April 13, 2024
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The Freedom to Advocate: Making a Difference for Agunot

In recent weeks, the Jewish news has been full of updates on a recent case in New Jersey involving Jewish divorce, restraining orders, and more. But what is this case actually about? And what does it mean for all of us who care about agunot?

For those unfamiliar, an agunah is a woman chained to a dead marriage, unable to fully divorce religiously despite the fact that her marriage has ended long ago. Get refusal is also a form of domestic abuse, in which one partner uses the Jewish divorce to hold onto power and control. In S.B.B. v. L.B.B., the case at hand, the issue of Jewish divorce came to a head in a New Jersey courtroom, spurring a debate about agunah advocacy and who has the right to tell their story.

My ultimate focus here is what this case means, rather than the case itself—so out of respect for the parties’ privacy, I’ll keep my discussion of the facts limited. In a nutshell, during a complex get situation, a woman filmed a video asking the community to help her convince her husband to give her a get, or Jewish divorce. On the basis of this video, the husband filed for a restraining order and received one, with the judge noting that the husband had a reason to fear violence based on the wife’s plea for help. The New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division then overturned the initial ruling, determining that the trial court’s decision to issue the restraining order on that basis was flawed. The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), along with the ACLU and other agencies, filed an amicus brief in the appeal, explaining to the court why this case is so important for others navigating Jewish divorce in New Jersey.

Why does this ruling matter? In law, we are not only interested in the outcome of a case, but how that case will in turn impact other cases. In S.B.B., the Court’s decision not only resolved a long-standing conflict in one case, but it sets the tone for how agunot in New Jersey and across the country can pursue their freedom. In its decision, the Court affirms the right of agunot to advocate for their freedom using technology and social media, which is a crucial avenue and one of the limited tools agunot have available to them. The Court also noted that while some in the past have attempted to help agunot through violence, there is a whole universe of agunah advocacy that is nonviolent. The simple fact that another person, upon hearing the video’s message, might choose to be violent is not enough to limit free speech in this case. To make this point, the Court quoted the decision in Bartnicki v. Vopper (52 U.S. 514, 529-30 (2001)) that it “would be quite remarkable to hold that speech by a law-abiding [speaker]…. can be suppressed in order to deter conduct by a non-law-abiding third party.” In its decision, the Court noted that agunot have the constitutional right to speak freely, and that some vague potential of violence is not enough to interfere with the individual’s freedom of speech.

But while the Appellate Court’s work may be done, our work as a community is not. There are two critical places where we, as a collective, can step up and make a difference.

First, when those struggling with Jewish divorce seek community support, step up.

The freedom to speak is most valuable when the community is ready to listen. Divorce cases are complex, messy and uncomfortable—and contested get cases are even more so. Resist the urge to ignore the problem, and instead find out how you can help. While agunah advocacy is much more complicated than a simple social media share—for starters, always make sure the individual themself has agency in the process!—100 small steps make a powerful collaborative impact. Get involved.

Second, S.B.B. highlights one way in which individuals manipulate the legal system to perpetuate abuse.

Unfortunately, for many survivors of intimate partner violence, the abuse doesn’t end when they leave—it’s just getting started. It has become increasingly common for get refusers to threaten and follow through with lawsuits against their spouses and advocates.

Because of this growing concern, ORA has recently created a Get Legal Defense Network to match abusive lawsuits with pro bono attorneys. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact [email protected].

For the attorneys we work with, partnering with ORA has been a way to use their legal skills to create meaningful change. Akiva Shapiro, a partner at Gibson Dunn, noted that the recent New Jersey decision “will help bolster the legal protections for agunot and advocates fighting on their behalf, including ORA.” Shapiro added: “I’m thrilled to be part of ORA’s legal network, and look forward to continuing to partner with them in their critical legal work” Kramer Levin’s Boaz Cohen has also taken on pro bono work on behalf of ORA clients. As Cohen put it, “I have been deeply troubled by the plight of agunot for many years, and also dismayed by the weaponization of Halacha and desecration of our community’s values. When I had the opportunity to partner with ORA on behalf of an agunah, I jumped at the chance, and I have found it tremendously gratifying to be personally involved in this collective effort rather than remaining on the sidelines.” David Yolkut, of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, added that “it’s an honor to be affiliated with ORA, an organization I’ve long admired for its dedication to and advocacy for the cause of agunot. Those of us on the legal council look forward to further supporting ORA’s important mission.”

All this is just the beginning—we welcome your involvement in growing ORA’s legal network. Together, we can show agunot and advocates that they are not battling alone. May we see a year of freedom, support and collective action–and may we finally create a community where get refusal is an issue of the past.


Keshet Starr, Esq., is the CEO of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), the nonprofit organization seeking to eliminate abuse from the Jewish divorce process. ORA works within the parameters of Jewish law and civil law to advocate for the timely and unconditional issuance of a get. Starr lives in Hillside with her husband and four children.

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