It was reported after the Gulf War that one of the merits responsible for ending a vicious SCUD bombing attack without injuries was an agunah who stepped into the street and declared publicly that she forgave her “husband” for decades of refusal to issue a get, a Halachic writ of divorce (From Our Sealed Rooms, Targum Press, 1991).
One of the most challenging situations to manage in Jewish law is the circumstance that creates an agunah—literally a woman “chained or anchored” to marriage by halacha. In current times, an agunah refers primarily to a woman whose husband refuses to issue a contract of Jewish divorce—even when they both agree that they no longer want to be married to each other. The main consequences of this refusal are that an agunah is confined by Jewish law, socially and emotionally trapped, unable to put a failed marriage behind her or proceed to a potential new relationship—until the former one is halachically terminated.
Given this background, the JLNJ recently interviewed Mrs. Keshet Starr, an attorney who works with ORA, The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot. Starr originally attended law school with the intention of working in public interest and family law, and interned in a legal services organization dealing with Orthodox victims of domestic abuse. Her experience there clarified the importance of being able to address the issues of family violence and abuse, and she pursued this area throughout and following law school, eventually leading her to ORA. Starr uses her legal qualifications and experience through her work at ORA to address the critical issue of agunot in the world community.
JLNJ asked Starr to describe the mission and definition of ORA. Foremost, ORA is not a legal services organization. It is “a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the infliction of abuse in the Jewish divorce process. The objective is to assure that the Jewish divorce process is conducted with fairness and dignity, and never turned into a weapon to hurt others.” While legal strategies are a core element of their approach, ORA is not a law office specializing in “get-refusal” cases. Rather, ORA employs creative strategies to mediate resolution to get refusal. Maybe a stronger description might read: the persuasion of a “get refuser” to abandon his refusal and replace it with a get. To achieve this goal, ORA works within two boundaries: Jewish law and civil law.
Each get-refusal case is unique. And, as long as the process is both halachic and legal, Starr said that they employ multiple strategies to focus on what will succeed in a particular case, including behind-the-scenes facilitation, social media attention, demonstrations or retaining pro-bono attorneys who can bring a lawsuit as part of securing a get. Some of these strategies, recorded live, can be viewed on YouTube; others are posted on the ORA website.
Starr makes a point of noting that understanding the role of Jewish law in the agunah crisis, as well as opportunities for resolving it, are not easy matters. Specifically, states Starr, a threshold issue that’s important to emphasize is that get refusers are not abiding by Jewish law, but rather defying it. Frequently a Beit Din (Jewish religious court) has already acknowledged his violation by issuing a seruv or a “contempt of court” edict to a recalcitrant husband. However, much as halachic violations of other sorts are not enforceable in a civil court, the tools for enforcing a get are limited.
Starr notes that ORA also mediates the get process across the religious spectrum ranging from non-Orthodox to insular Chasidic cases. When considering solutions, it is also with a panoramic view to help assure that Jewish people can continue with their lives by dating and marrying freely. To this end, Starr emphasized that a major focus of ORA’s efforts is centered on the standardization of pre-nuptial agreements. She advocates that the “upgraded wedding checklist” read: “Dress, Flowers, Prenup.” The prenuptial agreement meets the strictures of both halacha and civil law. ORA’s home page boasts a record of prenups with a 100 percent no-fail rate, relative to the issue of a get and agunot. Pretty impressive. Starr concludes with conviction that if every engaged couple signs a prenup before their wedding, the agunah crisis will effectively end within the next generation. How refreshing to imagine a Jewish world with no agunot!
Contact ORA for information or educational programs by calling 212-795-0791 or online at [email protected]
By Ellie Wolf