Liberator of Agunot: Rabbinical court advocate Tehilla Cohen has so far helped release 60 women from the chains of marriage to recalcitrant husbands who refuse to grant them a get | Cohen, who left the field of educational counseling to enter the halachic sphere, does not hesitate to take action against husbands who refuse to give their wives a get: she moves to impose sanctions, contacts their employers, and issues departure prohibition orders against them at the airport | “We got our lives back, but hundreds of women are still waiting for a get”, say Ilana and Leah, who were released after years of suffering
By Asher Kasher, Yediot Syndication
2 October, 2020 | Photos: Ryan
It is hard to erase the smiles from Ilana and Leah’s faces as they meet Tehilla Cohen of Yad La’isha, a lawyer and rabbinical court advocate. The two women struggled for years to be released from their miserable marriages, and have now come to Cohen’s home in Moshav Shadmot Mehola after finally receiving their long-awaited divorces.
Cohen is intimately familiar with all the details and agonies of their cases, and of dozens of other cases of women who are prisoners in their own homes. She has already succeeded in releasing 60 women; each release a long, wearying journey of its own.
“Without Tehilla I would never have managed to get out of my marriage,” says Ilana. “Her dedication, tenacity, and hard work on my behalf saved me from the abyss I was in. I will be forever grateful to her.”
Women for Women
Cohen (57) is an impressive woman dedicated to her work. The looks of appreciation and adoration she receives from Ilana and Leah are the ultimate testimony to the sudden change they underwent: from prisoners of their marriages to free women.
Cohen is married to Rabbi Dov Cohen, and has seven children and sixteen grandchildren. She worked for the Ministry of Education as a guidance counselor and an advisor on various projects. “When I turned 40 I felt that I had exhausted that role,” she relates. “I was familiar with the sorry state of women who were refused a get or were agunot and it challenged me both on the feminist and on the halachic levels, so I went to study religious advocacy.
“Agunot are women whose husbands have fled the country or whose whereabouts are unknown, and they cannot receive a get from them. Their numbers are relatively low,” Cohen explains. “The number of mesuravot get (women whose husbands simply refuse to grant them a divorce) is much higher. How much higher? It depends on the definition. The rabbinical courts define a woman as ‘refused a divorce’ only after they have handed down a ruling that the husband must do so, but the husband has not upheld the ruling. The problem is that some religious courts give very few rulings compelling divorce. They try to negotiate between the husband and wife or alternatively they rule that both parties must reach a divorce agreement. Usually what these agreements mean is that the wife must waive her financial rights and her children’s child support. These processes may take years, and years will pass before the courts compel the husband to grant his wife a divorce.”
Cohen works for Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center, an association run by the Ohr Torah Stone network which specializes in helping agunot and mesuravot get. The stories she relates seem endless. “One of the latest divorces we obtained was for M., who had been an aguna for ten years. M. had been married to a man from one of the extreme Hassidic courts – Belz – and had suffered abuse during her marriage. She managed to obtain the divorce after we received information that the husband – who had left the country years ago using a false identity – was due to land at Ben Gurion airport for his son’s wedding. He had left to avoid going to prison, yet he imprisoned his wife in a virtual prison with nowhere to escape to. When such a man leaves his wife an aguna, in effect he prevents her from remarrying or having more children.”
What did you do in the case of the Belz husband?
“It was a Friday, and with much effort and while fighting the clock, I managed to have an arrest warrant issued against him. Police officers were waiting for him beside the plane and arrested him. After three months in prison he finally decided to divorce his wife. Another woman got her life back. Sadly, it took ten years.”
Is the struggle worth it?
“Of course. Once a woman is considered divorced she can begin her life anew, remarry, have children. A woman who is refused a get is still considered married, even if she hasn’t lived with her husband for years. Moreover, religious women will not begin a relationship as long as they haven’t received a divorce, because of the severe prohibition against adultery. Yet even women who do not feel bound by this prohibition cannot remarry as they are forbidden by law. They won’t have children who would be considered ‘mamzerim’ who are themselves prohibited from marrying.”
Ilana (45) suffered for years from her violent and abusive husband. Her face becomes clouded as she relates the story of her grim marriage. “I suffered a lot,” she says. “We married abroad 16 years ago, and immigrated to Israel about a decade ago.”
The problems began almost immediately after the ceremony. “He became someone entirely different to the one I had known only a few hours earlier. Things got worse after we came to Israel. On the first day in the country he beat me and the neighbors called the police, but it didn’t help and he didn’t stop. I kept trying to believe it would pass. Even in your darkest moments you believe there’s a chance things will change. You keep telling yourself that this is the last time, until you understand that it will never happen. Three years ago I got sick of it and I filed for divorce. Both for myself and for my son.”
Was there someone you could consult with?
“I was alone here. My family is not in the county. Rabbi Hanoch Avi-Tzedek from Atarot accompanied me. He would leave his phone on for me at night and on Shabbat in case my husband beat me or my child. He knew how scared I was. When I decided to divorce my husband and didn’t know who to turn to, because I had no money, but a friend directed me to Yad La’isha and they immediately began to care for me. A day after I appealed to the organization, Tehilla came with me to a rabbinical court appearance. I realized I had done the right thing as the dayanim (judges) treat you differently when you appear with such an escort.”
“It wasn’t simple,” says Cohen. “The husband claimed he wanted the marriage. In the agreement between the two sides he committed to refrain from physical and verbal abuse, but he didn’t stick to it. Even when the rabbinical court ruled he must grant the divorce the husband continued to refuse. He agreed to divorce only if Ilana waived her rights to their joint property.”
What can be done in such situations?
“We had to be smart. We imposed various sanctions against him including charging him with paying the amount listed in the marriage ketuba and child support expenses in the amount of 1,500 NIS a month, but it didn’t help. Then I had an idea: I realized that his weakness was the fact that he held a job at a government company, and I requested that the court enforce the law that can limit the ability of someone who doesn’t follow a court ruling to be employed at a public company that is audited by the government. After the rabbinical court in Jerusalem ordered his place of employment to fire him within thirty days, he agreed to grant the divorce. Each creative solution such as this one generates hope among hundreds of women who are agunot or being refused a divorce.”
In recent years Cohen has become very familiar with many cases of women who are held hostage by violent and abusive husbands. “Get-refusal exists among the religious and secular, and in every socio-economic sector,” she says. “There is a connection between violence in a relationship and get-refusal, although not every get-refuser is also a violent husband. The system allows many of them to use the get as a bargaining chip, and there are lawyers who don’t hesitate to encourage their male clients to abuse this power. During a relationship crisis anyone can behave atypically in a way that surprises them, too.”
Women with a Passion
Cohen says that female rabbinical court advocates have been in the batei din for more than 20 years. “It used to be that only someone who went to yeshiva could study to become a rabbinical court advocate, but thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who founded and headed Ohr Torah Stone, a petition was submitted to the Supreme Court compelling the religious courts to allow women to take the test too. Those who wanted to prevent women from entering the profession doubled the study requirements to make things more difficult but it didn’t help; talented women with a driving passion to succeed achieved even higher success rates than the yeshiva students. Initially the rabbinical courts were suspicious, yet with time this has changed to appreciation. Today those who work in the system – including the dayanim – refer cases to us. I even represented the daughter of a dayan who specifically chose us to fight for his daughter.
“At court appearances a woman has to request a get from three male judges, and she has to give cause for divorce that often relates to sensitive and intimate issues,” Cohen clarifies. “Female religious advocates can offer these women support, serve as their mouthpiece, make the process easier to cope with, and help the women attain the best results possible.”
Aren’t there female lawyers who can do that?
“There are, but they were unfamiliar with the halachic issues. The rabbinical courts have an entirely different set of laws and procedures [from the civil courts]. After I completed my studies as a rabbinical court advocate I decided to go study civil law as well, in order to be familiar with all the legal material, both civil and religious. That way I can represent clients in all legal jurisdictions.”
Leah, another woman saved by Cohen, lives in a small community in the Galilee. “During the years in which I struggled to divorce my husband, especially before I met Tehilla, the way the dayanim treated me left me with the sense that I was inferior to men,” she relates. “I was treated as though I was a troublemaker and a provocateur instead of understanding that I was fighting for my life and for my children’s future.”
“The children are the ones who are hurt the most,” Ilana confirms. “Both during the marriage and after it dissolves. There are men who view the children as bargaining chips they can use to hurt the wife.”
“In my case, the children – who are older – pressured me to get a divorce,” says Leah. “They saw how he beat me and felt threatened. Tehilla didn’t just save me, she saved my children. I didn’t have money for a lawyer and Yad La’isha provided me with legal aid for free, but it’s more than that – they gave me someone to talk to, counseling sessions, and friends who are in a situation similar to mine.”
Ilana adds, “We got our lives back.”
Viviane Amsalem as a Metaphor
Yad La’isha is the largest organization in the world acting to release women who are agunot or being refused a get. Each year it provides legal aid in the rabbinical courts to some 150 women, helping to find halachic solutions, and providing emotional support with the help of on-staff social workers and life coaches. Over the years the organization’s advocates and lawyers have helped thousands of women win back their freedom, and they are currently representing hundreds more to help them achieve their long-awaited get.
If the movie “Get: The Trial of Viviene Amsalem” is anything to go by – a movie that helped raised public awareness of the issue – it seems that the encounter with the dayanim, who take a narrow view and lack creativity, is a frustrating experience for many women.
“Actually, within the system there are dayanim who are Torah scholars gifted with courage and vision. Unfortunately there aren’t many of them. Some are afraid of publicly voicing ideas that are considered revolutionary for fear they will be attacked by the halachic mainstream,” says Cohen. “We yearn for more dayanim with the backbone and courage to give halachic rulings that turn the Torah into a Torah of Life and carry out justice and judgment.”
What about female dayanim?
“That will also happen one day, but unfortunately probably not during my term.”
Do secular women turn to you?
“Definitely, but less than religious women. For religious women the get is much more important, and the husbands blackmail them accordingly. However, time and again I realize that the get is also important to non-religious women, even those who are past the child-bearing stage. I had a secular client who was about 70 years old, a professor, who lived openly with her partner and couldn’t care less about her husband who lived abroad, but there was just something about being chained that bothered her. After being an aguna for 20 years she came to me and told me she had had a civil marriage. After two court appearances I managed to revoke the marriage without a get.”
What is life like the day after receiving the get?
Leah: “It is difficult to describe the feeling. I’ve been free for a year and a half and I don’t want to remember the awful time I went through. Despite the fact that I’m a single mother and my family’s sole provider, I don’t have to put up with his whims. That’s the most important thing. The mental burden I was carrying when he wouldn’t leave me alone was worse than anything else I had to cope with. The sense of release I feel today is of being set free after being held captive for so long.”