Thursday, May 5, 2016


Last December, Mendel Epstein, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi in Brooklyn, was convicted of conspiring to kidnap and torture men who had refused to give their wives a Jewish divorce, known as a “get.” The case – which was investigated by the FBI and resulted in a 10-year prison sentence for Epstein – generated sensational tabloid and national media coverage. (The Daily News nicknamed Epstein “The Prodfather,” for his alleged use of a cattle prod to coerce husbands to provide a divorce.)

But lost amid the macabre details of the Epstein case was a much more widespread problem that persists in the tight-knit Orthodox communities in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Borough Park and Flatbush: Many Orthodox Jewish women seeking to escape abusive or defunct marriages face a system that is stacked against them, sometimes trapping them as “chained women” for years on end. And as such cases have become increasingly prevalent, advocates, social services agencies and lawyers have teamed up in an effort to provide women with the resources and representation that they need.
At the core of the Jewish divorce system is the get, a divorce document that can only be provided by a husband to his wife in a Jewish court, a forum which arbitrates matrimony matters under religious law. In the case that a husband continually refuses to grant the get, despite his marriage being defunct, his wife is said to be “agunah,” or chained to him, unable to pursue remarriage or bear legitimate children within the Orthodox Jewish community.

While many Jewish scholars say that a get should never be refused once a marriage is functionally over, advocates say that, in many cases, husbands will use the get as a way to gain the upper hand in a divorce.

“Husbands will refuse the get and use it as a form of blackmail to extort concessions,” said Orly Kusher, staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families’ Orthodox Jewish Matrimonial Project, which recently launched due to an influx of get refusal cases. “They’ll say, ‘I won’t give you the Jewish divorce unless you give me custody of the kids, or a large sum of money – give me $30,000 and then I’ll give you the get.’ Our view here at Sanctuary – and why it ties in with our work with domestic violence victims – is that we see the refusal to give a get, in and of itself, as a form of abuse.”

According to social service workers, fear over the refusal of the get is just one of a host of conditions that can lead Orthodox women to stay in abusive relationships.

“The idea of ‘shalom bayit,’ or peace in the home, is a central tenet of Jewish marriage,” said Shoshannah Frydman, director of family violence services at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “Women are socialized to be mothers and homemakers, so speaking up about an abusive relationship can be seen within the community as a personal failing to uphold that peace.”

Due to the stigma attached to divorce and domestic abuse issues, Frydman says that many women fear that escaping an abusive relationship will hurt their children’s chances of finding a suitable partner during the “shidduch,” or matchmaking process that arranges marriages within the community.

“Some women will only contact us about abuse when their last child gets married off,” Frydman said. “One of our clients has two daughters who are in their 20s and are unmarried. They are begging their mother to stay in her marriage because they are afraid it will hurt their chances. But they understand why she wants to leave.”

Frydman also says that Orthodox women feel incredible societal and religious pressure to keep their families intact.

“Who will say kiddush (a Jewish prayer) over the wine? That’s seen as a male role,” Frydman said. “What is it like to have a Passover seder without a family? And then there are the very harsh financial realities: kosher food costs more; entering the workforce and supporting themselves and their children apart from their husbands is often extremely challenging, especially because these are often large families.”

Given these forces, Kusher says that it is important for women to have legal support early on in the matrimony process, which gives them the strongest chance of navigating the system successfully. In response to this need, the Orthodox Jewish Matrimony Project, which Kusher heads, provides representation for Orthodox women in divorce, custody, visitation and child support hearings in both civil and Jewish courts, as well as connects clients to in-house counseling, shelter and job training services.

“Ideally, we want to have the client to come to us before she’s already been refused a get,” Kusher said. “Let’s say she’s just thinking of getting a divorce. She’s in an abusive situation. Hopefully we can contact that client early, because if we are representing her from the beginning, we can give her the best advice and counsel for her case, as opposed to if she already tried to go to a certain Jewish court and maybe things already happened in that court and she’s bound to a certain forum, we would still advocate for her, but we can’t necessarily undo things that have already been done.”

Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, who presides over matrimony proceedings at the Beth Din of America, a forum favored by advocates due to its more sympathetic treatment of women than other, more conservative Jewish courts, says that it’s important for women to be guided through the process by experts.[...]

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