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Religion focus of custody fight involving former exotic dancer turned devout Jew

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



She was an exotic dancer at the Admiral Theatre, and he was the club’s manager, when Nelson Derbigny said he met Elina Margolina in 1995. The two got married, changed careers and had a child — but divorced in 2007.

On Wednesday — after both since remarried and Margolina became a devout Hasidic Jew — the two sat on opposite sides of a Cook County courtroom for the start of a bitter trial to determine custody of their now 8-year-old son.

The fight centers on religious tradition, as Margolina — who is in her late 30s — claims Derbigny’s refusal to keep a kosher household and ensure the boy wears a yarmulke to school is sabotaging the child’s religious upbringing. She wants sole custody of the boy and wants an earlier joint custody agreement to be dissolved.

But Derbigny, 52, who works in real estate and lives on the North Side, says he deserves sole custody because the wife’s strict religious upbringing of the child is alienating him from the boy’s life.

“The question here is who is the better decision-maker,” the father’s attorney, Joel Brodsky, said in his brief opening statements before Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Thomas Carr Wednesday. Brodsky said before the hearing that he intends to bring up Margolina’s days as an exotic dancer — and her subsequent conversion to devout Judaism — to show the court that she “tends toward extremes.” But Rush University child psychiatrist Louis J. Kraus, who was called by Margolina’s attorney, David Grund, testified that the mother should get custody.

Kraus had recommended a joint parenting agreement back in 2007. Back then, he testified, the parents had agreed that the boy would be raised Jewish. But after a recent evaluation of the boy and discussions with the warring parents, it was clear mom and dad had different expectations about what it meant to raise a Jewish child, Kraus said. Derbigny, a Roman Catholic who attends Mass on Christmas and Thanksgiving, did not believe he was required to keep a kosher household — especially since they hadn’t done that or even observed the Jewish Sabbath when the family was together. But Kraus said in his talks with Derbigny, the father seemed to be making a point of serving the boy bacon and other non-kosher foods. Kraus said he was concerned the parents’ stalemate was causing the boy anxiety and other behavioral problems.

“I’m recommending Ms. Margolina have sole custody ... because of the high level of conflict,” Kraus said.

Brodsky said he plans to call a doctor later in what is expected to be a week-long trial that will recommend Derbigny get sole custody.

Grund declined to comment to the Sun-Times about the case.



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