New York Law Journal Speaks With Steven Z. Mostofsky


steven-z-mostofskyBy Michael J. Paquette

Steven Z. Mostofsky is a solo family law attorney who practices in both civil and religious courts. A lifelong resident of Brooklyn who speaks Yiddish, Mr. Mostofsky, 53, is a modern Orthodox Jew who earned his J.D. at New York Law School in 1982.

He spent more than a decade in the state court system, working his way up from a law assistant in Brooklyn Family Court to court attorney for a Brooklyn Civil Court judge. For the past 15 years, he has represented mostly Orthodox clients from his offices on Court Street.

Mr. Mostofsky also has served for the past 10 years as president of the National Council of Young Israel, a confederation of about 150 modern Orthodox synagogues representing 25,000 households across the North America. The council’s mission is to provide “a program of spiritual, cultural, social and communal activity towards the advancement and perpetuation of traditional Torah-true Judaism; and to instill into American Jewish youth an understanding…of the high ethical and spiritual values of Judaism and demonstrate the compatibility of the ancient faith of Israel with good Americanism.”

Q: What is a modern Orthodox Jew? In other words, what’s the prime distinction between modern Orthodox and Orthodox? How large is the movement?

A: The National Council of Young Israel and the Young Israel movement were born out of a desire to build what has been called a “modern Orthodox” movement. One of our early leaders described our purpose as establishing that “the old traditional faith, unmodified and unchanged” could be “liveable” in the modern world and “provide our youth with a full and spiritual life.”

Over the years, modern Orthodox Jews have been generally considered the branch of Orthodoxy that is more engaged in modern society. They value secular education, access all forms of media and permit greater participation of women in private and religious life. Today, many of the distinctions have blurred and Orthodox Jews may call themselves different things, but a significant percentage would probably fit my definition of “modern” Orthodox.

Q: Do you have any formal religious training? Under what tradition were you raised?

A: My parents set a path for me mostly by example. They taught me the meaning of religion, family and public service. They made sure we attended yeshiva and synagogue and followed Orthodox law and traditions.

I attended a dual secular-religious education program from elementary school through college. My education also took place at home and in the synagogue.

I have been a member of a Young Israel synagogue for as long as I can remember. Young Israel has been a part of every important event in my life. My father passed away when I was 19, but I think he’d be proud-and maybe a little impressed-that I’ve become president of a prestigious organization like the National Council of Young Israel. And I think he’d be particularly proud of the fact that Young Israel is not just a religious organization, but an organization that serves the public good and helps people.

Q: Besides practicing in religious courts, how, if at all, does your faith impact your daily law practice?

A: My religion affects everything I do. I always wear a yarmulke. I try to follow the ethical guidelines of both my profession and my religion.

I have a large Jewish clientele and I often am able to understand things that might not be readily apparent to a non-observant attorney. Understanding different customs, understanding how to talk to a client’s rabbi, understanding the involvement of a religious court-all can make a tremendous difference in every aspect of the process.

My religious beliefs also affect my scheduling. I always have to be aware of Jewish holidays and what time the Sabbath starts on Friday night when I calendar cases and plan appointments.

Q: Religiously speaking, what is the makeup of your clients?

A: About 75 percent are Jewish; about 70 percent of those are religious.

Q: What is the biggest difference between practicing in civil court and a Beth Din, or religious court?

A: The biggest difference is the procedural and evidentiary standards. In a Beth Din, they are based on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), written by Rabbi Joseph Karo, who lived in the late 15th century. This compilation was based on rulings by earlier rabbis, including Maimonidies, and was categorized into four volumes related to business; daily Jewish life; matrimonial and family issues; and “things that are permitted and prohibited.”

In a Beth Din, the members of the panel ask the parties most of the questions and to a large extent they control the discovery process.

Q: You’ve lectured on “When Getting a Get Isn’t So Easy.” What are some of the biggest hurdles in getting a get, or religious divorce?

A: A Beth Din may order a man to give his wife a “get” but the husband must do so of his own free will. In some cases, he may refuse and prevent the wife from remarrying. Sometimes, the get becomes part of the settlement negotiations. This issue never exists in a civil divorce.

Q: Based on your 15 years of experience as a solo family law attorney, what would you say is the top reason for divorce in the Orthodox community? Is that any different than for non-Orthodox?

A: Interference by in-laws, especially when couples marry at a young age. I was quite surprised to hear a radio report recently which listed in-laws as the number two reason for all divorces.

Q: During your career, have you seen any changes in attitude toward divorce within the Orthodox community? Within the Beth Din system?

A: Yes, there is less of a stigma if a person divorces. More women are walking away from marriages. Social networking has caused divorces. And despite statutes about removing barriers to remarriage, the [civil court system] still cannot uniformly deal with cases where a husband refuses to give a get.

Q: Before going solo, you spent more than a decade working for judges in the state court system. What was the trigger that caused you to strike out on your own?

A: A significant part of my time in the court system was working with two judges. When one resigned and then the other suddenly passed away, I realized that I needed to be in control of my own career.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer looking to branch out into religious court practice?

A: Young attorneys who want to open a practice with a large Orthodox Jewish clientele need at least a basic understanding of Orthodox Judaism and the Beth Din system. Clients often provide the best education.

Q: What is your top priority as president of the National Council of Young Israel?

A: My top priorities are to make sure the organization serves its constituent synagogues, to communicate and share information, to continue to build the Young Israel movement and to speak out on behalf of Jews and Israel whenever the need arises.

Q: On your firm website your first name is listed as Steven, but on the Young Israel site you’re Shlomo. Which is it?

A: Most American-born Orthodox Jews have a secret identity. We have a Hebrew name and a secular name. My secular name is Steven and my Hebrew name is Shlomo. I usually can tell where a person knows me from by how they refer to me.

The only place where it’s ever posed a problem was when I was with a group visiting the Knesset in Israel. The name on the security list said Shlomo, but the name on my passport said Steven. I found it ironic that I had to explain my dual identity to Israeli security.

{New York Law Journal/}


  1. Although practicing civil law and especially matrimonial issues is like working in a sewer I have heard from people I know that dealt with Shlomo that he is a Mentch. Now that is a big compliment.

  2. Mr. Mostofsky is a true mentch. He has helped many people in the community, he makes the normally uncomfortable situation of divorce and gitten easier to deal with for the whole family. His work for the klal as well is tremendous, working many free hours both in his law work, and for young israel, to help people from our communities.