Letters from Captivity
Each year, hundreds of women join the circle of agunot, women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get and thus continue to violently control their lives. In the background are the children, who find themselves in an impossible situation. As part of Yad La’isha’s “Letters to Freedom” project, agunot and their children wrote letters to the get-refusing husbands and to the judges of the rabbinical courts, in which they describe their suffering and demand their lives back.
Yediyoth Aharonot | Iris Lifshitz Klieger, 13 March 2023
“To the father of my children,
This letter is like a message in a bottle, thrown into the sea in the hopes that the recipient will receive it.
Our marriage failed for many reasons.
Here we are, after so many years, countless court hearings, and meetings with rabbis, and still I am stuck in this dead marriage.
You can tell me that life is full of injustice or things we cannot understand and we just have to accept it. But the issue of this get is done by men to men. This is an outrageous interpretation of God’s will, and all the rabbis who sit and allow this to happen will one day have to appear before God and stand in judgment for the role they played in this.
I would like you to know that although you think you placed me in captivity, it is you yourself who has fallen captive. The key to freedom is in your hand you need to use it because both you and I deserve freedom.”
This letter was written by S. to her husband, who for over eight years has been refusing to grant her a get. When S.’s husband was taken into custody in handcuffs, she hoped with all her heart that he would now finally come around and grant her the get. But as each day passed and the get failed to appear, the dream of freedom faded.
They were married in the United States in 2008 and had two children. Violence was always in the background during the seven years of their marriage, and the husband was even given a restraining order. Finally, eight years ago, S. couldn’t take it anymore and left, only to discover that the violence didn’t end there. Her husband replaced the physical blows he dealt her with his refusal to grant her a get and release her to continue with her life.
“At the end of the day, get-refusal is violence in every way,” emphasizes Pnina Omer, director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha organization, which is representing S. in her battle to obtain her get. “It is no coincidence that checking the background of many get-refusers reveals many manifestations of violence of all kinds – physical, emotional, financial and more – during the course of the marriage itself. After separation, the violence takes on a new form, with the get turning into a weapon of war in a last, desperate attempt to retain control of the women’s lives.”
For several years S. tried unsuccessfully to obtain the get through the rabbinical court in the United States. At some stage her husband arrived in Israel, and a Stay of Exit warrant was issued against him. He has been here ever since, refusing to grant the get and making his own demands in return. Every time she agrees, in order to hasten the end to this saga, he raises his demands. The dayanim (rabbinical court judges), for their part, instead of acting to halt the blackmail, often act in a way that encourages it.
“She was pressured into leaving the rented apartment they both lived in in the US, even though the court ruled she was entitled to stay there. This was also despite the fact that leaving it meant disconnecting her and her children from the community that served as their anchor,” says attorney Tamar Oderberg, who represents S. on behalf of Yad La’isha. “Absurdly, when she was first faced with the blackmail, the dayanim considered it to be a reasonable condition instead of saying loud and clear that a get cannot and should not be tied to anything – not money, not assets, not custody, not anything.”
After two years of discussions in S.’s case, in 2020 the court finally ruled in favor of compelling a get. When her husband continued to refuse, he was sent to jail for almost three years. “An absurd situation was created in which a prisoner sits in jail, able to free himself if he would only grant a get – and yet he chooses not to,” says Oderberg.
This past summer S.’s husband was given leave from prison so he could meet with the children and spend some time with them. The vacation, which was supposed to last for one week only, was extended and his return to prison was postponed as the discussions in the case were pushed off time and again.
“At this stage the religious judges in the case were changed, and since then the discussions have slowed down,” says Oderberg. “The dayanim try uselessly to convince him, while he walks around a free man and continues to refuse her the get. Time marches on and in the meantime S. is almost 40, after beginning this process in her early 30s. Time is running out. He has brought her life to a halt, as she is unable to begin a new family and have more children as she wants so badly.”
Transparent to the System
As part of the “Letter to Freedom” project headed by Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha organization, agunot and their children wrote letters to the get-refusing husbands and to the rabbinical court dayanim. In desperation, some agunot also wrote letters to God, begging Him to redeem them and their children from the suffering they have undergone for so many years, with no end in sight. S.’s letter to her husband was also written as part of this project.
International Aguna Day is marked every year in March, on the Fast of Esther, to bring to public awareness the plight of agunot. An attempt to discover the scope of this problem reveals one of the primary bones of contention between the organizations helping the women and the rabbinical courts administration.
“According to the rabbinical courts’ definition, a woman is considered as being refused a get only if a ruling been issued in her case compelling the husband to grant the get and the get has yet to be arranged. This is true in only several dozen cases, and these numbers do not reflect the true picture,” Pnina Omer explains.
“In reality, the rabbinical courts’ definition leaves many women out of the statistics. There are hundreds of women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get and deny them their freedom, sometimes for years. But because the dayanim dealing with their cases have yet to rule in favor of compelling a get, they remain transparent as far as the system is concerned.”
The organizations claim that this issue affects hundreds of women a year.
R. (20), whose mother was refused a get and was an aguna for over a decade after her husband ran off, wrote a letter to his father.
“For over eight years during that period, Father’s whereabouts were unknown after he escaped from a court hearing without a trace, leaving my mother an aguna and abandoning all his children,” R. relates.
This is from his heartbreaking letter to his father:
Please don’t call me now, I still can’t speak. Especially since they found you after so many years of your running away from us.
For over half a year Mother didn’t tell us you had run off. She was sure it was a matter of days… half a year that I remained with that sentence, in a scary limbo. A child of twelve and a half. A week before my bar mitzvah I asked my mother, with tears in my eyes, if you would come to my bar mitzvah.
She said of course you would come, I was not to worry. She couldn’t believe you would disappear like that.
I waited for you, but you didn’t come! I cried, I was so ashamed!
Time passed. I grew up and understood the entire story, and still I waited for a phone call from you! I didn’t dream you would disappear on me for such a long time…
I cried a lot and I saw Mother cry.
You ruined us with your own two hands!
The injury you inflicted will accompany me throughout my life, whether you did it ‘justifiably’ or not.
I want to see you regret your actions, see that you want to make amends, that from now on you want to be a giving father who doesn’t care about anything except his children.
Because that is the only thing that will keep you alive – your children who will say Kaddish over you when you reach 120.
I don’t see that you want to do that. You are stuck, focused entirely on yourself!
You should be grateful I want to be in a relationship with you after everything I went through.
My siblings also underwent things during this time, and everyone is carrying a heavy burden that needs to be healed.
Just understand one thing – we are your children. We overcame everything. We went on with our lives, we’re happy, and thank God we weren’t entirely ruined. Each one of us got back up, in their own way, and patched themselves up.
You’re the one who is left alone, not us, and I say that with pain. My intention is not to hurt you but that’s the reality.
Take a deep breath and imagine your children – we were young children who went without you for eight years, at huge cost. Imagine and maybe you’ll get somewhere.
I hope you understood me. I don’t feel like being disappointed even one more time.
I’ve had it with disappointments.”
Eradicating the Disgrace
“We must show zero tolerance for get-refusers and husbands who turn their wives into agunot, and the dayanim sitting in court must do everything in their power within the boundaries of halacha to help those women gain their freedom,” says Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone.
He adds, “In the past we saw how leading rabbis, such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of blessed memory, left no stone unturned in order to find a solution and assist women held captive by their husbands, based on the understanding that this is their duty, which stems from their high standing. We can only hope that we will see more and more dayanim who will behave and rule in this spirit, as it is our duty as a society to eradicate this disgrace from within us.”
During their 25 years of activity, Yad La’isha’s team has released over one thousand women.
“For every 60 women we release each year, we have another 60 new clients who are fighting for their freedom,” says Omer. Among the many cases, it seems that the most difficult are those in which the husbands disappear, leaving their wives facing a dead end, with no hope.
A., from the center of the country, has been refused a get for three years. She wrote the following letter to her husband:
“Hi. We spoke last night. I told you about our daughter succeeding on her test. You were proud of her, but you didn’t say a word about me. I studied with her, I prepared food for her, I kept it quiet so she could concentrate. You were glad.
I asked you if you read the Agreement we sent. The lawyer said it would take at least a week, but I didn’t want to wait any more, another week.
You don’t want to pay child support. For some months now I’ve been maintaining the house and kids on my own, buying clothes and praying it works out.
I don’t know what I said, and then you started shouting: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, you are deranged, to keep the kids away from me! You go out to work, I can also be the mother.”
For some years now you’ve been saying that I’m crazy, and I began to feel what you understand. I couldn’t control myself any longer. “GET!!!!” I screamed and sobbed. “Give me a get! A get!”
The whole street heard, possibly even the rabbinical court.
But you suddenly became all composed and said dryly: “Ok, I’ll grant you a get, why are you screaming.”
I haven’t been allowed to yell for several years now, or ‘a social worker will come and take the kids away from you.’ You say that, and I keep silent, for what will I have left without the kids?
I would give anything to go to a coffee shop. To dress nicely, sit facing a man and order, as though I can choose, for just one night, to do something normal for myself.”
In an additional letter in the project, A., who is also being refused a get, appeals to the dayan who has been assigned to her case for too many years and cries out in these words:
Eleven years have passed since I became part of your sad statistics. Eleven years in which I was curious about the meaning of the term aguna.
When I looked in the dictionary, the explanation somewhat confused me… I would like to believe that, like the first explanation offered by the dictionary, I am settled in place, strong, and I know what is good for me. Like an anchor, right?
But sadly you, dear dayan, have determined that my fate for the past 11 years is directly tied to the second dictionary definition of the word: “whose husband is missing and under Jewish law is unable to marry another.”
I cannot marry according to Jewish law, and you have tied my fate to a man I don’t want and with whom I have not been in contact for 11 years.
You know who I am, you have seen my sad and helpless face in the past, you have seen me cry and beg to convince you of how badly I want a get. Yet all the steps I’ve taken, and I still take, all lead to the same dark tunnel with no light at the end.
If it was your daughter, how would you react? Still so cold and alienated? Without a spark of humanity and empathy?
Who gave you the right to take away my freedom? You took away my most basic right only because I am a woman. You took away all my dreams, those that all women harbor, of finding my other half and raising a family. I thought that was Judaism’s most important commandment, but it seems I was wrong.”