How Israeli women are gaining in the fight for Jewish divorce

In this case, the sins of the son are the sins of the father.

Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court this month sentenced a haredi Orthodox man to 30 days in jail for pressuring his son to withhold a divorce from his wife for more than a decade. By upholding a lower rabbinical court decision, the high court gave its blessing to an unprecedented approach to freeing women from unwanted marriages.

The Orthodox rabbis who adjudicate divorce in Israel — all of whom are men — have come under fire in recent years for not doing enough on behalf of such women, commonly called “chained women,” or “agunot” in Hebrew. In response to mounting public pressure, and due to an influx of new judges —  selected in a process that includes more women than ever before — rabbinical courts appear to be edging toward more aggressive action against husbands who refuse to give their wife a “get,” or Jewish divorce.

“I believe and hope that a new spirit of caring and understanding of the woman’s position as a victim of get refusal and as an agunah is spreading throughout the entire system,” Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate who provides legal counsel to chained women, told JTA.

Levmore directs the Agunah & Get-Refusal Prevention Project at the International Young Israel Movement and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“As the old guard are replaced, many of the new appointments are much more in touch with the reality of Israeli society and the standing of women within Israeli society as a whole and within Jewish law specifically,” she said.

Shai Doron, a spokesman for the interim director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration, Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, agreed.

“There are more new judges in the rabbinical court and they bring a new attitude,” Doron said. “There is a stronger attitude toward those who refuse to give a get in the last few years, so that’s the reason there is more punishment.”

As part of a system dating back to the Ottomans, Jews in Israel must marry and divorce through state rabbis, whose decisions are based on civil as well as Jewish law, or “halachah.” Divorce is handled by regional rabbinical courts and the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

Women who are not granted a divorce cannot remarry under halachah and are often shunned by the haredi community. Any children they might have with another partner are relegated to marrying only other “illegitimate” children in Israel, as are generations of their descendants. By contrast, the offspring of a recalcitrant husband and another woman are considered legitimate, and generally are able to move on with their lives, putting them in a position of power when it comes to divorce.

The plight of chained women has made headlines in Israel and abroad in recent years, as women’s rights and religious groups, many of them led by religious Zionist women, have worked to highlight the issue and push for change. Activists on behalf of chained women said changing public attitudes have encouraged harsher action by rabbinical courts against recalcitrant husbands.

“More and more pressure is being put on the rabbinical courts to adopt a friendlier approach to interpretation [of Jewish law],” Yedidia Stern, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank who seeks solutions to the problem of chained women, told JTA. “What is interesting to me is the spearhead is religious women in Israel. Most activists are [modern] Orthodox religious women, and they are basically expressing some kind of moderate feminist approach to halachah.

“Partly as a result, we see lately more and more cases where very well-known rabbis in the rabbinical court system in Israel are willing to step forward and to help those women who are being refused by their husband to get a get.”

At the same time, Stern added, there is growing willingness by haredi Orthodox rabbis in Israel — including Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, who sits part time on the Supreme Rabbinical Court — to interpret Jewish law in favor of women.

In the case of the father who was sentenced to jail time — and fined some $40,000 — media reports have highlighted that his daughter-in-law suffered a debilitating stroke in 2005 during a family vacation to Israel from New York. The son, who comes from a wealthy and influential Hasidic family, then abandoned his wife and their two children, refusing a divorce for 11 years, even after the rabbinical court ordered him to grant one. None of the family members’ names have been made public.

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, which sentenced the father, called it “one of the harshest cases of ‘igun’ [‘chained’ to a recalcitrant husband] the rabbinical court system has ever had to deal with,” according to Haaretz.

“All these cases are not easy for the woman, but this case is especially powerful,” the chained woman’s attorney, Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Academic Center of Law and Science in Hod Hasharon, told JTA. “She is really miserable. She just wants to be a free woman.

“I can’t find any reason why her husband is refusing. It’s pure cruelty.” 

The father’s attorney, Eliad Shraga, did not respond to JTA’s request for comment. But his office told Haaretz in March that divorce refusal is “unacceptable” and “must be eradicated.”

“At the same time, it seems that the court floundered and decided to fix a wrong with a wrong, choosing to mistreat the elderly father rather than punish the recalcitrant son,” the office said.

Shraga has appealed the father’s sentence to Israel’s Supreme Court, where Hacohen is representing the daughter-in-law.

Also last month, the Israeli media reported that the Supreme Rabbinical Court sentenced a recalcitrant husband to five years in jail for adamantly refusing to give his wife a divorce.

As the public discourse about chained women has changed, so have the rabbinical courts. About a third of the roughly 100 judges serving on the courts were appointed in the past year following a nearly decade-long freeze on new appointments. That includes 22 new regional court judges and all 10 of the full-time judges on the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

The new judges look somewhat different than their predecessors. In the past, judges were overwhelmingly haredi. Only one, the Tel Aviv court judge who ruled against the father, held an academic degree, and few judges in the regional courts and none in the high court had served in the Israel Defense Forces.

Among the new regional court judges, eight are rabbis from the religious Zionist movements, sometimes known as modern Orthodoxy, who tend to be more egalitarian in their interpretation of Jewish law than haredi, or fervently religious, rabbis. Three have academic degrees, including one doctorate, and seven served in army combat units. Five of the Supreme Rabbinical Court judges served in the army.

But Rabbi David Stav, a prominent religious Zionist rabbi, said the problem of chained women is only getting worse in Israel. He said prenuptial agreements — like the increasingly popular version offered by his religious services group, Tzohar, but opposed by much of Israel’s religious establishment — are the only realistic solution.

“We should understand that what has been done so far is not solving the problem from its roots. We cannot not get to the point of helping the women two or three years after the story has begun. We have to understand that this time is a tragedy for the agunah,” he told JTA. 

No one knows how many chained women there are in Israel. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands. A handful of recalcitrant husbands sit in prison at any given time. According to partial numbers provided by the rabbinical courts, sanctions ordered by judges jumped to 168 in 2013, from an annual average of about 60 over the previous 12 years, but incarcerations stayed about the same, at 19. Judges can send recalcitrant husbands to jail for up to five years and renew the sentence indefinitely.

Short of incarceration, rabbinical courts can revoke state-issued licenses and personal credit cards, levy fines and forbid other Jews to interact with recalcitrant husbands. In one case, the courts even backed internet shaming of a recalcitrant husband. Rabbinical judges have historically been hesitant to go too far with such tactics because Jewish law requires divorce be granted voluntarily to be valid. Where to draw the line is matter of debate among scholars of Jewish law.

But more women than ever are now helping to draw that line — albeit indirectly, since Orthodox rabbis, from whose ranks rabbinical judges are drawn, must be men. After decades of male dominance, the 11-member Rabbinic Judges Appointments Committee that selected the new rabbinical judges had four female members, thanks to a 2013 law requiring it. The law was itself forced by a 2011 Supreme Court ruling on a petition by the women’s rights group Emunah that froze the the committee’s work until women were added.

(In January, the High Court of Justice ruled that women must be allowed to contend for the position of rabbinical courts director.)

After seven years of inactivity, the committee last September appointed the regional rabbinical court judges. And last month, the committee filled the high rabbinical court seats, which were vacant after eight years without an appointment.

Levmore, who is also an activist for chained women and wrote her doctorate and influential academic work on the issue, said she saw firsthand how having females on the committee impacted the applicants and the appointment process. She interviewed all the applicants at length, and said the discussions changed the thinking of many of them as well as of the committee.

“The four women [Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Knesset member Revital Swid of the Zionist Union list, attorney Efrat Rosenblatt and Levmore] formed a voting bloc,” she said. “This voting bloc influenced the appointment process not in a total manner, but it did have influence on the appointment process.” 

Last week, Levmore was able to pat herself on the back after the panel of three Supreme Rabbinical Court judges she had interviewed and appointed issued what she called a “stunning” 47-page ruling upholding the jail sentence of the father of the recalcitrant husband.

What Donald Trump and football can teach us about ‘chained’ women

Following eight years of struggle, an Israeli mother named Adina Porat finally received a Jewish writ of divorce, or get, earlier this month, bringing back into the headlines the plight of “agunot” — so-called chained women trapped in marriages and unable to move on because their husbands refuse to grant a divorce.

Porat’s case was brought to a successful, if belated, conclusion thanks to the work of the grassroots Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, which uses public demonstrations to apply pressure to recalcitrant husbands. ORA is working on the cases of another 70 women, mostly in the United States and Israel.

In recent years, advocates have suggested several innovative legal remedies to resolve these cases, prompting heated discussions of religious legal precedent, authority and communal politics. To date, though, not one has been widely adopted.

Professional football may help explain why.

The game remains the most popular spectator sport in America, even as its inevitable and debilitating effects on players have become impossible to ignore. Public intellectuals and medical experts alike have begun to debate its legitimacy as public entertainment, but their concerns have not affected the television ratings. It’s because the violent damage football inflicts is a feature, not a bug. It’s not a problem to be solved but a critical aspect of the game’s appeal.

Donald Trump confirmed this sentiment at a campaign rally on Jan. 10 when he complained that football has become too “soft” and therefore less appealing to viewers. The Republican presidential contender specifically praised a grotesquely brutal (and illegal) shoulder-to-helmet blow during a recent playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers that shocked even the television announcers into silence.

“It’s become weak and you know what? It’s going to affect the NFL,” said Trump, who owned a team in the defunct United States Football League.

Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal offers a clue why this is so in his book “On Sacrifice,” in which he argues that because good causes legitimately deserve sacrifice, we are hard-wired to assume that sacrifice in and of itself can justify or even ennoble a cause.

“This is how the spectacle of brave soldiers casting aside their own self-interest and putting themselves at risk leads to a form of moral self-deception that is difficult to avoid,” he wrote.

In other words, because soldiers sacrifice so much in battle, we are disposed to downplay the moral calamity that wars entail. We focus instead on the valor of the warriors. Similarly, because football players sacrifice so much, both in the moment and with the injuries they cope with for the rest of their lives, their actions carry a heightened significance and meaning. In a world where so much of our entertainment is scripted, contrived and fake, the very real consequences of football are an inextricable part of what makes the game so compelling and its players into larger-than-life heroes.

A similar dynamic is at play in the Orthodox treatment of agunot. Many prominent rabbis have been accused of moral callousness, even misogyny, for not endorsing solutions that could provide broad relief for women trapped in unwanted marriages. This is false. These same rabbis often display the most genuine personal empathy for agunot and serve in the leadership of groups like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot. They almost unanimously have endorsed the “halachic prenup,” a premarital legal agreement designed to prevent future agunot.

But most draw the line there, leaving existing cases to drag on, even as agunot literally sacrifice years of their lives to a system fundamentally unbalanced against them. In a very real sense, their sacrifice is a public, ongoing reaffirmation of the legitimacy and inviolability of the religious laws surrounding marriage and divorce. It is precisely their undeserved suffering that gives those laws tremendous power and gravitas, and makes them inspirational heroes for a community that rallies to support them. A rabbinic court claiming the ability to dissolve a marriage at will, however the mechanism, would instead send the message that the system is, in the end, not very serious at all.

If modern Orthodox leaders and communities truly believe that Jewish law demands that the power to end a marriage should remain exclusively in the hands of a recalcitrant husband, the sacrifices of a few dozen women do not justify a radical legal overhaul — the intensity of their suffering notwithstanding. In fact, their suffering may, in a bitter irony, actually reinforce the significance of their legal chains.

Simply put, Jewish law hurts people sometimes. As with football, that’s not a bug — it’s a feature. And as Trump implicitly understands, we cannot fully legislate or mitigate those features away without undermining the system as a whole.

Halbertal, though, concludes his analysis with a warning: “When morality is depicted as a temptation to be surmounted in the name of a higher goal, it is always someone else who pays the price.” For Halbertal, misguided sacrifice is the very definition of idolatry.

The stakes are high for those of us who uphold the the value of this religious order. We must be mindful both of the noble principles we believe ourselves to be protecting as well as those whose lives and bodies are the price we are prepared to pay for them.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein has served at The Hampton Synagogue and Great Neck Synagogue and is a frequent writer and speaker on contemporary issues in Jewish thought. He stopped following professional football years ago.

Adina Porat freed from ‘chained’ marriage after 8-year struggle

DAYTON, Ohio (Dayton Jewish Observer/JTA) — After more than eight years of waiting, an Israeli woman was freed from her marriage after an unprecedented campaign to pressure her husband to grant her a Jewish writ of divorce, or get.

Adina Porat’s former husband, now known as Eli Shur (he went by David Porat when the couple were married), signed the get in late December, nearly two months after the New York-based Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, held a rally near Shur’s Dayton-area home to ramp up the pressure. The divorce became official on Jan. 7.

Agunot is the Hebrew term for so-called “chained women,” wives whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce.

The New York organization, which pressures husbands that refuse to grant their wives religious divorces, launched a website featuring a video about Porat that was viewed more than 68,000 times. More than 80 demonstrators — primarily from Orthodox communities across Ohio and Michigan — showed up for the Nov. 8 rally near Shur’s home in Kettering.

Though ORA has staged rallies and social media campaigns in the past, its executive director, Rabbi Jeremy Stern, said this was the first time the organization has produced a video as part of its strategy.

“The video that we created went viral on Facebook and YouTube, followed up by the rally, and all the publicity of the rally,” Stern said. “All of that pressure led to the issuance of the get.”

Stern said that as part of the settlement, the group took down the website and the video and promised not to rally against Shur.

“In my life, I’m stuck in a prison,” Adina Porat said in the video. “I can’t move on, I can’t continue. The kids never had a chance to have a stepfather, a new family, and to continue on with their lives.”

According to ORA, Shur and Porat were married in Israel in 1990. He left her and their children in 2007 but refused to provide a get. He departed Israel for the United States a year later.

In 2009, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate ruled that Shur was required to give his wife a get. The following year, Shur arrived in Dayton to serve as ritual director of Beth Jacob Congregation. He had presented himself as a single man with no children.

Nearly six months into his work at Beth Jacob, ORA volunteers showed up at one of his evening classes there and urged him to sign a get for his wife. He refused. In short order, Shur was no longer employed by the synagogue. He reportedly now works as a life coach in the Dayton area.

After Shur departed Beth Jacob, the Chicago Rabbinical Council confirmed the Israeli Rabbinate’s ruling that Shur was obligated to provide his wife with a get.

ORA currently has 70 active cases, Stern said. The group has held rallies since its founding in 2002, but began employing social media a few years ago. Stern said he anticipates ORA will employ the video tactic again.

“We usually resolve about 25 cases every year and take on about 25 new cases every year,” Stern said.

The Porat case, Stern said, is the 253rd the group has resolved since its founding.

“We are elated,” Stern said. “And we are tremendously grateful to the hundreds, if not thousands of people who became active in this case — those who came to the rally and all the people who were involved in promoting this case.”

Michelle Tedford and JTA Israel correspondent Marcy Oster contributed to this story.

10th and final member of ring that ‘unchained’ Jewish women from marriages sentenced

Rabbi Jay “Yaakov” Goldstein was sentenced to eight years in prison for his participation in a ring that violently attempted to coerce Jewish men to grant their wives religious divorces.

Goldstein, 61, of Brooklyn, New York, was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced in a statement.

Goldstein was one of 10 people, three of them Orthodox rabbis, convicted for their roles in the ring, which for a fee kidnapped and tortured recalcitrant husbands. He is the last one to be sentenced.

According to halachah, or Jewish law, a Jewish woman cannot remarry without receiving a Jewish divorce, or get, from her husband. The women who are trapped in such marriages are called agunot, meaning chained women.

The ring’s members were busted in an FBI sting operation in 2013.

Brooklyn man sentenced to four years for religious divorce scheme

A Brooklyn man was sentenced to four years in federal prison for attempting to violently coerce a recalcitrant husband into giving a religious divorce.

Moshe Goldstein, 32, was sentenced Monday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, reported. He pleaded guilty last year to committing extortion and to restraining, assaulting and injuring a man in 2011 on behalf of the man’s estranged wife.

Goldstein, his brother and seven other men, including two Orthodox rabbis, were arrested in October 2013 in an FBI sting operation. He is the first of the group, which is charged with running an operation that used threats of kidnapping, beatings and stun guns to pressure recalcitrant husbands, to be sentenced.

An Orthodox woman cannot obtain a divorce without receiving a “get” from her husband. The women who are trapped in such marriages are called agunot, or “chained women.”

Rabbi Mendel Epstein was convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and Rabbi Martin Wolmark pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Both will be sentenced in December, along with three other members of the group.

Three rabbis convicted in religious divorce ring

Three rabbis were convicted of planning to kidnap Jewish men in order to force them to grant their wives a religious writ of divorce.

The rabbis, who are Orthodox, were convicted late Tuesday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. Two of the rabbis also were convicted of attempted kidnapping.

The jury debated for three days following a two-month trial in the case of Rabbis Jay Goldstein, 60, and Binyamin Stimler, 39, both of Brooklyn, New York, and Mendel Epstein, 69, of Lakewood, New Jersey, CBS New York reported.

The conspiracy charge carries a possible life sentence, Reuters reported, citing the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Sentencing was set for July 15.

The rabbis were part of a group of men, including at least one other rabbi, who operated a ring that kidnapped husbands and used violence, including beatings and stun guns, until the they agreed to the religious divorce.

Under Orthodox Jewish law, a wife cannot divorce without obtaining the writ, known as a get, from her husband. She also can not remarry in a Jewish ceremony without the get.

The ring was caught in an FBI sting operation in October 2013 in which federal agents posing as a Jewish woman and her brother sought the gang’s services. The “husband” was to be assaulted at a warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. When the other men arrived at the warehouse wearing masks and carrying rope, surgical knives and a screwdriver, they were arrested.

The convictions came three months after Rabbi Martin Wolmark, 56, of Monsey, New York, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. He will be sentenced on May 18.

Israeli woman receives religious divorce after 14 years with chief rabbi’s help

Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi David Lau intervened to help a woman obtain a religious divorce after a 14-year wait.

The woman discovered 14 years ago that her husband was having a homosexual relationship with a Filipino caregiver. The woman immediately filed for divorce in the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.

After 12 years, the rabbinical court jailed the husband for continuing his refusal to grant the divorce, or get. At the same time, however, the wife filed for damages in Family Court. The husband said he would continue to refuse until the wife withdrew the Family Court claim.

The Supreme Rabbinical Court then attempted to broker a deal under which the husband would agree to the divorce if she paid him 18 percent of a jointly owned apartment. The woman refused, according to The Jerusalem Post, insisting that she should not have to buy a bill of divorce from her husband.

In a hearing of the Supreme Rabbinical Court last week, Lau, who sat on the panel, over five hours convinced the husband to drop his claim to part of the apartment and to grant the bill of the get if the wife dropped her claim in Family Court.

The woman left the court in tears of happiness, Lau said in a statement on his Facebook page.

Lau reportedly has assisted in several other cases of women who have been chained to their marriages for long periods.


Husband of Rivky Stein fails to show for get proceedings

The husband of Rivky Stein, a New York Jewish woman who launched a social media campaign to attain a religious divorce, did not appear at the religious court as promised.

Yoel Weiss, 31, failed to show up at a beit din, or Jewish religious court, convened on Wednesday to complete the process, the New York Daily News reported.

“This is just another form of abuse,” said Stein, according to the newspaper.

Weiss told the Daily News that he would only give his wife a religious divorce, or get, if the same three rabbis who started the process would be there to complete it. One of the rabbis could not attend Wednesday; he was in Israel for the funeral and shiva of his mother. Other rabbis who could step in were at the proceedings.

Weiss’ stipulation has no precedent in Jewish law, rabbis told the newspaper.

Stein, 24, of Brooklyn, alleges in documents posted on the Facebook page and a website on behalf of her case that she was physically abused and raped by Weiss, and he kept her under surveillance. Weiss denies that he abused Stein, who left her husband two years ago.

In a June interview, Stein told the Daily News that she recently turned to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in an effort to have Weiss criminally charged.

Weiss told the newspaper then that he will give his estranged wife a get once they work out custody of their two children in family court.



Cartoon: 12 or whatever Years a Slave

Letters to the editor: Divorce in the Jewish community

Getting a Solution 

Thank you, Ryan Torok, for your excellent coverage of the “get” story (“Till Get Do Us Part,” March 28). The “wedding” was a Chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name.

The protest is a Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of the God’s name.

Those rabbis who led the protest deserve our praise, our admiration and our gratitude … Rabbi Segal has taught his students at Shalhevet a wonderful lesson in morality, responsibility and Jewish values, most especially in reverence for the halachah. He is especially deserving of praise.

The rabbis who permitted this abomination deserve our scorn.

One can be grateful that Chabad does not count him for a minyan or give him honors within the service. He should not even be allowed to enter the premises. His very presence is an abomination.

And for all of us who respect tradition must insist that Orthodox Rabbis solve this problem. There is a way; all that is missing is courage and determination.

Michael Berenbaum via e-mail

Meir Kin is doing what comes naturally to him, which is looking out for his own selfish interest. I’m not excusing his despicable conduct, but a rally against him won’t fix the problem.

The shanda in this is that the Orthodox rabbinate has not found a way for women to be divorced in every situation in which the wife wishes to be divorced, without the issuance of a get by the husband. A woman should be able to go to a beit din, and receive a declaration of divorce and freedom to remarry in all cases, no questions asked.

If the Orthodox rabbinate could show courage in this, then the problem would end. We find loopholes for nearly everything; pikuach nefesh is the grand catch-all, and certainly halacha has stretched pikuach nefesh for less severe situations. (A doctor can drive to the hospital for every possible minor issue, and a woman can have an abortion because giving birth may have cause her psychological harm, but a beit din can’t rely on pikuach nefesh to order a woman free?)

Jeffrey Rabin via e-mail

For the last month, this paper has done a hatchet job on the Orthodox Jewish community. In articles on the Mizachi family, Dick and Michael Horowitz, Rabbi Ten, yeshiva students in the Israeli army and now the Kin get. This week’s parasha, Tazria, dealt with the consequence of lashon harah and so will next week’s. Whether Meir Kin gives a get to his ex-wife or not will not increase the number of Jewish children getting a quality Jewish education. It will not help bring Jews back to Judaism, have them keep kosher or get Jews to keep Shabbat. It will not help our people overcome sinat chinam or promote love amongst each other. Truly, should the Kin get be the main discussion at the Shabbat table? 

Dory Frank via e-maill

The Divorce Is in the Details

Toward the end of her recent article on agunot (“Confronting the Problem of Orthodox Divorce,” March 28), Alexandra Leichter indicated that Conservative Jews do not have this problem because the international beit din of the Conservative movement has the authority to annul marriages in which the husband has refused to give a Jewish writ of divorce (a get). I would like to add two things to what she correctly said. 

First, the authority to annul marriages is based on the Talmud’s assertion that rabbis have that power). Orthodox rabbis have refused to use this authority that the Talmud gives them, despite the agony of agunot, while we Conservative rabbis will use that authority when no other avenue is open to free a woman from her first husband. 

Second, annulling a marriage is a last resort. Before that, we Conservative rabbis, like Orthodox rabbis, will do what we can to convince the husband to issue a get. In 1968, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a ruling that provides for using a prenuptial agreement. The agreement, however, is different from the one that some Orthodox rabbis are now using. The latter seeks to impose a fine on the man each day he refuses to issue a get after a rabbinic court orders him to do so, but it is frankly questionable whether rabbis have the authority to collect such a fine. The Conservative prenuptial agreement, in contrast, states that if there is a divorce in civil law and the husband has not issued a get within six months thereafter, he agrees that the marriage was not a marriage from the beginning. This does not require a court to act, whether a civil or rabbinic court; it does not involve threatening uncollectable fines; and while it transforms the couple’s acts of sex within the marriage to the legal status of licentiousness rather than sacred union, it does not affect the legal status of any children the couple had, for an illegitimate child (a mamzer) is only the product of an incestuous or adulterous union, not one that could have been sanctified in marriage. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Los Angeles

Israel Meir Kin is a threat to all Jewish women

A little over a thousand years ago, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, the leading scholar of Ashkenazi Jewry, enacted bold legal measures to protect Jewish women from abuse.

Last week a fellow named Israel Meir Kin poked his finger in Rabbenu Gershom’s eye, and now every Jewish woman is at risk.

In his day, Rabbenu Gershom began to notice a disturbing and outrageous trend. Husbands, who found that they now fancied another woman, were taking advantage of the Biblical law allowing them to divorce their wives unilaterally and virtually without cause. And with the stroke of a pen, and the cold delivery of a divorce document, they were shattering the lives of their wives and families. Rabbenu Gershom strode into the breach and proclaimed a ban of excommunication against any man who divorced his wife without her consent. And to insure these husbands who lusted after another woman wouldn’t simply marry their new love without divorcing their first wives, he placed the same ban of excommunication on any man who married more than one wife, effectively ending the practice of polygamy in Ashkenaz. Rabbenu Gershom was determined that Jewish women would no longer be subject to this kind of abuse at the hands of their husbands.

In our day, Israel Meir Kin has undone Rabbenu Gershom’s work. This past Thursday, as about 30 of us stood in protest, he blatantly violated Rabbenu Gershom’s ban, by marrying a second woman without divorcing his wife. As if it were not enough that for the past 9 years he has spitefully been refusing to grant a Jewish divorce to his wife Lonna (allegedly unless she were to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars), he has now completed his journey of shame by toppling the age-old ban on polygamy. (See the articles in this past Saturday’s New York Times, and the Jewish Journal.

Make no mistake. Israel Meir Kin’s actions are not merely outrageous and despicable. His actions threaten all of our daughters and all of our sisters. I can guarantee you that at this very moment there are men who are watching, waiting to see whether Israel Meir Kin gets away with this. And if he does, there will be more Israel Meir Kins. And every single married Jewish woman will be shorn of the protection Rabbenu Gershom had afforded women for the past millennium.

If you know Israel Meir Kin, a physician’s assistant now residing in Las Vegas, Nevada, or if you know someone who knows him, you must act now. Bring whatever legal form of social or economic pressure to bear on him that you can. This is a moment that has the potential to wreak havoc and misery for generations to come. Unless we act to stop it.

Till get do us part: Israel Meir Kin’s Las Vegas wedding

Hurrying by the parking lot at the Lakeside Event Center in Las Vegas, Israel Meir Kin and his new wife, Daniela Barbosa, avoided eye contact with a group of about 30 demonstrators who had been waiting for them. Dressed for their wedding in a suit and gown, respectively, the couple could not move fast enough. The sight of them was enough to enrage a gathering from the Los Angeles and Las Vegas Modern Orthodox communities, who stood waving signs and shouting slogans denouncing the union.

“Give her a get,” one of the protesters shouted at Kin, referring to the Jewish bill of divorce, which requires a husband to willingly agree to divorce his wife — in this case, Lonna Kin — in order for a Jewish divorce to become official. 

In the Orthodox community, Lonna Kin, a resident of Monsey, N.Y., will be unable to marry again or have Jewish children without a get. Israel Meir Kin has refused to grant this to his estranged wife unless she goes with him to a beit din (religious court) of his choice.

Israel Meir Kin’s March 20 wedding to Barbosa in Las Vegas, where he lives, has added fuel to the ongoing, often-heated debate within the Orthodox community over Jewish laws governing divorce, and the occasion prompted leaders from Los Angeles’ Modern Orthodox community to travel to the protest. Those present were all in agreement that he is in the wrong.

“He is adding outrage to outrage by getting married, doing the very thing that he is preventing his wife from doing, and he is violating the laws of polygamy,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson.

[Related: Confronting the problem of Orthodox divorce]

Lonna Kin said in an interview with the Journal that, as conditions for giving the get, her former husband, who could not be reached for comment, is demanding that she pay him $500,000 and give up custody of their 12-year-old son. “He’s extorting me for half a million [dollars] and for custody,” she said. She also claimed he has been making these demands “for the past 10 years.” Lonna Kim also said she had to give up custody of a child in a previous Orthodox divorce. She said she would never agree to do so again.

The protest was organized by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had been notified in advance. ORA describes itself as “the only nonprofit organization addressing the agunah crisis on a case-by-case basis worldwide.” “Agunah” is the Hebrew word for “chained wife,” and Lonna Kin is the agunah in this situation, ORA says, as she cannot remarry as long as Israel Meir Kin does not provide her with a get. If she were to remarry without it, she would be ostracized according to the laws of the Orthodox community.

The Kins finalized their civil divorce in 2007, so, according to civil law, both are free to remarry. In Jewish terms, however, while Lonna Kin remains tied to her former husband, Israel Meir Kin claims to have a heter meah rabbanim  — the permission of 100 rabbis — a decree that allows him to wed Barbosa even though he is still technically married to Lonna Kin under Jewish law, according to ORA. 

Women do not have access to the 100-rabbis alternative, which is supposed to be employed only in extreme cases. ORA claims this is not one of those cases.

Lonna Kin, who works as a realtor and grew up in Los Angeles, expressed her gratitude for the protest in a phone interview after the event.

“That support was incredibly empowering for me,” she said. “Because, first of all, women in this position, a lot of women are agunot, and I speak to other people, and I try to help other people. They tell me how they feel, they think nobody cares, and, unfortunately, there’s a lot of women going through divorces, and it’s always, ‘He said; she said,’ and it’s not about that, it’s not about right or wrong.”

Lonna Kin

Lonna Kin, 52, called get refusals “a major crisis … in the Orthodox community, that someone can refuse a get for so many years, use extortionist tactics and afterward get married while the woman is still chained.” 

In her youth, she straddled both the secular and religious worlds, attending Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy and Beverly Hills High School. She said she met Israel Meir Kin, who also grew up in Los Angeles, in her late 30s, when the two both had children from previous marriages who were attending the same summer camp. They married in 2000. “He seemed like a nice person,” she said. 

Yet, after they wed, she claimed, “He was extremely controlling, very mean to my children, a very difficult person altogether, all around.” The couple separated in 2005. 

For a group of Los Angeles students at the protest, it was a moment of activism and learning: Yaakov Sobel, a ninth-grader at Los Angeles’ Shalhevet High School, held high a banner that read  “Shame on You Israel Meir Kin.” Sobel was one of six Shalhevet students who traveled together to Las Vegas on March 20, riding in a van that departed from their campus at noon. They had come, with their parents’ permission, for the sole purpose of speaking out against the wedding.

“I’m here to support the Jewish idea in general that a woman deserves a get,” Sobel said.

Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, was also there, chanting as the newlyweds stepped into the parking lot. Segal said his students have been studying laws surrounding Jewish marriage, and the protest was an experiential learning opportunity for them.

For his part, Kanefsky had come to teach. He told the protesters that the conflict between the Kins illustrates the importance of Jewish prenuptial agreements. These agreements, he said, are paramount to any union, in that they obligate two people entering into a marriage to agree that they would, in the event of their divorce, settle the matter in a reputable beit din.

Israel Meir Kin reportedly has agreed to give his wife a get only on the condition that she appear in one particular beit din, one that the ORA claims is known for being corrupt.

Irrespective of which beit din, Kanefsky said, a spouse should allow for a get without any strings attached.

“We’re saying he must give an unconditional divorce,” Kanefsky said.

Israel Meir Kin’s unwillingness to grant the get has drawn widespread condemnation. In 2010, three Orthodox rabbis issued a seruv, an order of contempt, against Israel Meir Kin, denouncing his refusal to provide a get to Lonna Kin. The panel of rabbis included Rabbi Avrohom Union, who is associated with the beit din of the Rabbinic Council of California. 

The seruv has affected Israel Meir Kin’s standing in the Orthodox community in Las Vegas. Rabbi Yisroel Schanowitz, the rabbi at the Chabad of Summerlin/Desert Shores, where Israel Meir Kin occasionally comes to pray, does not allow him to be counted to make up a minyan and would deny him the opportunity to be recognized with any awards, according to Kanefsky, who spoke with Schanowitz on the day of the protest. Schanowitz did not participate in the protest, and the Journal could not reach him for an interview. 

Students from Shalhevet High School travel to Las Vegas to protest the wedding of a man who refused to grant his previous wife a Jewish divorce.

Israel Meir Kin, a physician’s assistant, currently lives in Vegas. The Chabad he occasionally attends is located in an upper-middle-class neighborhood overlooking an artificial lake, in the same shopping center as the venue where the March 20 wedding was held. The shul was not involved in the ceremony. 

Israel Meir Kin did not respond to the Journal’s request for an interview.

“We don’t know what is going to happen when we get there,” Kanefsky told a reporter at Los Angeles International Airport earlier in the day, before departing for Las Vegas. “I am the sort of person who likes to know everything before he does it, so this is unusual for me.”

Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation commended those who turned out for their commitment to an important cause.

“It’s great we all came here — some of us, hundreds of miles — to come together to say we are not going to stand for this,” Topp told the crowd.

Police officers on the scene frequently had to remind the group, which also included members of the Las Vegas Orthodox community, to remain out of the street. Otherwise, the protest was civil throughout. It did not disrupt the wedding.

Rabbi Nachum Meth of the Las Vegas Kollel was among the locals at the protest. Meth said a man who refuses to give his wife a get is attempting to exert psychological power over his spouse.

“It is the last form of control that a husband has over his wife or ex-wife,” he said in an interview. “He is trying to control her destiny.”

Kanefsky, the only person representing B’nai David-Judea, said he had informed his congregation only a day or two prior to the event. Topp, meanwhile, was joined by a few members of Beth Jacob. The participation among Shalhevet students might have been greater if not for homework and tests, Segal said.

Not all responses to agunot situations have been like this one.

Past media reports have included rabbis resorting to kidnapping and violence as means of coercing the husbands into granting their wives a Jewish divorce. 

Forgoing such illegal actions, ORA nevertheless relies on what its assistant director, Meira Zack, referred to as “pressure tactics.” Last Thursday was such an example, said Zack, whose passion on behalf of agunot was apparent from the beginning of the protest, when she led a chant to energize the crowd.

But what of the Jewish law that says that a get must be given “willingly”? Would the external pressure faced by Israel Meir Kin jeopardize the validity of a get, should he ever decide to give one to Lonna Kin?

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of ORA, says no, pointing to a concept of “constructive consent,” which he says was developed by the Jewish sage Maimonides.

Drawing on a study conducted several years ago by Barbara Zakheim, president and founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, Stern estimates that there are currently 462 agunot living in the United States. He points out that while all of them are self-identifying agunot, there is no clear consensus on what an agunah is.

“Different people give different definitions,” Stern said. “Some say a woman is considered an agunah once there has been a ruling by the beit din making that determination. Others say it’s once she has a civil divorce and doesn’t have a get. Others say it’s when she’s been separated for a year and still doesn’t have a get, then she’s an agunah.”

Kin and his new wife, Daniela Barbosa, leave the wedding ceremony. 

Adding to the difficulty in quantifying how many agunot there are, Stern said, “There’s no official registry of agunot or even of Jewish divorces. There’s no registry of gets or anything like that, or people applying for a get, because this is all outside the legal system. In civil law you can see how many applied for divorce from the courts and how many court cases are still [outstanding], but in Jewish law you can’t do that because there’s no official Jewish court system outside of Israel, no registry, no real way to define how many agunot there are.”

As a result, the ORA has developed criteria to help in the determination, taking on the cases where a beit din has issued a seruv against the husband and “where the woman has done everything she can through the rabbinical court process, and that has concluded without securing her a get,” Stern said.

ORA also considers taking on cases in which the “rabbinic court has failed or stalled for whatever reason,” Stern said. “So for example, if she says, ‘I want to go to this court,’ and he says, ‘I want to go to this court,’ and the two can’t agree on what rabbinical court to go to, and he cannot compel her, she cannot compel him, then you’re stuck, at a deadlock. 

“We’ll get involved in those cases as well, to facilitate those processes to move things forward and ensure that a get is given,” Stern said.

ORA handles about 50 agunah cases at any given time. Currently, several of these are in Los Angeles, Stern said, but he would not provide further information about them.

It is hard to discern how prevalent the issue is in Los Angeles. Topp told the Journal that there have been “a few cases in the synagogue,” where sanctions punishing recalcitrant husbands “would have been helpful.” He did not elaborate further. 

Kanefsky said he knows of one congregant from B’nai David-Judea who denied his wife a get, but that took place before he was the rabbi of the congregation, where he has served for approximately 20 years.

In 2013, the Los Angeles Times published an article on recalcitrant husbands who have fled from Israel, where their actions could lead to jail time, to U.S. cities where the separation of church and state keeps them safely out of the way of the criminal justice system. 

Stein believes that criminalizing get refusal would solve the problem, providing incentive to adhere to a law that obligates them to give a get upon marital separation. 

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in the Pico-Robertson area whose responsibilities include officiating weddings, believes that allowing third parties, such as the beit din, to intervene in certain situations and issue the get — husband involvement or no — would solve the problem.

Most importantly, Bookstein says the community’s leaders need to find a solution to this crisis.

“I think that because of the prevalent abuse going on right now, that our rabbinic sages should be entrusted to find a halachic [according to Jewish law] avenue to solve this growing problem … it seems that there is an uptick in this problem as the divorce rate in the Orthodox [community] has grown,” he said.

In the meantime, several rabbis, including Kanefsky and Topp, are trying to increase awareness of the issue on the community level. In September, an Pico-Robertson event will ask already-married couples who have never signed halachic prenuptial agreements — either because they did not exist at the time of their union or because the rabbi who officiated their wedding did not ask them to — to sign halachic postnuptial agreements.

Kanefsky highlighted the importance of this gathering. “It will be an enormous, consciousness-raising event for the whole city,” he said.

Confronting the problem of Orthodox divorce

When I began practicing law more than four decades ago, divorce in the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community was rare — and the giving of a get (Jewish divorce) by the husband was quietly arranged in the local rabbi’s study without fanfare, creating only a few social ripples in the fabric of a close-knit community. Get refusal, or get extortion was almost unknown. (One blatant exception was when a rabbi’s son was finally forced to give a get after eight-plus years of recalcitrance, but only after he was allegedly beaten and thrown into a newly dug grave in New York, whereupon he “willingly” gave his wife a get).

While I was generally aware that a Jewish marriage was not dissolved by a secular divorce until the husband gave the wife a get and freed her to remarry, the possibility of a husband withholding a get and leaving the wife an agunah (a woman chained to a dead marriage) was not something that occurred in my law practice until several years after I opened my office in 1972. 

[Related: Till get do us part]

Around 1976, I began receiving an increasing number of cases where husbands refused to give a get for vengeance, or to extort money, property or even custody rights to their children, in some cases whom they may have molested. The result was taking into consideration the grave threat of forcing a woman into a state of agunah if the civil case did not proceed as the husband demanded. I quickly learned that under Jewish law, by virtue of “acquiring” a wife, the husband also had unfettered rights to keep her chained to him until he decided to free her, or until his death could be verified. This gave power to the abusive husband to prevent the wife from ever remarrying or having children with another man, even when he himself remarried and had children in his new relationship.

This imbalance in power afforded the husband creates numerous problems in affecting a civil divorce settlement or judgment, as well, because no amount of legal creativity can force the husband to free the wife from the Jewish marriage bonds. Get refusal and get extortions became so much a part of the Orthodox divorce scene that, being the only family-law practitioner in Los Angeles who also knew the intricacies of the Jewish divorce law, I was compelled to write legal articles, train lawyers and judges to watch out for the problem, and create some solutions. 

The delicate balance of the civil law rights to equal property division, as well as spousal and child support and custodial determination, was constantly being jeopardized by a husband’s threat to withhold the get and leave the wife an agunah. I often felt like I was walking a religious tightrope, where any misstep could doom my client.

There are many highly legitimate reasons for a woman to want a divorce that even the most traditional families can accept: marriage to a man who is physically or emotionally abusive or who molests children, or who is discovered after marriage to be homosexual, or who is an adulterer, or who remarries without giving his wife a get, or who disappears, just to name a few. Yet, in an Orthodox marriage, a man marries his bride via a kinyan (an acquisition), and he essentially possesses her until he decides to free her by giving her a get, which, by Jewish law, he must give willingly and without coercion. 

If the marriage is legitimately Orthodox, not even the rabbis can free a woman from her marriage — only the husband can. A woman who remarries without a get from her former husband is deemed an adulteress, and the result is that her children — and all progeny from her subsequent relationship — are punished, deemed mamzerim

The word mamzer is often loosely translated in English as “bastard” or “illegitimate,” but it actually signifies a child from an incestuous relationship. Jewish law does not recognize the concept of “illegitimacy,” so children of an unmarried Jewish woman, for example, are considered legitimate and can freely marry other Jews, but a mamzer is forbidden to marry anyone except another mamzer. This Jewish law remains very much in practice among today’s Orthodox Jews. I have been presented with a number of cases where young people who are about to marry Orthodox suddenly discover they cannot because they were fathered by a man their mother married without having obtained a get from her former husband. In Israel, the rabbinate even keeps a record of known mamzerim to prevent accidental illegitimate marriages into the Jewish community. 

The converse, however, is not true. A man who fathers children with another woman without giving a get to his first wife does not beget mamzerim — his children remain legitimate and able to marry other Jews. That is simply because, biblically, a man was allowed many simultaneous wives, and the subsequent rabbinic prohibition of polygamy does not prevent the legitimacy of the husband’s remarriage. 

While there are other intricate Jewish divorce and marriage laws too numerous to mention here, it is worth noting that there is no reciprocity, because while a woman can refuse to accept a get from her husband, this power is illusory because neither the husband, nor his children, would suffer any consequences if he remarries without his first wife’s acceptance of the get. Additionally, men can always avail themselves of the law of heter meah rabbanim, “the release by 100 rabbis,” that allows him to remarry despite the failure to legitimately end the first marriage. Such a heter is not available to a woman. The most recent example of this is the well-publicized refusal by an Orthodox man, Israel Meir Kin, to give his first wife a get, even though he married another woman on March 20 in Las Vegas, and no amount of public condemnation from members of the Orthodox community prevented him from doing so.  Thus, Kin’s first wife languishes in limbo, unable to remarry or even to date, while her husband proceeds happily with his new marriage, which was performed by an Orthodox rabbi.

These cases of get extortion or get refusal were so rare 50 years ago that they were only whispered about, like the word “cancer” during coffee klatches. But they are now a burgeoning industry. Even the great-grandson of the revered Rav Moshe Feinstein (the great rabbi whose liberal decrees helped free women to remarry when they couldn’t physically prove the deaths of their former husbands in the Holocaust) refused to give his young wife a get for many years, holding her captive to his demands for hundreds of thousands of dollars from her family until she exposed this travesty in the New York Post a few months ago. 

On International Agundah Day last year, I participated in a panel discussion held in Los Angeles and sponsored by Get Jewish Divorce Justice Inc. More than one-third of the 100-plus attendees acknowledged having family members or close friends who have either been refused a get or have been extorted for their right to freedom from an abusive Orthodox marriage. It was sickening to hear of women whose husbands demanded millions of dollars from the family; rabbis who shamefully participated in “bargaining” for the amount the husband would accept for the get. A growing industry of physical coercion (the only halachic, albeit criminal, means of forcing a man to “freely” grant a get to his wife) has gained worldwide attention with the recent arrest by the FBI of Rabbi Mendel Epstein, who is accused of hiring thugs to threaten the use of electric cattle prods on the private parts of recalcitrant husbands. A recent survey in Israel revealed that at least two-thirds of married women are fearful that asking for their legitimate share of property or custody of their children could leave them in marital limbo, because their husbands can refuse to give a get. (This is despite the fact that the Israeli rabbinate can lift the driver’s and professional licenses of recalcitrant husbands, or even jail them to coerce a get, though it rarely avails itself of this power).

Numerous solutions have been advanced to counter this problem. Currently popular is the “prenuptial agreement,” which is really an arbitration agreement, granting power to the beit din (Jewish court of law) to decide whether the husband should give his wife a get, as well as to impose a daily support amount he owes her for as long as they are separated and he fails to give a get. While some approaching marriage shy away in horror at the idea of anticipating a possible divorce via such an arbitration agreement, the 2,000-year-old ketubbah — regardless of its artistic presentation — is itself already a prenuptial agreement that specifies the husband’s monetary obligations to his wife in case of divorce or his death. The “arbitration agreement” is nothing more than a monetization of the husband’s obligation to give his wife a get and the wife’s obligation to accept it.

But even this is not a panacea, because, among other shortcomings, it fails to insure a woman’s freedom should the husband not care about the penalty, either because he is too rich or too poor, or if the husband disappears, is mentally disabled, or if he dies without heirs but leaves behind a brother who refuses to free the hapless widow from the levirate marriage requirement (requiring that she should marry her brother-in-law). 

Another agreement, the tripartite agreement, essentially annuls the marriage should the husband refuse a get if the couple has lived separately for at least15 months (the children of such annulled marriages remain legitimate in Jewish law). While this agreement is probably the best antidote to an agunah problem, it is largely unknown and rarely used because Orthodox rabbis have been taking years to rally around its legitimacy. (I always recommend signing both the arbitration and tripartite agreements — like chicken soup, it can’t hurt.)

In the meantime, every Orthodox marriage ceremony remains fraught with the possibility of entrapping a woman in a dead marriage from which she cannot escape without her husband’s consent. There is a secret not many rabbis will acknowledge, but which is well-known and whispered in increasingly louder chorus in the agunah-activist community: Currently, the only failsafe solution to preventing a woman from becoming an agunah is to prevent the marriage ceremony from being deemed Orthodox. In other words, to prevent the kinyan of the bride. As long as there is a “flaw” in the Orthodox ceremony, such as unkosher witnesses or a double-ring exchange, etc., the power of the husband over the wife is never acquired, and a get becomes superfluous. The children of that marriage will still be deemed legitimate under Jewish (and civil) law, and the marriage deemed valid under civil law (assuming it is done with a civil marriage license), but the bride will not become the acquisition of the groom, and thus he cannot exercise a power over her that an Orthodox ceremony grants him.

I do not advocate this draconian solution lightly. I have an Orthodox background, and I am proud of my pedigree as an alumna of both the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Yeshiva (Bais Rachel) in New York and Bais Yaakov School for girls both in New York and in Los Angeles. My own marriage ceremony was attested to by 10 ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Our son was raised Orthodox, and he attended Orthodox yeshivot until his graduation from high school, and we are continued members of an Orthodox synagogue.

 It is probably because I know the community from the inside, and because I understand the angst such a drastic recommendation will engender, that I speak out now to condemn what I have increasingly witnessed as blight on the community, and the danger to its daughters. 

I have been vilified, cursed, disdained and worse because I, together with a number of agunah activists, have dared to voice opposition to Orthodox ceremonies that entomb the wife and vocally excoriate rabbis for their impotence or unwillingness to permanently obtain foolproof solutions to free a woman from a dead Orthodox marriage. Conservative marriages do not encounter this problem, as Conservative rabbis are empowered to annul marriages where the husband refuses to give a get, yet Orthodox rabbis who have bravely advocated similar solutions have been condemned and marginalized by their rabbinic brethren. 

Until Orthodox rabbis have the courage to come up with permanent and legitimate solutions to eradicate this problem, there is only one way parents can definitively inoculate their daughters against this epidemic and assure them they will not be locked away in limbo at the mercy of their husbands: Do not allow them to marry in an Orthodox ceremony.

Alexandra Leichter is a partner in the law firm of Leichter Leichter-Maroko LLP and is a California State Bar Certified Family Law specialist. E-mail:

Letters to the editor: Women of the Wall, Jewish divorces and religion in universities

Western Wall Negotiation

Women of the Wall did not decide to pray on [Religious Affairs Minister Naftali] Bennett’s sun deck (“A Kotel Platform for No One?” Oct. 25). We decided to negotiate with the government on the creation of a third section at the Kotel. This section will have to accommodate our women’s-only prayer group as well as egalitarian services. Bennett certainly did take risks — one big risk was not getting a building permit for the deck. Women of the Wall will be involved in the planning of the third section and will take architecture, aesthetics and utility into consideration. If and when this new section is ready, we will decide whether to move our prayer service from the women’s section to the pluralistic section. I think that an 85 million shekel budget over five years (as was given to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation in 2010), spent judiciously on infrastructure and educational programs, should go a long way toward making the pluralistic section attractive and lively.

Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, Women of the Wall

University Not at Fault

Attacking the university, writ large, as “indoctrination centers designed to discredit religion and morality in order to advance their leftist agendas” must be challenged (Letters, Oct. 25).

It is the writer, Mike Mains, who suffers from blinding ideology because he can’t separate what he thinks about universities and the educational system as a whole from what Erica Hooper  (the woman referred to) actually said. Her complaint simply was that no one was addressing the disconnect she felt between her early Catholic education and the questions she had as she came of age. There are no grounds to indict the university for this disconnect. Where people take their questions is a complex and personal matter. She could have sought answers in many different institutions and individuals.

That said, her struggle is surely an important challenge for all religious traditions. Taking her testimony seriously means that all who care about and foster the Jewish religious and moral tradition need to bravely step up and boldly deal with the issues of the day and those of eternity that are so much on the minds of the successive generations of young adults in college. I have seen the constancy of this issue for the 38 years I have been affiliated with UCLA.

Lastly, I think it is probably true that at the university as wide an array of opinions as have been developed is available for the seeker and that makes it an attractive place for seekers to go.

Doreen Seidler-Feller, Associate Clinical Professor, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and UCLA Department of Psychiatry

Outmoded Divorce Law Enslaves Women

The recent arrest of a gang of get (religious divorce) enforcers has engendered a torrent of articles, letters and columns on the sad fate of Jewish women when it comes to seeking justice in their divorce proceedings (“Outmoded Divorce Law a Real Shandah,” Oct. 18). Because the get must be approved by the husband, he has an effective veto power and can prevent the legal terminations of the wedding.  Rabbis have addressed this injustice for centuries with little to show for it.

That failure is not due to a lack of solutions. Prenuptial agreements, binding arbitration, conditional marriages and civil penalties have all been suggested and attempted, but they fail when it comes to enforcement. The Orthodox rabbinate has been unable to agree on a solution. The result is the thuggery that has been recently reported, but which is new only in its notoriety. Are the only solutions to this injustice choices between religious vigilantism  and feckless conferences?

Lost in this is the fact that the Conservative movement solved this problem years ago. Using the talmudic principle of hafka’at kiddushin, which is well attested in the Talmud and Codes, a certified mesadder gittin authorized by the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative movement may, after investigation and documentation, annul a marriage retroactively when a get is refused. This procedure is, and ought to be, rare, but it is entirely effective. There are no agunot — chained women — in the Conservative movement.

I hope that those who define themselves as Orthodox will find a solution that makes violence and extortion a relic of history. In the meantime, a halachic and ethical solution is readily available.

Rabbi Daniel R. Shevitz, Venice

Gifting the Art of Giving

I read a neat Jewish Journal article a few months ago about Dorothy and Ozzie Goren (“Family Keeps Tzedakah Tradition Going With Funds,” Aug. 30). We are going to try to duplicate a lesson they taught their kids and grandkids about the joy of giving. 

We plan to give our kids and grandkids money this Chanukah and allow them to make donations to the charity of their choice throughout the year. We are asking to see a list of recipients at the end of the year.

We think it’s a great idea. Spread the word!

Sara and David Aftergood via e-mail


“Quiet Neighbors” (Nov. 1) refers to “forged discharge papers, made to look like they were printed at a Syrian hospital” for Syrian patients leaving the Western Galilee Medical Center. However, the hospital itself does not forge any documents. Patients are released to the Israel Defense Forces with accurate discharge papers, according to Sara Paperin, who is charged with coordinating international relations between the hospital and the global community.

Protesters urge Maryland man to grant his wife a Jewish divorce

About 50 people rallied in front of a United States House of Representatives office building to protest a government employee’s refusal to grant his wife a Jewish divorce.

Aharon Friedman from Maryland, who works in the Longworth Office building as a senior advisor to Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), has refused to grant his ex-wife, Tamar Epstein, a Jewish divorce, or get, although they have been separated since 2008.

The two were divorced in civil court in April 2010 but Epstein cannot remarry in a Jewish ceremony and is considered a chained woman, or aguna, until she is granted a get.

Friedman has said his wife moved with their 5-year-old daughter to outside of Philadelphia without notice, and also has noted that an initial custodial agreement necessitated his violating the Jewish sabbath. The court has since amended that agreement.

Friedman also has alleged that he was attacked last July after returning his daughter to his wife's custody. Police are investigating that incident.

For slightly more than an hour on Feb. 28, the protesters waved signs and chanted slogans in support of Epstein. The group consisted of at least three rabbis as well as about 20 seniors from Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Md.

Also protesting was Epstein’s mother who said her daughter “is a remarkably strong young woman with very deep faith, and she has the capacity to go through with this without allowing it to affect her.” She also noted that her granddaughter is doing “amazingly well” even though she has “has grown up all her life with this.”

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, led the rally and used a microphone to get the group to recite such slogans as “Aharon Friedman give Tamar a get” and “Aharon Friedman shame on you.”

Stern vowed to hold as many rallies as necessary until Friedman relents. Last September, his organization sponsored a large billboard featuring Friedman’s face and the words “Aharon Friedman Give A Get Now” in a metro train station near where he lives.

Wife must pay husband for refusing divorce

An Israeli woman must pay her husband nearly $57,000 in damages for refusing to accept a Jewish writ of divorce, or get.

A Family Court judge in northern Israel on Sunday ordered the woman to pay more than $7,000 a year for each year that she has refused to divorce her husband, despite being ordered by a rabbinical court to comply.

The couple separated in 2003 after 25 years of marriage, according to reports. The husband originally had filed for divorce in 1986, citing his wife’s infertility as the main reason, but was refused by the rabbinic court. His wife claims he is interested in another woman.

The judge ruled that the wife will still owe her husband the compensation even if she now agrees to a divorce. The husband can sue for more damages if she continues to hold out.

Community Rallies for Woman’s Divorce, UCLA Acquires Jewish Artifacts

Community Rallies for Woman’s Jewish Divorce

Chanting “Stop Abuse” and “Free Your Wife,” 200 people rallied on the eve of Purim in front of the Fairfax-area home of a man who refuses to grant his wife a Jewish divorce.

Meir Kin and his wife, Lonna, who have one child, have been separated for four years, and though a civil divorce has already been granted, he has refused to appear before a recognized rabbinic court to grant her a Jewish writ of divorce, or get. Without a get, she cannot remarry and is considered an agunah, Hebrew for chained woman.

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) issued a seiruv, or letter of contempt, against Kin in March 2007 for refusing to appear before the beit din, a rabbinic judicial panel.

The New York-based Organization for the Resolution for Agunot (ORA) organized the rally to apply communal pressure on Kin. Because Jewish law does not allow a beit din to force a man to issue his wife a divorce, communities have historically used religious ostracization and social embarrassment to pressure recalcitrant husbands into giving in.

“We feel it is important for a community to take a stand against this kind of abuse, and say we will not tolerate it,” ORA’s assistant director Jeremy Stern said. “If someone is emotionally abusing his wife, abusing halacha and making a mockery of the rabbinic system, it will not be tolerated.”

ORA works with couples from across the religious spectrum — from fervently Orthodox to loosely traditional — to help resolve tough divorce cases, Stern said. The organization tries to facilitate conversation between the parties to help bring them to an acceptable resolution with a beit din or other mediator. If that fails, ORA uses threats of protest and then actual protests at the home or workplace of a husband who refuses to give a get, or a wife who refuses to accept one. Since it was founded in 2002, ORA has helped resolve 97 cases and still has 60 cases open — just a small percentage of the problem divorce cases out there, Stern says. Several of ORA’s cases are in Los Angeles, including an Israeli man in Tarzana who has refused his wife a get for 31 years.

ORA has been working on the Kin case for three years. The case has a long and complicated history in civil courts in New York and Los Angeles, and several rabbinic courts. Kin said a get is waiting for his wife at the beit din of Rabbi Tzvi Dov Abraham in Monsey, N.Y. But that beit din is universally reviled as extortionist, and divorces from Abraham’s beit din are not recognized by the RCC, the chief rabbinate in Israel or the Beth Din of America, Stern said.

Kin comes from a prominent Los Angeles Orthodox family — both his parents are longtime educators in the Beverly-La Brea area, and his brother, Rabbi Elyahu Kin, is a leader at the outreach organization Torah Ohr. Another brother is president of an Orthodox congregation.

The protest was held outside the parents’ home. Stern has been slowly publicizing the case for two years, sending fliers and information packets to local rabbis, hoping to avoid a rally, he said. While some rabbis showed up to the rally and publicized it among their congregants, many stayed away.

Stern said the group also works on preventative measures. It supports a 10-year-old effort to make prenuptial agreements, which make withholding or refusing a get financially painful, a standard part of Orthodox wedding ceremonies. Stern flew to Los Angeles for the rally, and spent some time in local Orthodox high schools teaching students about the need for prenups.

“We see this as way of making social change from the bottom up, so everyone does it as a matter of course,” Stern said.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

UCLA Acquires Western Jewish History Artifacts

UCLA last week celebrated the acquisition of a treasure trove of Jewish history in the American West, the legacy of four dedicated amateurs turned skilled historians.

The ceremony in the UCLA Library’s special collections department culminated decades of work by the late Dr. Norton Stern and Rabbi William Kramer, both Los Angeles residents.

When they died, they left behind some 400 boxes crammed with documents, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, memoirs, photos and assorted memorabilia.

Much of the hoard was accumulated by Stern, an optometrist, who scoured the small towns of the Western states, looking, as he put it, “through hundreds of haystacks for dozens of needles,” hidden in abandoned cemeteries and faded newspapers.

His and Kramer’s immense accumulation of history in the raw was rescued after their deaths by two Valley residents, David W. Epstein and Gladys Sturman, who went about cataloging, indexing and archiving the material.

They were aided by 11 members of Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, an $18,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation and $10,000 from Sturman’s own pocket.

A major part of the Stern-Kramer legacy was trucked to UCLA last year and, over the months, Caroline Luce, a doctoral candidate in history, has digitized the archive, which is expected to go online in May.

In the process, Luce has become an expert on the arcane history of bagels, and the audience of some 70 invited guests was left to ponder whether the Jewish gustatory icon had originated in Austria, Poland, or China.

Epstein noted that Kramer and Stern had defined rather broad boundaries for the “American West,” claiming all the land west of the Mississippi River, Hawaii and parts of Mexico.

Jews played a disproportionally large role in the development of the West, because they were often the only residents who were literate, knew about business affairs, and were trusted by both gold prospectors and native Indians.

David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, lauded the professional standards and work by Sturman, Epstein and the Shir Ami volunteers as a prime example of collaboration between town and gown.

Additional parts of the original Kramer-Stern collection have been donated to other institutions, such as 1,000 books to the American Jewish University, 2,000 photos to the Autry National Center, and ephemera to the Huntington Research Library, in partnership with USC.

For additional information, call the UCLA department of special collections at (310) 825-4988 or Genie Guerard at (310) 206-0521.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor