Dozens of members of Lower Merion's Orthodox community traveled to New York on New Year's Day to rally in support of a local woman who has been trying for four years to obtain a get, a Jewish decree of divorce, from her ex-husband.
The demonstration represented the latest public effort to call attention to the situation of Tamar Epstein of Lower Merion, who has been seeking a Jewish divorce from Aharon Friedman, of Silver Spring, Md. Their civil divorce was finalized in April 2010.
Epstein has received widespread support from local and national rabbinic circles, as well as the broader Orthodox community. The case has sparked rabbinic discussion, and focused attention on the issue of agunot.
The halachic term applies to "anchored" or "chained" women who are unable to move on with their lives and remarry because of a husband's refusal to grant a religious divorce. Though religious councils can pressure a husband to grant a get, neither a Bet Din — a rabbinic court — nor a secular court has the power to force a husband to do so.
Rabbi Jeremy Stern's New York-based group, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, works on behalf of 70 such women throughout North America, including Epstein. He said that "there is no excuse for a get to be used as leverage," though husbands often do so.
"It is a form of domestic abuse," he continued. "Domestic abuse is at its core about control."
Both Epstein and Friedman declined to be interviewed for this story. However, Epstein spoke briefly last month at a rally outside her ex-husband's Maryland home.
"You are here because you perceive a terrible injustice is being done against me and my family," said Epstein. "I hope that this rally will help move the process along so that I can get a get and move on with my life for my own sake and, most importantly, for that of my daughter."
In 2006, Epstein, a nurse practitioner from Lower Merion, married Friedman, an attorney originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. He's now on the staff of U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. In 2007, the couple had a daughter, and in March 2008, they separated.
Court documents reveal a relationship that was troubled from the beginning, with Friedman clashing with his future in-laws during the wedding planning. According to court documents and published reports, the husband expressed a desire to reconcile while his wife said she wanted a divorce.
A 2009 court document stated that a year earlier, Epstein moved with her daughter back to the Philly area without telling Friedman. Custody over their 4-year-old daughter appears to be the central cause of the dispute. In 2008, a court determined a custody arrangement, with the husband having custody every other weekend.
Their dispute has involved both Baltimore's Beit Din and the civil court system in Maryland. Both sides have filed numerous motions, and legal issues continue.
The Washington Jewish Week reported that Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Robert Greenberg had criticized the behavior of both parents, noting in his ruling that Epstein had exhibited an "indifferent approach" to ensuring that her daughter had a "mutually rewarding" relationship with her father.
Menachem Friedman, the ex-husband's brother, said that "all Aharon has been seeking is the chance to have a meaningful relationship with his daughter. From the beginning, Aharon has gone to extraordinary lengths to resolve their differences amicably and according to halachah, only for Tamar to repeatedly use these actions to Aharon's detriment regarding custody."
But Stern, whose Agunot organization has recently spearheaded two rallies in support of Epstein, said she has always been flexible and accommodating and that Friedman's custody rights have since been expanded.
In 2010, Stern's group organized several rallies outside Friedman's home in Maryland, as well as outside the home of his uncle, Rabbi Jay Horowitz, in Brooklyn.
The idea was to exert as much pressure as possible on Friedman — and those who could influence his behavior — since he's the only one who can grant the Jewish divorce.
Horowitz declined to comment.
Then, following several significant developments, the group staged two more demonstrations: About 200 people, among them 75 Philadelphians, attended the most recent one, held in Brooklyn on New Year's Day.
One of those developments was a dramatic ruling issued last fall by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, a body that enjoys tremendous authority among the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community.
Stating that Friedman had not responded to numerous requests to appear before a rabbinic court and settle the issue, the body — which includes Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, a highly influential leader and dean of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia — issued a declaration of contempt.
"Any person who has the ability or opportunity to influence him to free Tamar Epstein from the chains of her agunah status is obligated to do so, and doing so will indeed be the fulfillment of a great mitzvah," read the document.
About a month later, the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington, which is comprised of both modern Orthodox and haredi rabbis, followed suit and urged all synagogues in the area to refuse Friedman membership.
With these rulings in place, local institutions came out publicly in their support for Epstein. Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, where Epstein's daughter is a student; Lower Merion Synagogue; and Young Israel of the Main Line each publicized a December rally in Silver Spring, Md., and the New Year's Day rally in New York.
"As Tamar Epstein is both a Torah Academy graduate and current parent, we wanted to do everything that we could to assist her," Torah Academy principal Rabbi Shmuel Jablon said.
Among the Torah Academy parents who traveled to the recent rally in New York was Deanna Tanner, who brought along her husband and four of her six children.
"I really wanted my children to understand that we don't stand idly by and that we have a responsibility to help our fellow Jews," said Tanner, who attended Epstein's wedding to Friedman.
What's being done to this woman "is against Jewish law and is very hateful," she added. "I was hopeful that the rally and the social pressure might help convince her ex-husband to give her the religious get to move on with her life."