On Agunot and Cheesecake (Yes, really)

It’s easy to take organizations, like people, for granted–we know they’re there if they need us, we leaf through the piles of letters, donation cards, and stickers they send us, and every now and then we write out a check or click the “donate” button and consider our role complete. I know I do.

But if you stop and think for a moment about what the world would look like without these agencies, you paint a much more urgent picture. Without our network of Jewish organizations, who would take on the basic functions we rely on? Who would bring kosher meals to anxious families waiting in hospital rooms? Who would guide panicked people who have just received devastating diagnoses on where they should pursue treatment? Who would make sure that children from families steeped in poverty have school supplies in the fall? And in ORA’s case, who would be there for the women (and men) facing the exhausting, lonely, uphill battle of fighting for the freedom to move on from an abusive marriage?

Here’s what a world without ORA looks like: Men and women struggle to navigate the labyrinthine Jewish divorce process with competing batei din and court systems that are slow, expensive, and often unfamiliar with the get issue. Opportunities are lost and poor decisions are made, leading to years of added pain and conflict. Children watch their parents suffer, in limbo, for years at a time. Community rabbis do their best to handle situations in their neighborhoods, with no one to go to for support and advice. Agunot give up vitally important financial rights in order to gain their freedom, but scramble to make ends meet for decades afterwards as a result. I know all this, because it was only seventeen years ago–prior to ORA’s founding–that this was the reality in the Jewish world.

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In just a few weeks, we will be celebrating matan Torah as a community. We will share meals, eat cheesecake, down coffee to help us stay up late, decorate our tables with garlands of flowers. And the thread running through it all is our love of and commitment to Torah–not because following the Torah is an easy or stress-free path, but because doing so allows us to create lives infused with meaning.  

The Torah is very clear regarding our responsibility to the most vulnerable constituents in our communities, symbolized by the widow and orphan.  The Torah does not mince words when it demands that we speak up in the face of injustice to the vulnerable, and warns that we cannot “stand idly by [as] the blood of your neighbor [is shed]” (Vayikra 19:16) and “You shall not mistreat the widow and orphan….I will heed their cry as they cry out to me” (Shemos 22:21-23).  

It is no accident that we read Megillat Ruth each year on Shavuot, as Ruth personifies the vulnerable outsider who we are obligated to speak for and protect. In fact, Naomi herself introduces the concept of the agunah in the megillah by advising Ruth and Orpah to return to Moav, saying “Would you wait [for my future sons] until they are grown? Would you tie yourselves down [te’agenah] and have no husbands?” (Ruth 1:13).  Rashi elaborates on the word te’agenah, defining it as “restricted” and “confined.”  Ruth herself is an agunah of sorts, unable to remarry after her husband’s death until her relative performs a chalitzah ceremony.

Like Ruth, agunot fall outside the normal categories of society. They are not “single” or “married” or “divorced,” they cannot go to dating events or socialize with their husbands. Their liminal status makes them vulnerable, like the widows and orphans the Torah pleads with us to protect.  Standing up for agunot is not easy–it can be awkward and stressful, and demand time and energy we don’t think we have. But the Torah, in its quest to help us lead meaningful lives, requires it.

Seventeen years ago, agunot had very few avenues to turn to. Today, they have a phone number to call–and a devoted staff ready and waiting for them. As individuals, you may not have the opportunity in your daily lives to make a difference for agunot.  But by supporting ORA, you can partner with us in fulfilling the Torah’s request and make sure there is a net of resources available for those who need them.  Today, ORA is about to close an all-or-nothing fundraising campaign to ensure we have the resources to do our work. You can join with us by clicking HERE. Without your support, we can’t be there for those who need us most.  

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As we prepare for the upcoming chag in physical ways–I have menu plans, potluck assignments, and baking on my to-do list–let’s not forget to prepare spiritually, as well, by protecting the most vulnerable among us. Think of it as the icing on the cheesecake.


About the Author
Keshet Starr is the Executive Director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), the only nonprofit organization addressing the agunah (Jewish divorce refusal) crisis on a case-by-case basis worldwide. At ORA, Keshet oversees advocacy, early intervention, and educational initiatives designed to assist individuals seeking a Jewish divorce, and advocates for the elimination of abuse in the Jewish divorce process. Keshet has written for outlets such as the Times of Israel, The Forward, Haaretz, and academic publications, and frequently presents on issues related to Jewish divorce, domestic abuse, and the intersection between civil and religious divorce processes. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Keshet lives in central New Jersey with her husband and three young children.
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