July 16, 2018

GetReady: A New Solution for Agunot

By Layah Kranz Lipsker

At 1:30 a.m. a few days ago, my neighbor, a single mother of four, was finally granted a get and is now able to move on with her life. For three years she was an agunah, a woman “chained” to a marriage that is over. She was a victim of get abuse, the deliberate withholding of a Jewish divorce. As the director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI), I have worked with both men and women who are victims of this unique form of domestic abuse. To be able to say “mazel tov” to my neighbor was truly gratifying.

The day before Purim, which marks the fast of Esther, has been designated as National Agunah Day. Get abuse affects women from every affiliation and background, as women seek a Jewish divorce for both personal and religious reasons. In the Orthodox and Conservative movements, one cannot remarry without a get. Withholding a get is a violation of Jewish law, but while a rabbinic court can issue a summons to a recalcitrant spouse, it has little power to enforce its rulings. We have seen the devastating effects of get abuse on women and children in the Boston area and throughout the Jewish world. Secular courts, in past divorce hearings, have deemed get abuse a controlling behavior.

On our educational website, getyourget.com, we receive and respond to questions about Jewish divorce. This was a recent question that came our way:

“My x-husband left me with over $500,000 in unpaid income taxes which I did not know about. He left the country and lives in Israel. I was left with the children and had to file Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. We were granted a civil divorce in 2009. Now he wants me to pay him $25,000 for him to give me a get. What can I do? I want to be re-married in a Jewish ceremony. Where can I turn?”

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, a Taskforce member and rabbinical judge at the Boston Rabbinical Court, was able to respond within 24 hours and offer support, education, and tailored advice. The feedback we receive from the women we help online, those we help in person at the Boston Rabbinical Court, and others around the country inspires us to continue to work on behalf of both men and women who are suffering from get abuse.

The Agunah Taskforce at the HBI has contributed much to the conversation around Get abuse and solutions that can work. In addition to research and scholarship on the issue, the Taskforce hosted “A Case Study Conference on Solutions to the Agunah Problem” in May, 2017 to bring together lawyers, rabbis, scholars and activists to work through proposed remedies from a civil and halakhic perspective. One result is the launch of a new solution, GetReady, which can help couples avoid get abuse by adding a clause to their civil divorce agreements requiring get compliance. The draft language we are recommending was created by our advisory team of legal scholars, lawyers, and rabbis and we have seen it work in several cases in the Boston area. Within the Orthodox community, the most comprehensive solution thus far is the halachic prenup requiring get compliance, which is effective if signed before the marriage. However, the vast majority of Jewish couples do not sign it.

The Taskforce is also working with the Muslim community. The withholding of a religious divorce affects both Muslim and Jewish women. Working with religious leaders and lawyers in the Muslim community, the Taskforce will be making recommendations to State Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), on legislative action to help assure women the right to a religious divorce in Massachusetts.

As we mark International Agunah Day, the day before Purim, we are reminded of the power of individuals to stand up for the values they believe in and to fight injustice. Queen Vashti and Queen Esther were feminists before such a word existed, refusing to be content with roles that diminished their light. Jewish women suffering from get abuse need our support, and our community needs to work together until better solutions are found.

If you know of someone considering divorce, please encourage them to visit getyourget.com and to ask a question or learn more about GetReady. The ability to begin again and create a life of meaning is a central tenet of a spiritual life. A get can be a healing form of closure and it should never be denied.


Layah Kranz Lipsker is the director of the Boston Agunah Task Force at HBI.

The Boston Agunah Task force is generously funded by the Miriam Fund of CJP.

HBI Works to Prevent Get Abuse

By Layah Lipsker –

David* was long divorced from his first wife and the mother of his 10- year-old daughter. Neither were Orthodox and they never received a get, or Jewish divorce, after the marriage ended. But years later, David needed a get, as his new girlfriend would not consider marriage without it. His ex-wife, still angry about their custody arrangement, refused his request to appear before the Boston Rabbinical Court. More than a year has passed, but she will not participate in the get process. Sadly, David is a victim of get refusal, a uniquely Jewish form of domestic abuse. His life is on hold, awaiting his ex-wife’s decision to grant him a Jewish divorce.

David’s is one of the many cases we deal with at the Boston Rabbinical Court, where I serve as a get advocate, assisting in cases of Jewish divorce. Get abuse is the refusal to grant or receive a writ of Jewish divorce in a Rabbinical Court. Without a get, a Jewish man or woman cannot remarry in a Conservative or Orthodox ceremony and children from a subsequent marriage may be considered illegitimate by Jewish law.

David’s story serves as a poignant cautionary tale for two reasons.   Firstly, get abuse victims have historically been women, not men. However, the cases we see at the Boston Rabbinical Court speak to a new trend. Many of those refusing to participate are women. Men are increasingly at risk for get abuse.

Second, David’s story is a reminder that all Jewish couples considering divorce should obtain a get along with their civil divorce, regardless of their level of observance of affiliation. One can never predict the future and the lack of a get can become a hindrance to a new life.

Today is Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther. It also marks International Agunah Day, with the purpose of publicizing the plight of agunot, In my work as a Research Associate at the HBI and a part of the new Boston Agunah Taskforce, I have seen too many men and women suffer. Their children are affected too, as the fighting escalates. Get abuse is on the rise in every segment of our Jewish community.   Over the years, I have noted that those who added a provision requiring get compliance to their civil agreements were able to avoid issues of get refusal later. When possible, we now advise couples to ask their attorneys to insert language into their settlement agreements, requiring that a get is assured before the civil divorce is finalized. Although a Rabbinical Court will not issue a get before the civil divorce, the get procedure can begin and most details can be attended to.

Making the civil divorce contingent on compliance with a religious divorce, is an important tool towards ending get abuse. To that end, the Boston Agunah Taskforce, in partnership with the HBI, is launching a new public awareness campaign called GetReady, with the goal of reaching out to divorcing couples and their attorneys to educate them on the get process. Drafting the right language for use in divorce proceedings can be tricky, as the language has to be acceptable in probate courts, as well as by the Rabbis in the religious courts. GetReady has gathered an advisory board at the HBI that includes a family court and probate judge, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Boston Rabbinical Court, divorce attorneys, Agunah activists, and legal scholars.

Amanda Clayman, a partner at Katz & Stefani, is part of the advisory board. “Adding a provision requiring get compliance into your secular settlement agreement can help ensure you are able to obtain a religious get and have the freedom to which you are entitled,” she says.  “I have personally had cases where a secular provision was used to ensure a woman received her get.”

We don’t know how long David will have to wait for his get, and the right to marry the woman he loves in a Jewish ceremony. But last week, I witnessed the joy of a woman who will be receiving her get after two painful years. Rabbi Joseph Polak, Chief Rabbi of the Boston Bet Din, reminded her that Jewish law ensures our right to personal autonomy and our ability to begin anew. Get abuse tramples on those fundamental human rights.

Join us at the HBI in launching GetReady, a public awareness campaign to help protect both men and women from Get abuse. If you are interested in learning more about GetReady, please email me at layah@brandeis.edu. For more information on the Get process, please visit our website at getyourget.com.

*Names and some details were changed to protect anonymity.

Lipsker_LayahLayah Lipsker is a research associate at HBI and a member of the Boston Agunah Task Force. She is co-founder and educational director for Chabad of the North Shore

A New Form of Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community

by Layah Lipsker

It always fascinated me that Jewish law allows for divorce, even without cause. With all the hoopla about finding your “bashert,” the one person who completes your soul, it would seem reasonable for the Torah to prohibit divorce. “Stick it out,” you might think the G-d of Israel would say. “The Chosen People should know a thing or two about choosing right the first time.” And yet, there is an entire Talmudic tractate called “gittin” that describes the Jewish way to get out of a marriage. At the center of the Jewish divorce ceremony is the Get, a handwritten writ of divorce given by the husband to the wife. A religious process that facilitates divorce underscores the Jewish values of self-determination, compassion and forgiveness. For most couples, a Jewish closure to their marriage can be comforting and even healing. But sadly, the legal nuances of the Get proceedings can chain some women to dead marriages and leave them vulnerable to abusive spouses. Jewish law requires the consent of both parties to proceed with divorce, but it must be initiated by the husband. In a growing number of cases, men use the threat of Get refusal as a bargaining chip in financial or custodial negotiations.

Just ask Beth, a single mom in Newton, who recently paid $30,000 to her ex-husband in exchange for her Get. Or Hannah of Marblehead, who fled her Israeli husband more than two decades ago, leaving Jerusalem with her newborn child. Her son was 17 when her husband finally granted her a Get. Despite their civil divorces, Hannah and Beth were considered legally married and could not remarry in a Jewish ceremony until receiving their Gets.

Neither of these women is Orthodox. Get refusal is a domestic abuse issue that exists in every segment of our Jewish community. But for religious women, the stakes are even higher. In the Chassidic community in which I grew up, these women cannot even date without a Get in hand. They quietly resign themselves to lives of loneliness.

For most of Jewish history, a classic “agunah” (literally, chained woman) was a woman whose husband never returned from war. Without a body, there was no proof of death, leaving the woman in a tragic state of limbo, unable to move on with her life. With a rising divorce rate in the Jewish community, women often obtain the status of “agunah” by way of Get refusal, a powerful tool in the hands of an abusive spouse. In Israel, where all marriages and divorces must go through the religious rabbinical courts, the rate of Get refusal by both Orthodox and secular men is climbing. In a recent study, one in three women divorcing in Israel is subject to threats of Get refusal and extortion. Sadly, most of these women are young mothers leaving a first marriage. Without a Get, their future is uncertain.

In my experience as an agunah activist, I see women willing to give up financial resources or their right to child support in order to escape bad marriages. The future of these women and their children is compromised, often in the name of Jewish law. As a passionate feminist and observant Jew, that is deeply troubling to me. I am grateful that the rabbinic community is joining forces with advocates to promote solutions for Jewish families. One preventative measure is the use of a prenuptial agreement, requiring a Get if there is a civil divorce. The halachic (Jewish legal) prenup was co-authored by Dr. Rochel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate, and my partner in creating a website to support agunot and educate women on the Jewish divorce process. As a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, I am working with the HBI and Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Boston Bet Din, to create “The Agunah Taskforce of Greater Boston.”

These prenups have been upheld in civil courts in New York and Connecticut. However, not all rabbis require couples to sign the prenup, and this solution is only a preventative measure. Sadly, a systematic rabbinic solution to the agunah problem remains elusive. It is within the power of a rabbinical court to free a woman by invalidating the original marriage contract, thus eliminating the need for the Get (a process known as mekach taut). A rabbinical court can also annul a marriage without the consent of a recalcitrant spouse (hafkaat kidushin). These powers are used sparingly, however, and must meet nuanced halachic standards. Most women suffering from Get refusal have no access to halachic resolutions and some have recently turned to social media to exert pressure on their ex-husbands. In New York, two rabbis were arrested and charged with kidnapping and torturing a husband refusing to grant a Get. These rabbis were hired and paid by the wife, who hoped to finally end her own suffering. In the absence of systematic reform, women will resort to dire measures to obtain their freedom.

Total consensus on a perfect solution may be impossible in the current climate of Jewish legal debate. Nonetheless, I say, “bring it on.” The recent rise of female Torah scholarship adds much needed fuel to the halachic conversation on issues that affect women. Debate is not the problem. It is part of the solution. Our goal must be to create a large enough network such that women threatened with Get refusal will have a place to turn. We must find rabbis who will release them from their dead marriages, and defend their future children from the pernicious claim of illegitimacy under Jewish law. As a mother of four daughters, I cannot afford to stand at the sidelines of this debate. Neither can you.

Please join me on Thursday evening, December 12, at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham, to learn more about what is being done to support women suffering from Get refusal, and how you can help. I also invite you to join me in New York on Sunday, December 8, for a daylong conference on Women and Jewish law, sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. If you would like more information on either of these events, please email me at layah@brandeis.edu.

Lipsker_LayahLike good Jewish women everywhere, Layah Kranz Lipsker wears many hats. She is co-founder and educational director for Chabad of the North Shore, and is currently a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. As a mother of six, she wears her favorite hat at home in Swampscott.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Journal.

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