Sisterhood Blog

'Get-o-omics': The Economics of Agunot

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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That there are Orthodox Jewish men who hold a get, or Jewish divorce decree, over their estranged wives’ heads out of spite and to extort money from the women’s families — making the women agunot — is a sad reality. The creators of a new documentary film, “Women Unchained,” hope to shed new light on this seemingly intractable issue, and create communal pressure for change.

“Women Unchained” follows six Orthodox Jewish women in their quest to receive a get, or Jewish divorce, from their husbands. The film, directed by Beverly Siegel and co-produced by Leta Lenik, will have its world premiere in Jerusalem on March 7 at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center and on March 8, International Women’s Day, at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque, as part of the Women and Religion Mavoi Satum Film Festival. “Women Unchained” will have its first U.S. showings at the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Festival on March 27 and at the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival on March 31. The filmmakers and experts on the issue will take part in panel discussions following the screenings.

The movie is narrated by Mayim Bialik and tells the story of women from several different Orthodox Jewish communities, from Monsey, N.Y., Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. It details the sad reality of “get-o-nomics,” when men demand money in exchange for a get, and includes interviews with advocates for agunot, including the late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who set up an innovative religious court that annulled such dead marriages, and with Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.

“The divorce rate is over 30 percent among frum Jews. That’s why there is such a problem,” Siegel told The Sisterhood. “If you’re in America and you’re not Orthodox you may think it doesn’t affect you. But if you have a child after not getting a get and that child moves to Israel, that’s a problem because to open a marriage file there they have to prove that they’re a kosher Jew, that their status is clean.” A child born of a marriage not sanctioned by Jewish law, like one after a first marriage does not end with a kosher divorce, is considered a mamzer.

A recent court decision in Israel gives leverage to agunot there, but its reach doesn’t extend to the Diaspora.

“Our goal with this project is to educate and advocate for change,” said Siegel, who has worked as a documentary filmmaker and in public relations, and lives in Pittsburgh and Chicago. “My hope is that rabbinic leaders will use their halachic creativity to solve the problem. I don’t know what it will ultimately take, but we have to keep advocating and to keep exposing the truth.”


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