NEW YORK – It took three tries before Rivky Stein was able to leave her husband. Even now, she says she still can’t really escape: Stein says her husband, Yoel Weiss, is refusing to give her a get – a Jewish bill of divorce – two years after she left his house.
Stein claims that her four years of a marriage involved frequent rapes, beatings, intense surveillance of movements, and pseudo-imprisonment in their home. She tried to escape twice before, and both times, Weiss showed up where she was within minutes and took her back, Stein said.
When she did manage to finally leave with her two children without Weiss following them, Stein found shelter first with a friend, and then with her former foster family. She obtained an order of protection against her husband and initiated the process for a divorce.
But two years later, that process is still ongoing, and Stein says she has been subject to repeated harassment, home invasions, surveillance and monitoring of her basement apartment, and is now facing eviction.
She said even her foster mother refuses to speak to her now, after receiving a vague threat from Weiss’s family.
Like many religious Jewish girls, Rivky married at age 18. She met Weiss through a matchmaker a few months before they were wed. “I knew that he was charming and charismatic,” Stein said. “You know, you’re 18, everyone’s getting married, everyone’s telling me, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ There’s pressure. I really did not feel ready. I had never gone out with a guy, I didn’t know anything about guys, so it just happened.”
She once tried to end the engagement, but it was pushed on her again.
Stein, now 24, recalled how Weiss made it clear to her on their wedding night that he now owned her.
“He told me that I was going to do everything he says,” she said. “If he said, ‘Jump,’ I was to say, ‘How high?’ And being a foster child, I didn’t have anywhere to go back to. I had no training or recognition of what an abusive relationship was.”
Stein said that Weiss cut her off from her friends and her family.
Her cellphone, her email, her Facebook, and all of her actions were constantly monitored. “His family totally condoned what he was doing,” she said. “It was so constant, it was daily. I felt like I was not a person anymore.”
Weiss, 31, denies all of this, from the abuse and the rapes to the get-refusal and the harassment. He told The Jerusalem Post that he already offered Stein a get two years ago, when she first left. Stein refused it, he said (Stein denied she has ever been offered a get). Now Weiss says he’s waiting until the custody of their children, ages five and three-and-a-half, is sorted out satisfactorily before he gives the Jewish bill of divorce.
But still, Weiss said, “This is not about the get. This is somebody who is not well, who is looking for attention and looking for money.”
Weiss said that Stein has tried to have him arrested eight times, and is “using my life as a tool to make money.”
“She knows people will fall for an innocent Jewish girl,” he said.
“Nobody’s ever lifted a finger to her. She doesn’t have any marks, she never confided in anyway. This case has been going on for two years and all of a sudden she’s saying I hit her and I struck her.”
Caught in an the spiral of she-saidhe- said that so often characterizes accusations of domestic abuse, Stein, with the help of family and friends, has taken to the Internet to plead her case and put pressure on Weiss to give the get.
If attention and money are all she’s looking for, Stein is getting it.
Since the launch her website, Redeem Rivky, Stein has garnered more than 8,500 Facebook “likes,” and has raised $19,550 on her GoFundMe page to help with the debt she’s in from the lawsuit, and to counter her eviction. In the past week Stein’s story has been featured in the New York Daily News, CBS New York and Yahoo News, and has drawn interest from a Hollywood producer.
Through all of this, Stein has remained committed to the cause of the agunot – the “chained women.”
“One hundred percent, I want to be able to move on and get the get,” she said. “My kids are my concern. But my other goal is to bring awareness. It’s not just about me, it’s not over when I get my get. There are so many other people who don’t have their get.
“Something has to be done,” Stein said with passion. “The community needs to come up with a solution. This is as unacceptable as eating non-kosher food. There shouldn’t be an aguna situation, for anyone, ever.”
An aguna in traditional Judaism was a woman whose husband had disappeared, died, or was otherwise unavailable, and from the perspective of Jewish law that woman was still tied to him. A aguna was not a term that referred to woman stuck in an unwanted marriage until recent times, said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, the executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot.
Stern said ORA had only recently begun to look into Stein’s case.
According to Stern, there are four primary motivations for get-refusal: leverage for concessions with finances; leverage for custody of children; spite; and to force the woman back into the relationship.
“Fundamentally, this is all about control,” he said. “The message we need to get out is that get refusal is a form of domestic abuse. The refusal to give a get is the repeated attempt to maintain control and assert authority over a spouse. And often we find it’s correlated with other forms of domestic abuse.
“Nowhere in rabbinic literature, no where, is it intimated that it [the get] should be used as a tool in the divorce process,” Stern said. “It’s simply a document that signifies the formal separation between husband and wife. The idea of these recalcitrants is a modern phenomenon.”
Kate Wurmfeld a supervising attorney in the family law unit of the New York Legal Assistance Group and the head of Project Eden – NYLAG’s group that works with victims of domestic violence in the Orthodox community – said that nearly all of her clients are struggling with get-refusal.
“Occasionally there’s a husband who just gives the get right up front,” she said. “But we [at NYLAG] don’t really deal with a lot of those.”
A big part of the problem is community pressure on the husband to not give the bill of divorce right away, Wurmfeld said. “Some aren’t doing it maliciously,” she said.
“Frankly, they’re told not to. People will say to them, ‘Wait until you have an agreement, and custody and a schedule. Wait until you’ve talked about money, because you can use that.’ They’re all told this, by friends, by colleagues, by other people in the community.”
This is because there is usually something to negotiate, Wurmfeld said. “We try to minimize the leverage he has, and to negotiate to minimize whatever impact the get will have.”
Back when Jews lived in shtetls, Stern said, the rabbinic courts had much more power to enforce their rulings on everything, including divorces, which could involve corporal punishment for get-refusers.
“These days, we no longer have the same cohesiveness in the community, and people go to jail if they inflict corporal punishment,” Stern said, referring to several recent cases in New York in which gangs of men were arrested for beating up get-refusing husbands. The rabbinic courts now have much more limited ability to coerce a get from a recalcitrant husband. Stern said he has seen cases where men have refused to give their wives a get for more than 30 years. To prevent an aguna situation, ORA strongly recommends couples sign a prenuptial agreement. “We’ve seen it work 100% of the time,” he said.
Just as the rabbinic courts’ power to enforce gets has waned, Wurmfeld said that New York civil courts have limited powers to interfere in religious issues because of the separation of church and state in the US.
Nevertheless, New York does have two laws – casually referred to as “the get laws,” both Wurmfeld and Stern said, although they apply in any situation where a religious divorce as well as a civil divorce is needed – that can help: The first law, passed in 1983, says that if the husband is the plaintiff in a divorce case, the civil court can make him swear to “remove all barriers to remarriage” before it grants a divorce. If the man does not comply, the court can hold him in contempt for violating a court order, Wurmfeld said. “I’ve seen judges give out fines of $300 a day until he gives the get,” she said.
The problem is, what if the man is not the plaintiff? “This is a dance we have to do with clients,” Wurmfeld said. “Often women will hold off filing for divorce because they’re hoping he’ll file. If the husband makes no claims, the court is limited in what it can do.”
In the second law, passed in 1992, a judge can create financial incentives for a man to grant a get, such as demanding that assets be divided differently because the woman will be forced to maintain a single-income home. But this can create tricky problems with Jewish law and sometimes invalidate a get if it is given, and so is rarely used, Stern said.
Stein hopes that her message will convince other women to come forward, and convince the Jewish community that this is not acceptable any more.
“Everyone knows someone in this situation, she said. “It’s so rampant and common that it’s crazy! This is not the Torah way. This is totally a distortion of the Torah. It’s a desecration of God’s name. I’m asking for help for everyone, for all of us.”