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Boston Agunah Task Force

Brandeis University
Waltham, United States
In collaboration with

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance
Journey to Safety
Organization for the Resolution of Agunot
Get Divorce Justice
Centre for Women's Justice

Prize category
Local/Regional
Operational
1 – 3 years
Target audience
Adults, Jewish Professionals, Unaffiliated, Women & Girls
Categories
Advocacy, Children, Family, Gender, Jewish Education, Outreach & Engagement, Ritual, Social Justice

The Boston Agunah Taskforce works to address the plight of agunot—women whose husbands refuse to give them a bill of Jewish divorce, called a get. Such refusal may be done out of spite or to achieve an unfair advantage in civil divorce proceedings. In order to be free, an agunah may surrender her rights under civil law to family property, spousal and child support, or even child custody. We provide advice and support to parties seeking a Jewish divorce and education for lawyers about how to use the civil law to prevent get-based abuse.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

The Taskforce works to give expression to the Torah’s commitment to social justice, pursuant to the commandment tzedek tzedek tirdof—justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:18). We believe and teach that advocacy for the equality of women in the divorce process is not in conflict with the tenets of Jewish wisdom, but an expression of its deepest commitments. Further animating this approach, we hold close the notion that "Jewish tradition acknowledges that even Torah law can be a source of oppression, and that we serve as G-d's agents when we relieve such oppression." (Vayikra Rabbah 32:8) There is holiness in this work, reflecting the Jewish tradition that “one who frees a single agunah has redeemed the shekhinah (divine presence) from exile” (R. Yoel Sirkes, Responsa Bach HaChadashot #64).

The Taskforce strives for social justice on behalf of women who are seeking a Jewish divorce by: 1) ensuring that the local religious court (Boston Beit Din) will not countenance get-based extortion; 2) providing women seeking a Jewish divorce with support and advice; and 3) training family law attorneys to preserve a woman’s right to a religious divorce during the litigation of the civil divorce case.

The Taskforce’s most concrete social justice work flows from its efforts to advise both parties and civil attorneys on how best to navigate the intersection of the civil and religious divorce processes. To that end, the Taskforce created a legal consultation team made up of members of the local religious court and civil family law bar. The team has pursued solutions that are acceptable and effective under Jewish law and American family and constitutional law. We have drafted model contractual clauses that utilize secular mechanisms to prevent get refusal and get-based extortion which will be downloadable by lawyers and parties and will be used in trainings for local family law lawyers and judges beginning in the fall of 2016.

Altogether, these collaborative efforts make real the Talmudic principles that recognize the inter-relatedness of civil and religious law. These principles include dina d’malkhuta dina – the law of the land is the law (Gittin 10b and Nedarim 28a) and aseh mah she Yisrael omrim lekha – do what the Jewish courts are telling you to do (Gittin 88b and Mishnah Gitten 9.5). The Taskforce is undertaking the groundbreaking work of applying deeply held Jewish wisdom and legal principles to the modern-day civil legal context in order to create innovative solutions to the ancient problem of get refusal.

A related principle of Torah that informs the work of the Taskforce is the protection of the vulnerable in society, specifically the stranger, the widow and the orphan (Deuteronomy 26:12 and 24:17). According to one of the legal codes, the special consideration afforded the widow in Deuteronomy also extends to the divorced woman. Out of recognition of the particular vulnerability of women in the Jewish divorce process, a member of the Taskforce, Layah Lipsker, accompanies all women appearing before the religious court (beit din). The mere presence of a supportive female during the proceeding has proven invaluable to women seeking a divorce. Since get refusal often correlates with domestic abuse, Layah has also ensured that the beit din is sensitive to the needs of women who are experiencing abuse and that the proceeding is structured to protect the woman’s safety. For example, thanks to Layah’s presence, the women are no longer left alone with their spouses in the waiting area.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

All of the interactions that Taskforce members have with our constituents are aimed at pursuing social justice and protecting the vulnerable while managing the tension between the civil and religious court systems.

Divorcing spouses or their lawyers access our services via phone, email and through our informational website, getyourget.com. In addition, Taskforce members conduct community outreach and education by speaking at Jewish communal organizations including synagogues, social service agencies, universities, retirement homes, and academic conferences. Since the Taskforce’s audience includes civil family law attorneys, our legal consultation team will soon be offering trainings to attorneys and judges on model contractual language to be used in divorce agreements and judgments. We are also reaching out to Muslim divorce authorities in Boston to develop materials that address similar themes in Islamic divorce.

The Taskforce is also advancing its agenda of a just Jewish divorce process at the policy level. Thanks to the Taskforce’s affiliation with the Hadassah Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, we have the opportunity to participate in groundbreaking dialogue on the get-refusal issue between scholars, students, and advocates working on women’s rights under religious law (see attached on the 2015 GCRL Agunah Seminar and resulting publications). We believe that dialogue needs to take place between those who come to the table with very different interpretations of Jewish law, its meaning and its place in Jewish life. Moreover, the Taskforce is organizing a conference on best practices that will be held in the spring of 2017. The conference will include representatives of national and international agunot organizations and will bring together lawyers, rabbis, and agunot in order to evaluate proposed legal strategies from the perspective of Jewish and civil law.

The Taskforce’s work is necessarily interdisciplinary, since it straddles the legal, religious, and academic worlds, and is pluralistic because Jewish divorce affects all segments of the Jewish community. Interestingly, the majority of those contacting the Taskforce for assistance are not Orthodox, proving that a just Jewish divorce process serves the entire Jewish community – the non-Orthodox and secular alike – by providing emotional closure and re-affirming Jewish identity amidst the raw and deeply personal experience of divorce.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

While initially developed to meet the needs of the local Boston community, in the two years since its inception, the Taskforce has met an overwhelming need for information and support for those undergoing or contemplating Jewish divorce both locally and internationally. Each month, the Taskforce’s website, getyourget.com, is visited approximately 70 times. In addition, in the last year, more than 80 people have submitted get-related questions to our website. Rachel Levmore, an agunah activist in Israel, answers questions relating to the Jewish divorce process in Israel, while Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Boston Beit Din, provides responses to questions pertaining to Jewish divorce in the United States and Canada.

Perhaps the most profound impact of the Taskforce’s work has been on the individual women who receive in-person support and accompaniment when appearing before the all-male Boston Beit Din in connection with their divorce cases. Since August 2014, Taskforce member and agunah activist, Layah Lipsker, has filled the role of supportive female tomechet beit din (court support worker) in more than 70 divorce cases. As a comforting presence for the women and an advisor to the Beit Din regarding how to structure proceedings to be both more equitable and sensitive to the needs of a domestic abuse survivor, Layah is shifting the gendered power dynamic in the Jewish divorce process. Even in cases where there is no domestic abuse, she is making an uncomfortable and even contentious situation much less stressful for the women she assists (see attached testimonials).

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

We have learned that the pursuit of social justice has relevance even in the most intimate of religious rituals – the Jewish divorce – and that this particular type of social justice activism must thread the needle of respecting the traditional Jewish divorce process while simultaneously staying true to our contemporary commitment to gender equality. As a result of our ability to incorporate the value of gender equality within the traditional Jewish divorce process, we are able to limit the potentiality for get-refusal and get-based extortion. We have learned that the best methods for achieving our goals are: 1) offering information and support to those involved in the process; 2) providing accompaniment for women appearing before the Beit Din; and 3) developing strategies to be employed in civil divorce cases. Our success is borne out by the flood of inquiries we have received for assistance.