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Jewish women look to courts to obtain traditional divorce decree

February 25, 2008

SOURCE: Lisa J. Huriash South Florida SUN SENTINEL
Freedom will come soon, in the form of a handwritten paper with 12 lines of Hebrew and Aramaic.Since Karen Gruber-Colp’s marriage came apart a year ago with a divorce filing, her ex-husband has failed to give her a “get,” a Jewish divorce document that permits her to remarry.On Valentine’s Day, she appealed to Broward Circuit Judge Jack Tuter to force her ex-husband to give her the document. Tuter’s order requires him to comply by Thursday.”Thank God,” Colp said after the hearing. “This was huge. This could have gone on for the rest of my life.”The 35-year-old Colp, of Dania Beach, is one of a growing number of observant Jewish women throughout the country turning to the secular civil courts to fix what religious leaders are calling a crisis in the community. For the last year, Colp has been an “agunah,” a Hebrew word meaning “a woman chained to a dead marriage.”Observant women need their husbands to grant them a divorce. But some Jewish leaders say angry men are keeping their wives in limbo to get a greater share of money or property or just for spite.To help women like Colp, the South Florida chapter of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, or WIZO, is proposing legislation that would impact the distribution of assets in a divorce if one spouse imposes “barriers to remarriage” that are either religious or secular.The legislation has one sponsor so far: state Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres. If WIZO finds a House sponsor, the issue could be debated in Tallahassee in March.”This to me is not a religious issue as much as it is a fairness issue,” Aronberg said.New York has had what is known as a “Get Law” since the early 1980s. It provides that a civil divorce will not be granted unless all impediments to remarriage have been removed. Legislators in Maryland are considering a similar bill.Others with get laws include Scotland, Canada, England and South Africa. In Israel, where the religious courts have enforcement powers, men who refuse to give a get can lose a driver’s license, the ability to hold public office, their credit cards, bank accounts and civil service jobs. They can even be sent to prison.In Israel’s most notorious case, a Yemenite Jew spent 35 years in prison until he died, saying he would never give his wife a get. His wife was 65 when he died and she married a month later, said Sharon Shenhav, a Jerusalem-based women’s rights lawyer.”The problem exists in every Jewish community in the world,” she said. “When you’re getting divorced, people aren’t usually too happy with each other and there’s a lot of anger.” She said a man holding out on the get “is sheer blackmail.”To help the women, more rabbis are encouraging couples to sign a pre-nuptial agreement containing sanctions for not signing a get, said Rabbi David Lehrfield, of the Young Israel synagogue in North Miami Beach, and some are even refusing to marry couples unless both sign.In addition, some Jewish newspapers publish the names of men who refuse to give their wives a get in an effort to embarrass them into compliance. For example, on Feb. 9 The Jewish Press, a national newspaper, published the names of nine men who had been ordered to give their wives a get dating back to 2002.Also, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in New York began a telephone support program this past fall, said Batya Levin, the co-chairwoman of the Agunah Task Force. “It’s hand holding,” said Levin. “Women in this situation get to feel so lonely.”And Yehoshua Zev, the executive director of ORA (The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot) in New York, said he organizes “social pressure” to the men “to convince them to fulfill their moral, ethic and religious obligation to free their wives.”First ORA appeals to their common sense, Zev said. If that doesn’t work, ORA offers to pay the estimated $500 to have a scribe write the get. The next step is supplying names to Jewish newspapers. In a last resort, the group will have men demonstrate in front of his home and work place.A rally this week is being contemplated for the front of one man’s house in south Palm Beach County, although ORA declined to release details about the man. “He hasn’t given his wife a `get’ for 10 years,” Zev said. “We worked it out with the police. The goal isn’t to harm the person. It’s to educate him he has to do the right thing.”Colp said her life has been on hold until now. Without a get, “no rabbi will marry you,” she said. “And in most religious communities, most observant Jews will not even date you if you don’t have a get — you are considered to be married and you are considered to be committing adultery. So I can’t even date.”
Warren Shiell is a divorce and family law lawyer in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills

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