Yad La’isha: Jerusalem center fighting trapped marriages
Also known as “The Aguna Warrior,” Yad La’isha director Pnina Omer and her Jerualem-based organization fight to free women in trapped marriages.
Sharon Givati | March 11, 2023
In a small office in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, a core team of legal experts at Yad La’isha Legal Aid Center are dedicated to addressing one of the most challenging, yet often overlooked, issues facing the contemporary Jewish world. Typically referred to as “the aguna problem,” the issue surrounds women who are being denied a Jewish get (writ of divorce) by recalcitrant husbands.
Serving at the helm of the organization is Pnina Omer, director of Yad La’isha for the past eight years. Also known as “The Aguna Warrior,” Omer views her organization’s work as the combination of a personal passion to restore these trapped women their legitimate rights to freedom and a quest to address a challenging aspect of Halacha [Jewish religious laws] that favors the man in contested divorces.
The structure of normative Jewish law (Halacha) puts all responsibility – and thus all the power – to grant a divorce in the hands of the husband. Only once he decides that he is prepared to hand over the get is the woman completely freed from the marriage. In the vast majority of cases, even in more contentious and bitter separations, the man delivers the get willingly, with the understanding that even though their marriage has deteriorated, this was a woman that he once loved, often the mother of his children, and he wishes her only the best for a new life ahead.
However, in certain instances, the man decides to hold his wife as a sort of “hostage,” and she remains an aguna, “a chained woman,” unable to remarry and start a new life. While efforts have been made to avoid this problem through the use of legal and halachic prenuptial agreements, many couples go into marriage without such agreements, and the aguna problem prevails.
Yad La’isha: Fighting Israel’s aguna problem
Yad La’isha was established in 1997 by the international Ohr Torah Stone organization to address this challenge, which can have bitter personal, legal, financial and emotional consequences on the woman. While some cases can be resolved relatively amicably with limited need for legal intervention, Yad La’isha’s all-female team of lawyers and social workers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Afula contends with difficult cases in which husbands refuse to provide the get for many months or even years. Effectively closing those cases can involve a formidable combination of legal creativity, leveraging all types of financial, social and parental sanctions that can be introduced in cooperation with law enforcement and the justice system, or at other times through extensive forensic and investigative techniques to identify get refusers who have gone missing.
“In Jewish marriage and divorce law, it is only the husband who can give his wife a get. While the rabbinical courts are designed to ensure that the husband is acting appropriately and can even impose sanctions when he fails to do so, in no instance can the court, a dayan (rabbinical court judge) or any other rabbinical figure present a get in place of the husband,” Omer explains. “Even if the man continues to refuse in the face of all types of sanctions or even imprisonment, the Halacha never deviates from its requirement that no one else can act on his behalf. The result is that in too many cases, we have women who remain trapped in these dead, abusive marriages, and there is no halachic way to secure their rightful freedom without the husband’s consent.”
Omer highlights several cases that have come across her desk that particularly reflect the scope of the challenge and the extents to which some men will go to evade freeing the woman that they had pledged to love and support.
One was the case of Orly Vital. Over 15 years ago, Orly made the decision to leave her husband but was met with a series of conditions, including her agreement to forgive all sorts of contested property claims. The rabbinical court sided with the husband’s demands, and for the next six years she remained without much legal recourse, trapped in an unwanted marriage. Once she turned to Yad La’isha, their intervention led to a ruling by Chief Rabbi Lau demanding that the man issue the get, including the threat of imprisonment if he failed to do so. Shortly after that ruling, the man simply disappeared for the next seven years.
Orly remained convinced that her husband was unlikely to have fled the country, and together with Yad La’isha she launched a series of public information and online campaigns to root out his location. None of those efforts proved successful, so the next step was to turn to more aggressive forensic efforts. “We hired multiple teams of private investigators, and even they were unable to find any evidence of his location,” says Omer. In August of 2021, Omer’s phone rang with a tip: An elderly individual said that they recognized the man they we were looking for as dating someone in their area. The person said that the man in question was living in Tel Aviv.
Yad La’isha quickly retained the services of a private investigator in the specific area of Tel Aviv where the daughter was living. With additional identifying details in place, the teams were able to pinpoint their search and focus their reconnaissance on specific days where they knew the man would be in the area. With the costs of the ongoing surveillance adding up, Omer says that she decided to take the matter into her own hands. She, sometimes accompanied by her husband, disguised herself, and then set up a location near where the man was believed to be living.
Despite all these efforts and ongoing communication with the Israel Police, the man continued to elude identification until the combined work of Yad La’isha, and the private and police investigators were finally able to locate and photograph the man. Minutes after Omer confirmed that the picture in their hands was in fact the man in question, the information was transferred to police teams in the field, and the man was taken into custody.
Even behind bars, the man’s stubbornness continued to define the case. He remained adamant that he would only grant Orly her get in exchange for exorbitant payments. She continued to refuse, finally being granted the get more than 14 years after the couple separated.
Much of Yad La’isha’s success also lies in the connections and trust it has built within the communities where these men originate. Omer points to her team’s close connections with leaders in the Belz Hassidic dynasty for assistance in resolving the case of a man who fled Israel and refused his wife a get for 10 years.
“One Friday morning, we got a call from one of the main as askanim (power brokers) in the Belz community with intelligence that the man would be flying into Israel in the next few hours. Based on the details of the case, we knew that we needed to obtain an arrest warrant for the man or else he would likely be able to elude capture,” Omer recalls. Despite Shabbat quickly approaching and the rabbinical court closed for the day, she was able to use her connections to speak directly with the court secretary. “Within three hours, we were able to get the court to convene to issue the warrant. When the flight landed, the man was greeted by arresting officers and placed into custody.”
In this case too, the man refused to relent and despite the fact that he had flown to Israel to attend the marriage of his son, he chose to remain in jail and miss the wedding rather than grant his wife her freedom. Only after two months of imprisonment and the realization that he had no legal standing to continue to resist did he finally relent and issue the get.
Despite having been involved with this field for close to a decade, Omer says she is repeatedly shocked by the levels of depravity and revenge that men choose to wield over their wives.
“We are fully aware that there are many dynamics that come into divorce proceedings, and there are cases where men feel that they are not getting what they deserve, whether it be financial considerations, child custody or other issues,” she says. “But it is the height of unethical behavior to ever use get refusal as a tool to extort one’s spouse. We are committed to helping all parties gain a just and fair conclusion in every case, but we cannot accept a world where Halacha is being distorted in ways that make women into victims with no option but to accept their fate. Until the halachic community finds a solution to avoid these cases, we will continue to fight for the rights of each and every woman who requires our services.”