News

Chained Women: The Jewish wives being held hostage in abusive marriages

An upsurge in cases of men refusing to grant their wives a religious divorce is causing mounting alarm in Australian Jewish communities, but the Government is refusing to intervene in what it considers to be a religious matter. Now, survivors are calling on rabbis to take stronger action against what they say is a devastating form of domestic violence.

This feature is part of an ongoing investigation by ABC News edited by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson into religion and domestic violence. Other articles in this series have examined Islam, mainstream Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, Christian clergy wives, and Hindu and Sikh communities.

Sara* had one wish when she finally made the decision to leave her husband after years of escalating abuse: that the divorce process would go smoothly.

"I just wanted it to be civil, for us both to be able to start clean … to be able to co-parent," Sara said recently, sitting in a cafe in Melbourne.

Instead, an already fraught situation spiralled into a nightmare when her husband flatly refused to grant her a Jewish divorce known as a gett. She was trapped.

Outside Israel, Jewish couples can be civilly divorced, but if they do not also obtain a gett, they are considered still married in Orthodox law.

The gett process, overseen by a tribunal of all-male rabbis, strictly requires that a husband must willingly give his wife the gett, which she must willingly accept.

Most of the time this happens quickly and amicably.

But in what experts say is a growing number of cases, Jewish men in Australia are abusing their power in the divorce process to force women into giving up money, property and child custody.

Some vengeful husbands — like Sara's — withhold divorce simply out of spite, others barter for financial advantage.

"I had told him that I thought we were going to have to separate at some stage [but] that I just wanted us to be happy," Sara said.

Still in shock from the events of the past few months, she spoke quietly and carefully: "He threatened me that if I ever tried to leave him it was going to get ugly."

It did. Having discovered a complex web of lies her husband had spun, which included a dizzying amount of debt he'd racked up in her name, Sara moved with their children into a new home.

She applied to the Melbourne Beth Din — the Jewish religious court that manages matters like divorce and conversions to Judaism — for a gett.

"I told the rabbi [my husband] would probably say 'no'," Sara said. "And the rabbi said, 'Well, let's see what happens'."

An illustration shows a mobile phone with a text message:

Her husband — whom Sara describes as a "magnetic personality" and a "very extroverted and charming" man — refused to cooperate, even after the rabbis advised him in letters that withholding a gett was a serious transgression.

"He said something [to the rabbis] like, 'Talk to my lawyer'," she said. "I'm not interested," he told them.

Meanwhile, in messages he sent her privately, Sara's husband gloated. "He said, 'Gett f***ed, I'll never give you a gett'," she said.

He continued to harass her almost daily, bombarding her with text messages and emails, bullying their children, and threatening to turn up at their weekend sporting events.

On one stressful afternoon, Sara felt forced to call the police when he refused to leave her house.

Family and domestic violence support services:

When she went to court to get an intervention order, Sara said, her husband's lawyer tried to bargain with the gett, telling her that her husband would give her a divorce only if she dropped the intervention order.

"I said, 'Definitely not. The gett is not up for negotiation' — it's my children's safety."

But for as long as her husband refused to grant Sara a Jewish divorce, she would be known as an agunah — Hebrew for a woman "chained" to her marriage.

Without a gett, a woman cannot remarry under Jewish law.

If she began a new relationship, she'd be considered an adulteress, and if she had children, they'd be considered mamzerim — often incorrectly translated as "bastards" — and heavily stigmatised.

For many agunot, though, especially those seeking divorce from an abusive husband, getting a gett is about more than respecting tradition and avoiding shame: it's about finding closure, and freedom.

As Sara, who does not consider herself to be religious but describes herself as very traditional and spiritual, said:

"I have no interest at the moment in finding a new partner. But I want to be clear of him [my husband], I want to be my own person. He has broken every rule of our marriage, he's been unfaithful in every way. Why should he get to have control? Why should he get to hold onto me? It's completely unfair."

Gett abuse is getting worse

Around the world, Jewish women and their rabbis are going to extreme lengths to persuade recalcitrant husbands to free them from irreconcilable or abusive marriages.

In some countries, especially in the diaspora, where rabbinical courts lack sufficient power and authority, defiant men have been publicly shamed, fined, kidnapped and assaulted by rabbis ostensibly seeking justice for chained women.

In Australia, experts say it's getting worse. An ABC News investigation — part of an ongoing series exploring the complex links between religion and domestic violence — has found rising concerns that men are exploiting their advantage in the Jewish divorce process to control and traumatise women who have endured sometimes decades of violence and abuse.

Lawyers and advocates are warning the crisis has bled into the secular legal system, where the gett is being used as a weapon in civil divorce negotiations to blackmail women into giving up property and child custody.

In some cases, the gett is also being used in the magistrates' court, with men pressuring women to drop applications for family violence intervention orders in exchange for divorce.

This issue was brought to government attention decades ago, with the Family Law Council recommending in 2001 that legislative reforms be made swiftly to allow courts to withhold civil divorce until religious divorce had been granted.

But the proposal was rejected outright by then attorney-general Philip Ruddock, who suggested it would threaten Australia's no-fault divorce system and that the courts should not be involved in "religious issues".

An illustration shows a man refusing to give a woman a Jewish divorce as two rabbis look on.

Now momentum is building following a recent landmark case in Victoria that classified gett refusal as family violence.

Rabbis and Jewish lobby groups are calling on the Government to urgently implement the reforms proposed in 2001. And they may have an ally in the Labor Party.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has reviewed the Family Law Council's recommendations and is urging the Government to reconsider its position in light of mounting evidence that gett refusal is a form of domestic abuse.

For their part, rabbis say they abhor gett refusal, and that they're doing everything in their power to assist women who are stuck in unwanted marriages.

"We are categorically against the gett being used in any form or fashion as a tool or means of blackmail," said Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, senior dayan (judge) at the Sydney Beth Din.

"It creates enormous emotional anguish and difficulty for the [aggrieved spouse]."

But survivors and advocates argue women shouldn't have to wait for the Federal Government to intervene.

Rabbis must find modern legal solutions to what is an ancient problem, they say, and take a firmer stance against not just gett abuse but domestic violence, which remains poorly understood.

Many are also deeply frustrated that, for all the progress made by women in Judaism in recent decades, women are still being held hostage by discriminatory laws.

As Sara said: "The rabbis from the beth din have been amazing during the gett process. But I just don't understand why, in 2018, it's still about a man having control."

Who are the victims?

There is little research on the prevalence and nature of gett refusal worldwide, and none in Australia, where nominally 91,000 people are Jewish.

This is partly because data are not routinely collected, and definitions of gett refusal can vary: should recalcitrance be defined as "refusal" from the outset, or only after rabbis have issued sanctions against a non-cooperative spouse?

In the United States and Canada, a 2011 study by the research firm Mellman Group found 462 cases of agunot between 2005 and 2010.

And a 2013 study by the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women at Bar-Ilan University found a third of women seeking divorce in Israel had experienced threats to withhold or refusal of a gett.

Talya Faigenbaum, principal lawyer and legal director at Faigenbaum Family Lawyers in Melbourne, says there has been an upsurge in recent years in the number and severity of cases of gett refusal in Australia and overseas.

"There has been a general increase [in gett refusal] that I have noticed, particularly in the abusiveness of it, and the manipulation and use of the gett in that context," said Ms Faigenbaum, who has worked on about 12 cases in the past 12 months.

(The increase in gett abuse, she believes, can partly be attributed to an increase in divorce and the "stress and pressure" marriages are sustaining across the board.)

While women can and do refuse to accept a gett — the Sydney Beth Din, for example, told ABC News it is currently dealing with two cases of gett refusal by a wife — experts say men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators.

The Melbourne Beth Din has processed 109 divorces in the past two years, or just over one per week.

"We have eight current cases on file that are problematic due to ongoing difficulties with … recalcitrant spouses," senior dayan Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick told ABC News.

Of those, he said, six are recusant husbands and two are wives.

The consequences of not having a gett are also more serious for women than for men, who technically can remarry without one — if they obtain permission from 100 rabbis.

In 2014, for example, the New York Times published a story about Meir Kin, an American Jewish man who reportedly used the legal loophole to remarry, despite refusing to give his previous wife a gett. (His wedding was gate-crashed by angry protesters who hoped to shame him into granting a gett.)

'A last-ditch attempt to control women who assert their power'

Ms Faigenbaum believes she is the only lawyer in Australia to have developed a pro bono program specifically to assist Jewish women experiencing gett refusal and abuse, which she says frequently affects women leaving violent marriages.

"Typically when you see gett abuse, it's one element or aspect of a pattern of abusive behaviour," she said.

"In some instances … the gett has been used as a weapon, as a bargaining chip, really, as a means of extorting money in a property family law settlement, or better parental concessions.

"More recently we've seen it being used purely as a means of vindictiveness, as a last-ditch attempt to exert control over a woman who is asserting her own power and ending the relationship."

Even just the prospect of a gett being withheld can be extremely stressful for women who are separating, particularly those escaping domestic violence, says Marilyn Kraner, manager of Individual and Family Services at Jewish Care Victoria.

"The threat of refusal can be as immobilising and destabilising for women and children as actually being assaulted," Ms Kraner said.

"You cannot underestimate the coping capacity women need to have when their day is filled with unknowns, filled with threats … and so they live in this perpetual heightened alertness, just in case."

An illustration shows a man's foot about to stomp on a wine glass and a photo frame.

Of course, some Jewish couples don't care about getting a gett.

But whether they're secular or religious, Ms Kraner said, most Jewish people are married under Jewish law, "so they want divorce under Jewish law".

Which is why there has been a global push in recent years to define gett refusal as a form of domestic violence.

"Orthodox Jewish communities sometimes lag in understanding that non-physical battering can still constitute domestic abuse and so do not always recognise the abusive dynamics at play," Keshett Starr, the managing director of the New York-based Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, wrote last year in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues.

"Putting gett refusal into the category of domestic abuse," she said, "provides a context that the legal world can access, rather than dismissing it as an esoteric religious issue completely separate from the courts."

Deborah Wiener, barrister and former chair of the Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence, which ceased operations last year after having produced a guide for rabbis, says gett refusal is one of the "greatest manifestations" of abuse "because it's all about control".

When a man refuses to give a woman a gett, Ms Wiener told ABC News, "[He's saying] 'You still belong to me, and I will not let you get on with your life'."

So what are the options for chained women?

Many seek to resolve the matter through applications to the Family Court, where parties can negotiate the terms of a gett through consent orders, or the Court can impose "gett clauses".

Sara is hopeful this approach will work for her.

Rabbis at the Melbourne Beth Din have supplied her with a carefully-worded clause to include in her consent orders application which, if made by the court, would require her husband to attend the Beth Din and grant her a gett if and when the Beth Din orders him to.

However, Ms Faigenbaum says the Family Court's approach to the issue has historically been inconsistent and "ad hoc".

In previous cases, judges have decided in favour of people seeking Jewish divorce.

In one case many years ago, for example, the Court held that a husband's refusal to grant a gett "effectively prevented the wife from remarrying and obtaining financial support" from a new husband. It ordered the husband to pay lump sum maintenance to the wife, an amount that would be reduced only if he gave her a gett.

And in a subsequent case not long after, the judge ordered the wife, who had refused to accept a gett, to appear before the Melbourne Beth Din and accept one if and when it was ordered.

But in recent years, judges have been leaning the other way, citing constitutional arguments and refusing to make religious orders.

In one such case, a wife sought an order for her husband to grant her a gett, but the court refused to make one. To do so, the judge determined, "would be to interfere in religious matters that do not involve behaviour that is in breach of the general civil or criminal law".

And in a subsequent case the court refused to make orders sought by a husband requiring his wife to accept a gett, with the judge questioning whether the Court had "either the jurisdiction or the power" to make such orders.

This has left many agunot in limbo; caught between rabbis' apparent inability to assist them and the Family Court's refusal to.

So what can be done? This issue was brought to the Government's attention decades ago. A comprehensive report to the attorney-general by the Family Law Council in 2001 identified the "uncertainty" about the power of the Family Court to deal with problems arising from civil and cultural community divorce, particularly in Islamic and Jewish communities.

The report noted that Jewish (and Islamic) divorce laws meant partners could be held in cultural community marriages "against their will", and that submissions from and consultations with affected community members reflected "a high degree of consensus about the need for action".

The Council recommended the Family Law Act (1975) be amended to give courts "a range of discretionary powers to assist in matters involving cultural-community divorce", including that the court can withhold civil divorce until both spouses had agreed to a religious divorce, and that it can order parties to appear before a cultural community tribunal such as a beth din.

(Such reforms have been successfully implemented in other jurisdictions including Canada, New York State and the United Kingdom.)

"While not without doubt," Council noted, "it appears there are no insuperable constitutional barriers to legislative amendments of the type described in this report."

However, none of the recommendations have been adopted, with then attorney-general Philip Ruddock telling The Australian in 2004 that it may be "unconstitutional to provide a form of veto power in the hands of one party" and that he was unsure if "in the present situation … we should have the courts involved in the consideration of religious issues".

In a statement to ABC News the Attorney-General Christian Porter said Mr Ruddock's primary reason for opposing the reforms still held: "because to do so would threaten Australia's no-fault divorce system".

Mr Porter said: "It is an Australian legal tradition that civil and religious laws are, and should, remain separate", but stressed that the Government "takes issues of family violence seriously, and is committed to taking action to prevent family violence and abuse for all Australians".

Rabbis and Jewish community groups disagree

In a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief last year, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) restated its view that implementing the Family Law Council's recommendations — which, together with the Rabbinic Council of Australia and New Zealand, it helped shape — "would be a long-overdue reform".

Peter Wertheim, executive director of the ECAJ, told ABC News the reasons given for Mr Ruddock's decision to reject the proposed reforms were "without foundation" and that the ECAJ would continue to argue the case.

The Rabbinic Council of Australia and New Zealand is also urging the Government to take action against gett abuse.

"The giving or receiving of a gett should never be used as a bargaining chip in divorce proceedings," president Rabbi Moshe Gutnick said in a statement.

"The RCANZ calls upon the Australian Government to enact suggested legislation that has been put forward in the past … to assist the plight of those suffering … such abuse."

They at least have the ear of shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who is also urging the Government to step in.

"Governments have a duty to ensure the safety of everyone in our community," Mr Dreyfus told ABC News.

"Since the Family Law Council's 2001 proposals were rejected by the Howard government, our understanding of family violence and domestic abuse has evolved considerably. The Government should give fresh consideration to this problem."

But is the hope or expectation that civil courts will or should intervene in cases of gett abuse making rabbis complacent?

Andrew Strum QC, a family law barrister (and Orthodox Jew) in Melbourne, said "it is embarrassing to have to turn to the secular courts to resolve a problem arising out of Jewish law, thereby conveying an impression that Jewish law has somehow 'broken down' and requires the assistance of the secular courts to resolve problems which it is incapable of addressing".

As long as the secular courts come to the assistance of victims of gett refusal (if indeed they do), Mr Strum told ABC News, "there is little incentive to the rabbis even to endeavour to devise remedies within Jewish law".

Movement in the magistrates' court

Another opportunity for redress for agunot — one Ms Faigenbaum says has recently riveted the legal community — is to commence family violence intervention orders in the magistrates' court.

In a landmark case in the Magistrates' Court of Victoria in 2015, Ms Faigenbaum argued successfully that the refusal of her client's husband to give his wife a gett constituted a form of abuse under the state's Family Violence Protection Act, which defines family violence more broadly than other states and territories.

"Essentially the judge … made a determination that … his refusal to release her from the violent marriage was "the ultimate form of dominance and control", and she accepted our submission that [his] gett refusal constituted psychological and emotional abuse within the legislation," Ms Faigenbaum said.

The woman, who had applied for an extension of her family violence intervention order, had been trying desperately for two years to convince her physically violent husband to give her a gett before she sought Ms Faigenbaum's help.

"She had been working through different mechanisms", Ms Faigenbaum said — "through the beth din and also through a community rabbi to try and resolve the gett recalcitrance" — to no avail.

At one point the woman's husband told her he'd give her a gett if she paid him $250,000 (which she did not have), after which he refused to negotiate.

Ms Faigenbaum was pleasantly surprised by the judge's decision. "We were very lucky in that we had a magistrate who understood family violence," she said.

"Some of them don't, which is a big problem … They understand traffic offences or petty crime, but in terms of the nuances of family violence and the exploitation of power imbalances, those subtleties often go over judges' heads."

What the 2015 case left open, she added, is whether gett refusal on its own can constitute grounds for giving — not just occasionally extending — an intervention order".

'I'll cut you into pieces if you ever try to run away'

The magistrates' court was also crucial in Naomi* receiving her gett.

When she left her ex-husband for the last time, she was immediately granted an intervention order and her husband was charged by police.

At that stage, the thought of getting a civil or Jewish divorce didn't even enter her mind.

"I just wanted to be away from him," Naomi, an Orthodox Jewish woman living in Melbourne, told ABC News. "I just wanted to be safe."

She had fled after a particularly vicious attack by her husband, who stormed into her bedroom one night, where she was sleeping separately from him in their house, which they planned to sell before splitting up.

"He started collecting things off my table — my computer, other things — and I asked him what he was doing. He said, 'You're an ungrateful pig, I buy you all of this stuff, it's mine, everything here is mine'," Naomi said.

"I said, 'OK it's all yours, can we please talk about this in the morning?' And then he turned around, pushed me onto the bed and started choking me, smothering me. That time I was sure he wanted to kill me — it wasn't just a threat."

Bleeding and terrified, Naomi eventually fought him off and called police; it would be the last of numerous physical assaults she endured during their decades-long marriage.

Her husband had been controlling from the start of their relationship, she said: he denied her access to their joint savings account, and refused to give her money for shopping.

"He'd say, 'Just tell me what you need and I'll buy everything', Naomi said. "I was embarrassed to tell him I needed sanitary pads and personal things, cosmetics and creams."

She couldn't even go to the toilet without his supervision, she said, and he removed the lock from the bathroom door, "specifically so he would be able to just walk in and watch me".

"I couldn't shower without him walking in, watching me, touching me."

An illustration shows a woman walking away from broken chains.

When Naomi told her husband she didn't like his behaviour, that she needed privacy, he insisted it was his way of showing that he loved her, that she just "didn't understand" what love was.

"I got so confused in myself, [about where my] boundaries were," she said. "I got lost."

His physical abuse — hitting, pushing, kicking — always became worse when Naomi was pregnant. It frightened her, and she left him several times and sought help at women's shelters.

Early in one of her pregnancies, when she thought things between them were going well, he held a knife to her belly.

"He said, 'I'll cut you into pieces if you ever try to run away from me again," she said. "I pissed my pants, I was so scared. I carried the pregnancy [to term] but I was so unwell because of the constant stress and fear."

It took several years from when Naomi first applied for a gett until her husband agreed to grant one. When she lodged the application at the Melbourne Beth Din, she was hopeful.

But the rabbi managing her case soon crushed her optimism: "He sent me a message saying, '[Your husband] is not going to give you a Jewish divorce unless you agree to some of his conditions regarding child custody, regarding property, regarding this and that," she said.

Already struggling with depression and PTSD, Naomi felt suffocated, defeated and, as the months stretched into years, hopeless.

"I was chained to him. I was so afraid of this person, I didn't like him, but I was stuck, because in everyone's eyes I was still his wife."

When Naomi applied to the magistrates' court for an extension of her intervention order, she specified that her husband had been withholding the gett.

"When my husband's [lawyers] were arguing that I didn't need an intervention order, the judge said, "Does she have her Jewish divorce?' And they said no, and the judge said, 'Well then she needs an extension for the intervention order'. It was very powerful."

Not long after that, Naomi accepted her gett, willingly given by her husband, at the beth din.

"The rabbis told him, 'You have a free choice as to whether you will be punished by the criminal court, or you will give the gett'," she said. "He gave the gett."

Despite the numerous challenges she would continue to face in both the magistrate's and family court, for Naomi, getting her gett meant being unshackled.

"There were so many things outside my control, so this felt like my first little victory," she said. "I was so proud of myself."

The role of rabbis

In Israel, the solutions are somewhat simpler.

Because marriage and divorce are subject to religious law, rabbinical courts have the power to impose punitive sanctions on recalcitrant spouses who refuse to issue a gett after being ordered to do so.

Such sanctions can include seizing property, freezing bank accounts, suspending driver's licences and even imprisonment.

But in Australia, the fate of agunot depends largely on the Jewish community's willingness to intervene — as it always will, even if secular legal reforms are introduced.

And the role of rabbis is vital.

Susie Ivany, the former president of the National Council of Jewish Women and chair of Unchain My Heart, the only advocacy group for chained women in Australia, says rabbis are "fantastic mediators" but need to work harder to find legal solutions to gett abuse.

"Their hearts are in the right places," Ms Ivany said, "but they keep saying the laws are the laws and they're not changeable".

Naomi believes the rabbis at the beth din could have been stricter with her ex-husband, especially given his history of violence: "Instead of listening to him and his arguments they should have told him, 'If you don't give the gett tomorrow, we will … excommunicate you from the community'."

An illustration shows a crowd standing on the steps of a synagogue, their backs turned to a dejected-looking man.

If only it was that easy, says Rabbi Gutnick of the Sydney Beth Din.

"Some women think rabbis can do more than they can," he said. "They have this refrain of, 'Where there's a rabbinic will, there's a way', but that's not necessarily the case."

Regardless of whether rabbis believe the law is unfair, he said, "That's the law, and we have to work [within it]."

Rabbi Gutnick said the Sydney Beth Din does everything it can within the framework of Jewish law to help a spouse being refused a gett.

Annulments are possible in Orthodox Judaism, but are granted only in "extremely rare" cases and only in conjunction with senior rabbis in Israel, he said.

Sanctions may also be issued, but would only potentially influence religious men.

Such sanctions could include written warnings, denying a man honours in the synagogue and even publicising his non-cooperation.

"We are always prepared to put [an ad] in the Jewish News" — which claims a monthly print readership of 192,000 — "to say [a husband] is refusing to give his wife a gett, to shame him," Rabbi Gutnick said.

"But we have never gotten that far; we have always managed in Australia to make sure a gett is given" — though this can take many years and has often been achieved through civil court action.

Defiant men kidnapped, shocked with Tasers

This method has been employed by Jewish communities around the world, with rabbis in the United States and UK regularly tackling gett recalcitrance with tactics designed to humiliate.

In 2010, for instance, rabbis from the London Beth Din took out an ad in the Jewish Chronicle which named a man who had refused to give his wife a gett for 15 years.

The ad said the man should be "refused entry" into synagogues and that people should "consider whether it is appropriate for them to have social or business contacts with him" until the gett was given.

And rabbis in America joined congregants to protest at the 2014 wedding of Meir Kin, the man who had continued to refuse his wife a gett almost a decade after they separated.

"Not only is he in clear violation of Jewish law, but he is utilising and corrupting Jewish law to commit cruel domestic abuse," said Rabbi Kalman Topp, who drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for the ceremony.

But while shunning strategies may have worked decades ago, when Jewish communities were more insular and men's social circles smaller, today public shaming is less effective.

Which is perhaps why some rabbis have been known to take extreme action against defiant men.

Three rabbis from Brooklyn, New York, were in 2015 convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping as part of a scheme to force men to grant Jewish divorces — for which they allegedly charged wives up to $50,000, according to court documents.

"They beat them up, tied them up, shocked them with Tasers and stun guns until they got what they want," the lead prosecutor in the case told a Federal District Court in New Jersey in 2013.

Rabbi Mendel Epstein, allegedly the mastermind of the operation, had been sued in the 1990s by another rabbi, who claimed he'd been bundled into a van by a group of men who then applied electric shocks to his genitals to try and force him to give his wife a gett. The case was dismissed.

(Importantly, rabbis themselves are also the targets of abuse; ABC News understands several rabbis in Australia have been threatened, stalked or verbally abused by defiant husbands during gett negotiations.)

"I don't think there is any Beth Din that is not sensitive to the plight of the 'chained wife'," said Rabbi Gutnick of the Melbourne Beth Din.

"However, there are some situations that we just cannot resolve without challenging or abrogating the immutability of basic Jewish marriage law principles involved. As rabbis we are limited to administering the law not making it."

The Melbourne Beth Din considers gett refusal as a form of domestic violence, Rabbi Gutnick said, in cases where, "for example, it is obvious that pure vindictiveness is involved in delaying or refusing the gett, or where the granting of a gett is being used to unfairly blackmail the other spouse into lowering or paying extra settlement or maintenance monies or where it is being used to unfairly withhold or gain child access, over and above what is legally due."

Such cases, he added, could be handled by referring spouses to specialised mediation groups or legal practitioners, initiating communal pressure, or recommending civil action, despite its limitations.

Prenups as a preventative strategy

Another avenue for addressing gett refusal — one that has been successful in other jurisdictions — is the use of prenuptial agreements.

In the United States, the Beth Din of America promotes a halachic (Jewish legal) prenup, a contract signed by both spouses when (or even after) they get married that come into effect if a gett is being refused.

Basically, it requires a husband to provide "maintenance" payments to his wife every day until a gett is given. It also requires spouses to appear before and comply with the directions of a beth din.

"They work very quickly," Rabbi Gutnick of the Sydney Beth Din said of prenups in the United States. "As soon as it's costing [a husband] money to refuse the gett, he very quickly backs down."

In Australia, it might be possible to draft a binding prenuptial agreement (which are called binding financial agreements under the Family Law Act) in an endeavour to address gett refusal, says Andrew Strum.

"However, even if this were possible, in order to be binding, each party would be required to obtain their own independent legal advice, evidenced by a signed statement from a solicitor for each of them," Mr Strum said.

It is unlikely, he added, many couples would pursue and pay for such an agreement.

However, some Australian couples have opted to sign a different version of the US halachic prenup that simply requires that, in the event of a marriage breakdown, spouses attend and comply with the directions of the beth din regarding the gett.

"They are not enforceable in the family courts as agreements per se," said Mr Strum, who drafted the Australian version in the 1990s.

"Rather, they may be adduced as evidence in support of an application to the court for an order that a party attend upon and abide by the directions of the beth din."

But according to Rabbi Gutnick, most are reluctant to use them.

"A young couple in love aren't always keen on signing a document [dictating the terms] of what happens when they fall out of love," he said. "It would be a lot better if legislation was in place that did exactly the same thing as a prenup."

'That's the thing with abuse: you don't talk about it'

Social workers are now urging that gett refusal be raised as part of a broader conversation about stamping out domestic violence in Jewish communities which, like other faith communities in Australia and abroad, are grappling with how to respond to domestic abuse.

For Rabbi Gutnick at the Sydney Beth Din, Australia's recent Royal Commission on child sexual abuse provides an important opportunity to talk about domestic abuse — as it has for some advocates in the Catholic Church.

"It's a problem throughout the Jewish community that people aren't sufficiently aware of the nature of domestic violence," he said.

"If it was completely socially unacceptable and there was zero tolerance — the same as there is now zero tolerance for sexual abuse — then much of the problem would be solved."

Jewish Care Victoria is currently developing a "whole of community" strategy for addressing family violence that will aim to engage not just rabbis but a range of Jewish leaders and organisations.

But Ms Kraner believes it is important to start having more "complex" conversations about stereotypes, cultural traditions and gender roles that may be perpetuating — or concealing — violence.

Such conversations might see Jewish groups reflecting on, for example, whether family violence should be considered "private family business" or an issue to be dealt with openly in the community.

"Being a culture and religion that is, at its heart, very communal, the Jewish community can champion being a very protective community if it chooses to step into that space," Ms Kraner said.

If it chooses. For Sara, one of the hardest challenges since she left her husband has been navigating the unsympathetic response of her tight-knit social network.

While her children's Jewish school community has been hugely supportive, she says, some friends and family have not been.

"The problem with our … community is that because we are so close to both the husband and the wife, and because [my husband] is such a skilled manipulator, it's very hard for other people to believe what I'm saying. He made me out to be this disgusting person who was abandoning him, so people think I'm the bad one," Sara said.

"I was also very quiet about what was going on — I don't want people to see the worst in him, I haven't even told his family the whole story. That's the thing with abuse: you don't talk about it, you act like everything is fine."

And while the rabbi at her synagogue has reached out to her husband several times since they separated, Sara says she has only heard briefly from his wife. "No-one has called to see how my children are doing," she said.

One step forward, three steps back

Every day that a solution to gett abuse is not found is a missed opportunity, says Susie Ivany, who worries some Jewish women may abandon their community and its traditions altogether.

Until then, she says, she and her Unchain My Heart committee will continue to advocate for agunot — supporting women experiencing gett refusal, working with the beth din to advance stalled negotiations and campaigning in Jewish communities.

But Ms Ivany is frustrated that, for all the progress women in Judaism have made towards equality in recent decades, women are still being disadvantaged by "ancient laws".

"It's one step forward, three steps back," she said. "There are more and more women studying [for rabbinical ordination] and gaining positions in Orthodox communities. However, we still have a long way to go."

Meanwhile, Sara is slowly rebuilding her life while she waits for her Jewish divorce. "I've been spending a lot of time on my own just kind of healing," she said.

"I'm very hopeful I'll get the gett. Everything will work out, it's just going to take time. And as long as my children are okay, I'm okay."

But she is also disturbed by the fact that the rabbis at the beth din, as compassionate as they are, have not been able to stop her husband abusing his power over her.

"While they have been kind and empathetic," she said, "they do not seem able to change the very system holding women in this place of no control."

*The names of domestic violence survivors have been changed for security and legal reasons.

Other articles in this series

Exposing the darkness within: Islam and domestic violence

'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God

Shattering the Silence: Australians tell their stories of surviving domestic violence in the Church

'Their cross to bear': The Catholic women told to forgive domestic abuse

Raped, tracked, humiliated: Clergy wives speak out about domestic violence

The secret scourge of family violence and murder in Australian Hindu and Sikh communities

Original Article

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *