Long-term "agunot," women who are unable to exit a marriage due to certain stipulations of Jewish law, are uncommon but sadly not unknown in Israel. But the case of one woman, mercifully solved this week, is truly exceptional.
Raya Dinenberg was unable to terminate her marriage for an unthinkable 28 years after her husband disappeared, but just yesterday was finally able to obtain a divorce from him after he was found living as a vagrant yet alive and well in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
Nearly three decades ago, in 1987, Dinenberg’s husband left home one fine morning and never returned, leaving her and her two young daughters aged just four and nine alone.
The couple were already in the process of legal proceedings to end their marriage, and the husband absconded immediately after receiving his half-share in the jointly-owned apartment the civil court had sold on their behalf.
Dinenberg did not therefore believe that her husband had somehow been killed, but despite turning to relatives, friends and anyone who might be able to help discover what had happened to her husband she was unable to find out what had become of him.
There was simply no sign or trace of her husband, and to all intents and purposes it seemed as if he’d disappeared off the face of the earth.
After just under two months when she believed it was no longer possible that her husband would ever return she opened up a divorce file in her local rabbinical court.
However, Jewish law requires a husband to give his wife a bill of divorce, a "get" in Hebrew, in order to terminate a marriage and allow the wife of such a man to remarry. If a woman has children in a different relationship without having remarried the children are defined as mamzerim, an extremely problematic status within Jewish law.
In the absence of a husband, such as when a soldier goes missing in action or, in this case, when the man simply cannot be found, Jewish law does not provide an easy solution for ending the marriage.
Because Dinenberg’s husband could not be found, she was defined as an agunah
by the rabbinical court and could not remarry.
The rabbinical courts themselves employ investigators to track down errant husbands who flee from divorce proceedings but they were unable, over the years, to track down Dinenberg’s husband.
At the same time, she had to raise her two daughters as a single mother and provide for their well-being.
One year ago, she turned to Yad L’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline, a women’s rights group which assists women in such situations.
Dvora Brisk, a rabbinical court advocate working for Yad L’Isha, decided to employ the services of a private investigator to look into the disappearance of Dinenberg’s husband and provided him with all the information available on the case.
Yad L’Isha frequently turns to the private investigators to help in such cases, as well as the more usual instances of agunot
, in which a husband flees his home and disappears in order to escape the terms of a divorce he believes to be unfavorable and the legal consequences incumbent upon him for refusing to grant a bill of divorce.
Two months ago, evidence began to accumulate of the husband living and working in south Tel Aviv and the investigator made plans to have him arrested. The investigator was able to get on the trail of the man, and one month ago became aware of a doctor’s appointment he had at a medical practice in south Tel Aviv.
The investigator obtained the man’s mobile phone number and slowly closed in the circle around him until last Tuesday, when he learnt of credible information accurately placing the man close to a well-known grocery store, and alerted the police.
Identifying him, the investigator followed the man along several streets and was able to direct the police to arrest him.
On Wednesday, the man was brought before the Tel Aviv rabbinical court bedraggled, dirty, disheveled and almost unrecognizable, where he claimed that he had absconded 28 years ago due to his financial problems and large debts he had accumulated.
Throughout the 28 years of his absence, he had never had a permanent place of residence and had spent almost three decades lived as a vagrant, sleeping in public parks, on street benches, in car-mechanic garages, shelters and any other place he could find.
He had sustained himself throughout the years by begging as well as performing menial work and casual labor, moving from city to city looking for the next opportunity.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Rabbinical court judge Rabbi Shlomo Tam gave the man the option of returning to jail or granting his long-suffering wife a bill of divorce. He chose to grant the divorce immediately.
Brisk underlined Tam’s dedication to the task of finding the man, and said that he had issued every possible court order in his authority to empower the private investigator to help find the husband, bring in the police and end Dinenberg’s suffering.
Brisk also noted that the investigator used by Yad L’Isha was “exceptionally talented” and had done “amazing and unbelievable work” in tracking the husband down, as well as benefiting from some good luck as well.
Yad L’Isha said that this was the longest ever case of aginut
, being “chained” to a marriage, it has ever dealt with.
“Ahead of Passover, I have merited to finally go out to freedom,” said Dinenberg, now in her mid-sixties, after the rabbinical court hearing on Wednesday.
“I can now, after so many years, finally celebrate the Passover holiday with my daughters and family as a free woman.”
Dinenberg is not a religious woman but never established a relationship with another man because of her concern for Jewish law pertaining to marriage and divorce, Brisk said.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who heads the Ohr Torah Stone network of educational and social justice organizations and institutions also pointed to the symbolism of Dinenberg’s new found freedom ahead of Passover, known also as the “time of our freedom” for the Jewish people.
“She was imprisoned in the world of 'chained women' for three decades and we are so happy that we were able to bring an end to her suffering. Her story is a reminder for all of us as to the situation of many other women like her who are 'chained' to their marriages or whose husband’s refuse to give them a get, and for whom we will continue to struggle until they obtain their longed-for divorce, so that in the next year they will merit to dine around the Passover table as free women.”