Mavoi Satum - Helping women in chains to eradicate divorce denial

The organization, founded in 1995, is at the forefront of the struggle in Israel to help free 'agunot,' or chained women.

MAVOI SATUM, together with several organizations, demands solutions the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court on International Women's Day (photo credit: COURTESY MAVOI SATUM)
MAVOI SATUM, together with several organizations, demands solutions the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court on International Women's Day
(photo credit: COURTESY MAVOI SATUM)
‘I wanted to have kids before it was too late,” says Dalia (a pseudonym), a 37-year-old client of Mavoi Satum. “My marriage was violent, and I soon found out that my husband was also blatantly cheating on me.
“I finally had enough and decided it was time to end it. I filed for divorce in the rabbinate in Jerusalem, confident I would be free to move on with my life soon.”
Dalia was a mesorevet get (denied a Jewish divorce document) for seven years.
“Hearings would take place every six months or so, with no consequences when my husband didn’t show up. When hearings finally took place, the dayanim [rabbinical judges] were rude and inattentive – they didn’t want to hear about why I wanted to get divorced. One of them opened a book and started reading, while the other played on his phone as I poured out my heart.
“The rabbis told us we should try again. I had already forgiven him once and still agreed to try again, but my husband, of course, refused. The dayanim shouted at me and told me I was making myself an aguna [a Jewish woman “chained” to her marriage] by not giving up on my rights.
“The only thing that finally made a difference was when I turned to the media and reached out to Mavoi Satum, who brought my case to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Until the get was in my hand, I didn’t believe my nightmare was finally over.”
Nechama (a pseudonym), who waited six years for her freedom, had a similar experience.
“The court’s treatment of my case was disparaging and contemptuous. There were times when the discussions took place with only half the judging panel present. One of the dayanim regularly napped during my hearings. No one bothered to wake him up, but that didn’t stop him from expressing his opinion at the conclusion of the hearing he had slept through.”
Experiences like those of Dalia and Nechama are unfortunately a dime a dozen. In Israel, no matter how you get married, you must get a divorce through the religious courts, which rule that a man has a right to refuse to grant his wife a divorce and keep her trapped in marriage against her will. This results in situations where he can make whatever demands he wants in order to grant her her freedom.
Due to the private nature of divorce proceedings, we don’t often hear about how women experience the Rabbinical Courts behind closed doors. To put a spotlight on the treatment women go through at the hands of the Rabbinical Court, Mavoi Satum released a database of testimonials collected from women going through the divorce process.
MAVOI SATUM, founded in 1995, is at the forefront of the struggle to eradicate divorce denial or “get abuse” in Israel. It represents individual women in religious courts and helps them receive their bill of divorce, also advocating and lobbying for a system-wide solution to the problem.
Orit Lahav, CEO of Mavoi Satum, explains.
“Each and every woman is an entire world. These women’s stories are nothing less than war stories – a war fought in hostile courts, for their lives and for the lives of their children. Their testimony is their way of involving the public in the process they went through.
“We are proud to publish the database, and invite more women to testify in person so that their voices are heard by the public and by the stakeholders making decisions.
“It is time to let people know what goes on behind the closed doors of the Rabbinical Courts, and shine a light on the injustices that mesoravot get and agunot are subject to. At Mavoi Satum, we will continue to work for women and promote broad solutions to the phenomenon.”
On March 8, International Women’s Day, Mavoi Satum, together with several women’s organizations, demonstrated outside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court demanding solutions to some of the most egregious refusal cases: like that of Liana Hazan, whose husband slashed her with a boxcutter and left her for dead, and now is refusing his wife a get.
As was seen in the recent case of Shira Isakov, whose husband almost strangled her to death and then refused her a Jewish divorce, public pressure worked: the beit din took the unprecedented step of skipping the long procedures and threatened to put Shira’s husband into isolation in jail until he agreed to give her a get. He gave in.
THE VETO right the state grants men over women’s freedom is unconscionable. In cases of domestic violence, when the Rabbinical Courts essentially hand the keys to a woman’s freedom over to her abuser, it is dangerous and life-threatening.
Women trapped in abusive marriages are often told by their abusive husbands that they will never let them go, that they will never remarry, that they will never have children. What kind of world have we created where the justice system sides with the abuser and punishes the victim?
This is a problem that has solutions – solutions that cost nothing to implement and actually save lives. Why doesn’t the government insist these measures be taken to protect women?
The truth? It is all tied up in the status-quo agreements with the religious parties – but it is time people realized that status quo is a euphemism for sacrificing women’s lives. This is not an internal political matter. This is a choice that kills women.
According to studies done by the Rackman Center at Bar-Ilan University, one in five women going through divorce will experience get abuse. Many more will give up on their rights in order to avoid being trapped by their husbands. It is estimated that there are thousands of women who suffer ongoing trauma and abuse in this way.
In the past year, when domestic violence rates skyrocketed – the highest number of cases reported in any month in 2019 was under 400; in May 2020 alone there were 1,800 – there has actually been a decrease in divorce rates.
What are we seeing? Certainly not happy families. We are seeing thousands of women trapped in abusive marriages. Our government has locked the door and thrown away the key. And then everyone is shocked when women like Diana Raz are murdered.
If we want to help these women, there is a lot we can do. Start by reforming the Rabbinical Courts.   
The writer is chairwoman of Mavoi Satum.