Last December, Mendel Epstein, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi in Brooklyn, was convicted of conspiring to kidnap and torture men who had refused to give their wives a Jewish divorce, known as a “get.” The case – which was investigated by the FBI and resulted in a 10-year prison sentence for Epstein – generated sensational tabloid and national media coverage. (The Daily News nicknamed Epstein “The Prodfather,” for his alleged use of a cattle prod to coerce husbands to provide a divorce.)
But lost amid the macabre details of the Epstein case was a much more widespread problem that persists in the tight-knit Orthodox communities in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Borough Park and Flatbush: Many Orthodox Jewish women seeking to escape abusive or defunct marriages face a system that is stacked against them, sometimes trapping them as “chained women” for years on end. And as such cases have become increasingly prevalent, advocates, social services agencies and lawyers have teamed up in an effort to provide women with the resources and representation that they need.
At the core of the Jewish divorce system is the get, a divorce document that can only be provided by a husband to his wife in a Jewish court, a forum which arbitrates matrimony matters under religious law. In the case that a husband continually refuses to grant the get, despite his marriage being defunct, his wife is said to be “agunah,” or chained to him, unable to pursue remarriage or bear legitimate children within the Orthodox Jewish community.
While many Jewish scholars say that a get should never be refused once a marriage is functionally over, advocates say that, in many cases, husbands will use the get as a way to gain the upper hand in a divorce.
“Husbands will refuse the get and use it as a form of blackmail to extort concessions,” said Orly Kusher, staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families’ Orthodox Jewish Matrimonial Project, which recently launched due to an influx of get refusal cases. “They’ll say, ‘I won’t give you the Jewish divorce unless you give me custody of the kids, or a large sum of money – give me $30,000 and then I’ll give you the get.’ Our view here at Sanctuary – and why it ties in with our work with domestic violence victims – is that we see the refusal to give a get, in and of itself, as a form of abuse.”
According to social service workers, fear over the refusal of the get is just one of a host of conditions that can lead Orthodox women to stay in abusive relationships.
“The idea of ‘shalom bayit,’ or peace in the home, is a central tenet of Jewish marriage,” said Shoshannah Frydman, director of family violence services at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “Women are socialized to be mothers and homemakers, so speaking up about an abusive relationship can be seen within the community as a personal failing to uphold that peace.”
Due to the stigma attached to divorce and domestic abuse issues, Frydman says that many women fear that escaping an abusive relationship will hurt their children’s chances of finding a suitable partner during the “shidduch,” or matchmaking process that arranges marriages within the community.
“Some women will only contact us about abuse when their last child gets married off,” Frydman said. “One of our clients has two daughters who are in their 20s and are unmarried. They are begging their mother to stay in her marriage because they are afraid it will hurt their chances. But they understand why she wants to leave.”
Frydman also says that Orthodox women feel incredible societal and religious pressure to keep their families intact.
“Who will say kiddush (a Jewish prayer) over the wine? That’s seen as a male role,” Frydman said. “What is it like to have a Passover seder without a family? And then there are the very harsh financial realities: kosher food costs more; entering the workforce and supporting themselves and their children apart from their husbands is often extremely challenging, especially because these are often large families.”
Given these forces, Kusher says that it is important for women to have legal support early on in the matrimony process, which gives them the strongest chance of navigating the system successfully. In response to this need, the Orthodox Jewish Matrimony Project, which Kusher heads, provides representation for Orthodox women in divorce, custody, visitation and child support hearings in both civil and Jewish courts, as well as connects clients to in-house counseling, shelter and job training services.
“Ideally, we want to have the client to come to us before she’s already been refused a get,” Kusher said. “Let’s say she’s just thinking of getting a divorce. She’s in an abusive situation. Hopefully we can contact that client early, because if we are representing her from the beginning, we can give her the best advice and counsel for her case, as opposed to if she already tried to go to a certain Jewish court and maybe things already happened in that court and she’s bound to a certain forum, we would still advocate for her, but we can’t necessarily undo things that have already been done.”
Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, who presides over matrimony proceedings at the Beth Din of America, a forum favored by advocates due to its more sympathetic treatment of women than other, more conservative Jewish courts, says that it’s important for women to be guided through the process by experts.
“I think that legal representation is a prudent thing to have, especially when we are arbitrating not just the get, but also child custody and financial disputes,” Weissmann said. “I would say that often women do not have a lawyer with them.”
Weissmann also says that Jewish courts need to be compassionate when women come before them.
“Our Beth Din is very cognizant of the human side of this,” Weissmann said. “There is a person who is suffering, and it requires a huge amount of sensitivities, especially with agunot. We always make sure that our decisions are based on the best interests of children and the economic realities of both members of the couple. Women need to be treated fairly in the outcome of financial disputes.”
The Beth Din of America, along with women’s lawyers and social services workers, also advocates that all Jewish couples sign a “halachic” (Jewish law) prenuptial agreement that they say successfully resolves the vast majority of matrimonial disputes. The agreement, which is also available as a postnuptial, is based on the obligation under Jewish law for a husband to provide food, clothing and shelter to his wife. It stipulates that if the husband refuses to give his wife a get, he will be forced to pay his wife an annual allowance, currently set at $54,750, which is enforceable in civil court. The agreement also specifies at the outset which Jewish court will decide matrimony matters in the case of a divorce.
“I want to stress the vital importance of the prenup,” Weissmann said. “If a woman has signed a halachic prenup, that document provides a clear framework for the resolution for the issue. In fact, I now know many rabbis who will not marry a couple unless they have signed the agreement.”
However, advocates say that some of the more conservative Orthodox communities, such as the community in Williamsburg, have been slow to adopt this practice.
“They are very focused on tradition and they see that as their strength,” said Keshet Starr, director of advocacy and legal strategy at the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot. “If something is seen as anti-traditional, there will be a push against it. Many members of the community have an allergy to anything that has to do with feminism because that is seen as going against the concept of the family.”
Given this pushback, Starr stresses the importance of outreach to tight-knit communities to educate women about domestic abuse and the resources that are available.
“The more insular the community, the harder it is to educate people about domestic violence,” Starr said. “There has been a lot of growth, but it’s been hard for some to recognize that it’s not just about physical abuse. In many cases, a woman wouldn’t even know to put a label on her situation because she doesn’t have that language.”
Starr also highlighted the importance of cultural competence for social workers and lawyers who are providing services to Orthodox women.
“Having places to go to where people understand you culturally is very important,” Starr said. “Sometimes if you’re going for help outside the community, you feel like you can’t share everything because outsiders will think that the community is bad. You have to go to people who know the community from the inside.”
That’s where Kusher, and her expertise in both civil and Jewish court, come in.
“I really feel honored that I can serve my community,” Kusher said. “I am a Jewish woman, and I’m so grateful to Sanctuary for recognizing that there should be somebody who can focus on the community in a deeper way. We can understand where clients are coming from, not just as victims, but as members of the Jewish community.”