For the past several months, the subjects standing before Aviva Klein’s camera have not been the usual assortment of musicians, celebrities and fashion labels who hire her for their album artwork or style shoots, but agunot, women who are chained in marriages they no longer wish to be a part of thanks to a halachic structure where one gender holds the power. Klein, who lives and works primarily in Manhattan, recently funded an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 to continue her photography project that began with a grant from The Schusterman Family Foundation. She spoke with Tova Ross about her work and why she felt compelled to set aside time from her career taking pictures of celebrities like Beyonce, T.I. and Questlove and for fashion companies like Lanvin and Nike to taking photos of* agunot*.
Tova Ross: If your professional background is in the music and celebrity industry, then why photograph agunot now?
Aviva Klein: In late 2013, I received a micro-grant from the Schusterman Foundation to “make something happen” in the Jewish community. The organization didn’t specify what it should be, exactly, just that those who receive its funding do something impactful that will effect a meaningful change within the Jewish community. I chose to incorporate my photography skills as a way to tell a story of something I thought needed more attention and awareness. When I did some research and learned that one of the most pressing issues our Jewish community faces today is the plight of the agunot, I was drawn to it right away.
Today, the Jewish world mourns a great loss: Rav Ovadia Yosef, a spiritual leader of the Sephardic community and founder of the Shaas Party has passed away.
The Baghdad-born rabbi, who died at the age of 93, will be remembered as an active political player and major Torah scholar. And although not all of his views towards women were progressive, his efforts towards helping Jewish women is something not to be overlooked. Indeed, he was heavily involved in permitting more than 1,000 agunot — literally, women chained — to remarry after the Yom Kippur War.
While Rabbi Yosef was serving as Tel Aviv’s Chief rabbi in 1973, he was approached by IDF General Mordechai Piron regarding a serious problem: nearly 1,000 women were left in a state of limbo. Their husbands had not returned from the battlefield, but there was no way to confirm their deaths. Without obtaining evidence of death, or a get, a religious divorce, these women were left as agunot — “chained” and unable to remarry.
I cannot fathom the idea of working on a problem for 40 years. And yet, there is a whole group of Jewish women — and a handful of men — who have been doing just that. These are the agunah activists, some of whom have been fighting to find solutions for agunot — women trapped in unwanted marriages to recalcitrant husbands due to women’s lack of exit power from Jewish marriage – since the advent of the feminist movement in the 1970s. These activists, who demonstrate incredible perseverance and determination often with very little outcome, would be forgiven for giving up. But it’s possible that this week they may have reached a certain light at the end of the tunnel.
“I did not want to come today,” longtime agunah activist Rivka Haut told a packed crowd this week at an historic Agunah Summit organized by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at NYU. The Agunah Summit, coordinated by JOFA founder Blu Greenberg, aimed to promote the use of systemic solutions within halakha in order to release agunot. Over 200 Jewish leaders filled the hall, eager to resolve this harrowing problem and the needless suffering of women, once and for all. “I wasn’t going to come, because I thought, more talking and not enough resolution,” Haut said. “But I’m leaving here optimistic. I think there is a chance now for real change.”
The change that Haut was referring to was the repeated calls for establishing a special rabbinical court to release agunot, one that would use halakhic tools such as “hafkaat kiddishin,” a form of annulment. Many speakers during the day supported the use of these halakhic tools, and several key rabbis — including Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Rabbi David Bigman and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin — advocated for establishing such a court immediately. Many rabbis in the audience said that they would be supportive of such a court, and some said they would be willing to study to become rabbinical court judges in order to be able to sit on the court.
The tawdry spectacle of “get” refusal and extortion in Jewish divorce has made the rounds in both Jewish and secular media for decades. But the Jewish community now faces an historic opportunity. We have within our hands the data on which to base a plan of action to alleviate the plight of “agunot” and a tool to drastically cut the future risk of chained women.
A 2011 survey of agunot in the U.S. and Canada, co-sponsored by the Orthodox Union (OU), Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), Jewish Women International (JWI) and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), revealed 462 cases of agunot between 2005 and 2010. While the survey understates the problem due to some right-wing organizations’ refusal to respond, the results clearly outline the case for a clarion call to action.
Most agunot are under 40 years old. They have children yet little money, and are unaware of even the limited resources available to them. During the survey period, religious courts considered just half of reported cases, and contempt of court citations were infrequently issued against recalcitrant husbands. When a case did go to rabbinical court, some agunot were required to forgo financial payments or custody of their children in exchange for a get.
On a recent Sunday evening in Jerusalem, 25 married couples gathered to have both partners in each pair sign a “mutual respect contract.” The contract was created by three Orthodox rabbis at the behest of Mavoi Satum, a Jerusalem-based organization devoted to combating abuse of the Jewish divorce process.
If the couple decides to divorce, the mutual respect contract is brought to family court, which adjudicates the couple’s secular divorce and shares it with the rabbinical court overseeing the religious divorce, also known as a get. The contract stipulates that if either member of the couple delays the divorce process by more than six months — if the woman refuses to accept a get or the man refuses to grant it — then the recalcitrant spouse must pay the other $1,500 a month or half his or her salary, whichever is greater.
It sounds similar to the pre-nuptial contract (which can also be signed after a couple is already married) created and promoted by the Orthodox group the Rabbinical Council of America. That contract, which can be seen here, requires that if a couple separates, the husband pay his estranged wife $150 a day until a Jewish divorce is granted. If his wife refuses to appear before the Beth Din of America, then his obligation ends.
The contract has been considered controversial by some rabbis, who believe that any financial inducement for a man to give his estranged wife a get is tantamount to coercion, and therefore invalidates the Jewish divorce.
But Rabbi Shlomo Weissman, director of the Beth Din of America, the rabbinical court connected with the RCA, which adjudicates divorces, put it another way: “It provides an incentive for the get to be given earlier rather than later,” he told The Sisterhood. “It creates an obligation on the part of the husband to support his wife so long as they are married under Jewish law but not living together.”
According to an article in Israeli newspaper Israel haYom, Abergel permitted the head of a major yeshiva to take a pilegesh, or concubine, when it became clear that his wife was unable to have children.
Abergel states that his ruling “will enable husbands to fulfill the commandment of procreation,” and that a concubine can live with the couple or separately.
A pilegesh is something less than a wife but more than a casual sex partner, more akin to a formal mistress than anything else. She is a woman who agrees to be in a monogamous relationship with an already-married man (who is obviously also free to have sex with his wife) without the protection of — or constraints of — a ketubah, or marriage contract. When the relationship ends, she doesn’t receive any divorce settlement (as she would with a ketubah) but neither is she bound by a man’s refusal to give her a get.
Abergel’s ruling isn’t the first time, even in recent memory, that the idea has been raised in Israel and the U.S.
Yesterday on XOJane, my favorite site for a good ol’ fashioned hate-read, there’s a first person post from Chaya Kurtz, a Chassidishe married woman, who writes in the response to the waves of negative press the Orthodox community has received in the wake of the gathering of 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men at Citi Field this past Sunday in order to protest the internet. Most notably, women were not allowed to attend the rally and this fact has resulted in charges of misogyny directed at Orthodox Jews.
Chaya is here to tell us that it aint so. She’s a married, Orthodox woman with a degree in women’s studies (no less) from a large, liberal university. And she’s totally happy with her life, and would like to disabuse the masses about the perceived misogyny in Orthodox Judaism.
Some of the things that she insists on, I won’t quibble with. Yes, I certainly hope that ultra-Orthodox women find their husbands attractive and it’s unfair to suggest that they wouldn’t. I would never suggest that a hipster male is fundamentally unattractive just because I don’t find him appealing so on that point, Chaya, we definitely agree: Attraction is in the eye of the beholder.
But even within that section, there’s already a problem. She writes: “In the Jewish marriage contract, one of the conditions of marriage is that a husband is obligated to sexually satisfy his wife.” While this is all well and true, there’s a part she left out — that in that same contract, he acquires her, like she’s a possession. You see, women are a protected class within Orthodoxy. Yes, you have to treat them right, but they are still subordinate. Don’t believe me? Read the last six months of articles in the general press about agunot.
In her Sisterhood post “On Agunah Issue, Pressure Rabbis, Not Rep,” Dvora Meyers takes on a grassroots campaign to pressure Michigan Rep. Dave Camp to condemn what we consider to be abusive behavior by his staffer, Aharon Friedman. In the past, Camp has called Friedman’s refusal to grant his wife a Jewish divorce decree, or a get, “gossip.” It is time for Camp to recognize this error and do what is right.
The facts of this case are not under dispute. Friedman married Tamar Epstein in April 2006. The marriage failed, and Friedman and Epstein were civilly divorced in 2010, after being separated for two years. For Epstein, an Orthodox Jew, civil divorce is insufficient. Jewish law mandates a religious divorce decree, or get, which must be consented to by both parties. But Friedman has refused thus far to give Epstein a get, and that shows a basic disregard for human decency. He’s been banned from his synagogue, and a prominent rabbinical court has issued a public declaration condemning his intransigence.
In effect, Epstein is an agunah, or a “chained woman.” She cannot remarry in a religious ceremony. And because Epstein is an Orthodox Jew, that effectively means that Friedman (also Orthodox) is deliberately preventing her from remarrying.
Purim is a holiday that is about women’s power, in its different forms.
Thinking about the roles of Queen Vashti and her successor Queen Esther in the Purim story highlights some of the dilemmas that women have faced throughout history. I therefore think it’s particularly apt that Ta’anit Esther is International Agunah Day, the day the marks the harrowing struggle of “chained women,” or women denied divorce.
Vashti and Esther were both married to a man, the same man, for whom women were objects to be adorned and used. This was arguably the prevailing culture at the time, but there are also gradations in the exploitation of women. (To wit, someone visiting the planet for the first time who puts on MTV would believe that our culture is no better today than it was then.) Moreover, King Ahasverus was particularly adamant in his use of women’s bodies to claim his own power. He summoned Vashti specifically “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on,” he chose his next queen based on a beauty contest, and declared that peace in his entire kingdom was a function of women’s submission, that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small… that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.”
Interestingly, Vashti and Esther dealt with the king differently. Vashti was defiant.
Never before has so much public pressure been brought to bear on an American man for refusing to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, or get. There have been public demonstrations against Aharon Friedman, and articles in prominent publications, public calls by one of the nation’s leading Orthodox rabbis, and lots of back-channel efforts as well. One of the country’s prominent Orthodox religious courts has decreed Friedman in contempt of court. Yet none of it has worked. Now those who want to persuade Friedman to free his ex-wife from the bonds of a dead marriage are turning to his employer, who is one of the most powerful members of Congress.
“A social-media campaign is being waged to pressure Rep. Dave Camp to encourage a top staffer to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, and the lawmaker restricted public posts on his Facebook page after a flood of comments about the issue,” according to this article on the inside-the-beltway website Politico.
Friedman and Tamar Epstein were divorced in civil court in 2010, after separating in 2008, shortly before their second wedding anniversary and when their daughter was an infant. Friedman works as tax counsel to Camp, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
The Salon celebrates its 15th episode this month, with panelists discussing New York City’s gender-segregated buses; the prospect that the ‘next Steve Jobs’ will be a woman, and Beverly Siegel’s documentary about the plight of Orthodox women ‘chained’ to unwanted marriages. Siegel, technology writer Joanna Stern, and communications strategist Jo-Ann Mort join the hosts, Forward Editor Jane Eisner and Mediaite.com’s Editor-at-Large Rachel Sklar:
Here’s a preview:
Another “rabba” is slated to be ordained next month by the Academy of Jewish Religion, The Jewish Week reports. (The Sisterhood will have more on this shortly.)
Chabad.org has a story about “The Heart That Sings,” a movie with an all-female cast. The film was screened in 11 cities during the Passover holiday; audiences were all women, and mostly Haredi.
Over at Double X, Amanda Schaffer writes about the potential risks of taking too much folic acid — a vitamin that has been shown to reduce the incident of some birth defects.
On the blog Family Inequality, sociologist Phillip Cohen writes about the new National Center for Health Statistics’ findings showing that the recession has driven birth rates down.
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.
A man withholding a Jewish divorce — known as a get — is liable for money damages to his estranged wife, according to a recent decision handed down by a Tel Aviv appeals court.
The January 31 decision dismissing the husband’s effort to overturn a 700,000-shekel [about $188,000] lower court judgment against him for withholding the get offers hope to other wives chained to dead marriages, according to some agunah activists. Others who advocate for agunot say that the case will have no impact outside of Israel. An agunah is a woman who may not remarry because her estranged husband will not give her a divorce.
The couple at the center of the recent Israeli court decision lived together for just three months after their wedding, and the husband has refused to give his wife a get for all of the intervening 16 years since then.
The new appellate court decision means that, unless Israel’s Supreme Court overturns it, it will serve as a precedent in all family law there, according to the Center for Women’s Justice, the Israeli non-profit that has provided legal counsel to the wife since 2004. The Center was successful in framing the legal issue as a matter of damages for a violation of the wife’s human rights.
The High Court in Israel has come down with a decision that formally recognizes the right of the rabbinical court to use charity funds to pay off recalcitrant husbands who are blackmailing their wives in exchange for agreeing to a divorce. That is, the Beit Din is not only supportive of the blackmail process in theory but fully enables it.
This is a process in which the woman says, “I want a divorce,” the man says, “I’ll give it to you for a price,” and the rabbis say, “We’ll pay some, and the woman will pay the rest.” The money comes from a not-for-profit fund controlled by the Beit Din that is called, outrageously enough, The Aguna Fund. Just thinking about our rabbinical justice system in action gives me a migraine.
While the Jewish community has long wrung its collective hands over the plight of agunot — “chained” women, stuck in unwanted marriages because their husbands refuse to provide them with Jewish divorce papers — little is known about who and how numerous these women are. That is why Barbara Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington, decided to embark on what is believed to be the first comprehensive survey on the state of the agunah in North America. The Sisterhood recently interviewed Zakheim about the survey’s methodology, its goals and what the Jewish community can do to erradicate the problem of agunot.
What compelled you to spearhead this effort?
Two catalysts: 1). The cancellation of the proposed rabbinical conference on agunot that was to take place in Israel in 2007. 2). Attendance at several Jewish Women International (JWI) and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conferences, where the agunah situation was always discussed but no tangible progress seemed to be made.
What’s your sense of how widespread the problem is?
The Sisterhood Digest:
A group of Israeli women recently smuggled 12 Palestinian women and four children into Israel for a day of leisure. The women dined out in Jaffa and swam in the Mediterranean before the Palestinian women returned to the West Bank via Jerusalem. Among the excursion organizers was the Israeli writer Ilana Hammerman, who earlier this year wrote a magazine piece about another such gathering.
Barbara J. Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington is undertaking what is believed to be the first national survey of agunot, or women who, unable to obtain a Jewish divorce document, are stuck in unwanted marriages.
Haaretz introduces readers to Israeli psychologist Edna Foa — a pioneer of “Prolonged Exposure Therapy.” The technique is being used by the U.S. military on soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Punk movement’s Jewish roots are hardly a secret and have long been explored. But a punk band that creates music videos to promote the importance of freeing agunot — women tied to unwanted marriages because their estranged husbands refuse to give them a get, or a religious divorce — is something new.
An under-the-radar band called The Groggers recently released their music video “Give Her a Get,” which has become a YouTube sensation in some circles. The video speaks directly to a stereotypical misogynistic husband, and the song’s lyrics include: “You’ve been on a losing streak/Since the sheva brachot week/When did the magic die/When did things get so bleak …You got a get, get, get, get — give her a get, ’cause she don’t love you no more.”
Watch it here:
I’m on the fence about this video: The song’s message is clearly valuable, but then is it not somehow cheapened by the parody factor? One thing I know for sure: The tune is absolutely infectious, and I have to do something to “get” it out of head, before I come home tonight. I’m not sure if my wife would appreciate me singing it around the house.
Hat tip to Matthue Roth.
As a woman, I sometimes feel like I’m in a catch-22. I want to bring attention to issues concerning women, but I also want men to pay attention. When women are doing all the talking, we run the risk of marginalizing ourselves, of turning our ideas into “women’s stuff.” By inviting men to speak about women’s issues, we may gain credibility and breadth, but we contribute to the problem by having men speak on our behalf, muting our voices once again.
I found myself in this frustrating predicament the other day. I was speaking on a panel at a conference organized by Rabbi Marc Angel’s Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah. The conference, titled, “Is Modern Orthodoxy an Endangered Species?” examined mostly theoretical issues facing Modern Orthodoxy today, but included also a discussion of conversion as well as a panel —the one I participated in — on the issue of agunot and mesoravot get, women denied divorce. The panel consisted of Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Women’s Justice, and me, representing Mavoi Satum, the organization that provides a package of legal and social services to agunot.
While I fully applaud the inclusion of this critical issue in the conference, I confess that I had mixed feelings about the fact that we were effectively two women on stage.
You can learn an incredible amount about different people from language. There are, for example, 27 words for “moustache” in Albanian – including a word for what English-speakers would call “no moustache.” It seems that in Albania, moustaches are pretty important. Similarly, the Inuit are famous for having 30 words for snow – clearly they see things in the snow that most of us don’t.
Unique linguistic forms abound, and provide intriguing insights into cultures. According to this book,” Pascuense in Easter Island has a word for a slight inflammation of the throat caused by screaming too much (“ngaobera”) and and Brazilian Portuguese has a word for the practice of putting a live cricket into a box of newly faked documents until the insect’s excrement makes the paper look convincingly old (“grigalem”). So what’s Hebrew’s he claim to fame?
I would have liked to find a word, perhaps, for that hand gesture of squeezing thumb and middle finger in order to indicate to the viewer, “wait.” But no, we Jews are not quite that lucky. Instead, what distinguishes our culture is that ours is the only language in the world that has the word “agunah.”