Hasidic rabbi 'kidnapped boy'

DESPITE their rigid observance of religious rule, Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews rarely seem to be at peace with the world, or with one another. The Hasidim have been involved in ethnic strife with blacks in the New York borough, and in internal squabbles. Rabbis have been kidnapped; followers have had their black hats stolen or their long curly sideburns snipped in street brawls. But one of the strangest tales to come out of the community in several years has now reached the courtroom.

A Hasidic rabbi named Shlomo Helbrans and his wife, Malka, have been charged, together with a third Hasid, Mordechai Weisz, of kidnapping a 14-year-old Jewish boy. The three, who say they are innocent, face up to 25 years in jail.

The boy, Shai Fhima, disappeared 10 months ago while attending a yeshiva, a Jewish school, run by Rabbi Helbrans, where he was being prepared for his bar mitzvah. His father, Michael Reuven, who lives in Israel and is separated from the boy's mother, has been trying to track him down since last summer.

When Mr Reuven, who is not a Hasid, read in an Israeli newspaper that his son had gone missing after attending the yeshiva, he flew to New York. After meeting the rabbi, Mr Reuven became convinced Mr Helbrans had kidnapped his son in order to convert him to the rabbi's devout brand of Judaism - against the wishes of Mr Reuven and his former wife.

Mr Reuven told the police, who bugged a meeting at the yeshiva during which Rabbi Helbrans is said to have offered to pay dollars 10,000 ( pounds 6,900) to the father if he arranged for the rabbi to have custody of the boy. The tape is also said to contain threats against the father from the rabbi's bodyguard.

The charge against the rabbi further alleges that he offered Shai's mother, Hana Fhima, dollars 60,000 to give him custody of the boy. Mrs Fhima says she loves her son and wants him back. 'I hope the rabbi realises this is a serious charge; it's not a game,' she said.

The district attorney went to court clearly believing that Rabbi Helbrans, 30, arranged Shai's disappearance, but at the arraignment this week the rabbi's lawyer said Mr Helbrans 'absolutely' does not know where the boy is.

The rabbi accuses the boy's family of physically abusing the teenager, a charge the family denies. Rabbi Efroim Stein of the Central Rabbinical Congress, dismissed the charges against Rabbi Helbrans as ludicrous, adding: 'The only thing these people are guilty of is extending hospitality to someone in need.'

In the courtroom, Mr and Mrs Helbrans stood silently rocking back and forth in prayer while Mr Reuven ranted about his son being dead. 'Nobody cares,' he screamed at the rabbi. 'You shit, you shit. This is my son.' Then he turned white and collapsed and was taken to hospital where he was said to be in stable condition.

The Helbranses came to the United States from Israel during the Gulf war and are seeking political asylum. They are trying to establish their own yeshiva, and increase the following of the small Satmar sect the rabbi leads. Next month they will appear in court on the kidnapping charges, and also on the asylum petition.