Tuesday, November 5, 2013

For Orthodox Women, Getting the Get Can Take Years

Daily Beast   Last month, an FBI sting operation netted a rabbi, the head of a New York yeshiva and eight other men, two of whom were volunteers at an organization for at-risk Jewish youth. Rabbi Mendel Epstein made his living campaigning at the rabbinical courts on behalf of women whose husbands refused to grant them religious divorces; this past summer, he wrote and released a “Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife.” But he and his coterie seem to have taken his advocacy too far—specifically, they’ve been accused of exacting up to $60,000 from despairing wives in exchange for kidnapping and torturing their husbands, with the aim of coercing the men into signing the Jewish divorce document. All 10 defendants were initially denied bail after appearing in Federal District Court in Trenton, New Jersey (bail was later set for all men involved, and all 10 defendents pleaded not guilty). They’ve been called unlikely criminals. They have also, albeit less frequently, been called unlikely feminists.[...]

A woman whose husband won’t give up the get is referred to as an agunah, from the Hebrew for “chained,” and the condition is more common than you might imagine. A survey spearheaded by Barbara Zakheim, co-founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA), found that between 2005 to 2010, there were over 460 cases of “shackled” Jewish women in North America, a number that underrepresents the problem; the research team didn’t reach out to agunot directly, but to domestic abuse and family service organizations—and by and large, agencies serving more right-wing communities declined to participate. Zakheim also found that a sizeable number of agunot were living in poverty and not receiving any sort of spousal support. “There were changes made to halacha [Jewish law] during ancient times and in that respect, those ages were more progressive than the one we’re living in now,” she said. “The Orthodox rabbinate need to get their act together to come up with a halachic solution. They have a lot to answer for.”

In Israel, noncompliant husbands are sometimes sent to jail until they agree to sign the get. But America’s secular court system cannot intervene in a religious divorce, leaving the agunah without many options. A rabbinical court might, if the man won’t respond to a summons, issue an order of contempt, which essentially states that the woman’s husband has refused to grant her a get and calls on the Jewish community to take a stand. She might also approach an advocacy group like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a New York-based non-profit that, since its founding in 2002, has resolved 205 agunah cases worldwide. ORA works, free of charge, to open the lines of communication between the two parties. Failing that, it exerts legal and halachically sanctioned forms of pressure on the get withholder. “We see the refusal to issue a get as a form of domestic abuse,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, the organization’s executive director. “It’s not just about black and blue marks. It’s about one person asserting their dominance over another.” [....]

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