On June 24, I attended the Agunah Summit in New York sponsored by the New York University Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).

Over 200 participants from Israel, the US and Canada, including Orthodox rabbis, judges, lawyers, scholars and women’s rights activists met to discuss solutions to the problem of agunot, women chained to an unwanted or non-existent Jewish marriage because their husbands refuse to give them a get (Jewish divorce). As an Israeli women’s rights lawyer who has represented hundreds of agunot in the Israeli rabbinical courts during the past 33 years, I was impressed by the presentations and particularly encouraged by the call for community action.

Summit organizers expressed the hope that new scholarship as to halachic solutions and new political changes might bring about real change. High-profile speakers included Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, recently retired Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch and the prolific and well-known Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.

Recently elected MK Dr. Aliza Lavie, chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, was unable to attend but sent a letter to all participants stating, “We must keep the agunot situation high on our agenda, it is the duty of us all, men and women, to cooperate in order to bring about a change. I believe that the time is now ripe, and that we have a special and unique window of opportunity for action through legislation.”

While there have been many conferences, workshops and meetings organized by women’s organizations during the past three decades, this is the first time a conference on the subject of agunot was sponsored by a prestigious secular academic institution. The participation of high-level political and judiciary figures was also a first.

Tzipi Livni promised to use her ministry to attain equality for women and to eliminate discrimination against women in the Jewish divorce process. Dorit Beinisch declared that women have the right to equality and the right to family life. She noted while rabbinical court decisions are subject to judicial review, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to intervene on substantive issues of halacha. Stating that the court cannot race ahead of social consensus, Beinisch recognized the urgency of a need to find a solution to the problem of agunot and declared that the court might be compelled to intervene more actively in these cases in the future.

Despite over 30 years of efforts by veteran agunah advocates like myself, a recent study in Israel shows that a high percentage of Jewish women seeking a divorce are threatened by their husbands that such a petition will be met by get refusal.

As in past conferences, scholars reminded us of the halachic solutions to the problem of get refusal including annulment, civil sanctions such as imprisonment and prenuptial agreements. Some interesting new tactics were proposed, including the development of a “get insurance plan” which would be sold by insurance companies to brides. Another suggestion, made by well-known Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, was that legislation be introduced which would disbar lawyers who represent recalcitrant husbands who demand exorbitant financial rewards for their consent to the giving of a get.

But the real problem with this summit, as in all other past conferences, was the absence of those who have the power to solve the issue of agunot. The chief rabbis, the dayanim and the haredi spiritual leaders who decide the cases had been invited, but didn’t attend. Eight years ago, while serving as the only woman on the Israeli Commission to Appoint Dayanim, I worked closely with Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and suggested that he convene an international conference of leading Orthodox rabbis and dayanim to discuss the problem of agunot, and halachic solutions.

Amar agreed to my proposal and appointed Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, then director of the rabbinical courts and now the deputy minister of religious services, to work with me on preparing a list of rabbis to be invited and organizing the program for the October 2006 conference. However, there was opposition coming from haredi leaders and just four days before the conference, under extreme pressure from the “Gadol Hador,” Rav Elyashiv, Amar cancelled the conference. There was an outpouring of rage from many of the invited rabbis as well as Jewish women worldwide.

As the New York summit came to an end, a panel of four Orthodox rabbis from Israel and the US discussed “The Role of the Rabbi.” When one explained that halachic changes are made slowly, and that we must be patient, he seemed a bit surprised by the loud and angry response from the audience.

However, it was Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, the new head of Chovevei Torah Yeshiva in New York, who received cheers from the crowd as he proposed an alternative international Beit Din which would apply halachic solutions and free agunot. He reminded us of the Beit Din established about two decades ago by the late Rabbi Professor Emanuel Rackman, which was plagued by the fact that Orthodox rabbis refused to recognize its decisions and therefore the women were unable to remarry.

Lopatin suggested that the time had come to support an alternative international Beit Din and declared that he is willing and able to sign up 100 rabbis who will accept the new Beit Din’s decisions.

Summit organizers expressed their delight with Lopatin’s proposal and the positive response from the participants. Blu Greenberg noted that rabbis make halachic decisions based on community sentiment and pressure and that communal enactments (takanot hakahal) have been part of the development of Jewish law for centuries. When rabbis were unwilling or unable to solve problems, the community would impose a solution through such an enactment. Greenberg stated that a call should go out to the Rabbinical Council of America, the mainstream organization of Orthodox Jewry in the US, declaring “We’ve run out of time! We are mortally ashamed of each case of agunot!” This call to action should take place in Israel as well.

Upon the election of the new chief rabbis in July, we must mount our campaign to support rabbinical courts that apply halachic solutions, whether they are part of the government operated rabbinical courts or private international or local courts. Surely we can find at least 100 rabbis to support the international court or an Israeli version.

We, the community, have the power to act and demand solutions to the problem of agunot now. The ball is in our court! The author is a Jerusalem-based women’s rights lawyer and director of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project of the International Council of Jewish Women. She served as the only woman on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim from 2003-2009.

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