Sara hung up the phone in April, sobbing. Her family court date to resolve child custody had been canceled, with no new date in sight, as a result of in-person restrictions during the pandemic. Like many separated parents, she was already struggling. Not just with the closure of civil courts, but as an educational supervisor whose job was put on hold amid the collapsing economy. Not just with dealing with a divorce, but also with having her six kids shuffle back and forth to their father’s house nearly every other weeknight on a court-ordered schedule — while worrying about whether they could reasonably follow social distancing guidelines.
“The children have been thrown in the meat grinder,” says Sara, who lives in New York. (We have withheld Sara’s last name to protect her privacy and that of her children regarding sensitive family matters.)
But unlike most people trying to leave unhappy marriages, Sara faces an additional obstacle: As an Orthodox Jew, she cannot receive a Jewish bill of divorce — the get — from her husband without him physically handing it over.
Women say the process was taxing before the pandemic. Already, the task of receiving a get could quickly descend into abuse, experts say, as some men withhold it to exert power over former partners. This standoff can go on indefinitely: Wives who don’t receive their get become an agunah — the Hebrew word meaning a chained woman — who are unable to remarry or raise new children from another partner in the Jewish community. Even if a man is willing to become divorced in civil court, he may leverage the get to receive concessions on matters like property division or child support.
For women like Sara, covid-19 has created a plethora of additional obstacles dragging out the get process. Hundreds of women in the United States, thousands in Israel and more across the Jewish diaspora are estimated to be caught in this spiritual limbo. Divorce in religious courts — which are known as beit din — is even more difficult during social distancing, considering that the ceremony, or gittin, requires the couple, two witnesses, a rabbi and a scribe to gather in person.
Even if everyone complies, the affair can take months from start to finish — although many last years if a partner holds out (Sara, who has been married for 16 years, filed for her get in Israel a year ago). To make things more challenging, secular courts are facing delays of their own: Family court proceedings across New York City all but halted in March, prioritizing orders of protection as essential. The backlog for custody hearings is expected to spill over into 2021, according to Erin Bistricer, a senior attorney for Shalom Task Force, a national organization focusing on domestic violence in the Orthodox community.
Women who want to leave their homes can’t necessarily rely on staying with family or friends, and the economic recession makes separation impossible for some. Advocates say some partners are ignoring health precautions and neglecting children’s virtual education to undermine their spouses. What’s more, public health emergencies such as covid-19 can also create new vulnerabilities for women who say they face abuse — women quarantining with spouses they allege are abusive are unable to find reprieve in social gatherings, activities or public spaces, experts say. “During covid, they had no place to run,” says Avraham Kahan, a rabbi who operates a beit din in New York, adding that his office has seen daily phone calls regarding disputes, resolutions and abuse situations nearly triple since the start of the pandemic.
This morass of challenges both in civil and religious courts creates a double whammy for Orthodox women trying to separate. Some might ask: Why even go through this arduous process for what’s mostly a spiritual recognition of the relationship’s end? Women say this overlooks the importance of religious values in their lives, including what freedom means to them.
“I have a rock solid faith,” Sara says. But she had pinned her hopes on her day in court. The cancellation of her custody case was a “devastating blow,” she says, and it’s hard not to despair.
Ultimately, she’s still pursuing the get because, as Sara puts it, “I’d like to put this chapter of our marriage behind me.”
The scribe sat behind a folding table on a clear May afternoon, clutching a turkey quill. He scrawled deliberately in the 80-degree heat, trying not to sweat on the document so the ink wouldn’t run.
Pulling together a socially distant Jewish divorce required creativity. Soon-to-be exes sat in the New Jersey backyard, while an officiating rabbi and two gloved witnesses — one of whom was Shlomo Weissmann, a lawyer and rabbi who directs the Beth Din of America — hovered nearby. When the get was ready for review, a gust of wind nearly sent it flying. More than an hour later, the couple was separated in the eyes of God.
They were rare. After a hiatus between March and late May, the Beth Din of America completed 15 urgent gittin in June — down from its monthly average of 20. With cooperation, the process is straightforward: One partner contacts a beit din, which sends a hazmana, or summons, for both spouses to appear in Jewish court (the Beth Din of America has been sending summons electronically during the pandemic).
Problems arise when summons are ignored. After three summons, the recipient gets a seiruv — similar to a contempt order — establishing them as recalcitrant. Having this paper trail from a neutral third party is essential to resolving an agunah case, says Keshet Starr, chief executive of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a nonprofit focused on fighting the agunah crisis. “The power of a document … is that it kind of breaks up the ‘he said, she said’ that these cases can get very stuck in,” Starr said.
In Israel, rabbinical courts have legal jurisdiction, so men who withhold a get can face incarceration. But America’s secular legal system means limited enforcement for violations of religious law.
The power men hold in the get process can be devastating for women in abusive relationships. Dating or remarrying as an agunah is viewed as adultery, while her future children are considered illegitimate and unable to marry within the Jewish community. Fewer than 5 percent of ORA’s cases address situations where a woman refuses to accept her get, according to Starr. But the consequences don’t cut both ways. If a wife refuses her get, her husband’s future children could still maintain Jewish status.
The get process dates back to biblical times (back then, men used to issue a get before heading off to war in case they became prisoners or got lost in battle). Now, bad actors are manipulating an ancient rule that was never supposed to work this way, Weissmann says. While rabbis can’t rewrite the Torah, they’ve devised adaptations for modern life: Couples can sign a halachic prenuptial or postnuptial agreement that compels a husband to pay $150 in spousal support for each day he withholds the get. The pre-nup gives power back to Orthodox Jewish women, advocates say, because it’s enforceable by civil law but still works within the spiritual system they value.
“If [the pre-nup] was adopted across the board, it would just wipe the problem away,” says Weissmann.
Until then, the pandemic’s compounding challenges — from increased caretaking responsibilities to lost jobs to family illness — have pushed get issues to the back burner for many. “I’ve seen settlements fall apart because of covid, and I’ve seen cases stall because of covid,” says Bistricer, of Shalom Task Force.
In the meantime, custody agreements keep unraveling. Starr points to a situation in which a mother didn’t send her kids to their father’s house due to social distancing concerns. The police arrived because she’d violated their civil court arrangement.
Parents will face pressure to agree to unsatisfactory conditions because they can’t wait, advocates say. At the same time, fighting spouses will be less inclined to come to the negotiating table.
“It’s just one more stressor for my clients to be thinking about right now,” Bistricer says.
When Yakira Leah Dorfman received her get in 2016, she says she shifted out of survival mode. “I didn’t understand how trapped I actually felt until the get was issued,” Dorfman says. “There was a cloud hovering over me that I didn’t realize was there.”
Some people outside of the Orthodox community might question whether the get process is worth the trouble. These women say they want to regain control over what they value. Dorfman, a teacher in Miami who is pursuing her master’s degree, cherishes her religious lifestyle. “I live it, I love it, I enjoy it.”
Some outside the community also may be tempted to blame Orthodox Jewish women’s religious system for their plight, and dismiss laws that create this power imbalance as archaic and patriarchal. But that can miss the point of restoring agency to women. “This is my life. This is what I want to do,” says Dorfman, who says she is now happily remarried.
Others in the secular world might question why Orthodox Jews don’t alter a law that is causing their community so much pain. But even for women in violent domestic situations, the get process is just one piece of the puzzle, according to experts. Starr points out that domestic abusers use any tools at their disposal, religious or otherwise, to control the pieces of identity closest to their partner’s core sense of self. So “just change that stupid rule” logic is akin to the question of “why doesn’t the U.S. just pass stricter gun control laws?,” according to Starr. Politics are complicated. Some people leave systems they disagree with; others stay.
Experts highlight that secular courts also have a way to go in protecting survivors, and that the pandemic has further exposed these gaps. “Both systems fail domestic violence victims in many ways,” says Bistricer. As civil courts begin reopening, she worries about how the explosion of need will be met. Many women will keep waiting. “We’re going to see ramifications for a long time to come.”
Throughout her get process, Dorfman’s ironclad faith is what helped her get to the other side. Others have left the community. But Dorfman doesn’t believe the Jewish legal system is broken.
“We are very liberated. We are educated. We are businesswomen, career women,” she says. “We have a belief system, and a faith system, that we follow and act by.”