Keshet Starr

Ringing in Freedom

There’s a tambourine necklace that sits in pride of place on my dresser. Its metal discs glint when the sun catches them, and it makes a celebratory jingling sound when you shake its tiny frame. 

My tambourine was given to me by a woman I know named Sara. Sara is smart, polished, and carries herself with a quiet confidence. She has also been waiting for a get for over four years. 

Image source: Keshet Starr

Hope is a precious, and rare, commodity in agunah advocacy. After all, once you have been waiting for a get for one or five or fifteen years, it can be hard to believe it’s still coming. Why now, after all these years? 

For the advocacy community, as well, hope can feel tenuous. Some of my predecessors have worked at this issue for decades, only to step away, disgruntled and disappointed. When you think about it, who are we to think we can somehow resolve an issue that has been present in different capacities, for thousands of years? With those odds, why bother trying? 

As I sat with Sara over salads and scrambled eggs, her own necklace dangling, she explained to me why tambourines specifically. 

When the Jewish people frantically rushed to escape from Egypt, famously leaving so quickly their bread didn’t have enough time to finish baking, they packed only the barest necessities. Given that, how were Miriam and the other women equipped with tambourines to celebrate the crossing of the Sea? Based on a shiur Sara  once heard, the women were so sure freedom was imminent, they brought their musical instruments with them. In the chaos of a hasty departure, the tambourines made the cut–That’s how sure the women were of the miracle to come. 

This story about Jewish women is not the only testament to a belief in a redemption that has not yet come. A while ago, I traveled for a Scholar-in-Residence program and spoke Shabbos morning. Speaking in the drasha slot comes with a unique challenge in my line of work–taking a parsha, any parsha, and making it about agunot. My parsha that week, Bo comes at a unique moment in the Exodus story, featuring the last several plagues, but stopping short just before the final escape. And yet, as I researched, I found something curious–even though the redemption had not yet occurred, Moshe tells the people how they will celebrate the Pesach miracle for centuries to come. 

But what miracle? At this point in the story, the Jews are not yet free–they are slaves. And while the plagues are destroying Egypt around them, they have already lived through so many plagues, and nothing has changed. How can they celebrate a freedom that has not yet come? The answer, perhaps, is that by “fast-forwarding,” if you will, to the end of the story, Moshe is delivering a crucial message, reminding the people that even though freedom has not arrived yet, it’s on its way. It’s already coming. From the hastily packed tambourines to the preemptive ritualization of Pesach, the Exodus story is really one of steadfast hope, even–especially?–when it seems least likely to be fulfilled. 

Hope is the sort of thing that seems easier than it actually is. Hope comes with many benefits, and is associated with positive outcomes and coping mechanisms. But it can be a slippery thing to hold onto, particularly in periods of ongoing pain, especially when that pain has become so much a part of us it seems unchangeable. Cultivating hope is not light and fluffy; at times, it requires the tenacity of a mountain climber. 

I have worked with agunot full-time for twelve years, in other capacities for over fifteen. The problems are deep, and hard, and well-worn, and there are no easy answers. And over these years I have seen so much positive change–calls to action, shifts in community attitudes and policies, commitments to do better. 

The agunah crisis will not be easy to solve. But we at ORA are packing (or wearing) our tambourines. We are moving forward with light, with energy, and with hope. We are determined to do our part to eradicate this issue, no matter the obstacles. We are celebrating the wins along the way, as we wait for the full celebration. 

In the last few years, I have danced with former agunot at their weddings, met their new babies, hugged them at events unexpected meetings. We have already seen the sea split for so many individual women–now, we work to find freedom for the collective. 

The day is coming–our tambourines are packed. 

Image: Keshet Starr

Help us change the landscape of get-refusal by supporting our annual campaign here:

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.