Divorce in the Orthodox Jewish Community Can Be Brutal, Degrading and Endless

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In the world of Orthodox Judaism, men hold all of the power when it comes to terminating marriages. Gital Dodelson, 25, knows this all too well. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

“Only three days into the marriage, I knew I made a terrible mistake.”

Gital Dodelson, 25, wrote those words about her 2009 marriage to Avrohom Meir Weiss in an explosive essay in the New York Post last week.

After a short courtship and engagement (typical in the Orthodox Jewish community), Dodelson thought she had everything she wanted: the 400-person wedding, the lace dress, the white rose bouquet and, of course, Weiss, a Talmudic scholar from a prominent rabbinic family on Staten Island — until, she says, she discovered Weiss was “controlling and belittling.”

The marriage unraveled quickly.

“It was our first Shabbat together as man and wife — and it was spent in silence,” she wrote in the Post. According to Dodelson, Weiss controlled the family finances despite not having a job (he studied at his yeshiva full-time while she worked and went to school). She also claims he refused to hire a housekeeper when she was pregnant or see a marriage counselor, and got angry when she tried to pick her own doctor. After 10 months of marriage, Dodelson and her newborn son, Aryeh, moved in with her parents.

She divorced Weiss in civil court in August 2012, but says he refuses to give her a “get,” or religious divorce transaction necessary in Orthodox Judaism to finalize a divorce, leaving her unable to move on in her community.

Dodelson’s friends launched a website, SetGitalFree.com, to help publicize her situation. A Facebook page, Free Gital: Tell Avrohom Meir Weiss to Give His Wife a "Get," has over 13,000 likes. Weiss’ side of the story, however, remains largely absent from media reports. Newsweek has been unable to reach Weiss or his family. However, Weiss’ father, Rabbi Yosaif Asher Weiss, spoke exclusively to the Staten Island Advance, saying: “Our family is horrified by the vitriol, lies and hate that permeate Gital's article… This is a very, very heart-wrenching and ongoing dispute. We've been trying desperately to resolve this for a long time. This has destroyed my family health wise and destroyed my family financially.”

Dodelson’s story is not unique in the world of Orthodox Judaism, where men hold all of the power when it comes to terminating marriages.

According to Jewish law, a wife can refuse to accept a divorce initiated by her husband, but only a husband can initiate and finalize religious divorce proceedings. Even if a woman obtains a civil divorce, she is not considered divorced under Jewish law until her husband issues a get. Without it, she is deemed an agunah, a “chained wife” — she cannot date or remarry within the religious community in which she was raised, and any children she has with a new husband are deemed illegitimate. While a wife can sue for divorce in a beth din, a Jewish court, and while the beth din can order the husband to issue the get, he can still refuse. For some agunot, the situation can become so dire that they turn to violence. Recently, the FBI arrested a group of Brooklyn rabbis for running a for-hire torture ring that kidnapped and tormented Jewish husbands unwilling to provide their wives with gets.

“Being an agunah is such a painful and shameful existence,” says Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that provides free legal services and support to women of any culture or religion trying to leave arranged or forced marriages. “You remain trapped as a single person in a community where there is nothing more shameful than being single.”

While there are plenty of cases in which Orthodox Jewish couples divorce without incident, for some husbands, refusing to offer a get is a way to control their wives — to extort money, to blackmail them for custody over children or, more simply, to punish them for wanting to end the marriage.

“I consider this to be the most pressing issue facing the Orthodox community in America,” says Rabbi Avi Weiss, the longtime leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. “It’s an outrageous situation… If there is someone who is recalcitrant, they are not welcome — I have actually escorted such people out of my synagogue, which is so contrary to my work.”

“Get refusal is a form of domestic abuse, and domestic abuse is never justified,” says Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a nonprofit in New York that helps husbands and wives secure gets amicably. Each year, ORA receives roughly 150 queries from women seeking guidance and assistance in divorcing their husbands. (In the first 36 hours after the Post story appeared, the group received a dozen phone calls.) “When dealing with contentious divorces, the first thing people say is, ‘There are two sides to every story.’ There are not two sides in abuse.”

ORA, which has handled around 500 controversial get cases since its founding in 2002, helped Dodelson organize two peaceful demonstrations outside of Weiss’ home on Staten Island, the first in June 2012 and the second a year later. The group’s tactics — a concoction of social, communal and financial pressures that involve ostracizing a husband from his community and publicizing his name online and in the media — assist women who are often unable to advocate for themselves.

“Get refusal is the last stand of men who want to hurt their wives. It’s the act of desperation: ‘You will never leave me,’” says Elana Maryles Sztokman, executive director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “The moment of exit is the moment of greatest danger for abused women — it’s the moment when some abusive men will take out a violent weapon and try to kill their wives. In Judaism, men don’t need to take out a gun. They can take out a get and say, ‘I will own you forever.’”

While it’s often challenging to track statistics on divorce within the Orthodox Jewish community, a 2011 study by the Mellman Group reported 462 cases of agunot in the U.S. and Canada between 2005 and 2010, suggesting a marked increase in get refusals as well as a decline in resolutions, which can take anywhere from one to five years, sometimes longer. Most of these agunot were young women with children and limited finances, trying to escape first marriages without resources or assistance. In Israel, one in three women seeking divorce is threatened with a get refusal or extortion from her husband, according to a 2013 study by Bar-Ilan University's Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women. Among the religious and ultra Orthodox community in Israel, that number jumps to one in every two women.

Dodelson’s decision to go public with her situation is rare for the largely private Orthodox Jewish community.

“I don’t agree with people living their lives out in the public eye like this, and using publicity to get something without everyone knowing all of the facts,” says HaDassah Sabo Milner, 40, a blogger for the Times of Israel. “You’ve got to think of the child. He’ll grow up and read vitriolic posts by each camp. He’s an innocent in all of this,” she says, adding, “I understand she’s totally desperate, and I get that, but at the end of the day, the husband has to give his divorce of his own free will.”

Milner was 32 years old and had four young children when her first marriage ended in divorce. “I was very fortunate that my ex-husband did not give me a hard time. Our marriage was over and we got it done,” she explains. But that didn’t make the experience easy. She criticizes the male-dominated divorce process as well as the men who use gets to their advantage; “withholding a get is abuse,” she says.

Not everyone in the Orthodox Jewish world criticizes Dodelson’s public plea.

“It took such guts for her to write what she did,” says Reiss, 38, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. When she was 19 years old, her parents arranged for her to marry a man she’d never met. By 27, she was unhappy and wanted out — not just of the marriage, but of the entire Orthodox Jewish world.

“I had no education and no job, and I had two kids. I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t support them or myself. I was trapped,” she says.

Reiss became the first person in her family to go to college (she graduated from Rutgers in 2007, at the age of 32). When she stopped wearing a head covering during her senior year, she says her family declared her dead. “One of my sisters told me that my [parents, two other sisters and two brothers] were discussing whether to sit shiva for me,” she says. “And I was valedictorian.”

Reiss made the rare decision to not only file for divorce in civil court, rather than religious court, but she also refused to accept a get from her husband. “Normally, women beg and have to pay money,” Reiss explains. “For a while I had rabbis calling me begging me to accept the get. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

Reiss, who now lives in in a non-Jewish suburb of New Jersey and sends her children to public school, chose to leave the Orthodox community, making it easier for her to move on with her life without a get. As she put it, “I knew I would never want to remarry in that community.” Women like Dodelson, who don’t want to sacrifice their faith for their freedom, face a harder road.

Orthodox Judaism is replete with the vestiges of bronze-age patriarchy, and change in the community takes time and consensus.

“We’ve come a long way. In some respects, Orthodox Judaism is still more progressive than fundamental religions,” says Eliyahu Fink, an Orthodox rabbi who leads the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, Calif., referring to the fact that Orthodox Jewish women now go to graduate school and become doctors, lawyers, teachers — pretty much anything but rabbis. Still, this is a community struggling to figure out how to continue its traditions and existence in today’s high-tech, Internet-saturated, modern world.

In May 2012, around 40,000 ultra-Orthodox Jewish men gathered at a religious rally at New York’s Citi Field to protest the dangers of the Internet. (Viewings were organized in Brooklyn and New Jersey neighborhoods so that women could participate remotely, separate from the men as per ultra-Orthodox tradition.) Just over a year later, the retail chain Rami Levy announced a “kosher” smartphone for the ultra-Orthodox community, complete with phone, text and email capabilities, access to pre-approved apps and limited web access (there is no Google). Recently, a Hasidic community in Brooklyn expressed outrage over the city’s new bike lanes, which brought “scantily clad” women riding through their neighborhood. This June, an Orthodox rabbinical school in New York made history by ordaining three women as halachic and spiritual leaders, called maharats (women are not permitted to be rabbis in the Orthodox community).

Divorce, however, remains the man’s prerogative. “If you’re causing someone pain — emotional, physical, sexual — that’s forbidden in the Torah,” Fink says. “If the person uses the law as a weapon, that is violating Jewish law.”

“[Progress] can’t just be about galvanizing protests for a particular person, but rather about making sure the next 500 people don’t go through this particular horror,” explains Michael Helfand, an associate professor at Pepperdine Law School and associate director of Pepperdine’s Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies.

One sign of hope for Orthodox women comes in the form of a halachic prenup, which is civilly enforceable in America and creates a financial disincentive for husbands to withhold gets.

“I will not do a wedding today without a prenuptial being signed,” says Avi Weiss, who has been using prenuptial agreements since 1983. “It’s irresponsible for any rabbi to do a wedding without one… It is the deepest expression of love: I love you so much, I want to protect you in any eventuality. If ever I am out of control, I want to make sure you are still protected.”

“We have never seen a case where a halachic prenup was properly signed and the get was withheld,” Stern says. “We need to standardize the use of the halachic prenup agreement,” he added. “It is a vaccine for the Jewish community.”

While the prenup may be an effective troubleshooting tool, it is not a solution to the endemic problem of women’s rights in Orthodox Jewish marriage and divorce proceedings. Indeed, over three years later, Dodelson still awaits her freedom from Weiss.

“I’m waiting for the email to say that Avrohom gave her the get,” says Shira Dicker, the publicist behind Dodelson’s Post article. “If we succeed here, we will have used a 21st century solution — Facebook, social media, the media — to combat a centuries-old law that is really in need of change.”

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