Shabbaton Magazine – Women’s Liberation

Women’s Liberation

It took seven years to locate the get-refuser who disappeared without a trace from a court hearing, and a total of 14 years during which Rachel was an aguna. Esty fled a violent relationship, knowing that aginut would be her fate as well. This year, they were both finally set free.

Liat Shukroun | April 13, 2022

padlock and chainsThe shidduch succeeded beyond expectations: within a week from the moment Esty Sompo met Eli, both from haredi homes, they were engaged. By the time she was 19, they were already married.

The happiness did not last long. Already during the week of Sheva Brachot, when Eli shouted at her, Esty understood she needed to get up and go. But it took her time to realize she was in a violent relationship – he drew her in step by step and she was so young, with no clear model of what married life should be like, and with no one to turn to.

“I understood something was wrong, but didn’t know exactly what,” she says. This feeling caused her to postpone having her first child, not an acceptable step among young haredi women. A year later she became pregnant with an adorable boy, while she was helpless in her own home.

Escape from Greece

After a while, Esty mustered her courage and thought she might be able to leave, but then found herself pregnant again and understood – it’s over, this is where she had to stay.

Unusually, considering the sector they were from, neither wanted more children. “It was the only thing we agreed on,” Esty jokes, describing two significant turning points in her life.

“Some seven or eight years after we married he took me abroad and explained that he was no longer religious. On Shabbat he had me get in a car. That’s how he got me to stop being observant. In time it became my choice, but then, because of him, I violated Shabbat for the first time.

“The second turning point,” she adds, “was in 2013, some eleven years after we married. He bought a business and went heavily into debt. On Passover of that year we went on vacation to Greece with my mother, and he decided ahead of time that we would stay there because he didn’t want to pay off his debts in Israel. He explained to me that everything would now be different: we would stop being religious abroad and he would be a good husband because the debts were what was troubling him in life. There were many promises that lasted for about a month.”

Esty found herself in Greece, with two children, cut off from her family and friends, with all her means of communication open to him on the computer connected to her social networks. His control was absolute: she could not call and talk to people, and he hid the children’s Israeli passports because he knew she would not leave without them.

A few months after arriving in Greece she tried to tell her husband she wanted to leave, but she describes a household that was out of control. She did not have enough knowledge, power, or resources – she didn’t even know the local number to call the police. There was no way she could manage this campaign from Greece.

The only option she could think of was escape, which she planned for a year and a half, even consulting with lawyers. Three weeks after she arrived in Israel with the children, she was accused of kidnapping the children under the Hague Convention; thus began the battle for her get and custody of the children. Or actually, the battle to become a free woman for the first time in her life.

After lawsuits were exchanged and rulings were handed down in both Israel and Greece, she was finally given the option of returning to Israel to await trial.

“I’m going to become an aguna

The first thing Esty did in Israel, even before filing for divorce, was to approach the Israeli Rabbinical Court’s Aguna Department. “I said, ‘Hello, my name is Esty Sompo, I’m going to be an aguna. Let’s prevent that’,” she relates.

Did you know he would refuse to give you a get?

He controlled every aspect of my life, I didn’t even choose the type of juice we bought… and especially after the battles that took place in Greece, it was clear to me that this would be war. I knew he was abroad and that I had little power over him. I wanted them to help me resolve this beforehand,” she replies. “However, the Aguna department in Israel is inefficient and redundant, you could shut it down and no one would notice,” Esty rages at the way the department and the rabbinical courts are run.

Through the years, Eli’s whereabouts were more or less known to Esty and the courts. He lived abroad and contacted the children every so often but for five and a half long years he created difficulties and refused to release Esty from his hold.

“For five years I appeared before the rabbinical courts, facing the same tribunal, and each time they would ask the same questions as though we were just starting the process,” Esty says. “They don’t read your file before you arrive. It’s not that they are unwilling, they want to help, but no one is really ready to take responsibility or do anything drastic, everything is done very slowly, with very little effort.

“After five years I was able to generate some progress. I explained to the courts that he had a very prestigious haredi family in Israel, and although they did not respect the rabbinical courts’ rulings, the moment we placed some pressure on them, I was sure that things would begin to happen.”

This turned out to be true. At first, in an unusual step, the rabbinical court in Jerusalem ruled in favor of publishing the get-refuser’s name and picture, allowing Esty to shame Eli in an attempt to pressure him into giving the divorce. She spread leaflets outside the Mir yeshiva and outside Eli’s family’s home, and shared posts on social media.

Esty Sompo in a cage in the midrachov
Esty (right) shared her plight with passersby in a cage Yad La’isha set up in Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare

“According to the rabbinical court’s ruling, and having no other choice, I am forced to publish the name and picture of the person who insists on being my husband and is withholding my freedom against my will… the exposure is intended to pressure him into giving the long-awaited get. Anyone who knows anything about his whereabouts or can help convince this person to give the get is invited to contact the rabbinical court in Jerusalem. Please share. Help me attain the freedom I deserve,” she begged.

The “shaming,” which she had received permission to carry out, was not easy for her. “I did it because I had no choice – I had to show I was still fighting. He’s not the only one who pays the price of the shaming; you also pay a heavy price, as do the kids.” She continues, “Everyone is talking about you, they talk about the kids in school. You’re in the right and justice is on your side, but you don’t want to be talked about, and you don’t want to be pitied. But I was in a battle and I had to fight constantly otherwise the rabbinical court would say I gave up. You do what you have to do because you want to be free.”

The shaming worked momentarily – a process was begun at the rabbinical court, they almost arrived at a settlement – and then once again the get slipped out of Esty’s reach. Exhausted, Esty shared: “You are constantly dealing with this, it’s hard. He isn’t around and you’re constantly fighting. You can’t rest because you have to play an active role in the process. It is fatiguing – five years of playing ping-pong with him through dozens of mediators, dozens of people you need to relate the story to from the beginning hoping they can help; beginning with the people of the Gibraltar community which he moved to, and culminating in his friends in Israel who contacted me. Time and again I would nearly arrive at a settlement, and then it would fall through because of another far-fetched demand on his part.”

Saving Esty

What tipped the scales was another sanction. At Esty’s instigation pressure was placed on Eli’s respectable parents. This time the court was adamant – if they didn’t arrive at an agreement with the mediator, financial sanctions would be taken against the get-refuser’s family.

He did not give in right away. The battle continued for months, prodded along through the ‘carrot and stick’ method. Finally, last August they arrived at an agreement that was not much different from those they had already reached, including terms that Esty and the court had already agreed to years before. But none of that mattered – the goal was to obtain the get. And so, arbitrarily, due to the pressure applied to his family, he agreed to release her. With an agreement that she describes as draconian, without child support, without his taking responsibility for the bankruptcy he himself had caused – but at least free.

She won’t forget that moment. “In August of 2021 I received the get. I remember myself on the day the get was signed; the hours ticked into the night and I didn’t know if today I would walk out with an agreement or if it would end the way it had ended a thousand times before. It is a cycle of hope and disappointment that you can no longer handle.

“The get finally arrived, thanks to Yad La’isha – a division of the Ohr Torah Stone network. Their advocate was amazing and knew exactly how to talk to my ex-husband. They know how to help, even when facing the Aguna Department and while mediating with the husband and the rabbinical courts. Beyond their support throughout the way, this is an organization that provides a solution that does not exist in this country – for a status that is not recognized by the authorities, aguna. It was a relief to finally have someone who spoke the same language.”

Were you scared it would take longer?

“At the last hearing I told the court, ‘I’ve been an aguna for five years. I am someone who can be saved. I’m still young, it’s worth investing in me.’ That’s how I felt,” she replies. “I was really scared. The thought of never being a free woman kept running through my mind. When I left the courthouse I screamed like a wounded animal who was finally released. It is an amazing feeling to finally be free as an adult, without debt.”

Rachel’s Seven Years

Rachel and Yoram (the full names are withheld for privacy) met in high school. Several years later they both became religious, and Yoram contacted Rachel. They met and then married.

A few years afterwards the marriage broke up. Rachel, at that point 29 years old with four children, wanted a divorce. Yoram requested reconciliation, and the rabbinical court pushed them to try. Rachel clarified several times in court that she was not interested in reconciliation but rather in divorce, and that her husband must be compelled to give her a get, but Yoram and the courts stood firm.

For seven years she was pitched from one hearing to another, between one tribunal of rabbinic judges to another, with Yoram postponing the discussions on flimsy pretexts, refusing to give her the get and raising many demands, mainly financial, as a condition for the divorce. “I am not interested in living with this person, how can it be that the court continues to play along with him and lets him drag things out so long?” she wonders. “If there is a behavior pattern of control and violence, of all kinds, in a marriage – the court must learn to identify that these are potential get-refusers and call a halt before things get out of hand.”

During the first two years he even insisted on remaining in their joint home, continuing to claim that he wanted a reconciliation while making Rachel’s life a misery, until a restraining order finally removed him from the home.

After seven exhausting years, they tried to reach an agreement through mediation. When that didn’t work, they had to appeal to the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem. At the first hearing there, the rabbinic judges were gentle with the get-refuser: “During the first hearing, Yoram said that he wanted a reconciliation and that he loves me, and the judge explained to him that although he understood him, he had to let go; there was no point in going back to a woman who does not want you. Despite everything Yoram refused and asked to postpone the discussion to the following week.” She remembers the next hearing, in which the rabbinical court was more emphatic and pushed Yoram, and even presented him with the facts – he was to issue a get that very day, and the financial settlements would be reached another time. They let him step out to consult with his lawyer, and he stepped out – but he did not return. He disappeared, leaving Rachel an aguna.

Anonymous Information

Thus began a saga of searching, a string of private detectives, anonymous letters and diverse messengers, none of whom could raise the faintest clue regarding the whereabouts of Yoram, who disconnected even from his children.

Every scrap of information that arrived was studied in-depth and much money was spent on investigations and searches, and above all – Rachel had to cope with recurring disappointments following each spark of hope.

Yad La’isha, the organization that helps women who are agunot, took on Rachel’s case. Beyond the emotional support they offered, they also supplied her with a lawyer and generously took on the costs of the private investigators.

At one stage Rachel received permission from the rabbinical courts to publish Yoram’s picture and make use of social media to ask the public for help, and of course to increase the pressure on Yoram.

Along the way, there were also messengers on his behalf who tried to negotiate with Rachel, and she and the courts had to work with them because they were the only lead they had, despite their demands for far-reaching concessions and high, ever-changing amounts of money in return for the get. When the sums continued to climb, Rachel reached the decision to approach a private court to examine the possibility of annulling the marriage. In parallel, new information reached Yad La’isha from an anonymous source who provided addresses, telephone numbers, and names of people who he claimed were in touch with Yoram. “We didn’t know what his motive was, but this was the information we received,” Rachel describes.

“It is horribly frustrating to arrive at hearings in the hope that this time there will be a get, or in the hope that this time the information would lead to him, only to be disappointed once again. Seeing as I was very skeptical because of previous cases, and because I didn’t believe he was in the country, I didn’t think it was worth making the effort of sending a private investigator for this.”

Unlike Rachel, however, Yad La’isha regarded the information as highly reliable, and considered this the lead they had been awaiting for years. They hired a private investigator at their own expense and began surveillance, which lasted a month and a half.

One day, the private investigator called Rachel and told her that following information he had received, they had followed someone who met a man wearing a cap, sunglasses, and a mask, and they assumed this was Yoram. The investigators called the police, who demanded the man identify himself, and after several attempts, he admitted he was Yoram.

Yoram’s picture was sent to the stunned Rachel who immediately identified him, despite all he was wearing, and despite the poor quality of the picture.

“The way they found him – I cannot believe anyone would have recognized him. If we hadn’t received that tip, there is no way we would have found him,” Rachel says.

“There is a lot of relief and joy at the miracle. After he disappeared for so many years, it turns out he had been here in the country the whole time. It was very hard to find a trace of him and we were at the mercy of people who may have seen him, so there is a feeling of great gratitude to God for this miracle,” she adds.

Seven Worse Years

Seven years after the hearing from which he ran away – 14 years after Rachel became a prisoner of her own marriage – Yoram was arrested and brought before the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

Rachel relates: “Even then he continued to refuse and said he was owed money and asked to be represented by a lawyer, and once again the hearing was pushed off, except that this time he remained in custody and was very carefully guarded, and his hands and legs were cuffed. Throughout that time he continued to claim that I owed him money and demanded to have all his pending Writs of Execution dropped. I was forced to bring proof to the courts that I did not owe him any money.”

He remained in custody for three months. On Yom Kippur eve, Yoram contacted his children for the first time in the seven years since he had disappeared from their lives. Rachel says they were completely stunned. In his conversations with them he mainly tried to turn them against their mother and convince her to do what he wanted.

The next hearing made Rachel a free woman. She did not imagine that was how it would end. Neither did the religious judges, who were expecting another refusal and had prepared additional sanctions against him.

Rachel continues: “When we found him and he continued to object, the religious judges were afraid that this saga would drag out many more years. I believed that the moment he was found and the court stood up to him he would cave, because throughout all these years the courts had been kind to him and listened to his claims, which gave him strength.”

But after 135 days in custody, steadfast in his refusal, Yoram agreed to give Rachel the get.

The get was unconditional, with no mutual claims. “During these months I was able to show the courts that he actually owed me money and not the other way around. The hundreds of thousands of shekels he demanded were complete blackmail. Thank God I did not have to pay him anything and the court did not cave. On January 4th, 2022, I received the get. Thank God! I had seven bad years, and seven worse years, a total of 14 years. That’s insane.”

She is still trying to come to terms with reality.

“During the years in which Yoram had disappeared, we were at a hearing at the senior religious court headed by Rabbi David Lau, and they went above and beyond to bring my case to an end. I really appreciate that, and of course, Yad La’isha, who managed my case for eight years and invested so much time and money. Full credit goes to Pnina Omer, Yad La’isha’s director, who left no stone unturned and was willing to put down money even when I was skeptical. I cannot thank them enough,” she says.

What was denied you all these years?

“Developing a new relationship,” she replied. “Beyond that, I did my best to get on with my life. These have been 14 very difficult years. In addition to the difficulty relationship-wise, working with the rabbinical courts was not easy. As a haredi woman I experienced a crisis of faith concerning the religious judges and the system.

“When get-refusers receive a form of backing from the rabbinical courts they continue to abuse the women. If they were faced with stern treatment, and if there was a clear, practical policy, then many cases of aginut would be prevented. Harsh sanctions should be put in place before this happens. If a woman does not want to live with her husband, there is no use sending her for reconciliation again and again and pushing her around from one hearing to the next. The husband goes on with his life while the woman is the one to suffer, and in most cases she is willing to pay the price of blackmail in order to go free. It’s in the hands of the religious courts.”

How do you feel the day after?

“The most significant thing at this stage is the sense of relief: I am finally free of the procedures and hearings and of working with the private investigators, and the constant threat of ultimately having to sell my apartment to pay him off. That’s the reason I am so tired now. Tired of life. Because I had to manage this immense project all these years,” she replies.

The Red Tape Ordeal

Aginut involves endless bureaucracy, beyond the hearings and documents and proof that must be supplied to the religious courts. National Insurance Institute (NII), income tax, municipal taxes – are all authorities that require continuous dealings. This is especially true in the case of single mothers who are denied child support and are trying to get some help from the NII. The authorities are not familiar enough the topic of aginut, a status which simply doesn’t exist in the system. Often the women are sent to ask their husbands – the same ones who disappeared and left the women agunot in the first place – to sign various documents stating they are eligible for stipends, as formally the women are still married.

“The bureaucracy is exhausting – after Yoram disappeared I had to prove to the NII that I was an aguna and deserved child support. This is a very complicated procedure, and every year I had to prove once again that I was an aguna and a single mother and bring proof from the rabbinical courts, because the state does not recognize this status. There is no ‘aguna’ checkbox,” Rachel explains.

“Dealing with the bureaucracy surrounding the get was fatiguing. Having to fight all the time to show that you are part of the process is simply a nightmare,” Esty adds. “Also regarding the authorities. It’s important that they recognize the status of aguna to some extent and recognize the complexity of this topic.”

Pnina Omer, director of Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center which represented Rachel and Esty throughout, stated: “The unfortunate reality is that for every woman who we manage to set free, another woman enters the system to fight for her freedom. Many of the women find that the system does not acknowledge them, and they receive no help from the rabbinical courts against the get-abusing husband. They are of no account and nobody hears their cry. The simple reality is that many women are locked into their marriages against their will. We are here to continue fighting for their right to be free.”

May all women be free, and soon.

Read this article (in Hebrew) on the Shabbaton website 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share this post

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn