Esther Macner, a former prosecutor and trial attorney from New York, has spent years advocating on behalf of agunot — women whose husbands have failed to give them a get, a Jewish divorce document. Now she’s on fire about getting the West Coast Jewish community to address the problem of get-refusal. Without a get, women and men are not permitted to remarry according to Orthodox Jewish law.
Living in Los Angeles for just two years, Macner organized L.A.’s first-ever International Agunah Day Conference, Feb. 26, sponsored by B’nai David-Judea Congregation, along with other local synagogues and schools. A panel of lawyers, a former agunah and the head of ORA (the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot), Rabbi Jeremy Stern, spoke about problems inherent within the Jewish divorce process and how withholding a get can become a method of extortion or abuse.
Currently ORA has 70 open cases throughout the world in which women are trying to obtain gets from their husbands. But actual numbers of get-refusal are much more, Macner warns. Many women keep quiet about their struggles, or won’t admit to themselves that they are an agunah, she said.
Although Orthodox Jewish law requires both parties to have a say in the get process — men must give a get of their own free will and women must accept it willingly — women are more prone to get issues at the same general rates of domestic abuse, in which 85 percent of the victims are women and 15 percent are men, according to Stern.
In addition, if a woman does not receive a get, any future relationship is considered an adulterous one by Jewish law, and children born of such a relationship have a uniquely undesirable status within the Jewish community. Men do not have this same issue with regard to future relationships, and they also have a loophole to dissolve the marriage by Jewish law if the woman refuses to accept the get.
The State of Israel currently only recognizes Orthodox marriages and divorces, making get-refusal an issue for all denominations, said Macner.
Among Macner’s goals are publicizing the use of a rabbinically endorsed prenuptial agreement, proposing legislation that will penalize get-refusal, and ongoing support and advocacy for agunot.
Macner said that proposing legislation in California is tough because the California Constitution, when it comes to separation of church and state, “it’s a brick wall — even more than the federal government, and certainly more than New York.”
She said that New York law currently requires each partner to remove all barriers to remarrying for the divorce to proceed but a similar law would be challenging to pass in California due to strict laws against interfering in religious matters.
To learn more or to get involved with Macner’s work, visit getjewishdivorce.org.