helbranses and Weisz declined to be interviewed.

-- The family of Shai Fhima asks that anyone with information about their son contact their attorney, Raoul Felder, at 212-832-3939.