Freedom: Act I
Outside, it was a freezing cold January night, but inside Jerusalem’s Khan Theater it was warm, full of light, and packed to the brim with over 100 women of all ages and backgrounds.
This was no ordinary performance: there was no program, no background scenery, and it was the first time that each of its 12 actresses had ever been on stage in front of an audience. This was Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline‘s improvisational theater support group, literally coming into the spotlight as the confident and independent women that they are, spreading awareness to their plight, alongside a message of optimism and encouragement.
The seeds of the group were planted two years ago, when improvisational theater teacher Ayelet Ben-Ari of Modi’in googled “desert hike” and came across an ad for Yad La’isha’s first ever “Women Moving Mountains” venture – a 24-kilometer hike in the Arava desert designed to raise awareness of the plight of agunot. “I knew nothing about get-refusal,” says Ben-Ari, “but the concept sounded interesting and fun, and I was quick to join. On the hike, I met an aguna for the first time and spent hours getting to know her and listening to her difficult story. Before the event ended, I introduced myself to Yad La’isha director Pnina Omer and offered to volunteer and be part of the amazing work that they are doing”.
Several weeks later, Ben-Ari led the first Yad La’isha improvisational theater support group for agunot and former agunot alongside Yad La’isha’s social worker for the Jerusalem region, Tirtza Karniel. Two additional groups were opened throughout 2019, each with overwhelmingly positive feedback.
A Therapeutic Tool
“I cannot speak highly enough of improvisational theater as a therapeutic tool”, says Karniel. “Improv is a great equalizer in a group that is comprised of both secular and ultra-Orthodox women who range professionally from a supermarket cashier to a school principal. Improv hits you in the most emotional spot, and the connections that are made are indelibly strong.”
Agunot often feel isolated and alone, Karniel adds. “They feel shame and guilt even though they are not to blame for their predicament, thus causing them to withdraw from their existing support systems, such as family or community. Some feel that outsiders cannot really relate to what they are experiencing, and many don’t have much of a support system to begin with. Yad La’isha’s support groups provide clients with an opportunity to spend time with other women who are facing or have faced the same challenges and can therefore truly empathize with one another and build each other up.”
As the third group’s sessions drew to a close during the summer of 2019, participants made a decision to share their journey with others, and the idea to put on a show for the public was born. The event was comprised of improvisational skits performed by the support group’s participants, and poetry-slam spoken-word monologues that the women had written and rehearsed in advance.
“We will not rest”
Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum was the first speaker to welcome the audience to the event. “Eradicating get-refusal from our midst is our generation’s mission,” she said. “I am proud to be here for this unique evening, spreading awareness of this important cause.”
Director Pnina Omer then thanked each of Yad La’isha’s three social workers for the important role they play in helping dozens of clients rehabilitate their lives. “Yad La’isha’s social workers ensure that our clients emerge from their difficult journey with self-awareness and confidence,” she said, as the lights dimmed and the show began. “We will not rest until we set each client free.”
Choosing not to be a victim
As the participants’ stories dealt with violence, betrayal and abandonment, one might have expected a somber tone for the evening, but the opposite proved to be true; the introductory scene was accompanied by a lively, upbeat song, and the actresses bounced onto the stage, brimming with happiness and excitement. The message to the audience was clear: despite all of the hardships, the women were choosing not to be victims; they were refusing to let the obstacles in their lives define them. There were no tears shed throughout the show – other than those of joy or laughter.
In a spoken-word monologue, Sarit shared how she finally received her get when her husband tried to sneak into Israel from Canada – but how the writ of divorce was then lost in the mail before it reached her. Fellow performer Gilat related to the audience that it was only when she approached Yad La’isha, after several years of fighting for her freedom, that she realized that she was in fact an aguna and not just a woman in negotiations over her divorce. Leah, who received her get nearly one year ago, revealed that she is now finally in a position to help others, and Ilana explained how becoming a free woman enables her to genuinely love her life.
And if the audience had expected that their job was to merely clap, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Ben-Ari instructed each woman in the room to turn to a stranger, introduce herself, and have a conversation. Later in the evening, Ben-Ari solicited stories from audience members which were skillfully reenacted by the impovisational group on the spot. One of those stories was that of Orly Vital, a Yad La’isha client who was sitting in the audience, whose husband excused himself from a rabbinical court divorce hearing several years ago – but never returned, disappearing without a trace and leaving Vital trapped in the bonds of marriage. Vital credited her own strength and ambition to the coaching process she herself underwent at Yad La’isha several years ago.
“This performance represents the pinnacle of an entire year’s worth of hard work and a roller coaster of emotions,” summarized social worker Karniel. “We are confident that this unique event will pave the way for additional groups and inspirational moments.”