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Panel Featuring Current Agunah Confronts Crisis

“Ten years ago,” said Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) Director Rabbi Jeremy Stern, “a panel was organized to raise awareness for prenuptial agreements to avoid future agunah [married woman whose husband refuses to divorce her] situations. Two Stern students, through no fault of their own, didn’t hear the panel. No one told them about the prenuptial. One of them waited two years for a ­get (bill of religious divorce). The other continues to wait for four years. That woman is Tamar Epstein.”

“I wish I had been at the Agunah panel in my sophomore year,” Tamar Epstein said. She was one of four panelists, including Rabbi Herschel Schechter, Rabbi Jeremy Stern and Dr. David Pelcovitz who spoke to an unexpectedly large crowd at Weissberg Commons on March 29. Each speaker brought a different perspective on the “Agunah Crisis.” The panel was the final event in TAC’s domestic violence awareness week.

Dr. Pelcovitz spoke of the psychological domestic violence women face when fighting for a ­get. He quoted a study commissioned by ORA revealing that one-fifth of agunot at some point contemplate self-harm due to the emotional stress. He also mentioned that functional MRIs reveal that the same parts of the brain light up under emotional and physical abuse.

Dr. Pelcovitz stressed the difference between negotiation and abuse. Abuse is “an issue of control,” he affirmed. “The second you use halakha to wring out control from the other party, you have crossed the line into abuse,” he said.

Rabbi Herschel Schechter stressed prevention through prenuptial arrangements. The two-fold contract would establish a beit din (religious court) that both parties agree to use should divorce proceedings arise, and an agreement that would come into effect should the beit din find the husband to be acting improperly. The contract, enforceable under United States law, would force the husband to pay high alimony charges ($150 every day) until a get is given.

Rabbi Jeremy Stern spoke of ORA’s role within agunah proceedings. “We first try to resolve things amicably. We facilitate the beit din process. We open up lines of communication,” he explained.  He continued, “But when all these options are exhausted we will use any civilly legal, halakhik means of placing pressure.” Rabbi Stern stressed that ORA carefully investigates “all the facts” prior to taking action. Once ORA feels that the husband has crossed a “red line,” ORA will launch a campaign that may include insisting that local rabbis and community members pressure the me’agen (recalcitrant husband) to give his wife a ­get. On some occasions, such as in Tamar Epstein’s case, they hold multiple public protests.

Tamar Epstein, a graduate of SCW, then got up to speak. Her speech brought some to tears. Epstein had a “perfect childhood.” She had “a great education.” But a week into her marriage, she knew it wouldn’t work. She remained silent for two years until she finally demanded a divorce.

Her ex-husband, Aharon Friedman, has refused to grant her a ­get. Unhappy with the civil divorce proceedings regarding visitation rights for his daughter, Friedman is attempting to use the ­get as a way to force Tamar to grant him more time with his daughter. According to documents published by ORA, “Maryland courts have ruled repeatedly that it is in the best interests of their daughter for her to remain primarily with Epstein in Philadelphia.”  Indeed, Epstein held back tears as she said, “After five court hearings and three batei din, the most shocking and painful thing is Aharon Friedman’s refusal to grant me a ­get.”

In September 2011 the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada issued a seruv, a letter of excommunication against Friedman. The letter detailed how the community would enforce the order of contempt.  He would be refused aliyot (honorary participation in the Torah-reading service). He wouldn’t even be allowed into synagogues. The letter was signed by Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky and Rabbi Herscel Schechter.

Since then, despite articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other publications, Friedman refuses to grant Epstein a ­get.

“My message to Aaron Friedman is that if you truly love our daughter, give her mother a ­get,” Rabbi Stern said forcefully, looking into the camera that was streaming the panel live to

The panel was organized by the newly formed Agunah Advocacy Club spearheaded by SCW sophomore Huvie Yagod. “I knew Tamar. She was my high school history teacher. When I learned about ORA I knew it was a credible organization. I started caring and starting learning how important it was,” said Yagod.  Under Yagod’s leadership the club has organized many rallies and consciousness awareness events. The club recently placed a copy of the prenuptial agreement under every single dorm room at Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women. A few Sundays ago, Yagod even ended up leading an agunah rally in Brooklyn. “I asked myself how I got to this place. I realized it’s a matter about caring enough for an issue that I would do anything in my power to change this issue,” Yagod told me.

Atara Siegel, a SCW sophomore who also works for the Agunah Advocacy Club, said, “when halakha is distorted and used for abuse purposes, if we don’t stand up and stay something, it’s as if we are tacitly supporting it.”

Meira Zack, Assistant Director of ORA and recent SCW graduate, noticed the unexpected turnout. “The difference between last year’s panel and this year’s panel is tremendous. Much of that has to do with Tamar’s story as a SCW graduate.”

While Tamar Epstein’s story was moving, much of the evening was dedicated to raising communal standards for using the prenuptials. “Our communal standard must be that ­gets are given immediately after divorce,” Epstein said. “Divorce brings out the worst in people,” said Rabbi Stern, “so you want to sign the prenuptial now.” Rabbi Stern stressed the need for the document. “Ten years ago, if every YU student signed the agreement, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Rabbi Stern did admit that the halakhic prenuptial isn’t exactly the most romantic document, “but neither is the ketuba; in fact, it’s a divorce document.” He said that if someone won’t sign the contract, “do not marry them. It’s a red flag… What the prenuptial says to your partner is I love you and I care for you.”

ORA’s new campaign is entitled “Friends Don’t Let Friends ­get Married Without A Prenup.” ORA distributed its “Binding Arbitration Agreement” along with a letter signed by almost all YU roshei yeshiva encouraging engaged couples to sign the halakhic prenuptial after the event.

“We hope to be out of business in ten years,” said Meira Zack. “And we certainly shouldn’t see any more cases of Yeshiva University alumni.”

One Yeshiva University couple took the first step, after the event. With friends as eidim, (witnesses) they signed the halakhik prenuptial.