Wandering in the desert, activists demand ‘chained’ women be let go
A solidarity march with agunot — women denied a divorce — brings together 300 women to raise awareness of their plight. Here are their stories
On an arid Arava Valley trail, 300 women wearing red shirts plopped down for an afternoon snack. Alongside food stations set up for the occasion, a musician coaxed a meditative wind jingle from a lap-held instrument called a Hang, while above, several air force jets streaked across the mostly overcast sky. Yet, despite the chatter, the rustling and the music, the stillness of the southern Israel desert infused the moment with an unshakably somber air.
“I’ve been a mesorevet get [denied a divorce] for 12 years,” said Orly Vital, 41, quietly.
“Oh, for real? No way,” a nearby woman interjected loudly.
“Can’t you see my horns?” joked Vital, laughing and tapping her head, which was covered with a wig; there was nothing to distinguish her from any other married ultra-Orthodox woman.
The hundreds of women were on a 24-hour, 24-kilometer desert hike over Thursday and Friday in solidarity with so-called “chained” women, or agunot, who have been denied a religious bill of divorce. Now in its third year, the “Women Moving Mountains” hike raises money for Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha, an organization that aids them in navigating the divorce process.
In Israel, where marriage and divorce are exclusively overseen by the state religious authority, the Chief Rabbinate, divorces are conducted in accordance with Jewish law, which means a man must give a get, or writ of divorce, and the woman must accept it. Should he refuse, dodge the authorities, or be incapacitated, the woman remains locked in the marriage in the eyes of the religious authorities, and by extension, the state. In many cases, the get is withheld by a recalcitrant and conditioned on large sums of money, the relinquishing of alimony rights, property, and so on, in what advocates say is tantamount to extortion and a form of abuse.
Leaning over to Vital, the second woman, who is secular, confided that she, too, “had horns for three years” until receiving her divorce papers.
“What do you mean, 12 years? What do we do?” she asked sympathetically.
“We smile,” Vital replied softly.
Hours later, after walking 18 kilometers but before bunking down for the night, some 100 women gathered in a circular hut on the Arava’s Antelope Ranch. They huddled around the 14 women who remained “chained,” and others who recently received their divorces after years of waiting, to hear their stories.
Secular and religious, young and older, from all over the country, the diversity of the “chained” women and those who participated in the march underlined a truth about the process: that any Jewish woman in Israel undergoing a divorce, regardless of her personal beliefs, could potentially find herself in their position.
“The year is 2020, and it’s unfathomable, but we still need to fight to free women,” said Pnina Omer, the director of Yad La’isha. In the past month alone, the organization has freed 12 women, including one who waited 20 years for a divorce, said Omer, to cheers.
It remains unclear how many agunot (those whose husbands have fled or are unable to give a divorce for reasons of physical or mental illness), and mesoravot get (those denied a divorce as retaliation or blackmail) there are in Israel, said Tamar Oderberg, a lawyer for Yad La’isha. (The term agunot is colloquially used for both).
Organizations representing the women will define them as mesoravot from the moment their husbands refuse to divorce them, while the rabbinical courts will do so only after they issue a direct order for a divorce — a process that can take years, following attempts to arbitrate an agreement — that is then defied, she said.
The rabbinical courts in Israel have the jurisdiction to apply far-reaching sanctions against husbands deemed recalcitrant, including banning them from leaving the country, ordering their employment terminated, or arresting them, though these measures are only rarely taken.
Among the women who told their stories at the retreat, no singular pattern emerged. Some told of domestic violence that began on their wedding night, others said their marriages were banal and not loveless. Some expressed deep anger against the religious authorities or railed against the state for standing by as they were robbed of their freedom; others, religious, expressed submission to Jewish law, while yet others said they were grateful to the rabbinical courts, which they felt were on their side but constrained by the law.
Many women described the frustrations of their limbo status in terms of their inability to remarry, while others reported the bureaucratic agonies that come with being treated as married women by government agencies long after their relationships had ended.
In one case, a woman told of her marriage to a coworker at a hotel. He told her he was an orphan from Jerusalem, though he was neither an orphan nor from Jerusalem, she said. He married her when she had cancer (“He married for money, and thought I wouldn’t survive,” she said. “I survived.”) The marriage lasted five months; the divorce proceedings are ongoing six years later.
Another, a mother of six, wryly began delivering her story with impressive comedic timing. Moments later, she was weeping openly as she described harrowing abuse and poverty, amplifying the dissonance that characterized much of the event. There was upbeat DJ-led marathon music and uninhibited dancing and Pilates and food and a concert by Israeli singer Ronit Shachar — and there were gut-wrenching stories. It was like summer camp for adults — but with an ever-present menace of demoralization.
In unnerving split-second shifts, there were flashes of anger and compassion. Defiance wrestled openly with resignation, girlish laughter was abruptly interrupted by disclosures of financial woes and motherhood worries, and confessions of uncertainty about the future melted into affirmations of faith and giddy l’chaims as the wine flowed freely over dinner.
And they were seen. Those women whose open-ended plights rarely make front-page headlines in Israel or aren’t public figures were embraced by strangers who raised money on their behalf. On the trail and in the camp, they candidly, painfully, exposed their chains.
The Times of Israel spoke to some of the women represented by Yad La’isha about their experiences.
‘It could really happen to anyone’
Y., a 30-year-old mother of a 7.5-year-old boy, never thought it could happen to her.
“My story has no drama – and that’s the drama.” she said.
“There was no violence, no infidelity, nothing. The most normal couple, seemingly. We’re both educated. I was sure I would say, ‘I want to split up,’ and he would say, ‘Okay.’ I told myself, we’d share custody, it would all be okay, we would remain friends. I was very naive. “
Both she and her former husband grew up in Haredi homes but now fell on the more liberal end of the religious spectrum, said Y., who currently works as a researcher on social and healthcare issues for government agencies.
“I think that what you can learn from my story is that it could really happen to anyone.” said Y., who asked not to be identified by her full name.
To underline her disbelief, Y., recalled how several years ago, before the marital discord, she heard of an event by the Center for Women’s Justice where people were invited to come sign halachic prenuptial agreements aimed at preventing the withholding of a get. Her husband was game, she said, describing him as a feminist. But the two couldn’t find a babysitter, so they didn’t go, she said.
For two years, Y’s husband has refused to give her a divorce. The fight is ostensibly centered around money, she said, though she maintained he has declined to verbally commit to giving the divorce even if his demands are met. “It’s possible that if I give up a lot of money, it would work. But I’m sorry, it just irritates me on a fundamental level,” she said, deriding the “extortion” and “chutzpah.”
Fearing defamation lawsuits, Y. has refrained from publicizing the fact of the refusal until a rabbinical court officially declares her husband recalcitrant. His friends would be stunned to hear it, she said, and even her former sister-in-law (her husband’s brother’s wife) did not know she had not yet received a divorce.
As the proceedings continue, her husband has hired a private investigator to tail her for information to discredit her in the rabbinical courts, she said. Y. said she’s not deterred and goes about her day-to-day life as usual.
Y., who describes herself as “dosit” or very religious, blames the state for the situation.
“In the end I could get annoyed about religion – there are many outrageous things here. But in my eyes, that the state, which at the end of the day is still a Western country, allows this to happen and is complicit [is the biggest problem]. It’s the most basic right, the freedom of the individual – there is nothing more basic than that.”
And then he was gone
Five years ago, Vital’s husband walked out of a hearing in a rabbinical court and disappeared.
“They don’t know where he is. He ran away, disconnected his phone. His family early on signaled he was abroad but there was an order barring him from leaving the country so if he left, he left illegally, on a falsified passport and there’s no way to check it,” she said.
It was only after he fled, she said, seven years after she first opened her divorce suit, that the rabbinical court officially declared him a divorce-refuser.
Composed and soft-spoken, Vital described how she and her future husband had dated as teenagers, when both were secular, before breaking up. After adopting a religious lifestyle at 18, they met again after he also gravitated toward religious life, and the two later married and had four children.
According to Vital, the marriage soured after several years and was plagued by a bitter financial dispute between their respective families.
When she filed for divorce, she realized early on he would not easily give in.
“Quietly, quietly, he would whisper in my ear, ‘You’ll never get a get, until you give my mother money,’” she said, glancing down at my recording device. “He would whisper in my ear because he was afraid I would record him, because he always recorded me.”
Vital said she wishes there were more “brave dayanim (rabbinical court judges)” who would make clear to the recalcitrant husbands there would be no negotiating a price for the divorce in the courtroom. But the rabbinical courts immediately aim to secure concessions from both sides, which emboldens the husbands to make impossible financial demands, she said.
Since her husband fled, and with his whereabouts unknown, the proceedings are stalled indefinitely.
In the interim, Vital has become the director of the Em Habanim nonprofit, which aids divorced ultra-Orthodox women and their families, and whose assistance she has sought in the past for herself and her children.
“A sort of revenge that I took against him is that I carried on with my life, that I moved on, that I continued working, that I’m happy. He hasn’t been able to take away my happiness, although he hasn’t allowed me to continue with my life, to get married, to have a relationship, and to have children,” she told the gathering of women.
“This is my personal revenge.”
‘I’ll deal with the violence’
When Ellana Shapurkar, an immigrant to Israel from Mumbai, India, and a convert to Judaism, left her ex-husband in 2016, she took her son and just NIS 400. She had paid the rent and left the remaining NIS 2,000 in the cupboard out of pity, she said.
“From the first day [of my marriage], I suffered from violence,” she said. “After the huppah, I went into the house, and there was violence. I was afraid to take the step, that day, to leave my marriage. I thought, ‘I’ll deal with it.’ I dealt with it for 14 years.
“I always fought for shalom bayit. I thought, ‘Breaking up the family is easy, but I want to build it.’ I wanted my son to have a normal father. Today I’m very sorry to say that I couldn’t give him that, but I saved him,” she said, her voice cracking.
When she first filed for divorce, the rabbinical court and her husband pleaded for another chance. Alone in the country with no family and few friends, she agreed and returned to him for another year. But with the situation unchanged. she left again.
In 2018, a rabbinical court issued an order to force a divorce. With his refusal, her ex-husband was fired from his job under the court sanctions. He didn’t budge.
Then, months later, he was arrested. Bowing to the pressure, and after she agreed to pay a large sum of money, he finally set her free.
“It was never my intention to cause him suffering. Today, too, I don’t want him to suffer… but he put me in a position in which I had no choice,” Shapurkar said. She noted she had also dished out a lot of money for her divorce papers, “but today I feel that it’s worth paying this money for my freedom.”
This time last year, on the night before the “Women Moving Mountains” event, he agreed to give the get, she recalled. But at the hearing the next day, as her friends and supporters trudged across the desert, he backtracked. Shapurkar’s friends and advocates bombarded her with photos and messages of support to cheer her up.
“Thank God, I’m here today, a ‘woman of the desert’ [the Hebrew name for the event],” she chirped. “A free bird!”