At YU, Facing the Agunah Crisis

By Penina Wein
On May 20, 2012


"Friends don't let friends get married without a prenup" was the slogan circulating both campuses on March 29, 2012, following the panel sponsored by TAC and theAgunah Advocacy Club,"Fighting the Agunah Crisis."

Moderated by Huvie Yagod, SCW '13, and founder of the Agunah Advocacy Club, the panel featured Rabbi Hershel Schachter, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva, Dr. David Pelcovitz, the Gwedolyn and Joseph Strauss Chair of Jewish Studies at Azrieli Graduate School, Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), and Tamar Epstein, a current agunah. Informative and important, the evening offered much insight into the agunah crisis, and why it is an issue that no one should take lightly.

According to ORA's website, "an agunah (pl: agunot) is a woman whose marriage is functionally over, but whose husband cannot or refuses to give her aget (writ of Jewish divorce)." The absence of a halakhic divorce, whether or not a couple divorce civilly, can cause a woman to be "chained" for years, unable to remarry without the consent of her ex-husband. It is in a situation like this that someone has taken halakha and twisted it for his own benefit.

According to Pelcovitz, to withhold aget from someone without just cause is an act of emotional abuse. Rabbi Stern emphasized that not giving a get is the peak of abuse, where the spouse is exerting the last possible amount of force that he can.

The agunah problem prompted a group of Yeshiva students to found ORA in 2002. After hearing about one particular case, some students planned a protest rally. This rally sprouted into a few more cases, and eventually grew into a professional, non-profit organization that has helped resolve 172 agunah cases, to date, and is currently helping 70 other women. Using halakhically acceptable and civilly legal methods, ORA helps to facilitate advocacy to resolve the agunah's situation in as amicable a fashion as possible.

ORA has been instrumental in helping Epstein, a current agunah and speaker at the panel, in particular. Four months after having her first child, and after realizing that the problems in her marriage were not improving, she asked her husband, Aharon Friedman, for a divorce. For the first two years after this request, there was no pressure placed on Friedman to give a get, and so Epstein's request went unanswered. However, after two years and with the advice of her father, Epstein decided to formally ask Friedman for a get again. He responded angrily. Epstein then realized that being patient was not going to give her the results that she needed, and that was when she turned to ORA.

In the two years since then she has not received a get, but Epstein says that she would not be anywhere close to where she is today without the commitment and support of ORA and its rabbanim. At the panel, Epstein emphasized that one of the main emotions that an agunah might feel is isolated, but, with the outpouring of support she has received, Epstein explained that she feels embraced and loved by the Jewish community. According to Epstein, her support network is what has allowed her to continue each day.

Yagod was taught by Epstein's mother in high school. After hearing stories like those of Epstein and other women, and attending rallies with ORA, she was inspired. "We as a community must not tolerate when there is abuse," said Yagod at the March 29 panel.

Spearheaded by Yagod, the club slipped prenuptial agreements under the door into every undergraduate student's dorm room. These prenuptial agreements are forms that many Rabbanim encourage young couples to sign before getting married. The club hoped that these folders would help enable students who did not know about the pre-nup to have access and become familiar with its use before approaching marriage.

The prenuptial agreement is a form, consisting of two documents, created by Rabbi Mordechai Willig, YU Rosh Yeshiva, along with the help of a lawyer. One document allows couples to authorize a specific beit din to handle the divorce, should one occur. The other document states that in the event that the beit din should determine the husband is improperly withholding the get, he is obligated to pay his wife a significant sum of money. This is in the hopes that the man will not want to or be able to afford to pay, and will instead give his wife a get. Should a woman need help receiving her get during a divorce, it is extremely helpful.

Some rabbanim do not recommend using the pre-nup, as they think it reflects inherent distrust within the couple and begins the marriage on the wrong foot. According to Rabbi Stern, there is also a stigma associated with signing the prenup that needs to be broken within our community. Other rabbanim object to signing it on a technical halakhic basis. However, many, including Rabbi Schachter, and most of the YU Roshei Yeshiva, recommend that every couple getting married should sign one.

If a man does not want to a sign a pre-nup, said Stern, it should be a red-flag to the women. "Signing a pre-nup says, 'I love you so much that I never want to hurt you,'" he said.

Rabbi Stern emphasized that our community should work as hard as possible to make the pre-nuptial agreement a communal standard. "No community is immune" from the agunah problem, Stern said. He, along with many others, hopes that the pre-nup will solve the agunah crisis and save many other women from this potential problem. "It is my hope that in 10 years, ORA will have no more cases." 

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