Tuesday, April 5, 2016

For Orthodox Jews, a Different Kind of Prenup

The halachic prenup—which dates back decades and has been championed by the Beth Din of America, the U.S.’s biggest rabbinical court—has gone mainstream in some circles as a mechanism to avoid the messy, sometimes abusive situations that advocates say can arise as divorce becomes more common in the Orthodox Jewish community.

The prenup serves to reduce the incidence of agunot, a Hebrew term for women who remain married against their will. Orthodox Jewish couples need to both civilly and religiously divorce, and only men have the power to grant the religious divorce, called a “get.”

A husband’s refusal to grant a get is part of a pattern often common in domestic-abuse situations because it is an assertion of power and control over his wife, with economic and social ramifications that are unique to Orthodox communities, said Orly Kusher, an attorney at Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based advocacy group for domestic-violence victims. She leads the group’s new legal-services program focused on agunot.

In situations where women are refused a get, Ms. Kusher said, they are often not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies, and can be denied access to shared finances and to children. The women are sometimes ostracized from the larger Orthodox community, she added, their reputations damaged and religiosity called into question.

“It can be tough on their children,” Ms. Kushner said, “because when they approach the age when they are getting married, they are seen as damaged goods.”

Over 15 years of serving domestic-abuse victims, Shoshannah Frydman, a social worker and clinical director of family violence and social services at New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said she has seen an increasing number of Orthodox Jewish women coming to her agency seeking help and who are often unable to obtain a get. 

Most notable, she said, is the change in demographics. Years ago, her clients were in their 50s and 60s, with children who were also married. Now, she said, more of her clients are in their 20s and 30s, with one or two young children. “That is very significant because it means there is more awareness in the community,” Ms. Frydman said.

The drive toward more women seeking help, advocates and rabbis say, is partly a reaction to modern times. It used to be that communities were bound by geography, with limited mobility and strong rabbinical courts. Under those circumstances, a man refusing a get would be ostracized.

Now, to pressure a man withholding a get, people and organizations take to Twitter and Facebook, hold protests at his home or submit his name to a list published in the Jewish Press, an independent weekly newspaper.[...]

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, said his group is currently aiding about 70 women who have been working for years toward a get. Because of that, the organization has raised awareness about prenups and postnups at high schools, colleges and synagogues, even hosting postnup-signing parties. In the past 12 months, 125 prenups and postnups have been included in a registry, up from 48 from the previous 12 months, he said.

“We are very, very strong advocates of the Jewish prenuptial agreement,” said Rabbi Stern, “and we are looking to go out of business by standardizing its use.”

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