What We Say When We Give… And When We Don’t

Over the last few weeks, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), launched a crowdfunding campaign to help raise money to continue its three pronged approach to addressing the agunah crisis: Prevention, Early Intervention, and Case Advocacy.

Through its prevention initiatives, ORA has educated over 15,000 students and community members about the abusive nature of get-refusal and the preventative solution of the halakhic prenuptial agreement. Through its early intervention helpline, One Step Forward (OSF), hundreds of men and women, probably some whom you know, have received guidance, support, and referrals in an effort to intervene before divorces become contentious and lead to get-refusal. Through its case advocacy, ORA has resolved 286 contentious agunah cases since 2002 and works on about 70 active agunah cases at any given time.

Although ORA’s campaign has garnered some support and reached over 500,000 people in terms of engagement, ORA has not yet reached its campaign goal. And this raises some questions for me.

This particular campaign illustrates a much broader issue within our community that we may or may not even recognize. We know what message we are sending when we support an organization, whether financially, through volunteering, or other efforts. What we may not think about as much is what message we are sending when we don’t support certain causes; this is a grave error on our part, because we do send a message, and it’s quite loud and clear to those who suffer as a result.

ORA is the only nonprofit organization working to resolve the agunah crisis on a case-by-case basis worldwide. I think we can all agree that ORA needs to exist. The unfortunate reality is that there are hundreds of agunot who need ORA’s help, and ORA is often the only address to which these women have to turn. If that’s the case, then why isn’t every Jewish home allocating some of their ma’aser to such a worthy cause?

Perhaps we don’t think about it. What does it even mean to be an agunah? Is it even that common?

Agunot are women who are chained to marriages that are over. Unlike classical agunot of our great great grandparents’ generation whose husbands were missing or lost at war, most of today’s agunot are married (at least religiously), to husbands who are deliberately recalcitrant, creating a perversion of halakha by taking advantage of the halakhic reality that for a Jewish marriage to be over, a husband must willingly grant his wife a get, or Jewish bill of divorce.

If a woman was kidnapped by her spouse, locked in their basement and forced to stay with her husband, we wouldn’t hesitate to act. Yet, when those chains don’t take literal form, it’s much easier to ignore.

As someone who works at ORA and hears about the unique pain that get-refusal has on agunot, it’s very difficult to think of more vulnerable members in the Jewish community in today’s society or of a worthier cause to support. We have begun to make spaces in our communities for divorcees and widows, but have not yet accepted the often silent torture that agunot experience on a daily basis.

The message that we send when we don’t support ORA is that agunot are not our priority. That we don’t see them as vulnerable as they are. That we don’t see get– refusal as a form of abuse. That we don’t recognize the pain and suffering that these women experience, after having all control taken away from them and asserted onto them. 

Some of these women are brave, kind, and brilliant. Some of these women are difficult, bitter, afraid. None of these details matter. If they did, we’d begin victim-blaming.

Agunot need the support of the Jewish community, and we need to start thinking about what kind of message it sends to agunot when an organization like ORA doesn’t have all the support it needs to help free them from the chains of dead marriages.

Please take this opportunity to support ORA, and to support agunot in your own communities. There are women suffering alone, and your shoulder may be just the place these women can lean on.

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