The staff of Yad L’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline marked Agunah Day 2017 with several initiatives designed to raise public awareness to the plight of agunot and mesuravot get — women who are “chained” to marriages and whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce.

On March 6th, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin welcomed Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Yad L’isha Director Pnina Omer, two Yad L’isha staff advocates, and two clients, Gilat and Dina, for a personal meeting at the President’s House.

President Rivlin listened to Gilat and Dina, who described their struggles in obtaining a get from their respective husbands. Gilat, 50, has been refused a get for over five years; she told how her husband would appear at all the court hearings and each time change his list of demands*. Dina, a 42-year-old mother of two and aguna of 14 years, shared that she had lived in the USA with her husband and when she asked for a divorce, he said ‘Sure, go back to Israel with the kids and I’ll follow,” … but he never did.  Instead, he married another woman with whom he has built a new family, and continues to keep Dina in chains.

The President empathized greatly with both women, and lamented the fact that a halakhic solution still does not exist. “It’s true that today there are many innovations in the realm of Jewish law,” he said, “but unfortunately, a solution to the distress of these women has still not been found. I do hope that we merit to find an answer as soon as possible.”

Rabbi Riskin told the President that solutions for agunot and mesuravot get do in fact exist within the Talmud, but unfortunately, today’s judges don’t use them in most cases. “If we believe that halakha is just, and if we believe that our role is to influence the world, then we must find solutions in the tradition of halakha,” he said. “When I first established Yad L’isha 20 years ago, I hoped that during the course of time the situation would get better and that the need for our services would decrease or even disappear. Unfortunately, despite the thousands of women we have helped over the years, the problem remains one of the country’s greatest challenges, and the obligation to find social, halakhic and legal solutions to the phenomenon remains.”

Team of Warriors

“The Yad L’isha team of ‘warriors’ includes female rabbinical court advocates, lawyers and social workers, all of whom work round the clock for mesuravot get and agunot,” Director Pnina Omer told the President. “Over the past 20 years, more than 1000 women have been released from their chains. Each of these women has an agonizing life story about being held captive by her husband; each release to freedom represents personal salvation. Alongside our struggle for each individual woman’s freedom, we also work to change the public mindset of Israeli society and its institutions. It is the moral duty of each of us to denounce the phenomenon of get-refusal and to uproot it from our midst in any way possible. The more Israeli society displays an uncompromising attitude to this subject, the more recalcitrant husbands will think twice before holding their wives hostage, against their will.”

That same evening, Omer also addressed the audience which gathered at Jerusalem’s legendary “Tmol Shilshom” coffeehouse for a unique event Yad L’isha coordinated in cooperation with the Agnon House – home of Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon, one of the central figures in modern Hebrew fiction.

The first story published by Agnon in Israel was called “Agunot” (“Forsaken Wives”), and in fact the author – who eventually won the Nobel Prize for literature – derived his new last name from that story’s title. It was this connection between the Agnon’s world, agunot who are chained to marriage, and individuals who live in limbo for a variety of reasons, which was explored in the evening’s riveting lectures and conversations.

“We paid a price”

On March 8th, Yad L’isha joined the International Coalition of Aguna Rights (ICAR) umbrella organization and a number of other ICAR member groups at the Knesset’s Committee for the Advancement of the Women and Gender Equality, as they do every year. Yad L’isha clients were amongst those present for the discussion on this year’s subject, how the phenomenon of get-refusal can create children classified as “mamzerim” and other ramifications of get-recalcitrance. There were few dry eyes left in the room as one daughter described what it was like being raised by a woman who was chained to a nonexistent marriage:

“My father left us with nothing; he emptied the savings account, borrowed money from criminals, left us with unpaid bills… everything we had was placed under lien, we were left with no electricity, water or gas. He even took my mother’s ketuba and identity card,”she testified. “We encountered so much stupidity. Social services encouraged my mother to put us up for adoption! The National Insurance Institute considered her married, not a single mother, so she wasn’t eligible for assistance… she also didn’t receive any discounts on our schooling because technically she wasn’t divorced. When I went to get married I was turned away because my mother didn’t have her ketuba,” she recalled. “We paid a price for something we did not even do.”

Piercing the Concrete

On International Agunah Day itself, March 9than Oped (in Hebrew) by OTS co-Chairman Rabbi David Stav was published on the Ynet website to mark Agunah Day. “Our Sages knew how to find solutions,” wrote Stav, “and even today there are solutions within halakha. For example, encouraging couples to sign prenuptial agreements, to stop sending separated couples back home to work on their marriage, and to recognize greater numbers of women as being mesuravot get. Start internalizing that a recalcitrant husband is a kidnapper, who is holding his wife hostage.”

Finally, on Friday, March 10th, the busy week came to an end with Omer’s Oped, published in the weekend edition of the Jerusalem Post. “This week was marked by the powerful convergence of two important days: International Women’s Day and International Aguna Day,” she wrote. “As the grand day of celebration departs, we are flung to the depths and crash on the steps of the rabbinate in a rattling transition that highlights the injustice, the lack of fairness, the cynical use of Jewish law, and the unfathomable price women must pay – simply because they are Jewish women.”

“We have successfully cracked the glass ceiling,” she concludes. “Our next objective must be to pierce the ceiling of concrete that hangs over the heads of Jewish women who want nothing more than to extricate themselves from marriage with dignity.”

* UPDATE: Gilat Maatuf received her get on April 30th, a few hours before Israeli Memorial Day 2017 (Yom HaZikaron 5777).  “Today, after a long and drawn-out period, I finally received my personal freedom. This year, I will celebrate the country’s Independence Day together with my own personal independence; how symbolic this is for me!” wrote Gilat.