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When Divorce Is a Reason To Celebrate

“Rachel” an ultra-Orthodox mother of 12 living in Jerusalem, got divorced this week.

It’s cause for celebration for two reasons. First, this grants her much-needed freedom from her severely violent and erratic now-ex-husband, a man who viciously controlled, manipulated and abused her and her children during the marriage and separation. But the real jubilation is because the divorce process – receiving her get – took nine years. Nine years! That’s a marathon that deserves acknowledgment.

Unfortunately, Rachel is not alone.

Thousands of agunot and mesoravot get (women denied divorce) are stuck in limbo – sometimes for years or even decades – neither married nor divorced, waiting for the rabbinical court to come to their aid.

The rabbinical court, or Beit Din, where all divorces in Israel are concluded, is notoriously cruel to women. That’s why aspiring lawyers studying family law in Israel are taught to “race to the courts.” In other words, if you defend a woman, run to file for divorce in the civil courts, and if you defend a man, run to file in the rabbinical courts. Whoever catches the case first adjudicates (on all but the actual get, which is exclusively in the Beit Din).

The moment a woman gathers the courage to leave an abusive spouse should be supported, facilitated and even applauded – but instead the rabbinical courts turn it into the beginning of a horrific saga.

It takes so much internal work for a woman to leave an abusive marriage. She has to make an entire shift in her brain from thinking, “I deserve this,” and “There’s something wrong with me,” to, “No, I don’t deserve it,” and “I can have a better life.” According to Jewish Women International, there are powerful emotional, cultural and economic forces that keep women in abusive marriages – not to mention the logistics of leaving and the very real fear of repercussion.

According to the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Violence, abused women stay in their relationships for an average of 3-5 years while Jewish women stay for 7-13 years – almost three times as long. The Jewish community seems to punish women for leaving their abusive spouses, and the entire Israeli divorce system supports that.

The divorce system in Israel is in dire need of reform. The religious judges are not held accountable to any body other than their own people, they don’t report to anyone and don’t answer to anyone, and a callous disregard for women’s lives remains entrenched.

One way to deal with this problem is case by case. The organization Mavoi Satum (literally, “The Dead End”), which I helped create and where I’m currently working in the development department, helps women by first and foremost making sure that every woman has legal representation.

Attorney Gitit Nachlieli, director of the Targum Shlishi Legal Aid Fund at Mavoi Satum, has become one of top experts in helping agunot and mesoravot get obtain their gets – an expertise which does not exist in any other democracy in the world. The equivalent of “agunah” does not even exist in any other language. It’s a calamity unique to the Jews.

Another approach is educational. The fact that Jewish women tend to stay longer in abusive relationships reflects that both men and women see this as normal behavior. We need to make efforts to educate differently.

Finally, we need to promote systemic reform, a real alternative to the Beit Din system. Mavoi Satum is leading a campaign, supported by the New Israel Fund, to create an arbitration body that will ultimately function as a viable alternative to the rabbinical courts. There must be another way.

In the meantime, mazal tov to Rachel, and may she be a beacon of hope for all the other agunot and mesoravot get out there. I hope you all find your freedom soon!

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