Till death do us part
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Till death do us part

Activist to lecture on agunot

Susan Weiss, the founder of the Jerusalem-based Center for Women’s Justice, will speak in Fort Lee.

Rabbi Meir Berger of The New Synagogue of Fort Lee is, by his own description, "livid" about the situation of agunot, women whose husbands refuse to give them a get, the document required for a religious divorce, even when a civil divorce has been granted, sometimes demanding money to set their wives free.

This refusal "is a crime," said Berger, an Orthodox rabbi serving a "traditional Conservative" synagogue, in an interview. "You’re stopping another human being from living."

Judaism allows people the freedom to divorce, he said. There is no "till death do us part." Refusing to grant a get "is contrary to all our beliefs, against our entire religion."

On Sunday, the synagogue is hosting a lecture at 11 a.m. by Susan Weiss, the Orthodox founder of the Center for Women’s Justice, a non-governmental organization in Jerusalem. Weiss plans to speak on "Advancing Gender Justice" in Israel and throughout the Middle East. The shul has advertised the event under the heading "In what country is a woman considered her husband’s property? Israel." The ad goes on to point out that there is no civil divorce in Israel and says those who attend the lecture will "discover how shockingly similar Jewish society in Israel is to radical fundamentalism when dealing with this important issue." Berger makes no excuses for the strong language.

"Do you want to hide a plague?" he asked. "It does exist." Even in the United States where at least a civil divorce can be granted, many Jewish women "are hostages. That’s what it boils down to here."

Berger is also a scribe, so he’s been present at the bet din for many Jewish divorces, writing the get. When husbands are reluctant to grant the divorce, "I can’t tell you the venom that comes out from their mouths," he said. He cited one case where, in the middle of the ceremony, the husband picked up a chair and smashed his wife over the head with it. The rabbis of the bet din called the police.

The story of agunot is "a terrible thing," he said. "How can we help them? They’re desolate."

In an interview, Weiss said she might have worded the advertisement differently, because there are "many, many differences," including living standards, between fundamentalist Muslim countries and Israel. The relationship between husbands and wives also is "clearly very different," with even the most Orthodox Jewish women going out to work and being treated "with respect" by their husbands.

But comparisons can be made and "it’s very hard to be self-reflective and see such comparisons," she said. Divorce laws for both Jews and Muslims have their roots "in original patriarchal bargains. The vestiges are still problematic."

Weiss, born in Fort Dix, grew up in New York and was graduated from Stern College and Brooklyn Law School. For many years, she was a divorce lawyer. She made aliyah in 1980 and has an MA in anthropology and sociology from Tel Aviv University; her thesis was on "fundamentalist feminists," she said.

Because both marriage and divorce in Israel are controlled by the Orthodox authorities, some Jewish couples are not even marrying, "to try to avoid the problem," Weiss said, or opt for "literally illegal Reform or Conservative ceremonies," which, if divorce becomes necessary, still don’t avoid the issue of get.

"It has become popular to get married in Cyprus, Italy, Turkey, Greece, for example," she said. "These civil marriages are registered by the ministry of interior and couples who marry abroad are considered married, even though they could not get married in this fashion in Israel. Some of those who get civilly married abroad are then coming back to Israel and getting married in alternative, illegal, non-Orthodox, unrecognized religious ceremonies."

There’s "a lot of grassroots rebellion," said Weiss, and pressure for change is coming from many directions, including the International Coalition for Agunah Rights, an umbrella for ‘5 organizations such as Na’amat, WIZO, the Religious Women’s Hotline Against Violence, and the Reform and Conservative movements. Her center in Jerusalem, which is supported by the New Israel Fund, posts stories on its Website every week highlighting the situation of ordinary women seeking divorces. The group is also pushing the civil courts.

"The authors of the proposed [Israeli] constitution, Rabbi [Ya’acov] Medan and Prof. Ruth Gabizon, have suggested a form of civil marriage that, I believe, would be available to all Israeli citizens," she said. "I am not sure how likely it is to pass such a law — or constitution — in the near future.

"What I am trying to do is to get the family courts and the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice, to interfere where there have been injustices perpetrated on women as a result of the abuses of religious laws by recalcitrant husbands or rabbinic courts that apply very narrow interpretations of Jewish law.

"Recently we filed a petition to the High Court of Justice asking that the rabbinic courts refrain from paying taxpayer money to recalcitrant husbands in exchange for the get — something that we think promotes get recalcitrance and does not solve the problem."

Weiss also founded, but no longer works for, Yad L’isha, an NGO working for change within the rabbinic courts system. Weiss said she and that organization are featured in the film "Mekudeshet: Sentenced to Marriage," which will be screened March 6 at the JCC in Manhattan during a program co-sponsored by the JCC and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, also in Manhattan.

For more information about the Feb. 5 lecture, which includes a brunch, call (’01) 947-1555.

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