A small group came together to stand up for women who are left in limbo when their husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce.
Bracha and Seth Rosenstein recently signed a post-nuptial agreement to take a stand against the practice that allows a husband to refuse to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, or get.
With their 10-month-old son, Meir, as a witness, the happily married couple attended a two-hour halachic “post-nup party” on March 1, organized by the advocacy group, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, known as ORA.
Despite the freezing rain and frigid weather, a small but dedicated group of rabbis, couples and community members gathered at Mekor Habracha, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Center City, to decry the practice of get refusal and recalcitrant husbands and to stand up for the women who are left in limbo when their husbands refuse to grant them a get.
These women bear a modern-day scarlet letter and are referred to as agunot, which literally means they are chained or anchored to a dead marriage and not halachically allowed to remarry.
Plans are in the works for a second post-nuptial party in Philadelphia or the nearby suburbs to take place after Passover.
“I think it’s unreasonable that in the struggles of divorce, someone would not be able to move on with their lives,” Bracha Rosenstein, 31, explained of her decision to sign a religious post-nuptial agreement that was witnessed by a notary.
“My husband and I felt that had we considered this before we got married, we would have signed it,” she said. “Our feeling is that God forbid anything would happen in our marriage, we would be able to pre-emptively support each other.”
Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch, the spiritual leader at Mekor Habracha, feels so strongly about this issue that he refuses to marry couples unless they sign a Jewish pre-nuptial agreement.
“I feel blessed to say that I have never had a couple at whose wedding I officiated that later ended their marriage with divorce,” said Rabbi Hirsch, 44. “But I also think it’s a terrible thing that has developed. It is important to increase awareness that some men are using the get as a weapon against their wives and this definitely needs to stop.”
While some younger couples may feel that a Jewish pre-nup takes some of the romance out of embarking on their life journey, Hirsch said he presents the idea in a different way to skittish couples. “I tell them not to look at this as being afraid of getting a divorce,” he advises, “but instead to view this as if you are signing a petition that you agree every couple should sign so that get refusal never happens again.”
Hirsch said he also explains to couples who are considering marriage that every aspect of the Torah has to do with relationships and the wording in the Jewish marriage contract, the ketubah, refers to the husband’s “commitment and devotion going so deep that he will give her the shirt off his back. I find that to be very romantic.”
At the post-nup party on March 1, ORA’s executive director, Rabbi Jeremy Stern, showed a video about ORA’s work and explained why widespread community support is needed to encourage the use of a pre-nuptial religious contract so that the issue of the agunah will cease to exist.
“This is a horrible thing that women endure, and I consider a get refusal to be a form of domestic abuse,” said Eileen Sklaroff, who attended the party with her husband of 16 years, Cantor Mark Kushner, a certified mohel.
Even after a civil divorce, “without a get you are still considered married, your life is in limbo and your ex-husband still has control over you,” explained Sklaroff, 68. “The woman cannot remarry in a Jewish ceremony and her future children are considered illegitimate, especially in the Orthodox world. Some of us are signing post-nups after being married for 30 or 40 years to show our support for these beleaguered women throughout the world.”
Although not personally touched by the issue, Sklaroff was so moved by this cause that she, as a member of the executive committee of Women of Vision, helped ORA draft a grant proposal for educational programs in the Greater Philadelphia area. Women of Vision, the permanent Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, awarded funding for this program for two consecutive grant cycles.
For an abusive husband, the get represents the last vestige of control he has over his estranged wife. He holds the power to decide whether she will have the freedom to move on with her life and find happiness in another relationship or remain trapped in a dead marriage with little hope of escape.
The New York City-based ORA was started in 2002 by Yeshiva University students, and the international nonprofit group is recognized as a prominent voice in agunah advocacy.
) has educational programs funded by Jewish Women’s Foundations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. and a satellite office in Israel. As a result of the dedication to resolving cases of get refusal, ORA's assistant director Kimberly Hay said her group has succeeded in securing the freedom for more than 230 women.
The group has impacted Jewish communities around the world from Reform to Orthodox.
In one of the more widely publicized cases, a husband finally granted his wife a get after 18 years of refusal and family heartache, according to ORA officials.
One highly publicized recent Jewish divorce cases involved Bala Cynwyd resident Tamar Epstein.Epstein and her former husband Aharon Friedman, an aide to U.S. Rep. David Camp, received a civil divorce in 2010, but for nearly six years Epstein tried unsuccessfully to receive a get.
In December 2013, ORA, which had spearheaded the campaign “to free” Epstein, issued a formal announcement celebrating Epstein’s freedom, thus resolving the complicated case to Epstein and ORA’s satisfaction, the group said. Whether or not she actually received a get remains unclear.
“ORA was actively involved in the well-known case of Tamar Epstein, who fought her husband and sought a get for close to six years,” Hay said on Monday. “Epstein is no longer seeking a get and ORA is no longer involved in the case.”