Breaking the chains

Susan Weiss is leading the battle for women to get a fair Jewish hearing.

susan weiss 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
susan weiss 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Susan Weiss, founding director of the nonprofit Center for Women's Justice, will never forget the day in 2000 when a 36-year-old mother of five walked into her office and pleaded with the New York-born lawyer to help her fight for a divorce. "She'd been trying to obtain one for more than 10 years," recalls Weiss, a Jerusalem-based mother of five, who in June received an award from the Israel Bar Association for her work in helping agunot or chained women, whose husbands refuse them a get (divorce). "The rabbinic court had ordered the husband to give a get and to pay child support, but he was still refusing," she continues, adding that the husband had invoked an ancient Jewish law where he claimed to be willing to divorce but only based on certain conditions. "He said he would divorce her but that she had to waive all her rights to child support," remembers Weiss. "[The rabbinic judges] said that if she did not agree to his demands, then the fact she did not yet have a divorce was her own fault. When she asked the judge how she would be able to support herself and her children if the husband did not pay some form of child support, the rabbis said, 'Go to the haredi community, they will support you there.'" For Weiss, who had already formed another organization, Yad L'Isha, to work within the Rabbinic Court Administration (RCA) to push for change and sexual equality in individual divorce cases, this response was unfair and unsatisfactory. "I realized that what we'd been doing was not effective; if I really wanted to make serious changes - to set future precedents - it would need to come from the top downward," observes Weiss, who immediately set to work creating CWJ, an organization run by attorneys "who understand there is a systematic problem here." "We are up against hundreds of years of Jewish laws, which are almost impossible to debate because they seem to have taken on an eternity status." ACCORDING TO such laws both husband and wife must give consent to divorce. However, the law is far more stringent regarding the wife, who cannot remarry until her husband gives a get. In Israel there is no separation between religion and state and all Jews must get married in accordance with Halacha, although civil marriages from abroad are recognized. In divorce, separating couples can choose between the secular or religious systems and in cases where a person refuses to grant a get, the RCA is empowered to coerce one of the sides, usually the husband, to give the divorce. While CWJ does not keep exact figures on the number of agunot, women's rights groups estimate it's in the hundreds. "We view the very fact that only the man has any real right to give a divorce as a civil wrong," says Weiss, who after hearing about the woman's plight nine years ago decided to pull together her vast experience in both the religious and secular legal systems and sue the husband for personal damages in the secular courts. "Colleagues thought I was crazy because it was something that had never been done before." That did not stop her from drafting the country's first tort case on the issue. Four years later, her gamble paid off when a secular judge ordered the recalcitrant husband to pay his beleaguered wife damages worth $100,000. "The judge wrote in his decision that a man withholding a get is just not reasonable," says Weiss. Even though the woman still does not have a get, Weiss and her colleagues view the case as a breakthrough in challenging a legal system they believe shows little mercy for women and their goal at CWJ is to expand this precedent to include suing family members who hide husbands and to increase the amount of damages awarded. "The goal of our center is to figure out how to unlock the secret of modernizing a patriarchal system," says Weiss. "We want to be able to set an example for other religious cultures, including the Muslim community, in how to achieve that without losing traditions or customs." WHILE HER passion clearly lies in challenging this patriarchal and what she calls "outdated" legal system that is out of touch with the mainstream secular population, it took Weiss several years to find her place in this controversial legal realm. After making aliya in 1980, Weiss, then 26, took an internship at the Income Tax Authority and focused on her growing family. "I still did not feel as though I had found myself professionally," she says of that time. "And a friend suggested that I volunteer for women's causes, so I started working with the Women's International Zionist Organization. "It was the mid-'80s and I had a heightened feminist consciousness, so I quickly noticed the injustices of the whole marriage and divorce system in Israel." She then decided to open a private practice in Jerusalem to deal with the growing number of requests for help from frustrated women. "Within six months I had already covered my initial expenses and had more clients than I could handle," says Weiss, who pored over books on both Jewish and secular law to make sure she would become an expert in both systems. As her expertise and reputation grew, Weiss took on more than arguing cases and soon found herself teaching the basics of courtroom etiquette and procedure to female rabbinic pleaders, who had started to make headway into the profession. "I was very excited about [these women] and I began to think that I could use them to improve the system," says Weiss, who in 1997 convinced a handful to join Yad L'Isha. "Our goal was to put pressure on the RCA to force husbands to give their wives a get and even to impose sanctions on those who refused," she explains, noting that from 1997 to 2000 there was an increase in the number of orders demanding men give their wives divorces. However, the demand on husbands to free their wives was not necessarily effective, says Weiss, with some rabbinic judges implementing the law allowing a man to make his divorce conditional. "Basically, it allowed for extortion, because a man could say, 'I am willing to give a get as long as my wife...,' I realized then that there was a limit to what we could do from inside the rabbinic courts; we had exhausted all the tools." Today, both Yad L'Isha and CWJ work simultaneously attempting to change the system from within and from the outside, as well as raising the awareness to the plight of agunot. "Dialogue is essential for change," notes Weiss, who recently cowrote the scripts for four YouTube videos showing the horrors of a marriage gone wrong. "The family courts need to dialogue with the rabbinic courts; the rabbinic courts must dialogue with the Bar Association and we dialogue with the media and the media with the world at large. I am really, really excited about all this interaction because it gives me hopes that there will be a change very soon." As for her ideal situation, Weiss says: "I would love to see complete freedom of religion, with people here having the choice to be whatever type of Jew they want to be. It might be a little fragmented, but at least there would be freedom from coercion. We need to move closer to the system that exists in the rest of the world, which even though is not perfect, is much better than what we have here." In the meantime, she is focusing on the smaller victories such as in the recent case of an Ashdod woman who, during her divorce proceedings, had her 20 year-old conversion to Judaism revoked. "She'd gone to receive the get and the rabbi asked her two questions: 'Do you go to the mikve and do you turn on lights on Shabbat?' When she gave the wrong answers, he told her that she was no longer Jewish," recounts Weiss, who immediately appealed the decision, first in the Supreme Rabbinic Court and later in the High Court of Justice. Last month, the High Court of Justice gave the judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court and the Ashdod Rabbinical Court 90 days to explain why they'd revoked the woman's conversion. "This was definitely a victory for us and clearly shows that leaving the decision of who is a Jew in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox is not going to work for the country as a whole," says Weiss. "It is unacceptable that a woman goes to get a divorce and suddenly her whole existence is thrown into question. "This case highlights all the problems of the RCA in terms of its procedures and the fact that it is totally oblivious to social implications of its rulings. It has no clue how much harm is being inflicted on other people everyday. They are just caught up with their own rules and beliefs."