Defending women, legally

The Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University celebrates 20 years

Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari (left) on July 14, 2018 at a reception at the French Embassy in Geneva, together with members of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), including the then-president Hilary Gbedemah (from Ghana) and Nicole Ameline (from France), forme (photo credit: COURTESY BIU)
Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari (left) on July 14, 2018 at a reception at the French Embassy in Geneva, together with members of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), including the then-president Hilary Gbedemah (from Ghana) and Nicole Ameline (from France), forme
(photo credit: COURTESY BIU)
Only a few months after her wedding “Na’ama” found herself in a dreadful marriage. The 40-year-old molecular biologist realized that her husband was mentally unstable and an alcoholic. He was fired from his job and he’d lost their money.  After she moved out she discovered she was pregnant.  “He begged me to come back and said he’d reformed and gone to rehab, but when I returned after the baby was born he began to be violent.”
Na’ama’s husband was arrested and sent to prison for seven months, but even after his release, he continued harassing her, and was ordered by the court to stay away from her.
Though she repeatedly filed for divorce, Na’ama’s husband refused to grant her a get (a Jewish decree of divorce).
In Israel, religious law governs all family matters. There is no civil marriage or divorce, which (between Jews) are under the jurisdiction of government-sanctioned rabbinical courts. As specified in Jewish law, it is the husband who must grant a divorce       
Without a get, a woman cannot re-marry. She is considered an aguna, a so-called chained wife, and if she has children with another man they are regarded as mamzerim, children born of a forbidden sexual union, who will themselves be restricted from marrying any other Jew but a mamzer.
“I kept going to the rabbinical court to ask for a divorce, but they wouldn’t help,” relates Na’ama. In desperation, she turned to the Legal Aid Program of The Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.  Founded to promote legal and social change for women in Israeli family law, the center runs a legal aid clinic which offers legal advice and representation in family disputes and divorce proceedings. With four full-time lawyers and trained volunteers who run the help line, the center provides pro bono representation in civil and religious courts, particularly women in financial distress or those with potential precedent-setting cases.
The Rackman Center took over Na’ama’s case, shepherding it through the rabbinical court and providing her with psychological help. The (now ex-) husband granted the divorce when threatened with prison. “The center literally saved my life, I think God sent them to me,” exclaims Na’ama, who has since given birth to another child with a new partner.
International Women’s Day on March 8 seemed a fitting anniversary for the Rackman Center, established 20 years ago by Rabbi Prof. Emanuel Rackman, at the time chancellor of Bar-Ilan University (and previously the first American president of Bar-Ilan). Rackman was a towering academic and spiritual figure in the Modern Orthodox community who argued for a more flexible interpretation of Orthodoxy and the relevance of traditional Jewish law to modern life, fighting particularly for women unable to get a Jewish divorce.
“Rabbi Rackman paid a high price for that, because his views were controversial, and solutions that he offered were deemed too radical by the Orthodox establishment, but he was really extremely brave,” states the center’s Founding Academic Director, Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari.
The Legal Aid Program is one of the many Rackman Center activities, which include appeals to the Supreme Court and the Grand Rabbinical Court, preparation of  bills and amendments to advance legislative reforms and advising policy-makers. Its “Lawyers of Tomorrow” program trains law students in family law and feminist theory.  The “Woman by Your Side” program provides continuous psychosocial support for women going through divorce, in addition to the legal aid.
“We’re very proud of this program,” says the center’s Director-General Keren Horowitz. “We weave this together with our legal aid program. It took us some time to realize how essential this part is in each woman’s struggle in this delicate time in her life, of separation and maybe divorce.”
The Rackman Center annually assists some 500 women in receiving legal and psycho-social support and litigates 40 cases before the religious and civil courts in Israel, including the High Court of Justice (all pro bono). Trained volunteers run the center’s help line.
 “What really distinguishes us from other centers is the unique combination and synergy between being a civil society organization of activists, together with the research, expertise and knowledge that we develop as an academic center,” explains Halperin-Kaddari, who served for 12 years as a member (and four years as vice president) of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
“Unlike other organizations we carry out legal action across the board, the full range of litigations that can arise in any family law disputes, in civil courts, all the way up to the court of appeals, as well as rabbinical courts,” she says, adding that the “issue of religion and state and its impact on the status of women is central to the issue of women’s rights in Israel, including the area of the exclusion of women. We are very much involved in this from the perspective of the religious sphere.”
The Rabbinate’s total and coercive control of personal status issues has long caused furor among Jews both in Israel and abroad.  A growing number of secular Israelis go abroad to get married in civil procedures, while many observant Jews (from all Jewish denominations) marry in private religious ceremonies in Israel, though this may lead to uncertainty as to their personal status and legal rights as married couples. One significant feature in many of those private ceremonies is the fact that they are performed by women.
Following up on this development, the Rackman Center has initiated a High Court petition regarding the ability of women to perform marriages under the Rabbinate. “Religious law doesn’t specify this but as we know there are no women who officiate in marriages,” points out Horowitz, who is also director of the center’s Public Policy and Advocacy Unit. “We believe that women should be allowed to carry out any position that is not specifically forbidden by Halacha,” she says.
Horowitz cites another of the center’s Supreme Court appeals representing a woman denied her share of property following her divorce because she was accused of being unfaithful.  The case went through an unusual process of an extended panel of nine justices rehearing the case. “This was quite unprecedented,” states Horowitz. “What we’re trying to establish is a ruling that property should be divided according to civil law, even in cases where the rabbinical court is ruling differently,” she says. “These cases will have implications for all women in Israel.”
For more information:
The Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center
The Faculty of Law, Bar-Ilan University,
  Ramat Gan
http://rackmancenter.com/en/home/
+972-3-5318895