New offices and new approaches for agunah activists

New offices and new approaches for agunah activists

Organization for the Resolution of Agunot moves quarters to Teaneck

Keshet Starr speaks in Chicago.
Keshet Starr speaks in Chicago.

How do you solve a problem like agunahs?

The problem is by definition an old one: According to the Torah, only a man can initiate a divorce. A woman stuck in a marriage she can’t end — perhaps because her husband has been lost at sea or otherwise disappeared — is considered an agunah, from an Aramaic term meaning anchored.

But the problem has shifted in modern times, with women being anchored not to absent husbands, but to husbands who refused to grant a get, despite being separated — or even civilly divorced.

The first American rabbinic body to offer a solution to the agunah problem was the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. In the 1950s, the RA introduced a modification to the traditional Jewish marriage contract, drafted by the movement’s premier Talmud scholar, Rabbi Saul Lieberman. The new Lieberman Clause mandated that a couple considering divorce would turn to the Rabbinical Assembly’s beit din – its religious court — and obey its dictates.

When Rabbi Lieberman sought Orthodox approval, Orthodox rabbis rejected the proposal without proffering suggested improvements.

Four decades later, the sector of Orthodox Judaism centered around Yeshiva University coalesced on a two-pronged approach to solving the agunah issue. Leading rabbis drafted a prenuptial agreement that would levy a financial cost on a husband who refused to grant a divorce to his wife once they began living apart. And those same rabbis — most notably, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Hershel Schachter — endorsed public protests and other activities designed to shame get refusers into doing the right thing. (It should be noted that in the tradition of the Talmud, other Orthodox rabbis disagree with this approach — and some have argued that divorces offered by men under such pressure are in fact invalid under Jewish law.)

Twenty years ago, a group of Yeshiva University students formed the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot to put some activism behind this approach. (Perhaps not coincidentally, its acronym, Ora, means light in Hebrew.) Now, the organization has eight fulltime staff members and fields about 1,000 phone calls on its hotline every year. It boasts of having resolved more than 350 cases. It brings awareness of the agunah issue into high schools — in May, Naaleh High School for Girls in Fair Lawn, the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, and the Frisch School in Paramus all hosted Ora presentations.

And in perhaps its most tangible sign of coming of age, the organization has moved out of a basement space in Yeshiva University’s Washington Heights campus to offices on Teaneck’s Cedar Lane.

At the same time, the move highlights the fact that more than 40 years after New York State first passed a law empowering family courts to consider get refusal in their decisions, New Jersey has no such statute.

Keshet Starr

For now, Ora continues to focus its political energies in New York, where it has begun discussions on legislation that would expand the legal definition of domestic violence to include a pattern of “coercive control” — a standard recently added to California’s domestic abuse statute, and one that has been used by a California judge to sanction a get refuser.

The head of Ora, Keshet Starr, lives in Hillside. She grew up “out of town,” as the Orthodox parlance refers to regions outside the tristate area, but in her case far out of town — in Honolulu and Columbus. She moved to the East Coast to study law at the University of Pennsylvania.

She had enrolled in law school with a desire “to do something with social justice or child advocacy,” she said. “Perhaps work in family law.”

Her first summer internship in law school was working at New York Legal Assistance Group, which had just gotten a grant to work with survivors of domestic abuse in the Orthodox community.

“It was a very powerful experience,” Ms. Starr said. “I was the only frum person on staff at the time. It was very compelling to be working in my community. I fell in love with that line of work.”

That summer also drew her attention to the role of the get — and get refusal — in ending marriages marred by domestic violence.

“So much of the advocacy in those cases was about how to structure things strategically so the get would be given,” she said. “It was very much in the background of everything we were doing.”

When the opportunity came to work with Ora 10 years ago — she took the organization’s helm three years ago — Ms. Starr at first saw it as a way to learn more about the get issue before returning to litigation

Instead, she “fell in love with the work we do — both in policy making and in educating the community and changing its culture.”

Esther Macner

Changing the culture means preventing get refusal from happening in the first place. In part, that’s by making it socially unacceptable for husbands to exploit the power halacha gives them to coerce their wives. And in part, that’s by encouraging couples to sign the halachic prenups, something that the Yeshiva University-aligned Rabbinical Council of America has called on its members to demand of all couples that they marry.

But culture changes slowly, and Ora still fields roughly 1,000 calls a year to its hotline, “designed to give people tools and resources at the beginning of the divorce process.”

All told, “there are about 450 people we’re working with every year,” Ms. Starr said. “Probably there are about 380 who are early on in their cases, and about 70 to 75 really long, sad, active cases.”

For the cases that go bad, Ora is willing to take to the streets “to galvanize the community” and put pressure on the get withholder. That may involve rallies in front of his house, or phone calls to his employer.

Or it may not.

“We have a team of advocates who work with agunot to identify potential strategies,” Ms. Starr said. “What agunot need and want really varies from case to case. Someone might want public pressure, and someone else might be very uncomfortable with that”

Ora also runs support groups for the agunot it serves.

And finally, “we want to create new tools to prevent those cases from happening in the first place,” Ms. Starr said.

The newest potential tool in the anti-agunah toolbox is an emerging legal notion of “coercive control,” which zooms out from seeing domestic abuse as a series of discrete, physical acts of violence or threats of physical violence, to understand it “in terms of mind control.”

A community protests a husband withholding a get. (ORA via JTA)

In 2021, California expanded its definition of domestic abuse to include coercive control, which the statute defined as “a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.”

“Get refusal fits into that expanded category of domestic abuse,” Ms. Starr said.

In fact, while get refusal is not one of the examples given in the statute, in February a California judge “deemed the refusal to give the get was part of a pattern of coercive control,” Esther Macner, founder of the Los Angeles-based Get Jewish Divorce Justice organization, said. “It wasn’t the only thing, but he definitely noted it in the ruling.”

Ms. Macner, who works with about 30 California agunah cases, had lobbied for the California law. And she had offered her services as a pro bono expert witness on how get refusal is coercive control.

The term “coercive control” is attributed to Dr. Evan Stark, who retired from the Rutgers public health faculty in 2012. His 2009 book, “Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life,” argues that “the primary harm abusive men inflict is political, not physical, and reflects the deprivation of rights and resources that are critical to personhood and citizenship. Although coercive control can be devastating psychologically, its key dynamic involves an objective state of subordination and the resistance women mount to free themselves from domination.”

Ms. Macner said that according to Dr. Stark, “coercive control is a better indicator of femicide than discrete acts of assault. If you want to know who is going to be the next woman to be killed by her partner or husband in a domestic violence situation, you have to look to a pattern of behavior that is controlling, that has intimidation, that is like being in a cult of one.”

It is a pattern that was familiar to Ms. Macner from her work in the domestic violence bureau of Brooklyn’s District Attorney’s office before she moved to California.

She is now looking to see if get withholding can be explicitly included in the statute.

In New York State, Ora is only at the beginning stages of the discussion with advocates for domestic abuse survivors and legislators.

“Within the domestic abuse advocacy community, there are advocates who want stricter punishment and advocates who don’t want to see more incarceration,” Ms. Starr said.

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