September 20, 2018

Agunot Share Their Stories of Pain, Freedom and Redemption

For three years, Los Angeles resident Patricia Sultan, waited to receive a Jewish divorce from her husband, known as a get. Since obtaining a civil divorce from her home in Belgium, the rabbinical court (beit din), which is responsible for dissolving Jewish marriages, told Sultan that it would need her divorce papers to be translated from French to English, that it would be a complicated process, and she would have to wait until she heard back from the court for her divorce to be finalized.

“They never called back,” Sultan said in a phone interview with the Journal. “I had very confusing information and I didn’t understand how it would work.”

Without a get, women married in Orthodox Jewish ceremonies are unable to remarry within the Jewish faith. They become known as agunot — literally  “chained” women, tied to their husbands who refuse to sign the get.

Husbands may refuse to give their wives gets for many reasons, including extorting them for money, or as a way to exercise control over them. It is an issue that has plagued rabbinical courts for centuries.

Sultan kept calling rabbis and synagogues, hoping for answers. But none came. Then, just before Passover this year, Sultan found Esther Macner and her nonprofit organization Get Jewish Divorce Justice, based in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. She called Macner on a Friday, and by the following Tuesday her ex-husband had signed the get and paid half the fees. Sultan didn’t even have to see her husband in person.

Macner told the Journal that Sultan and her ex-husband thought they needed to resolve financial matters before she could receive her get, which was not true. They also were misinformed that they needed their civil divorce decree translated from French to English.

“I feel like I’m getting myself back together,” Sultan said. “I’m not tied to this man anymore. It’s a relief.”

Sultan is one of five women who shared their agunot stories at an event organized by Macner on April 15 in Pico-Robertson. The event, which has been running for four years, aims to celebrate the women who have received their gets and support those who are still waiting.

“Getting the get is an earth-shattering experience for any agunah,” Macner said. “It is a rebirth of her life, and many of the women are isolated. It deserves a communal celebration.”

At the event, several of the women spoke of how their husbands were mentally ill or abusive. They spoke in front of other women who are trying to get a get or were “freed” with the help of Macner. Some waited nearly 15 years, while for others it took around five. The women ranged in age, said Tehillim (Psalms) for those still waiting, and talked about their particular circumstances, as well as how they survived their ordeals.

One woman, who chose to remain anonymous, said she was married to a domestic abuser for more than a decade. From the outside, she lived the perfect life, but inside her home, she was in turmoil. When she asked for a divorce, her husband and his wealthy family came at her with lawyers, and said they would bribe a beit din for a heter meah rabbanim (permission from 100 rabbis) to say she was crazy.

“I’m a child of Holocaust survivors and I thought it was my mission to protect the oppressed from the oppressive.” — Esther Macner

For three years, she fought him in court. In the spring of 2017, she attended Macner’s annual agunot event and finally received her get at the end of 2017, after putting legal pressure on her husband and winning one court case after another against him.

“You have to believe in HaShem [God], because there is nothing else that will get you through it,” she said. “[When I got my get], I had this chill throughout my body.”

Macner, an Orthodox Jew, started Get Jewish Divorce Justice six years ago. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., she is a former assistant district attorney in New York City. There, she specialized in domestic violence and family law.

Macner said she started her organization because she is passionate about helping agunot. “I’m a child of Holocaust survivors and I thought it was my mission to protect the oppressed from the oppressive. It’s painful to me, because I love Orthodox Judaism. It’s my identity. And this is a blemish.”

When agunot call Macner, she gets in touch with the rabbinic court she works with to see if there are solutions or legal loopholes. She calls the husbands to pressure them to provide gets, and she also counsels the agunot and writes affidavits to be used in court.

In some cases, the marriages weren’t valid to begin with. There may not have been two kosher witnesses, which covers everything from not Sabbath or kashrut observant, to not being close family members or having fraudulent activity in their backgrounds. In addition, the husband may have had a psychiatric disorder that he didn’t reveal prior to the wedding, which would render the marriage contract invalid.

Another woman who spoke at the event discovered her ex-husband’s mother had lied about her conversion, and he wasn’t Jewish, thereby invalidating the marriage. She said that before she discovered this information, the process of trying to receive the get was tearing her up.

Macner said get issues can be resolved if couples sign Jewish prenuptial agreements. These agreements state that if the couple is no longer living together as husband and wife and one of them calls the beit din to receive a get, the spouse who is not cooperating would have to pay a daily sum of money. He or she would be responsible for support, irrespective of state legal requirements.

Another way to obtain a get, Macner said, is to find legal loopholes and not give up if the husband isn’t cooperating. “Rabbinic courts should send out a summons and be much more aggressive in pressuring a guy to give a get,” she said. “They should not simply be closing the doors and saying, ‘Well, if he won’t cooperate, what can we do?’ ”

“I only got my get because my husband knew he would end up in jail if he didn’t give it to me,” one woman said. “The fact that in our religion it needs to come to this, it makes it feel so archaic. The rabbis need to get together, and this has to stop.”