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Rabbinical court prevents teen girl from leaving Israel

American-Israeli Amber Hope Layman cannot return home to the US after her estranged father files for visitation rights

The Layman Family in a personal photograph. Danielle Laymon, seated, is fighting her ex-husband over visitation rights for her eldest daughter, Amber, on left. (photo: Layman Family)
The Layman Family in a personal photograph. Danielle Laymon, seated, is fighting her ex-husband over visitation rights for her eldest daughter, Amber, on left. (photo: Layman Family)

An American-Israeli woman is fighting for her daughter’s right to leave Israel after her ex-husband filed a case in the Rabbinical Court on September 4 demanding visitation rights. The child in question, a 13-year-old named Inbar, or Amber Hope Layman, cannot leave Israel during the legal proceedings, and her mother promises to “raise hell” in order to bring her home.

The mother, Danielle Layman, currently lives in Kansas and is married to an American, Jeremy Layman. She left Shahar Abecassis, Inbar’s father, in 2003. Danielle Layman said Shahar was abusive and made threats on Inbar’s life, and that she had filed a restraining order against him. She added that, in the intervening years, Abecassis had no contact with Inbar and did not pay court-ordered child support, an amount that has added up to around $20,000.

“This story is happening again and again in Muslim countries. It’s like that Sally Fields movie ‘Not Without My Daughter,’” Danielle Layman said. “Except in that situation the Muslim courts were protecting the rights of a real father, but legally speaking, [Abecassis, the girl’s father] has no standing whatsoever. We are dealing with a fanatical religious court. I’m not going to leave without my daughter, and I’m going to raise hell in the USA.”

In 2007, Danielle was on the beach in Eilat on vacation when she met Jeremy Layman, then an American soldier on a two-week leave between deployments to Iraq and Kuwait, and the two struck up a relationship. He was in the National Guard; his long career abroad has included three deployments to Afghanistan, two to Iraq, one to Kuwait, one to Germany, and one to Egypt. After he finished his deployments, Danielle moved with Inbar, and a second daughter from another relationship, to Jeremy’s home in Kansas. The couple wed in 2010.

On June 24, 2013, Jeremy Layman adopted Inbar, who goes by the name Amber Hope in Kansas, and Danielle’s second daughter. Danielle and Jeremy have two daughters together, aged two years old and six months. Danielle converted to Christianity and the family attends a local Baptist church every Sunday. Jeremy is now in Afghanistan on a contract with the Department of Defense training Afghani bomb disposal squads.

Amber Layman and her mother, Danielle Layman (photo: Layman Family)
Amber Layman and her mother, Danielle Layman (photo: Layman Family)

With her husband away in Afghanistan, Danielle decided to come for an extended visit to Israel, as her daughters had not been back since the family moved to Kansas. Amber Hope planned to continue her studies via internet for a semester, with her teachers sending assignments and homework so she could keep up.

But once the family arrived, Abecassis, the ex-husband, found out via social media that they were in Israel and started making threats against Amber Hope, Layman said. Even though the adoption was approved by the relevant Israeli authorities and Jeremy Layman is listed as Amber’s father on her identity card and other documents, Abecassis filed a lawsuit with the Ashdod Region Rabbinical Courts, demanding visitation rights with Amber Hope.

“I don’t believe he wants to see the child. We lived here in Israel for eight years and he never came to see her, and three years in America before the adoption was final,” said Layman. “I know he’s not interested in the child. I think he wants visitation rights to harass and terrorize me.”

“They’re just ignoring the fact that there is an adoption… Shahar doesn’t have a daughter anymore; they’re just ignoring us. In effect, they are holding a 13-year-old American child [in Israel] against both of her parents’ wishes,” she said on Thursday while in civil court to obtain a restraining order against Abecassis. She said Abecassis has been threatening her family with repeated phone calls and text messages.

Although the family decided to come for an extended vacation, Layman was upset that they were forced to stay in the country. Especially since Amber only has permission from her school to miss one semester, she said she was worried that a court case could drag on for months and Amber would not graduate on time.

The Abecassis family declined to speak with The Times of Israel following advice from their lawyer, Abecassis’s current wife, Limor Abecassis, said.

According to the adoption decree from 2013 provided by Danielle Layman, the Columbus, Kansas, court did not require Abecassis’s permission for the adoption to go forward. “The biological father was given notice and his consent is not necessary since he has failed and refused to assume the duties of a parent and he has failed to provide a substantial portion of child support for two (2) years prior to the filing of this petition,” the decree of adoption stated. The document also said that “this court has jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter of this action.”

Layman has been in touch with a number of senators, congressmen, the National Guard, and the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, as well as Israeli and American media. She wants the US to pressure Israel not to hold her accountable to the Rabbinical Courts. The American Embassy in Tel Aviv refused to comment as a matter of policy, for privacy reasons. The spokesman for the rabbinical courts declined to comment on specific cases, also for privacy reasons.

An expert in international family law, who declined to be named because she did not know the full details of the case, said that the rabbinical courts, especially in Ashdod and Ashkelon, have a history of “controversial” decisions that do not follow international family law. She added that rabbinical courts can be more easily manipulated when supporting documents are in English because they cannot understand them. Additionally, the rabbi judges will also be more sympathetic to the Jewish party rather than the non-Jewish party, she said.

The central legal question in the court case is one of jurisdiction. If the children’s center of life is in America, Layman’s lawyer can argue that any court cases about visitation rights should come before their local court, not in Israel. However, the religious courts add a different dynamic to the situation.

The Laymans have a court date on October 2 in Ashdod’s rabbinical court.

“This is a complete disregard of the law,” said Layman. She said her husband was frustrated being so far away during the situation. “He feels awful and very helpless because he’s in Afghanistan. He’s fighting for our country. He hopes the country will fight for him.

“They are ignoring and trampling over an American citizen’s right, and they are holding an American minor captive in a foreign land,” she said.

Layman said she was terrified by the story of Avraham Levi, who killed his two children while they were on a court-ordered visit to Israel from their home in the US on June 12.

“This is not Iran, this is not Yemen, where sharia law could do something like that without question,” Layman added. “Israel is one one of America’s closest allies.”

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