No more chains

Groups launch new push to get couples to ‘Wine and Sign’ halachic agreements to prevent agunot

Series of events across Israel, funded by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, looks to remove stigma from prenuptial and postnuptial agreements

Sweets and bottles of wine were laid out on the dining room table of Neil and Aliza Gillman as they welcomed married couples and soon-to-be married couples into their Jerusalem home earlier this month for the kickoff of a summer of “Wine and Sign” events for so-called halachic prenuptial and postnuptial agreements.

The Gillmans signed a prenup before their wedding in Israel almost 19 years ago. But Aliza said they understood that the postnuptial agreement sponsored by the Center for Women’s Justice that was available for signing that evening – overseen by lawyers and with two male witnesses who are considered valid under Orthodox interpretations of halacha, or Jewish law – is more broadly respected and is more extensive in its coverage of issues.

“We signed our first prenup so many years ago it wasn’t so common then,” Aliza Gillman said. At the time, she told her soon-to-be-husband that the issue was not one of not trusting him, but rather of being part of a “movement that makes this something standard so that when my children go to get married it will be natural. It is the only solution to the problem,” she said.

The problem she was referring to is the issue of mesuravot get — literally meaning women who are denied a get, either because the husband refuses to give her a divorce or is physically unable to give her a get because he is missing or incapacitated. In those latter cases, the woman is considered an aguna, literally a chained woman, though the term is often used whenever a woman is denied a divorce for any reason.

There is no consensus on the number of women who are currently being denied a get in Israel. The country’s Chief Rabbinate once published statistics on the phenomenon but stopped in recent years because its numbers were found to be misleading as they only included women whom rabbinic courts had ruled deserved a get and were being denied one, a designation that can take years to receive and excluded the vast majority of women whose husbands were refusing to issue a divorce. 

According to Mavoi Satum, which assists women who are denied a get, each year an estimated 11,000 Jewish women over the age of 18 divorce in Israel, out of which nearly 20% experience varying levels of exploitation and get refusal during their divorce process. “Couples need to protect themselves and halachic prenuptial and conditional agreements offer such a solution,” the organization’s executive director, attorney Orit Lahav, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

These agreements are meant to prevent women from being denied a get, using various halachic and civil mechanisms to make it incredibly difficult for a man to withhold a get or a woman to refuse to accept one.

“At least once a year I have a friend who is getting divorced and is denied a get — religious, secular, with children, without children,” said Aliza Gillman, sipping a glass of wine as she and her husband prepared to sign the halachic postnuptial agreement as well.

The event at the Gillmans home in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood on June 8 was part of a series of signing events organized by Mavoi Satum; the Center for Women’s Justice, which both provides legal services to women in divorce cases and advocates for greater separation of religion and state in Israel; and the Eden Center, which provides resources and support relating to mikvahs, or ritual baths. The series is being funded by a $34,700 grant from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Women’s Amutot (Foundations) Initiative. 

When the initiative announced its grants earlier this year, it said the recipients were “organizations in Israel that empower women to improve Israeli society through social, economic, religious, and political equality.” In addition to the grant for the joint initiative by Mavoi Satum and Center for Women’s Justice, the federation allocated another $11,500 to Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’Isha Legal Center, which also helps women being denied a get, for a similar effort to raise awareness of prenuptial agreements. 

CWJ, Mavoi Satum, Yad La’Isha and the Eden Center are all primarily funded by donations from American Jewish organizations and foundations, including many federation-affiliated women’s funds, like Miami’s Women’s Amutot Initiative.

The first event was held in English, but the four other events that are currently planned – another in Jerusalem and three in nearby communities – will be geared toward Hebrew-speaking Israelis. 

One challenge in mainstreaming the agreements is a reluctance to think about potential future problems at a time of beginnings and wedding excitement, Lahav said. On the cusp of marriage, it is natural to think “it won’t happen to me” and that there is no need to sign a preventative agreement, she said, but everyone knows relationships change with time and difficult situations can arise down the line.

Signing in such a social event with other members of the community helps remove the “why,” of signing, according to Rachel Stomel, a spokesperson for CWJ. When everyone else is doing it, it becomes a festive party event.

People have also become more inclined to protect themselves because there has been more media exposure about the tribulations people are made to go through to obtain a get through the Chief Rabbinate, she noted. There is also a “ripple effect” on awareness in the community, Stomel added. “A lot of people have heard about the agreements, but being introduced to it by someone they already trust is a good thing,” she said.

Israel, with its lack of civil divorce, is a rarity in the Western world, Lahav noted. The specific nature of divorce under the Chief Rabbinate’s interpretations of Jewish law also tips the scales of power in those proceedings in favor of men, she said. A man is required to willingly grant a divorce to a woman, and if he does not do so, the woman has no direct recourse: she cannot remarry or enter an intimate relationship with another man; any child she has by another man will be considered a mamzer, roughly meaning an illegitimate child, which would prevent them (and their offspring) from getting married in the future. While women can refuse to accept a get from a husband, men can receive special dispensation to remarry, and any child they father would not be considered a mamzer.

“This inequality leads to terrible situations for thousands of Jewish Israeli women who remain trapped in unwanted and abusive marriages and often find themselves vulnerable to exploitation and blackmail in trying to gain their freedom within a court system that discriminates against women by law,” Lahav said.

By signing a legal document agreement the responsibility to love and cherish each other is formalized, said Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet of the Eden Center, which focuses on making the mikveh experience a personally meaningful and welcoming one for women. Though the center itself is not involved with the legal aspects of agunot and gets, it trains teachers of marriage preparatory lessons, and they bring in people to talk about the halachic prenuptial agreements.

“We as a community need to make a statement about having some sense of equality and partnership and how we protect each other. Over time things got a little out of kilter, and people have forgotten that the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) was meant to instill those values,” said Grumet.

Religious couples generally ask questions to make sure rabbis support the agreements to confirm they are making decisions that are aligned with religious practice, Lahav said.

“The answer is that yes, many rabbis endorse the agreements, and, in the US, we even have a trend among modern religious rabbis who will not officiate a wedding without a signed halachic prenup agreement,” she said.

Stomel explained that CWJ’s prenup uses a subtle workaround to disincentivize refusing a get, while not explicitly and directly punishing a husband for doing so, which would fall afoul of the requirement that a man issue a divorce freely: Instead of fining the man for refusing to get divorced, the agreement penalizes the recalcitrant husband for staying married. It is an insignificant distinction in practical terms, but it means that “halachically it is kosher,” Stomel said.

While there are slight differences in the halachic aspects of the pre- and postnuptial agreements, the civil aspects are the same, Stomel said, and include legal mechanisms to prevent get refusal and get extortion. These portions are enforced by Israeli civil courts.

In addition, the agreements prevent women from becoming agunot should their husbands become incapacitated or missing in cases of war or accidents. (This occurred in Israel in 1968 when the INS Dakar submarine sunk with 69 men on board; as their remains were never recovered, the widows of the 16 married seamen were left in a state of limbo for over a year until a rabbinic ruling was issued releasing them from marriage.) The documents allow for a shaliach, a representative, to present the wife with a get in such cases.

Shira Pasternak-Beeri and her husband Leonard, who served as one of the male witnesses at the “Wine and Sign” event, recently signed their own postnuptial agreement after a brush with disaster, she told eJP.

One day, a year and a half ago, Leonard had a heart attack and collapsed while playing a game of squash and was rushed to the hospital. “Suddenly I had the realization that this might be my life,” Pasternak-Beeri said.

After he recovered, they signed CWJ’s postnuptial agreement. “It was the biggest present Leonard could give me,” Pasternak-Beeri said. “He said: ‘If I can’t release you then I want the beit din (rabbinic court) to release you.’” Since then he has also come as a volunteer halachic witness to the signing of the agreements.

Both the prenuptial and postnuptial agreements have halachic backing of prominent Israeli rabbis, she said. Stomel said the halachic portion of the post-nuptial is based on a similar document used by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, who wrote the ruling freeing the widows of the Dakar sinking. The army would require married soldiers to sign such a document before going to war, Stomel noted.

The Rabbinical Council of America, the Beit Din of America and Tzohar all offer similar prenuptial agreements.

“Different halachic prenup agreements exist, and while Mavoi Satum has a specific agreement we endorse, our approach is to encourage couples to sign any version since all the halachic agreements in circulation will provide a safety net of protection in cases of need,” Lahav said.

Zacharia, who asked that his last name not be used, had come to hear about the CWJ agreement, but left with his fianceé without signing because in the end he wasn’t assured that the format would be accepted by the rabbinate because it was written by a “feminist group.” He said he felt more comfortable signing the Tzohar agreement, believing it would be more acceptable to rabbinical state authorities.

Because these various pre- and postnuptial agreements are still fairly new, there is not yet much data on how effective they have been in divorce proceedings yet, Lahav said.

“Marriage should be approached with all the excitement and promise it holds, but we can also be responsible and protect ourselves from potential risks that exist within the reality of the system in Israel today,” she said. “The halachic prenuptial agreements provide us with this protection from divorce refusal and becoming agunot.”