One day last month, I stood waiting with a number of other rabbis in the lobby of a hotel in a nearby state that borders my own. I had only visited this hotel once before; in truth I had only been to this town a handful of times. But this day, I was there to perform a mitzvah and a good deed, and my feeling as the eager tourist was tempered by the urgency of the task at hand.
I was there with six rabbis, representing many different expressions of Judaism: some wore the black hats of the ultra-Orthodox, some the hats of Hassidic Jews, and some did not wear hats at all! All told, we had graduated from four different yeshivas, schools of higher study, and resided in five different states in the US. We had gathered together to begin divorce proceedings for a couple that needed our help in completing their gett, or Jewish divorce, under the auspices of the Beth Din of America, ending a marriage in accordance with Jewish law, that had actually ended under US law years earlier.
As odd as it might seem to be performing this mitzvah in a hotel lobby, it didn’t qualify as the most unusual location for me to have participated in a Jewish divorce. In the past decade, I’ve attended divorce proceedings at Starbucks, at public parks, school libraries, in empty houses filled with boxes on moving day, in countless living rooms and dining rooms, and even once in the cafeteria in the basement of a top-5 hospital in the United States.
Why are American Jews getting divorced in such unusual locations? As many readers know, the divorce is always an emotional and complex process, with strong feelings and positions on both sides. And sadly, it happens on occasion that either the divorcing husband or the divorcing wife will refuse to attend Jewish divorce proceedings in person in a Beit Din or Jewish court. The reasons changes from time to time, ranging from feelings of anger or pain, general apathy to religious ritual, a desire to use the Jewish divorce as leverage during the secular divorce, and even at times the advice of a misinformed mental health professional. But the challenge for the heroic rabbis of the American network of rabbinical courts is to try to close that gap and create a safe space for the parties to finally end their marriage.
[I write that there are both husbands and wives who are in this sad situation, “chained” to a marriage that has long ended by the refusal of their former husband or wife to participate in a gett, because in the experience of dealing with dozens of cases of gett refusal as the administrative director of the Boston Beit Din, we have found that men and women are equally likely to be abusers and to deny a gett to their former spouse. Others may have different experiences and it may change from community to community, but this is our experience over the geographical range of the six states of New England.]
Sometimes, the only way to make the divorce happen is for the rabbis to be flexible, to maximize the convenience of the other, refusing party. Perhaps one side is apathetic to religion, but they are willing to come if the court will convene in the cafeteria at work. Perhaps one side is so angry they will continue only if they can extract the proverbial pound of flesh, and they will insist that the rabbis travel to their home for a meeting.
It isn’t easy for any professional to travel with their work materials to a remote location at the whim of the patient or the client, but it is something rabbis of rabbinical courts do regularly, even gladly, to make divorces happen. They would never broadcast their stories of sacrifice and herculean efforts, and you the reader never hear of the many divorces that these courts are able to close through their own dogged determination. But it happens once a week somewhere in the United States, that rabbis go the extra mile and meet for a divorce in an unusual location.
Much has been written about the crisis in American Orthodoxy of men and women waiting without divorces. It truly is a crisis, and for every five cases the courts close quietly, there may be one that takes a little bit longer to resolve. But it isn’t for a lack of trying, commitment, or care on the part of the rabbis or the courts.
If you would like to try to be a part of this solution, I might recommend making a contribution to your local rabbinical court – professional, financial, or even to give emotional support. Each challenging case that is closed is resolved thanks to numerous phone calls and arrangements for the divorce to happen, miles driven, and lots of time from the rabbi’s days. Moreover, many couples find themselves in a precarious situation financially after divorce, and since no one is ever denied a gett for lack of payment, some getts are performed pro bono, a full day of work provided to the couple free of charge. It goes without saying that the only way for courts to continue to offer this kind of radical flexibility is if they are sufficiently supported by the community. And you can help make it happen and be a part of our major solution to this major problem, with a contribution to the rabbinical court nearest you.
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe recently completed a six year tenure as the administrative director of the Boston Rabbinical Court