‘Unchain your wife’: the Orthodox women shining a light on ‘get’ refusal
On Route 59 in Monsey, New York, an Orthodox Jewish enclave in upstate New York, there is a large billboard that says in big block letters: “Dovid Wasserman. Give your wife a get!”
A “get” is a document Orthodox Jewish men give their wives as the couple is divorcing; it seals the divorce according to religious law, meaning that the husband decides if and when the divorce is final. Without it, the woman cannot move on with her life.
The billboard is meant to embarrass Dovid Wasserman, who for more than seven years has refused to give his wife, Nechama Wasserman, this document. If she doesn’t receive it, she is considered an “agunah”, a chained woman, because she remains “chained” to her former marriage.
She’s now trying a new tactic: public humiliation.
Aside from the billboard, two rallies have been held on her behalf, one in March in front of the home of Dovid Wasserman’s mother, Rivka, where Dovid is now living, and another in April in front of the private girls’ school in Airmont, at which she teaches.
In a 2019 interview with the podcast Halacha Headlines, Nechama Wasserman said: “It’s mind-boggling, and it’s hard for people to understand. He’s not asking for anything. He’s not asking for money. He’s not saying that I’m taking his money. He simply wants me to come back. That’s what he tells people. That it’s all a mistake and I’m going to come back.”
About 10% of US Jews identify as Orthodox, and their divorce rate is only about 10%. While divorce is not considered a sin, it is socially frowned upon. Some would even call it a tragedy, particularly because in Judaism the home is the center of life.
“The Talmud states that when a couple divorces, the altar that was in the Temple in Jerusalem, cries for them,” said Rabbi Meir Goldberg of the Meor Rutgers Jewish Xperience, a Jewish educational organization at Rutgers University.
Nechama’s saga is not the only one being publicly aired. In the last two months, nearly a dozen Orthodox women have taken their cases public by using the online version of a billboard: social media.
Women in this community are posting about the plights of various agunot and their recalcitrant husbands on Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and on Jewish media websites, to shine a light on these so-called get-refusers. The hope is that if the husbands aren’t sensitive to public pressure, maybe their families will be.
“In the beginning, the siblings may think, ah, my brother’s crazy, or I’m not getting involved, or it’s too political. But all of a sudden, when their names are publicized everywhere, and it’s not just their brother but about them, things get a lot more intense,” said a woman involved in the publicity campaign who preferred anonymity because she feared speaking out publicly might jeopardize Wasserman’s get.
The movement, as some are calling it, began last March when Dalia Oziel, an Instagram influencer and singer in the Orthodox community, began posting about a woman called Chava Herman Sharabani, who married her husband, Naftali Eyal Sharabani in 2006, but they divorced in 2010 in civil court. Since then, he has refused to give her a get and will not appear before a beth din, or Jewish court.
Using the hashtag “Free Chava”, Oziel posted a video montage of Chava and her two daughters, now 12 and 14, as they’ve grown up, underscoring how much time has passed that Chava has been waiting to be released from her marriage.
The posts were shared by some of Oziel’s 34,500 followers as well as other Instagram influencers, pinging on computers from Monsey down to Boca Raton, Florida, and as far west as Los Angeles.
Oziel also helped Chava Sharabani, a third-grade teacher, launch a GoFundMe-type campaign called the Chesed fund with the hope of raising $40,000. At last count, they had raised $86,766.
Nearly a dozen Orthodox women have taken their cases public by using the online version of a billboard: social media
“There are people who work within this space who are saying they’re seeing a trend among men who would otherwise be the perfect villains for ‘get’ withholding, and that they’re scared because they know that right now, there’s such an intolerance for it,” said Adina Miles-Sash, known on Instagram as Flatbush Girl. “They don’t want to be the next face all over social media.”
Miles-Sash has been using her 52,300 followers on Instagram to plead Nechama Wasserman’s case, as well as the plight of a handful of other women.
She likened this moment to a meteor hitting the earth. While Miles-Sash has championed feminist causes for years, most of the other influencers now involved in this campaign have not. In fact, they typically toe the Orthodox female line. One uses Instagram to sell lipsticks that stay for the entirety of shabbat. Another sells wigs. A third sells cozy blankets. But when they decided to come forward on this issue, they made sure their husbands and rabbis approved of everything they said, and they didn’t make statements they couldn’t support. That has lent legitimacy and credibility to the movement, Miles-Sash said.
“They offered an angle: that you can be observant, and you can be maternal and nurturing and a mother, and your domain could be the home and maybe a job, but that you can also stand alongside other women and advocate for their rights,” she said.
This measured approach spawned a large grassroots campaign among women who would otherwise be hesitant to get involved, said Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, a journalist in Manhattan who is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community.
“That’s one of the main factors that has shifted,” Goldschmidt said. “These women aren’t known for taking on the rabbinate. They’re not known for taking on political issues. They’re known for posting pictures of the dinners they make or the cute hats they’re wearing, and suddenly they’re going into this. That’s the shift.”
There’s no shortage of agunot causes to take on. Keshet Starr, executive director for the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), says at any one time she has about 75 cases. While women can also hold up a divorce by refusing to accept a get that’s given to them, 95% of ORA’s cases involve men withholding them.
Withholding the get is a way for a husband to maintain control. “It is a way of manipulating Jewish law in order to retain power and control over your partner,” Starr said. “In the vast majority of the cases we work on, there is a prior history of pretty extensive domestic abuse. This is rarely the first abusive thing they’ve done.”
“When people first hear about this issue, they think, well why doesn’t the woman just walk away?” Starr adds. “After all, if she’s already divorced in secular court, there’s nothing stopping her from legally remarrying.
“But leaving a religious community is a bigger deal than people think: it’s giving up your entire way of looking at the world, your systems of meaning, your social and professional networks, your family relationships. It’s an enormous cost. For someone to be faced with the options of either having this untenable situation or walking away from my community, those are pretty terrible options.”
They offered an angle … your domain could be the home and maybe a job, but that you can also stand alongside other women
Some men have used the get process to get a leg up in the divorce proceedings, whether it’s asking for money outright or negotiating a smaller child support payment, said Rabbi Efram Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue.
“There are men who will say, ‘I’ll tell you what. I will give the get. I want half a million dollars,’” Efram said. “They’ll use it to extort or exploit the negotiations, which is terribly unjust.”
He said he’s dealing with a case right now involving a couple from Boca Raton, who married in 2009, separated in 2018 and were civilly divorced early last year, but the husband, Aaron Silberberg, has not given his wife, Devorah Silberberg, a get, because he is apparently dissatisfied with the divorce terms hammered out in court.
“As far as the secular court is concerned, the custody and financial arrangements have all been concluded, with a final judgment. They are entirely divorced. There’s absolutely no justification for his not giving the get,” Goldberg said. “The best that we can do is to apply public pressure on him to do what’s right.”
And that’s just what they did, a few weeks ago in Lakewood, New Jersey, when about two dozen people protested outside the home of his parents, and in Boca Raton, where people chanted over and over again, “Aaron Silberberg, unchain your wife!”
Aaron Silberberg disputes the notion that his divorce has not yet been finalized, in either a secular court, where he says an appeal is still pending, or in a Jewish court, known as a Beth Din.
“There are some women who are agunot, and everything is finalized and there’s nothing more. Perhaps giving a get in that situation would make sense,” he said. “In my situation, she still has to come to Beth Din. If she doesn’t come, how are we supposed to help her?
Women aren’t the only ones victimized in the divorce process, said Rabbi Goldberg. While there are undoubtedly men who have abused their power, Goldberg said, there are women who have used the children as leverage, threatening to withhold visitation if they don’t obtain the financial or custody arrangements they seek in the divorce negotiations.
He said he has several friends in that situation and has heard of men withholding a get because they’re afraid if they hand it over, they won’t ever see their children.
“That’s sometimes the instigator for why men act the way they do,” Goldberg said. “There’s bad players on both sides.”
He notes that outside the home, men seem to hold the power in the relationship, but inside the home, women run the show.
While that may be the case, men in an Orthodox marriage, by virtue of the fact that they get to hand over a get – or not – hold the divorce power. In Israel, men who withhold gets can be jailed, their driver’s license or medical license can be taken away. In America, where there is a constitutional separation between church and state, secular courts cannot meddle in a religious agreement.
Leaving a religious community is a bigger deal than people think: it’s giving up your entire way of looking at the world
Secular courts can, however, enforce contracts like pre-nuptial agreements, and that’s why some in the Orthodox community have been pushing for pre-nups for years. A typical pre-nup mandates that in case of divorce, the husband will provide the wife with a get, and if he doesn’t, he could be forced to pay thousands of dollars a month – a financial penalty that a secular court could enforce.
“In the Modern Orthodox community, this is routine. And rabbis won’t do your wedding unless you sign one of these,” said Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University School of Law.
Issues involving the get arose as far back as talmudic times 1,500 years ago, when the husband might go off into the forest and not come home, and the wife was stuck because the husband wasn’t there to give her a get. In the 1850s, rabbinical courts began functioning as regulators of marriage, so when the parties fought about their divorce, the rabbinical court settled it. And men didn’t withhold gets because the rabbinical courts had the power and authority to make sure that didn’t happen, Broyde said.
But once Jews moved to places where there was a separation of church and state and religion became more of a voluntary arrangement, rabbinical courts lost their teeth, he said. Putting a financial penalty into a contract that is signed at a Jewish wedding puts teeth back into the process.
“The metaphor I use is: they’re not a cure but they’re a vaccine,” he said.
So why don’t all Orthodox Jews sign them?
“Why do people get polio? Why do people get smallpox?” he asked. “Because there are people out there who resist taking their vaccines.”