Little Lost Girl (July 30,
by Naomi Ragen
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.
Lets 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 doesnt
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. Devorahs father, seeing that starvation
wasnt 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
brothers friends, under the sheltering wing of the boys 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 dont 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
shed had one conversation with Devorahs mother, which she initiated after a
whole week of silence, even though Devorahs 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 wasnt 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 childern at risk. Counselors, who were most helpful and
sympathetic, told me exactly what to do: The social services unit in Devorahs
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 Devorahs father. Send Devorah home, he warned, or
Ill kill you.
So what happened? Devorah reluctantly packed up and went back home. Its
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 its only bread. The beatings have stopped.
But she isnt able to go to school anymore. She doesnt have the fare. She still
isnt willing to go to the local Beit Yaakov, which her parents claim is the reason
for the way theyve 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 Im 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
I think of her often, little lost girl, and wonder: What to do? And how many
more like her are out there?