When she commissioned a survey of agunot in North America, Barbara Zakheim was not certain what to expect. “I didn’t have a feel for the number,” she said. “I thought it was about 300, but it’s closer to 500, and those are just the ones we’ve identified.”
Agunot, or “chained women,” are stuck in unwanted marriages because their husbands refuse to provide them with a get, or document of Jewish divorce.
Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington, noted that the study of agunot was not a “primary survey. Due to the nature of who they are, we don’t know how to find them.”
As a result, the study – begun in August 2010 and completed one year later ““ was compiled on the basis of responses provided by Jewish domestic violence organizations, as well as groups that work with agunot. According to these groups, they have seen 462 such women over the past five years.
Zakheim suggested that the denial of a religious divorce is a misuse of power, and therefore a form of emotional abuse. Still, she said, “nobody is leading the charge” to resolve the problem.
Most people, she said, “consider this something that rabbis need to solve, since it’s halachically based.”
Rabbis, however, she said, have not managed to find a solution.
“I cannot say that they’re right or wrong, or that the solution is staring them in the face,” she said. “But rabbis have found solutions to all sorts of other problems that, halachically, seemed very difficult.” She cited for example, rabbinic reasoning that led to the ability of Israeli banks to charge interest, and the creation of eruvs, which allow people to carry on Shabbat within prescribed areas.
With regard to agunot, “The community has thrown up its hands,” she said. “There are agunot in North America who live in difficult circumstances, and no one is taking care of them on a day-to-day basis.”
The study, spearheaded by Zakheim, was conducted by The Mellman Group, a D.C.-based national polling research firm. Lending their names to the effort was the Orthodox Union, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and Jewish Women International.
The survey was designed to find out exactly how many women are affected by the problem, how long they have held that status, the number of children involved, the financial situation, custody arrangements, support systems, etc.
“What took me by surprise was the percentage of those living close to poverty or at the poverty level,” said Zakheim.
Among its main findings, the report noted that rabbinic courts have considered half of the cases the responding organizations have seen, and sanctions are not frequently employed against recalcitrant husbands. In addition, it found that most agunot are younger women who have children and are trying to leave their first marriages; have little money; and are unaware of the resources available to them.
Zakheim said she hopes to use the study to interest communal organizations in joining together to provide services to agunot, whether counseling or legal assistance. “They may lose out without a lawyer,” she said, pointing out that many do not know how to deal with a bet din, or religious court.
Another goal is to “finally give some definition to the problem and demonstrate to the Jewish community that this needs to be addressed with the same compassion given to widows and orphans. It’s important to look at this and realize that it’s not just a few people,” she said. “This is a community responsibility, and the community needs to step up.”
Rabbi Howard Jachter – a teacher at Teaneck’s Torah Academy of Bergen County and chairperson of the Agunah Prevention and Resolution Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America – characterized Zakheim’s portrayal of rabbis as an “ugly accusation.”
The Teaneck resident, who has overseen the administration of some 3,000 gets, said Zakheim’s analysis, scoring “rabbinic inaction,” ignores efforts being made by the modern Orthodox – at least “here in Bergen County, in Riverdale, and in the Five Towns.”
Jachter – a judge on the Rabbinic Court of Elizabeth and a major proponent of the RCA’s prenuptial agreement, in use among the modern Orthodox since 1992 – said that in his experience, the number of “irresolvable” cases is rare.
(The problem is also not limited to the Orthodox community. The Conservative movement has attempted to deal with the problem by including a get stipulation directly in the marriage contract, or ketubah.)
“Because of the RCA prenuptial agreement [stipulating that a man will give his wife a get in the event that the marriage ends], fear of community sanctions, and rabbis like me,” cases where women become actual agunot are infrequent in our area, he said.
“I’ve had men and women tell me that they’re afraid of public pressure,” he said, adding that he has no doubt that all the modern Orthodox rabbis in this community would take the appropriate measures – e.g., denying synagogue honors to recalcitrant husbands – if that became necessary.
“The Beth Din of America is very active and does whatever can be done to [obtain] a get,” he said.
He noted, for example, that he made a quick trip to a Starbucks in the hours before Yom Kippur “to meet a difficult husband,” bringing some TABC students to serve as witnesses. In addition, he has twice visited jails – “not a pleasant experience,” he said – to obtain gets for local women.
Jachter said it was important to remember that to be classed as an agunah, a woman must first have undergone a civil divorce. Some women also refuse to accept a get, he added, noting that he has seen several such cases.
“It goes both ways,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s not a difficult situation, but I’m not aware of any agunot in this area.”
Zakheim’s charges, he said, “have nothing to do with reality. There’s not one case where the RCA prenuptial agreement has been used and there has not been a get. It’s 100 percent successful. Why is there no mention of that?”
Her “reality,” he said, may be based solely on the “ultra-Orthodox.”
Elke Stein, coordinator of Project SARAH – a domestic abuse project funded primarily by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety ““ Stop the Violence Against Women Grants Program in conjunction with Passaic County Women’s Center, and the Jewish Family Service of Clifton-Passaic – agreed with Zakheim that “withholding a get can be used as a weapon.”
“We do encourage women to obtain a get as soon as possible, not to wait for a civil divorce,” she said. “If someone is willing to give it, take it.”
Stein – who has referred clients seeking gets to Jachter – said she also agrees that communal agencies should work together to help agunot, “just as we should help victims of domestic violence and anyone who is being abused by a partner.”
The Project SARAH coordinator said that while the RCA prenuptial agreement has been helpful, “It doesn’t solve all the problems. It’s not a complete solution.” Nor would she say that any one group has a bigger problem than another.
“Every situation is different,” she said, noting that she is sometimes surprised by how quickly some women are granted gets when there are still so many issues unresolved in their efforts to secure a civil divorce.
Stein said Jachter has always been “very helpful, persistent, and thorough. He’s a good partner with us.”
She pointed out, however, that not all women want gets. “Many want to stay in their marriages and just want them to improve,” she said.
The full North American Study on Agunot can be found at http://bit.ly/js-agunot.