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Fast! Unchain, Celebrate! Marking International Agunah Day

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Riverdale—Agunah activists seeking to raise awareness of the ongoing struggle faced by women unable to secure a get have symbolically “chained” themselves to Ta’anit Esther. Esther, who became Queen of Persia after King Achashveirosh dumped her predecessor Vashti, was subsequently tasked with saving the Jewish people, and fasted before she went before the king to make her case. Her strength and her determination is what inspired the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) to choose Ta’anit Esther as the time for women to call attention to the issue of recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give their wives gets, and demand halachic justice and protection for their chained sisters (and occasionally, brothers).

Audrey Trachtman, Interim Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, spoke with JLBC about supporting the International Agunah Day. JOFA, said Trachtman, “has been very successful in raising awareness in the community and in linking Ta’anit Esther to the issue.”

“How could anyone not support the freeing of agunot? It’s like motherhood and apple pie!” she said. She continued on a much more serious note, saying, “Most rabbis want to help women, but, in many situations, they feel their hands are tied. But they are not as powerless as they make themselves out to be, and they could be using systemic halachic solutions.”

For example, if a marriage is based on a faulty premise—e.g. if the woman did not know her husband was gay or abusive or had uncontrollable addictions to drugs or alcohol, etc.—that marriage can be voided halachically by annulment (mekach ta’ut—literally the erasure of an error), meaning that there was an error in the ketubah because the terms of the contract were faulty. The assumption is that the contract was written in good faith, and that underlying conditions like chronic diseases, gender issues, and emotional instability were discussed before the ketubah was signed. If these issues were pre-existing conditions and not revealed, the ketubah was written under false pretenses and should, in a just and ethical world, eliminate the need for a get.

“Not giving a get is a form of abuse,” reminded Trachtman. “It’s unrealistic to imagine that a woman would knowingly go into a marriage with an abusive husband. Times have changed; women no longer “need” to be married. They are not as economically limited as they once were—a woman can stand on her own.

“If anyone knows an agunah in his or her community—someone who is not being helped by her rabbi or by the community, offer help, pressure the rabbi to take an active stance in preventing agunot. Make sure every couple has a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement.” Even in a happy marriage, one partner may become unable to continue the relationship, and people need to be prepared.

International Agunah Day “is an opportunity to raise awareness of the need for a systemic halachic solution to help free many, most, if not all agunot without the need for asserting excessive pressure on the husbands,” says the organization’s associate director, Aaron Steinberg. “What is most important is the work that happens behind the scenes and in important meetings such as the JOFA-sponsored (second) Agunah Summit at Bar Ilan in February, 2014. The meeting convened rabbis, scholars, legal experts, and community leaders to discuss and explore the possibility and practicality of systemic halachic solutions to what is now an intractable problem. “Get Laws” similar to those enacted in New York, Canada and South Africa could be put in place, or the current practice of awarding civil damages to agunot by the Israeli Family Court Judges could continue. (In language that never mentions Judaism or gets, the law in New York says that if you are divorced in New York and either spouse puts an obstacle in the ex-spouse’s path to re-marriage, the spouse doing the blocking gets no community property or custody.)

Steinberg, 29, became involved with JOFA because the members of the organization have “a passion for advancing greater equity within the Orthodox Jewish Community.” He is a member of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, where Rabbi Chaim Marder, the pulpit rabbi, has a Stern College graduate student serving as his congregation intern. She leads classes in advanced Talmud studies and has an interpersonal role with the congregants there.

Steinberg’s passion to rectify the plight of agunot was sparked by the experience of a friend involved in a “very messy divorce that left her as an agunah for many months. Only when the emotions calmed down was the get given—rather than as a matter of course. On an individual basis, one of the best ways to avoid such a situation is to have a halachic pre-nuptial agreement.”

A halachic pre-nuptial is like a vaccine: it’s most effective when the entire population partakes.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the umbrella organization of Modern and Centrist Orthodox rabbis, now includes a standard pre-nuptial on its website. According to Steinberg, the RCA “is in favor of it, but has not mandated that members insist on the groom signing a halachic pre-nuptial agreement before performing a marriage. Support has not been strong enough.” Pre- and post-nuptial agreements are available online through the RCA’s Beit Din of America.

The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) was founded by Yeshiva University students over a decade ago. ORA joins the Beit Din of America in supporting the use of a pre-nuptial agreement. “Since the use of the halachic pre-nup was instituted,” writes current CEO Rabbi Jeremy Stern, both organizations have “found the halachic pre-nup to be 100% effective in assuring that a get is given unconditionally and in a timely fashion,” while managing to eliminate civil court battles. “The husband knows he would be fighting and paying for a losing battle.”

“Now is the time to redouble our efforts towards standardizing the use of the halachic pre-nup at every Jewish marriage!” When a halachic pre-nup is in place, the husband is contractively obligated to pay his (possibly) soon-to-be ex-wife a per diem amounting to $55,000 per year. Stern notes that a woman may choose to forgo payment in exchange for the early presentation of the get.

Once a groom signs the pre-nup—at times at the same tish (table) at which he signs the ketubah—he has committed to “doing the right thing—to promptly give a get in the event of divorce.” Stern suggests that the refusal of a prospective groom to sign a halachic pre-nup may “serve as a red flag to a prospective bride.”

Kesett Star, an attorney specializing in domestic violence, works with the ORA project. She told JLBC that on average, the advocacy organization is involved in about fifty cases. Over 200 cases have been resolved thus far.

On a more global level, finding a systemic halachic solution would ‘defang’ those husbands who use a get as a tool of abuse, said JOFA’s Steinberg.

“So long as women are suffering in silence and the community is unaware of their situation, I don’t think there will be sufficient pressure on either husbands or communal leaders to alleviate the situation; International Agunah Day is a way of raising awareness both for individuals and for wide-spread adoption of a halachic pre-nuptial.”

According to a survey conducted in 2013 by the Geocartography Research Institute for the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, one third of Israeli women in the process of getting divorced are subject to threats and extortion from their husbands. The survey reportedly has a potential sampling error of up to 5.5% and a 95% accuracy rate. All told, the survey found an estimated 77,000 women were extorted during their divorce process, and in the Israeli haredi community, 50% of women are extorted. About 70% of divorced women believe the divorce agreement they signed will hurt them, and say they only signed it after being extorted. In 40% of complicated, drawn-out divorce cases, the final agreement was significantly biased in favor of the men. The 320 Jewish women in their 30s who were surveyed included those who had gotten divorces, women who separated from their husbands who started divorce proceedings, and women who at the time were in the process of getting divorced.

In 2013 the number of divorces in Israel rose by 5.8% compared to the previous year. Many blame the agunah issue on rabbis unwilling to punish recalcitrant husbands. Proposals have been made to approach the issue through legislation that directs rabbis to pressure husbands who refuse to give a divorce. MK Dov Lipman has proposed a 20-year jail sentence for such men.

Rachel Levmore of the Center for Women’s Justice in Israel, says “We need rabbis more empathetic to the suffering of women, rabbis more willing to leap through halachic hoops and declare that marriages are void ab initio, say, if a woman is married to a homosexual or an abuser. If the state-backed rabbinic judges cannot fit this bill, let’s start private rabbinic courts that will.” In February she wrote in the Jerusalem Post that “Chief Rabbi of Uruguay Ben-Tzion Spitz not only authorized the use of a pre-nuptial agreement designed to prevent get-refusal, he mandated its use.”

Post-nuptial agreements are also being signed. Congregants at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, more than 30 couples—including Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler and his wife Sharon, recently signed post-nuptial agreements in front of witnesses and a notary at “Ani L’Dodi, An Evening of Commitment.” The event was described as Modern Orthodoxy’s promotion of post-nuptial agreements to fight recalcitrant husbands’ denials of gets. It requires the husband to support his wife (currently at $150 per day) until a get is given. The parties also agree to appear before a beit din, and cooperate with its decisions. Zwickler finds the documents so compelling that he “will not perform a wedding without a signed RCA pre-nup,” he said. “I have required it as long as I can remember.”

JLBC asked Audrey Trachtman what she would consider an ideal result of the efforts being made to eliminate the agunah problem. “Men and women should have equal power to divorce on equal footing. Divorce always means something went wrong, but we believe that men and women should have equal protection in divorce.”

By Maxine Dovere