by Alisa Roberts
Get refusal is an issue that the wider world seems to be taking notice of lately. Last November the New York Post printed an article about Gital Dodelson and her three-year battle for a get. This past week the New York Times ran an article about Meir Kin’s wedding and the controversy surrounding it because of his long refusal to give his first wife a get. The discussion of get refusal and agunot is no longer limited to the Jewish community. But what about the discussion within the Jewish community?
Los Angeles may not be the center of any of these high-profile agunah cases, but that doesn’t mean we’ve avoided the issue. “A week does not go by without Rabbi Davidi, the RCC’s Mesader Gittin, and myself fielding calls from community members in the throes of divorce seeking guidance on moving a get forward,” says Rabbi Avrohom Union, Rabbinic Administrator for the Rabbinical Council of California. LA is not immune and there is infrastructure in place to help solve the more difficult cases.
While most cases of get refusal are the husband refusing to give a get, there are also instances where the wife will refuse to receive a get. The RCC helps in several ways. “We counsel, we offer strategies. When it comes to cases that may need a high degree of intervention, we sometimes refer the case to an outside organization, typically ORA.”
ORA is the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot and was founded in 2002. In the past 12 years, they have assisted in the resolution of 214 agunah cases. They get an average of 150 calls per year from women looking for assistance in the Jewish divorce process, and at any given time they are working on about 50 agunah cases. According to Rabbi Jeremy Stern, ORA’s Executive Director, they are currently involved in several cases in the Los Angeles community. “We work with local communities, rabbis, and Batei Dinim. We are working on several cases with the RCC,” he says.
But are these cases, the ones that don’t make the New York Times, really such a problem? Yes, they truly are. Get refusal is not a side effect of an acrimonious split; it is something much darker. “A critical message that we always try to relay,” says Rabbi Stern, “is the fact that the refusal to issue a Jewish divorce is a form of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is defined not by bruises but by a pattern of controlling behavior, and that is exactly what get refusal is.” And just like other forms of abuse, get refusal is a community issue. As Rabbi Stern explains, “A support system that excuses and justifies this behavior, enables and empowers abusers. So what makes a critical difference is when a community stands up and says, ‘We will not tolerate this abuse within our midst.”
The LA community recently did just that. Rabbis, community members, and students from Shalhevet High School made the long trip to Las Vegas to participate in a rally in protest of Kin’s wedding. Rabbi Ari Segal, Head of School at Shalhevet, describes the protest: “I would say the most intense moment took place after we had been chanting for a while and a bit of fatigue was starting to set in and there was uncertainty whether we were having an impact. And then suddenly we spotted Mr. Kin and his new “bride” walking out of the wedding hall to a smaller area, and the rally group exploded in intense chanting.” Rabbi Segal’s response to this moment is perhaps more powerful than the moment itself. “At that moment,” he says, “there was a sense among the attendees that we had accomplished something important: Mr. Kin and his family would know that we will not stand by silently while he abuses Lonna and distorts and perverts Judaism. We will continue to raise our voices until he makes the right decision.”
That sentiment is echoed over and over again by community rabbis in LA. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, who was also at the rally, speaks of another important moment. “I think one of the most significant moments may have been out of the spotlight altogether when Rabbi Topp and I had the opportunity to talk with one of the local Chabad rabbis about exerting social pressure upon this man to uphold his moral and religious responsibility to divorce his first wife. We’re hoping that they will decide to exclude him from davening with the community, and hopefully even to publicly denounce his actions.” Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob noted that these efforts did not stop at the rally. “The community rabbis are following up after the rally and are continuing to put pressure on him,” says Rabbi Topp. “There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes now, trying to solve that situation.”
This isn’t the only way our community’s rabbis are combating this issue. Rabbi Kanefsky, Rabbi Topp, and Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City have all taken the same stand in an effort to rid our community of this issue and they will no longer officiate at a wedding without a halachic prenuptial agreement. “All of the Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbis in this community are of one mindset, and we will not officiate without a prenup” says Rabbi Muskin. “We’re talking about the prenup authorized by the RCA, written by the Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Willig, with the approval of major halachic authorities throughout the world.”
Rabbi Topp shares how he explains this stance to couples who come to him: “What I tell every couple is that they don’t need this agreement because they’re going to be married in happiness. But they need to sign it to make sure that it’s standardized, so it will help that couple that needs it. I think all rabbis should make it a rule that they only officiate a wedding if there is a halachic prenuptial agreement.” Rabbi Muskin goes a step further: “I think its malpractice today to officiate without it.”
Just how effective is this agreement? Rabbi Muskin explained, “I was involved in four cases where, because they had a prenup, it went relatively smoothly and we got the get,” he said. To raise awareness about the halachic prenup and the difference it can make, Rabbis Kanefsky, Muskin, and Topp are planning on collaborating on a post-nuptial event later this year. “We’re going to invite couples from the community who are already married but who never signed a prenup, either because it didn’t exist yet when they were getting married, or because the rabbis did not ask them to do it, to sign a post-nuptial agreement,” says Rabbi Kanefsky. “The signing will be accompanied by a significant lecture from a visiting scholar, and we hope it will be a very high-profile event that will raise awareness about the prenup.” Awareness and use of the prenup is a tremendous weapon in this fight. As Rabbi Stern says, “We can effectively inoculate the Jewish community from the plight of agunot, if everyone were to sign a halachic prenuptial agreement.”
While our community rabbis are making important progress, they cannot solve this problem alone. “One of the challenges in Las Vegas up until this rally was the fact that there were community members and rabbis who were not outraged by the fact that Meir Kin has refused to give Lonna Kin a get for over nine years,” explains Rabbi Stern. “Part of the problem in this case in particular, is that Meir Kin has had the support of his family members, who have been excusing and justifying, aiding and abetting his abusive behavior. It took this additional level of him taking on another wife for the rabbis to come around, and Meir is now not welcome in any of the Chabad synagogues in Las Vegas. That’s why these demonstrations are so important: to make the very clear statement that what he is doing is not accepted by the community.”
It’s important to note that public demonstrations are never the first effort at resolution. ORA is not usually even involved in a case until there is a stall or a breakdown in the process, and even once they become involved there is a long list of methods they use. “Once we take on the case,” explains Rabbi Stern, “we first try to resolve things amicably by opening lines of communication between the two sides, facilitating the Beit Din process, speaking with family friends, colleagues, associates, community members, rabbis, and attorneys of both parties, particularly the recalcitrant party, to convince them to give the get amicably. If and when we’ve exhausted all forms of amicable resolution to a case, then we resort to using all halachically acceptable and civilly legal forms of pressure.” These can include demonstrations and boycotting of a business, and work to ostracize the individual from the Jewish community, so we create the environment for family and friends to create pressure. What most of these forms of pressure have in common is that they require community support to be effective. A few rabbis and an ORA representative will put a recalcitrant husband in an uncomfortable position but when an entire community turns their backs on him it can create an untenable one.
“The standard in the community must be that once a couple has separated irreversibly, the get has to be given unconditionally,” says Rabbi Topp. This idea of a community standard is echoed by everyone involved with this issue. Rabbi Muskin does not mince words: “You end your relationship with your wife; you must issue the get. A get is not a document to be used in any way shape or form for any other agenda but divorce. Any other use is unacceptable, intolerable and unethical, and the community is responsible to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
The real reluctance that community members face in ostracizing a recalcitrant husband actually comes from a kind place – one of giving the benefit of the doubt. “There is an attitude that there are two sides to every story,” says Rabbi Stern. “How can I condemn a man if I don’t know the full story?” While this attitude stems from compassion, in the case of get refusal that compassion is misplaced. “There may be two sides to the story of what actually happened in the marriage. But once the marriage is over, there’s never an excuse to refuse to give a get. Get refusal is never justified. It’s never, ever OK to beat your wife. And just as that form of abuse is not OK, so refusing to give a get is never OK.”
The other issues involved in the breakup of a marriage are important ones. But we have means of dealing with those issues as well. “If people want to fight out finances or custody, we have a fair legal system that you can go to, and you can address these issues on their own terms,” says Rabbi Stern. “If you want to have a custody battle, go ahead. Make your best arguments in court, or go to Beit Din, or go to a mediator, or go to an arbitrator. There are other fair forums which you can use to resolve outstanding issues. But you cannot negotiate when you have a gun to your head. You can’t come to a fair resolution to any outstanding issues when someone is holding a get over someone else.”