YU Panel Explores Solutions to Modern-Day Agunah Crisis
Members of the Yeshiva University community flooded Weissberg Commons to hear a multifaceted discussion of the plight of the modern-day agunah, a woman whose husband cannot or refuses to give her a get [writ of Jewish divorce], on March 29.
Titled “Fighting the Agunah Crisis,” the panel offered rabbinic, psychological and devastating personal insight into the complicated status of an agunah and the challenges she faces. That included testimony from Tamar Epstein ’04S, a nurse-practitioner and current agunah whose case has received a great deal of media attention due to the coordinated efforts of committed friends and the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA).
Before a crowd that overflowed into the hall, Epstein detailed her struggle to extract a get from her ex-husband and described the situation’s impact on her life, as well as her young daughter. “Divorce is always painful but the healing process can’t begin until the two parties have completely disentangled themselves from each other and can begin to move on with their lives, and that’s exactly what the agunah can’t do,” she said.
“That someone in our community is twisting halakha [Jewish law], not only selfishly, but also maliciously, must be intolerable to us,” said Ahuva Yagod, a sophomore at Stern College for Women and president of the Agunah Advocacy Club, one of the night’s sponsors. “We must be aware when someone is manipulating the divorce proceedings and we must stand united to eradicate this problem.”
The panel was co-sponsored by Stern’s Torah Activities Council as the final event in a week of programming for Domestic Violence and Abuse Awareness Week. In addition to Epstein, it featured Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh reshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud; Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration; and Rabbi Jeremy Stern ’07YC, ’09A, ’10R, executive director of ORA.
While touching on aspects of Epstein’s individual case, each of the panelists emphasized that the issue of agunah was communal and underlined the need to support agunot by upholding a zero-tolerance policy for get refusal.
“When ORA takes on a case, we always try to solve it amicably at first, looking deep into its facts and following the paper trail, making sure we’re hearing as many perspectives as possible,” said Stern. “But once a marriage is deemed irreconcilable, an unconditional get must be furnished in a timely fashion. Withholding a get is not a means of negotiation—negotiations can’t be conducted when someone is holding a gun to your head or a get over it. ”
Epstein agreed. “My ex-husband did not become a get refuser overnight,” she said. “I believe a get refuser is formed in large part by messages conveyed to him, both implicitly and explicitly, by his community.” She added: “The agunah is amongst the most vulnerable people in our community. We, as a community, have a responsibility to protect her and ensure her release and we can achieve that goal if we ourselves, our institutions and our leadership accept a zero-tolerance policy on get refusal.”
Panelists also noted the importance of making the halachik prenuptial agreement a standard component of the marriage process for all Orthodox couples. This is the goal of an ORA initiative titled, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Married Without A Prenup.” Copies of the agreement, which contains a monetary incentive to give a get and preselects a beit din [Jewish court] to hear any divorce proceedings, were distributed at the event and slid under dorm room doors across both campuses.
“If every YU student signed a prenup, we could eradicate this problem from our community,” said Stern. “Don’t sign it for yourselves. Sign it for someone who might not be here tonight and might not otherwise hear this message and might need to.”
Ilana Gadish, ’11S a current student enrolled in Stern’s Graduate Program for Talmudic Studies, actually signed the same copy of the agreement that was slipped under her dorm room door last year before her recent marriage. “The issue of agunot is one of the most important in the modern Orthodox community,” she said.
Gadish felt the night’s panel helped her understand the necessity of uncomfortable tactics, such as rallying and signing petitions, to pressure husbands into granting a get. “I used to be more hesitant about attending rallies, but after hearing Tamar speak in person, I would definitely go.”
Another young couple filled out the prenup on the spot.
“We were planning to do this before, but they had notaries here, so we thought, ‘Why not?’ ” said Sarah Marvin, a junior at Stern College majoring in English literature. “After seeing all the publicity about agunot, I’m just making sure it doesn’t happen to me.”
“I have fond memories of my years at Stern and a great appreciation for the education I’ve received here, but over the past years I’ve developed a deeper sense of pride in my status as a YU alumna,” said Epstein. “I’ve witnessed and personally benefited from the courage, innovation and sensitivity of the roshei yeshiva and administrative leadership of this institution in tackling the problem of the modern day agunah.”