Hurrying by the parking lot at the Lakeside Event Center in Las Vegas, Israel Meir Kin and his new wife, Daniela Barbosa, avoided eye contact with a group of about 30 demonstrators who had been waiting for them. Dressed for their wedding in a suit and gown, respectively, the couple could not move fast enough. The sight of them was enough to enrage a gathering from the Los Angeles and Las Vegas Modern Orthodox communities, who stood waving signs and shouting slogans denouncing the union.
“Give her a get,” one of the protesters shouted at Kin, referring to the Jewish bill of divorce, which requires a husband to willingly agree to divorce his wife — in this case, Lonna Kin — in order for a Jewish divorce to become official.
In the Orthodox community, Lonna Kin, a resident of Monsey, N.Y., will be unable to marry again or have Jewish children without a get. Israel Meir Kin has refused to grant this to his estranged wife unless she goes with him to a beit din (religious court) of his choice.
Israel Meir Kin’s March 20 wedding to Barbosa in Las Vegas, where he lives, has added fuel to the ongoing, often-heated debate within the Orthodox community over Jewish laws governing divorce, and the occasion prompted leaders from Los Angeles’ Modern Orthodox community to travel to the protest. Those present were all in agreement that he is in the wrong.
“He is adding outrage to outrage by getting married, doing the very thing that he is preventing his wife from doing, and he is violating the laws of polygamy,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson.
[Related: Confronting the problem of Orthodox divorce]
Lonna Kin said in an interview with the Journal that, as conditions for giving the get, her former husband, who could not be reached for comment, is demanding that she pay him $500,000 and give up custody of their 12-year-old son. “He’s extorting me for half a million [dollars] and for custody,” she said. She also claimed he has been making these demands “for the past 10 years.” Lonna Kim also said she had to give up custody of a child in a previous Orthodox divorce. She said she would never agree to do so again.
The protest was organized by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had been notified in advance. ORA describes itself as “the only nonprofit organization addressing the agunah crisis on a case-by-case basis worldwide.” “Agunah” is the Hebrew word for “chained wife,” and Lonna Kin is the agunah in this situation, ORA says, as she cannot remarry as long as Israel Meir Kin does not provide her with a get. If she were to remarry without it, she would be ostracized according to the laws of the Orthodox community.
The Kins finalized their civil divorce in 2007, so, according to civil law, both are free to remarry. In Jewish terms, however, while Lonna Kin remains tied to her former husband, Israel Meir Kin claims to have a heter meah rabbanim — the permission of 100 rabbis — a decree that allows him to wed Barbosa even though he is still technically married to Lonna Kin under Jewish law, according to ORA.
Women do not have access to the 100-rabbis alternative, which is supposed to be employed only in extreme cases. ORA claims this is not one of those cases.
Lonna Kin, who works as a realtor and grew up in Los Angeles, expressed her gratitude for the protest in a phone interview after the event.
“That support was incredibly empowering for me,” she said. “Because, first of all, women in this position, a lot of women are agunot, and I speak to other people, and I try to help other people. They tell me how they feel, they think nobody cares, and, unfortunately, there’s a lot of women going through divorces, and it’s always, ‘He said; she said,’ and it’s not about that, it’s not about right or wrong.”
Lonna Kin, 52, called get refusals “a major crisis … in the Orthodox community, that someone can refuse a get for so many years, use extortionist tactics and afterward get married while the woman is still chained.”
In her youth, she straddled both the secular and religious worlds, attending Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy and Beverly Hills High School. She said she met Israel Meir Kin, who also grew up in Los Angeles, in her late 30s, when the two both had children from previous marriages who were attending the same summer camp. They married in 2000. “He seemed like a nice person,” she said.
Yet, after they wed, she claimed, “He was extremely controlling, very mean to my children, a very difficult person altogether, all around.” The couple separated in 2005.
For a group of Los Angeles students at the protest, it was a moment of activism and learning: Yaakov Sobel, a ninth-grader at Los Angeles’ Shalhevet High School, held high a banner that read “Shame on You Israel Meir Kin.” Sobel was one of six Shalhevet students who traveled together to Las Vegas on March 20, riding in a van that departed from their campus at noon. They had come, with their parents’ permission, for the sole purpose of speaking out against the wedding.
“I’m here to support the Jewish idea in general that a woman deserves a get,” Sobel said.
Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, was also there, chanting as the newlyweds stepped into the parking lot. Segal said his students have been studying laws surrounding Jewish marriage, and the protest was an experiential learning opportunity for them.
For his part, Kanefsky had come to teach. He told the protesters that the conflict between the Kins illustrates the importance of Jewish prenuptial agreements. These agreements, he said, are paramount to any union, in that they obligate two people entering into a marriage to agree that they would, in the event of their divorce, settle the matter in a reputable beit din.
Israel Meir Kin reportedly has agreed to give his wife a get only on the condition that she appear in one particular beit din, one that the ORA claims is known for being corrupt.
Irrespective of which beit din, Kanefsky said, a spouse should allow for a get without any strings attached.
“We’re saying he must give an unconditional divorce,” Kanefsky said.
Israel Meir Kin’s unwillingness to grant the get has drawn widespread condemnation. In 2010, three Orthodox rabbis issued a seruv, an order of contempt, against Israel Meir Kin, denouncing his refusal to provide a get to Lonna Kin. The panel of rabbis included Rabbi Avrohom Union, who is associated with the beit din of the Rabbinic Council of California.
The seruv has affected Israel Meir Kin’s standing in the Orthodox community in Las Vegas. Rabbi Yisroel Schanowitz, the rabbi at the Chabad of Summerlin/Desert Shores, where Israel Meir Kin occasionally comes to pray, does not allow him to be counted to make up a minyan and would deny him the opportunity to be recognized with any awards, according to Kanefsky, who spoke with Schanowitz on the day of the protest. Schanowitz did not participate in the protest, and the Journal could not reach him for an interview.
Students from Shalhevet High School travel to Las Vegas to protest the wedding of a man who refused to grant his previous wife a Jewish divorce.
Israel Meir Kin, a physician’s assistant, currently lives in Vegas. The Chabad he occasionally attends is located in an upper-middle-class neighborhood overlooking an artificial lake, in the same shopping center as the venue where the March 20 wedding was held. The shul was not involved in the ceremony.
Israel Meir Kin did not respond to the Journal’s request for an interview.
“We don’t know what is going to happen when we get there,” Kanefsky told a reporter at Los Angeles International Airport earlier in the day, before departing for Las Vegas. “I am the sort of person who likes to know everything before he does it, so this is unusual for me.”
Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation commended those who turned out for their commitment to an important cause.
“It’s great we all came here — some of us, hundreds of miles — to come together to say we are not going to stand for this,” Topp told the crowd.
Police officers on the scene frequently had to remind the group, which also included members of the Las Vegas Orthodox community, to remain out of the street. Otherwise, the protest was civil throughout. It did not disrupt the wedding.
Rabbi Nachum Meth of the Las Vegas Kollel was among the locals at the protest. Meth said a man who refuses to give his wife a get is attempting to exert psychological power over his spouse.
“It is the last form of control that a husband has over his wife or ex-wife,” he said in an interview. “He is trying to control her destiny.”
Kanefsky, the only person representing B’nai David-Judea, said he had informed his congregation only a day or two prior to the event. Topp, meanwhile, was joined by a few members of Beth Jacob. The participation among Shalhevet students might have been greater if not for homework and tests, Segal said.
Not all responses to agunot situations have been like this one.
Past media reports have included rabbis resorting to kidnapping and violence as means of coercing the husbands into granting their wives a Jewish divorce.
Forgoing such illegal actions, ORA nevertheless relies on what its assistant director, Meira Zack, referred to as “pressure tactics.” Last Thursday was such an example, said Zack, whose passion on behalf of agunot was apparent from the beginning of the protest, when she led a chant to energize the crowd.
But what of the Jewish law that says that a get must be given “willingly”? Would the external pressure faced by Israel Meir Kin jeopardize the validity of a get, should he ever decide to give one to Lonna Kin?
Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of ORA, says no, pointing to a concept of “constructive consent,” which he says was developed by the Jewish sage Maimonides.
Drawing on a study conducted several years ago by Barbara Zakheim, president and founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, Stern estimates that there are currently 462 agunot living in the United States. He points out that while all of them are self-identifying agunot, there is no clear consensus on what an agunah is.
“Different people give different definitions,” Stern said. “Some say a woman is considered an agunah once there has been a ruling by the beit din making that determination. Others say it’s once she has a civil divorce and doesn’t have a get. Others say it’s when she’s been separated for a year and still doesn’t have a get, then she’s an agunah.”
Kin and his new wife, Daniela Barbosa, leave the wedding ceremony.
Adding to the difficulty in quantifying how many agunot there are, Stern said, “There’s no official registry of agunot or even of Jewish divorces. There’s no registry of gets or anything like that, or people applying for a get, because this is all outside the legal system. In civil law you can see how many applied for divorce from the courts and how many court cases are still [outstanding], but in Jewish law you can’t do that because there’s no official Jewish court system outside of Israel, no registry, no real way to define how many agunot there are.”
As a result, the ORA has developed criteria to help in the determination, taking on the cases where a beit din has issued a seruv against the husband and “where the woman has done everything she can through the rabbinical court process, and that has concluded without securing her a get,” Stern said.
ORA also considers taking on cases in which the “rabbinic court has failed or stalled for whatever reason,” Stern said. “So for example, if she says, ‘I want to go to this court,’ and he says, ‘I want to go to this court,’ and the two can’t agree on what rabbinical court to go to, and he cannot compel her, she cannot compel him, then you’re stuck, at a deadlock.
“We’ll get involved in those cases as well, to facilitate those processes to move things forward and ensure that a get is given,” Stern said.
ORA handles about 50 agunah cases at any given time. Currently, several of these are in Los Angeles, Stern said, but he would not provide further information about them.
It is hard to discern how prevalent the issue is in Los Angeles. Topp told the Journal that there have been “a few cases in the synagogue,” where sanctions punishing recalcitrant husbands “would have been helpful.” He did not elaborate further.
Kanefsky said he knows of one congregant from B’nai David-Judea who denied his wife a get, but that took place before he was the rabbi of the congregation, where he has served for approximately 20 years.
In 2013, the Los Angeles Times published an article on recalcitrant husbands who have fled from Israel, where their actions could lead to jail time, to U.S. cities where the separation of church and state keeps them safely out of the way of the criminal justice system.
Stein believes that criminalizing get refusal would solve the problem, providing incentive to adhere to a law that obligates them to give a get upon marital separation.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in the Pico-Robertson area whose responsibilities include officiating weddings, believes that allowing third parties, such as the beit din, to intervene in certain situations and issue the get — husband involvement or no — would solve the problem.
Most importantly, Bookstein says the community’s leaders need to find a solution to this crisis.
“I think that because of the prevalent abuse going on right now, that our rabbinic sages should be entrusted to find a halachic [according to Jewish law] avenue to solve this growing problem … it seems that there is an uptick in this problem as the divorce rate in the Orthodox [community] has grown,” he said.
In the meantime, several rabbis, including Kanefsky and Topp, are trying to increase awareness of the issue on the community level. In September, an Pico-Robertson event will ask already-married couples who have never signed halachic prenuptial agreements — either because they did not exist at the time of their union or because the rabbi who officiated their wedding did not ask them to — to sign halachic postnuptial agreements.
Kanefsky highlighted the importance of this gathering. “It will be an enormous, consciousness-raising event for the whole city,” he said.