When agunah-rights activist Laura Shaw Frank stepped to the podium after the screening of "Mekudeshet: Sentenced to Marriage," you could have heard a pin drop.
The women, members and guests of Federation's Women of Vision, the Jewish Women's Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, were, according to WOV program co-chair Penni Blaskey, "stunned into silence by the desperate plight of the three agunot profiled in this award-winning film by Israeli director Anat Zuria." Blaskey adds that the film "emphasizes the injustice experienced by women who are, both by definition and in actuality, 'chained' to their marriages by husbands who refuse to grant them official bills of divorce, known as gets."
Blaskey and her co-chair, Susan Raynor, arranged for the screening and the educational address by Frank, to enlighten WOV members about the pervasiveness of this problem and educate them about the important work being done by New Family, an Israeli economic empowerment program to help resolve this unjust, untenable situation.
Women of Vision has given the organization a grant of $11,000 for 2010-11. The funds will support their efforts to afford all Israeli women equal family rights and protections, including the right to divorce. The organization was founded in 1998 by attorney Irit Rosenblum to champion equal family rights for all without religious coercion and promote the rights of families who do not meet the legal definition of family defined by the Israeli rabbinic courts as a Jewish man and woman.
New Family fights for the rights of all Israelis to marry, have children, access adoption services and reproductive technology, register children and spouses, bequeath and inherit assets, and to dissolve a partnership without discrimination based on faith, origin, nationality, sexual orientation or status.
Keynote speaker Frank maintains that, while the problem of agunah rights exists around the world, it is particularly acute in Israel, where there is no separation between church and state. "There is no provision for civil marriage or divorce in Israel, so all divorce petitions must go through the rabbinic courts, which are under the authority of the Orthodox movement," explains Frank.
There, rabbis make divorce rulings based on their interpretation of Torah law, which requires women to receive a get, the Hebrew word for a divorce document from their husbands. The rabbinic courts can compel the husband to grant a divorce when there is evidence that the marriage contract has been broached due to infidelity, refusal to participate in marital relations, physical abuse, failure to provide financial support or communicable diseases.
"Yet, the process is long and often financially draining on these women, who bear the burden of proving these charges to the rabbis," says Frank.
Frank, a doctoral student in modern Jewish history at the University of Maryland, who is writing her dissertation on the American Orthodox rabbinate and Jewish divorce policy in the 20th century, is a graduate of Columbia Law School. While at Columbia, she received a human-rights fellowship that allowed her to travel to Israel and work with attorney Sharon Shenhav on a number of women's-rights legal cases.
"I worked with Sharon on several agunah advocacy projects and helped her to prepare these women for rabbinic court cases," she says, stating that "I saw firsthand the suffering they face at the hands of Jewish law."
Frank maintains that these laws are often unjust.
"The Torah does not outlaw polygamy and allows men, who meet certain rabbinic conditions, to remarry and sire other children without a get," she explains. Women in Israel may not initiate a get, and those who choose to remarry civilly without one will create irreparable problems for any future children conceived.
"Their sons and daughters will be classified by the courts as mamzarim --illegitimate children only permitted to marry other mamzarim."
Some Progress in the Works
Frank reports that a certain amount of progress is being made in enforcing rabbinic court judgments in cases where gets are granted.
"Men can have their driver's licenses, passports and, in some cases, physical freedoms taken away if they do not comply with the court rulings," she says, adding that, these laws often do not go far enough. "In many cases, rabbinic court officials will only advise that husbands grant their wives gets, they will not order them to do so."
Frank predicts enormous social problems for Israel's observant families if the agunah issue is not resolved.
"Many Jews are leaving the Orthodox movement, disgusted and angered by unjust laws and corrupt courts," she says, adding that the only real resolution to this problem is to change the laws of halachah.
"Laws should promote justice," insists Frank. "Rabbinic law must be revised to ensure that a man does not have the legal right to wreck havoc on the lives of others."
New Family is one of two organizations supported by grants made by Women of Vision philanthropists.
In Philadelphia, $44,000 has been awarded to the Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases. These dollars are directed to a health campaign targeted at college-age women. The campaign educates women, conducts screenings, and prepares them to become advocates for their personal health and the health of their future families.
Applications are now being accepted from Philadelphia and Israeli organizations for WOV grants for the 2011-12 funding cycle. For more information about Women of Vision, call Susan Lundy at 215-832-0849 (e-mail: SLundy@jfgp.org ).