Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Pnina Omer of Yad La’isha Is Advocating for Agunot
Pnina Omer, Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha, says the organization advocates for women in court by giving them a voice so they can get a divorce from their spouse and move forward with their lives.
Ilyssa Panitz | May 23, 2022
We have investigated amicable divorces, contested divorces, mediated divorces, same sex divorces and collaborative divorces with many well-respected experts. Today we are going to explore a religious divorce and turn our attention to a Jewish Divorce. In a civil divorce, when a husband and wife want a divorce, they go through the legal process and then get a Judgement of Divorce, which is a document that declares their marriage void/over. In the Jewish religion, when spouses decide they no longer want to be married they too go through a process to end their union. According to Chabad.org, a married couple is released from the bonds of matrimony only through the transmission of a bill of divorce from the husband to the wife called a “get.” If, in the event, a husband does not want to give his wife a “get,” she can seek assistance from an organization called Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center.
Yad La’isha is known as the world’s largest, comprehensive, and most experienced advocacy center for agunot, meaning a Jewish woman who is separated from her husband but is unable to obtain a legal Jewish divorce. Pnina Omer is the Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha and explains how she and her team step in to support Jewish women who need a helping hand.
Ilyssa Panitz: In the Jewish religion, how does a person seek a Get?
Pnina Omer: According to Jewish law, both parties (husband and wife) need to agree to enter into marriage as well as to divorce. If both parties agree to divorce amicably, they appear before the Rabbinical Court, set a date for the proceedings and perform the religious get ceremony and with that the case is resolved. If one of the parties contests the divorce, the other party has to present a divorce claim, which can only be done in the Rabbinical Court because it’s a religious proceeding, and the goal is to have the court force the recalcitrant party to give or accept the get which is a complex halachic (Jewish law) process. If the husband refuses to issue the get even after the Rabbinical Court rules that he must, then there is the option to impose sanctions (financial or other).
Ilyssa Panitz: Does a couple have to be married for a certain period of time in order to ask for one to be granted?
Pnina Omer: No. There is no limit in time, and we have even seen a case where a woman fled her husband only days after the marriage and the husband refused to give a get and it took her two years to free herself from the marriage.
Ilyssa Panitz: For those wishing to be granted a Get, are the rules and laws different in The United States then in Israel?
Pnina Omer: Religious (Jewish) law is the same everywhere. However, as with almost all aspects of religious practice there are different interpretations between different communities and religious/halachic figures on how that law is imposed. As an example, the case of a husband who is asking for “Shalom Bayit” (domestic harmony), so that he can remain with his wife, but the wife continues to desire separation. The husband didn’t mistreat the woman or act violently, but she still wants to divorce because from her perspective the marriage has failed, and she can’t live with the man anymore. In such a case, there are varying approaches between different courts and judges. There are those judges who will agree that if a good marriage has no chance of being repaired, they will demand the husband impose a get. There are others that will say that if the woman can’t present halachic rationale for why the marriage should end, the court can’t force the husband to issue the get. At that point, negotiations would commence with the husband to see how to resolve to the point that he would issue the get. One option is that the man could demand a “reasonable condition” to which the woman would have to agree; this typically is in the form of monetary compensation.
Ilyssa Panitz: Sounds like there is a slight difference?
Pnina Omer: Jewish law can be interpreted differently based on the perspective of a specific court or dayan (judge) and while there is no halachic difference between Israel and the US, since every dayan can often handle the same case differently, there can be and are definite differences between jurisdictions. We also need to recognize that Israel is the only country where marriage is based on Jewish law and there is no option for either civil marriage or civil divorce. In Israel the Rabbinical Court in these proceedings has the same legal relevance and authority as a civil court. This means that if the spouse doesn’t abide by the decisions of the Court, they can be subject to sanctions and punishments backed up by national law and can even lead to their being imprisoned. This is only the incidence in the State of Israel wherein the Rabbinical Courts are recognized as the law of the land.
Ilyssa Panitz: Does a couple or an individual have to site a reason why they want one?
Pnina Omer: If the divorce is consensual, no reason is required. But if there is one party that refuses, then a reason does need to be presented in order to force the recalcitrant party to defend their position before the court. In certain cases, the reasoning can be a function of time, whereby the fact that one party hasn’t been physically in the presence of their spouse for an extended period of time can be enough of a reason for the judges to rule for compelling a divorce.
Ilyssa Panitz: Who can give a couple a Get? Is it a Rabbi, a Judge or both because of the laws where you live?
Pnina Omer: Only the husband can give his wife a get. The role of the dayan (judge) is to ensure that the husband is acting appropriately and to impose sanctions upon him if he refuses. But in no case can a Court, a judge or a rabbi present the get in place of the husband. A man may continue to refuse even in the face of court-instituted sanctions or even imprisonment, and the Court can still not act on his behalf.
Ilyssa Panitz: Do you have to hire a lawyer if you want a Get?
Pnina Omer: In cases of consensual divorce, the process can often proceed without a lawyer. But if the husband refuses and there is a need for mediation and negotiations, while there is no requirement, it is advisable to seek out legal counsel. In religious law there is a profession called toen rabbani (or toenent rabbanit for women) who are rabbinical court advocates familiar with the halachic nuances regarding divorce. They are typically the ones best positioned to represent a party before the rabbinical Court.
Ilyssa Panitz: Do couples have to go to court to obtain a Get?
Pnina Omer: The couples turn to the Rabbinical Court to get divorced with a get. Matters relating to alimony and other arrangements can be agreed upon either by the Rabbinical Court or civil court but the get proceedings are handled only in the Rabbinical Court.
Ilyssa Panitz: Yad La’isha is Israel’s largest organization that was created to support women by assuring them they receive a Get from their husbands if they (the husbands) are refusing to cooperate. Explain how your team does that?
Pnina Omer: Yad La’isha is part of Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network of 30-educational and social institutions and programs transforming Jewish life, learning and leadership worldwide. Our staff is made up of toanot (women legal advocates) and social workers whose job it is to help women secure their freedom from unwanted marriages, help them navigate bureaucracy and empower them to live freely. The staff of advocates are experts in presenting legal arguments before the Rabbinical Court and are trained in the legal process and halachic language. Yad La’isha’s expertise is based on 25-years of experience in assisting agunot (trapped women) in a very large number of cases. We respond to the specific halachic outlook of the judicial tribunal hearing the case and look at previous cases they have heard and how they handled them.
Ilyssa Panitz: So, your organization has a good relationship with the court?
Pnina Omer: Yes. We have a very good relationship with the Rabbinical Court. In certain cases where the husband is not able to give a get due to medical factors such as complete mental incapacitation, we assist in those areas as well. This is accomplished through a halachic process of nullifying the original marriage (and not via a get.). We also are involved in helping to design the construct of the tribunal of dayanim who sit on specific cases and in certain instances this has even involved bringing dayanim out of retirement to hear specific cases. Sometimes our work is focused exclusively within the Court and on other occasions we use other methods to resolve cases. We sometimes retain private investigators to locate husbands who have fled or to track down key documents that will assist the court in resolving a case. We know how to exert social and religious pressures on husbands to encourage them to give the get. Our team of advocates are also civil lawyers, experts in both civil law and halacha, and we have thus also succeeded in attaining numerous precedents through creativity, experience and our work in the field.
Ilyssa Panitz: Yad La’isha also has an all-women staff and provides female court advocates should clients need them. What happens if those advocates have to go to court for a hearing with a client, do they help make a case to the Judge?
Pnina Omer: We strive to only present our cases in the Rabbinical Courts and not in civil proceedings as this is our expertise and our unique contribution to cases of agunot. We typically only present before civil courts in areas of damages — where a man has caused financial damage to a woman because of his refusal to release her from the marriage. We also sometimes get involved in proceedings related to restraining orders, but we don’t represent cases related to alimony, property disputes, etc. as our mandate and focus is on securing the get.
Ilyssa Panitz: In the United States, if a person is seeking a Get, can any Rabbi grant one or does the Rabbi need to be specially trained/certified in this area?
Pnina Omer: In the U.S., a person needs to be referred to a local rabbinical court. In Israel, there is one Rabbinical Court system (with local branches). But in the U.S., there are different courts for different communities, so a person can choose which court to turn to. The judges are not just rabbis but dayanim who are specifically trained in this aspect of Jewish law. A court is made up of three people. In the U.S., because it is a voluntary process, the husband has the right to choose to not to appear before the court. In many such cases, the Israel-based Rabbinical Court can assist those wives, and if the husband travels to Israel a file can be opened against him in Israel.
lyssa Panitz: Does it matter if a Jewish couple is Orthodox, Conservative or Reform? Or can anyone be granted a Get?
Pnina Omer: Jewish law in Israel, particularly as it applies to marriage and divorce, is structured based on Orthodoxy. Outside of Israel, there are different courts and systems which operate on separate standards, so the process is managed differently.
Ilyssa Panitz: Where does the signing of the Get take place and after both sides sign this Jewish legal document, is there a ceremony or special prayer that takes place?
Pnina Omer: The get process takes place in the Rabbinical Court. It is not signed. It is a document prepared by a professional sofer (scribe). The husband is called before the dayanim and he has to agree to what is written in the get. The husband takes the get and reads specific texts and then physically places it the hands of the woman. She accepts the get and then places it under her armpit. She walks a few steps with the document to show that she has taken possession of the get and is now freed from the marriage. The get is then physically destroyed with the logic that then no one can contest its validity.
Ilyssa Panitz: Do both sides receive a copy of the document that says, their divorce is recognized by Jewish law?
Pnina Omer: The couple then receives a divorce certificate from the court. The proceedings are established in the court record but the get itself is not saved in any manner.
Ilyssa Panitz: In the United States, what happens if a couple does not seek a Get and they want to re-marry someone new within the faith. Can they do that?
Pnina Omer: If a couple is divorced by civil law but not halachically and no one knows about it, they can technically do what they want. When they would come to remarry, they would likely need to testify that they are not married. The reality is that this process is often bypassed. However, this is easier to accomplish for a man than for a woman, and it is also a very serious transgression of halacha. A woman is prohibited from marrying another man and if such a union produced children they would be considered as mamzerim (illegitimate children), so this typically does not occur. However, if someone doesn’t care about halacha, it could occur, and they would either just live together or also be able to marry civilly. In principle, if a woman hasn’t been given a get, the husband cannot remarry and to do so would be an act of bigamy for which he can be sued if it is proven he is still married according to halacha.