Born in Munich, Germany, to Holocaust survivors, Esther Macner regards this as the single most defining moment of her life.
“Being a child of survivors colors my life,” she says. “It is the passion and the fire from which I derive my energy.”
Macner has dedicated her life to following a single path: “I always have felt I need to protect the oppressed from the oppressors.”
This is what she means.
Formerly a senior trial attorney in the county Domestic Violence Bureau in Brooklyn, she moved to Los Angeles and founded Get Jewish Divorce Justice, a non-profit dedicated to the prevention of get (Jewish divorce) abuse.
Most recently she helped her first client under California’s relatively new Coercive Control statute win a get.
In the last 10 years, she has assisted 145 women and men in obtaining a get.
While Macner identifies as being “retired from the practice of law,” it’s only technical because legal strains continue to flow through her daily life.
Since the Coercive Control Act passed last year, she has carved out time to advise all attorneys and agunot under her umbrella about when and how to employ this strategy.
“I have a caseload of 30 clients all over the world,” she says. “I do whatever needs to be done to strategize” with each set of parties, whom she contacts on a precise schedule.
“I get information and current status from the agunah. I get in touch with the get refuser (if he will speak to me), and anybody, all rabbis and family members, who may influence him.
Discipline is the guiding light of Macner’s daily schedule. “I talk to clients about whatever needs to be done to strategize, such as which batei din we should we go to,” she said.
She contacts beit din offices from Iran to New York and the agunah department in Israel. “My principal focus is advocating on behalf of the agunah in each case,” she says. “Monthly, I contact each one. Wherever an agunah needs help, I investigate who the players are who can get us to our goal.
“I liaison among all of the pieces who might be a catalyst for the get to be given.”
This helps explain why, as the lone employee of Get Jewish Divorce Justice, Macner puts in as many as 80 hours a week—Sunday through Thursday. “I am working harder than I ever have in my life,” she says. “I am running an organization by myself, and I hate to say, without community support.”
The owner does not draw a salary.
She readily acknowledges that her husband, businessman Chaim Plotzker, makes her professional life possible. “Without him,” Macner says, “I would not be able to do my work. Literally and emotionally, he is supporting me by enabling me not to work for a living.”
“It became apparent this was the right path for Esther,” said Plotzker, “when it was clear our livelihood was not dependent, necessarily, on her. “The passion she shows for this cause was just so wonderful.”
His low-key personality is a comfortable fit for his business. For the last 20 years, Plotzker has owned and operated an assisted living facility for the mentally ill.
Macner, whose older brother and sister were born in Displaced Person camps, was just a few months old when her family arrived in this country. Raised in a Hasidic home where Yiddish was the only language, she is confident that her career paths have adhered to God’s intentions for her.
Let there be no doubt this scholarly woman is steeply and diversely educated.
As a young woman, she devoted years of study to rabbinic texts at Michlala and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
After earning her bachelor’s in psychology from Hebrew University, Macner followed with a master’s from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a JD from Cardozo School of Law, both in New York.
She trained as a divorce mediator under the auspices of the Association for Conflict Resolution, Peace Talks and at the Loyola School of Law Center for Conflict Resolution. She has been a principal at Get Divorce Solutions, a divorce co-mediation practice that specializes in religious divorcing couples.
Admitted to the New York State Bar 35 years ago, Macner, who moved across the country in 2009, was asked why she chose to enter the noisy field of agunah disputes and solutions for the second half of her career.
A pause followed.
“I am passionate about Judaism and Halacha. I love rabbinic Judaism. The agunah issue always has been a blemish on my identity as a Torah-loving Jew.” – Esther Macner
“I realized when I came here that I wanted to do something I am passionate about, something that my knowledge uniquely has prepared me for,” she said.
“I am passionate about Judaism and Halacha (Jewish law). I love rabbinic Judaism. The agunah issue always has been a blemish on my identity as a Torah-loving Jew.”
Macner felt she needed to make change in the agunah universe from the inside.
After decades of study, she believes Jewish law is compassionate.
“Solutions are there in Halacha to be used, and they are not being used to allow Jewish women to live their lives as the Torah intended,” said Macner. “As a rabbi said, we are not free as a nation unless all of us are free.”
Her learning has convinced her that in ancient times, women were able to initiate a divorce.
The long record of disputes that has handcuffed agunot “unfortunately is a blight on Orthodox Judaism.”
Macner acknowledges that there has been improvement. “Pre-nuptial agreements represent progress,” she said.
Macner acknowledges that there has been improvement.
“Pre-nuptial agreements represent progress,” she said. “I don’t think [the agunah wars are] a matter of indifference. But this needs to be prioritized for all of us.”
How much more progress needs to be made before a desirable place is reached?
Macner exhaled, pondering the question.
“A great deal of progress has been made, but acknowledgement and acceptance of that fact has to be made by diverse strains within Orthodox Judaism.”
Will the present generation live to see the ultimate goal reached?
“I don’t think this will be resolved completely in our lifetime,” said Macner. “Since the solutions are there, they just need to be used.”