Shun get re­fuser, urges lead­ing rabbi

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY LIANNE KOLIRIN

A LEAD­ING Amer­i­can rabbi has called on the Jewish com­mu­nity to shun an Ortho­dox Bri­tish man who is re­fus­ing to grant his es­tranged wife a re­li­gious di­vorce.

Rabbi Her­shel Schachter, known within the in­ter­na­tional Charedi com­mu­nity for his Tal­mu­dic schol­ar­ship and ha­lachic rul­ings, has is­sued an edict call­ing for com­mu­nal sanc­tions against Joseph Yossi Gurvitz, a for­mer pupil at Has­monean High School.

Rabbi Schachter, who is based in New York, crit­i­cised Mr Gurvitz, who grew up in Hen­don, north-west Lon­don, for con­tin­u­ing to “refuse to is­sue his wife a get through a rep­utable and ac­cept­able Beth Din”.

Mr Gurvitz and his wife, Jenny Man­del­baum Gurvitz, were mar­ried in Los An­ge­les in 2003. They have three chil­dren. They sep­a­rated in March 2015 af­ter an episode of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence for which Mr Gurvitz was con­victed.

Rabbi Schachter de­scribed 35-year-old Mr Gurvitz as “the re­cal­ci­trant hus­band” and called for mem­bers of the com­mu­nity to avoid speak­ing to him, “other than when ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary”, adding: “Mem­bers of the Jewish com­mu­nity should de­cline to host him in their homes, or to pro­vide him with food or drink, or in­vite him to their par­ties or oth­er­wise so­cialise with him.”

He urged com­mu­nal in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing syn­a­gogues not to em­ploy him or give him a voluntary or elected po­si­tion, nor al­low him to hold mem­ber­ship.

In ad­di­tion, the rabbi called for Mr Gurvitz’s name “to be an­nounced on a reg­u­lar monthly ba­sis at the con­clu­sion of Shab­bat ser­vices” and pub­lished in any bulletins “with re­spect to his re­fusal to de­liver a get to his wife”.

Speak­ing from Cal­i­for­nia, Ms Gurvitz said: “This has been such a night­mare for so long and has caused so much suf­fer­ing. He needs to ful­fil his fa­therly obli­ga­tions and give me a kosher get.”

Dayan Yis­roel Licht­en­stein, thead of the Fed­er­a­tion of Syn­a­gogues’ Beth Din in the UK, said: “We sup­port Rabbi Schachter’s de­ci­sion.”

Dayan Licht­en­stein was in­volved in the di­vorce pro­ceed­ings of Mr Gurvitz’s own par­ents, which he de­scribed as hav­ing been “very com­pli­cated”.

Rabbi Schachter has been backed by or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Res­o­lu­tion of Agunot (ORA), which seeks to elim­i­nate abuse from the Jewish di­vorce process.

An ORA spokesman: “ORA be­lieves that the pro­tracted re­fusal to is­sue or re­ceive a get is a form of do­mes­tic abuse which must never be tol­er­ated.

“Mr Gurvitz con­tin­ues to ex­ert power and con­trol over Ms Gurvitz, pre­vent­ing her from re­mar­ry­ing and caus­ing her im­mense per­sonal suf­fer­ing and an­guish daily.”

Mr Gurvitz did not re­spond to re­peated at­tempts to con­tact him for a com­ment.

AWOMAN FALLS into a pit. “Help!” she cries. Alarmed, peo­ple gather around and see that she’s just be­yond reach. A man, think­ing she must be cold, grabs a blan­ket from a nearby lad­der and sends it down. “Thank you,” she says, “but I’d re­ally like to get out of here. Maybe use the…”

“No telling how long you’ll be there,” yells an­other man and rushes to get her a sand­wich, trip­ping over a long rope. “Could you please just…”

“Let’s pray for her sal­va­tion!” says a kind wo­man. To­gether they be­seech the heav­ens.

If this sounds bizarre even for Chelm, it may be shock­ing to know that in Jerusalem, stranger things are hap­pen­ing. Well-in­ten­tioned but deeply mis­guided sug­ges­tions are be­ing made to help agunot, women whose hus­bands are un­able or un­will­ing to re­lease them from mar­riage. Far from help­ing women in this sit­u­a­tion, these pro­pos­als only serve to en­trench the idea of agunot as a fact of life to be ac­com­mo­dated — and not an in­tol­er­a­ble sit­u­a­tion to be erad­i­cated.

A real-life story that illustrates the con­se­quences of be­ing an agu­nah: Sara and Ben moved to Is­rael from Ar­gentina. Five years later, Ben went back “to col­lect an in­her­i­tance” and didn’t re­turn. Sara dis­cov­ered he had taken her ke­tubah (mar­riage con­tract, meant to re­main in the wife’s pos­ses­sion), ID, and all their money.

Within weeks, col­lec­tors re­pos­sessed nearly every­thing in the house to cover Ben’s debts. Sara couldn’t rid her­self of his debts with­out a di­vorce, and she couldn’t get a di­vorce with­out his par­tic­i­pa­tion. In Is­rael, there is no civil di­vorce, only re­li­gious di­vorce which means a hus­band must present a get (Jewish writ of di­vorce) to his wife to free her.

Her “mar­ried” sta­tus meant that with­out her hus­band’s per­mis­sion, she had lim­ited author­ity, from fi­nances to med­i­cal de­ci­sions. Even­tu­ally, she en­tered into a new re­la­tion­ship and be­came preg­nant

Be­cause she was of­fi­cially still mar­ried, any child born from an­other man would be a “mamzer” — an il­le­git­i­mate child, born of a pro­hib­ited re­la­tion­ship, who may only marry an­other mamzer or a con­vert. The de­scen­dants of mamz­erim are mamz­erim for­ever. It is a ter­ri­ble sta­tus that rab­bis have tra­di­tion­ally gone to great lengths to pre­vent and, with great pain, Sara aborted the preg­nancy.

Later, when her el­dest daugh­ter tried to reg­is­ter for mar­riage, the Rab­binate de­manded: “Prove you’re Jewish.” The same body that ce­mented her mother’s Jewish mar­riage for years was de­mand­ing proof of it. But her fa­ther had stolen the ke­tubah; she had no proof.

Sara re­ceived her get af­ter 32 years. Her daugh­ters told this story at a Knes­set meet­ing and pleaded that the state es­tab­lish “agu­nah” as a le­gal sta­tus that grants agunot gov­ern­men­tal as­sis­tance.

Un­for­tu­nately, a sta­tus of agu­nah would not have helped Sara. It will not help most women be­cause a wo­man is only an agu­nah when the rabbinical court de­clares her one, and most women seek­ing di­vorce never achieve this sta­tus.

Sim­i­larly mis­guided is a pro­posal meant to pre­serve the fer­til­ity of agunot un­til they are free to have le­git­i­mate chil­dren. The state would pay to freeze their eggs un­til they re­ceive a di­vorce. Then, if the Rab­binate approves, the wo­man may at­tempt to have chil­dren. Among other is­sues, this gives the wo­man’s re­pro­duc­tive rights to the Rab­binate.

Cre­at­ing a le­gal sta­tus for agunot or freez­ing their eggs is like throw­ing blan­kets to a wo­man in a pit. They seek to al­le­vi­ate symp­toms in­stead of deal­ing with the cause. Yet, they fail there too. Worse, these ideas en­able the es­tab­lish­ment to shirk its re­spon­si­bil­ity to use the tools at its dis­posal.

As in our story, the tools ex­ist to save these women. Im­me­di­ate steps can be taken to im­prove the process of di­vorce. The eas­i­est is out­law­ing get ex­tor­tion (where one party de­mands con­ces­sions in ex­change for the get). If ex­tor­tion is off the ta­ble, one can­not profit from get re­fusal and the temp­ta­tion is elim­i­nated.

Re­quir­ing prenups that de­ter get re­fusal is an­other sim­ple and im­por­tant move. Other steps, such as changes in mar­riage and di­vorce pro­ce­dures, might be harder to nor­malise, but would help women like Sara whose hus­bands dis­ap­pear.

There are good peo­ple work­ing on all of these so­lu­tions. Our part is to ad­vo­cate for lo­cal lead­er­ship to make this a pri­or­ity. We have the tools. We must use them.

This gives women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights to the Rab­binate

Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and ac­tivist

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