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12 years too long: Redefining success for agunot

As a community, we must think bigger than addressing individual agunah cases. It's about rewiring the systems

“Stop the abuse! Give your wife a get!” The hot Florida sun was competing for our attention but was no deterrent against our determination.

It had all started with a failed plan.

Four of us traveled to Williamsburg to distribute flyers to publicize a case of get-refusal. *”Yitzchak” splits his time between Brooklyn and London to raise money for a Mikvah in Radomsko, Poland, and is recognized by his neighbors for his gentle requests for tzedakah (charity). What they don’t know, however, is that Yitzchak has been engaging in abuse against his wife for more than a decade, refusing to issue her a get (Jewish divorce) despite their separation since 2004 and a seruv (order of contempt) issued by the Beth Din of London urging him to give the get

My colleagues and I were met with a range of reactions from locals, from “You really don’t belong here” and “I don’t want to get involved,” to “I wish you hatzlacha (success),” and “I know so many agunot who can benefit from your organization.”

All in all, the day went as planned, though we had no expectations for any immediate results from our efforts. 

We were wrong. 

The following morning we got a call from an HBO producer named Lindsay who lives in Williamsburg. As fate would have it, she found one of ORA’s flyers in her neighborhood, and although she wasn’t familiar with get-refusal, the content of the flyer spoke to her.

After learning more about ORA’s work, Lindsay was interested in filming a documentary about get-refusal. We were anxious about the exposure of such a nuanced issue through a medium that isn’t typically conducive for communicating complexities, and at the same time humbled by the opportunity to share the universality of domestic abuse despite its niche manifestation as get-refusal. Abuse isn’t a Jewish problem– it’s a human problem– and it exists in all communities. Our hope was that by confronting the devastation of get-refusal openly, this would in turn give permission to other communities to address their own expressions of injustice.

Fast forward several months: Lindsay and her team at HBO decided to follow the case of Jill Robinson, a woman who had been waiting nearly 13 years for her get. Jill and her husband were already civilly divorced, and he had even remarried another woman. Nonetheless, he was still tethered to Jill through his refusal to end their Jewish marriage, holding tremendous power over her. He held the power to control whether Jill could remarry according to the tradition that was sacred to her, and He held the power to potentially prevent her from having more children given the extreme consequences for doing so without a get

Jill and her ex-husband lived hundreds of miles apart, but he held the key to her freedom. 

Our team decided to hold a rally outside of the get-refuser’s home in Delray Beach, Florida. An hour before the rally we presented to students at Katz Yeshiva High School, teaching them about agunot, get-refusal, and how they can protect themselves by signing a halakhic prenup. Empowered, these students attended the rally along with dozens of local community members. 

Attending rallies is not enjoyable; it is sometimes intimidating, often heartbreaking, and always uncomfortable. The fact that so many locals showed up not only sent a powerful message to those of us working at ORA that we are not alone in this fight, but more importantly, it sent a powerful message directly to Jill’s ex husband that his abuse won’t be ignored by his neighbors.

Just two hours after the rally, he agreed to give the get

I think there are several important lessons we can learn from this:

  1. Rallies work! They are distressing and always a last resort, but when necessary, they can be the final straw that leads to a get
  2. There certainly is hope for an agunah…when she has a community behind her. If no one showed up at the rally, would Jill have her get today? We can all be inspired by the Florida community’s advocacy on behalf of Jill and replicate their eagerness to help when we learn about get-refusal in our own backyards. There’s simply too much at stake for us to stay at home when our mothers and sisters are facing abuse. Jill’s story makes it clear that we can each play a critical role in ending get-abuse, and that sometimes, we can only achieve success when you participate with us. 
  3. Securing a get immediately after a rally is not typical. But when it does happen, we can’t help but see the hand of G-d in orchestrating an agunah’s path toward freedom, despite all odds. It reminds us that it is human frailty which allows for get-refusal to happen, and not the intention of halakha

The way that we define success as ORA is often when a case is resolved and a get is given. But is it really a success when a process that requires only an hour takes more than 12 years? 

As a community, we must think bigger than just addressing individual agunah cases. It’s about rewiring the systems that lead to these cases in the first place. We must ensure that everyone we know who has a ketubah also has a halakhic prenup. In doing so, only then are we doing everything we can to eliminate the possibility for get-refusal from happening, and that is better than any gift off of a wedding registry!

Watch Jill’s journey toward freedom. (Bring some tissues!)

*name changed for privacy

About the Author
Jennifer Lifshutz Lankin is the Assistant Director at ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot.
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