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YAD L'ISHA: Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Women
May 13, 2002
Yesterday, we closed a case that our Center has been working on for 4 years. The client, O, has been living apart from her husband for 8 years.
The harrowing facts, in brief:
O, married her husband Y in 1992, when she was 20 years old. Shortly after their marriage, O became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy. At the same time, Y became very sick with cancer; O nursed him back to health. But the marriage quickly deteriorated, exacerbated by the fact that Y's hostile family accused O of causing Y's illness, and the couple separated.
At the beginning of 1994, O and Y signed a divorce agreement in which O agreed to minimal child support in exchange for a get. Although Y benefited from the reduced child support, he ignored his obligation to give O a get.
Later that year, O sued Y for her get in the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court (Beit Din). From 1994 until 1997, Y managed to elude the Beit Din, sometimes deferring hearings for no good reason; at other times by claiming that he was willing to give O a get in exchange for the waiver of child support, or in return for full custody of their son. Finally, in 1997, the Rabbinical District Court ruled that Y should give O a get. They transferred the file to the special Agunah Tribunal, which is authorized to apply sanctions against Y if he continued to refuse to grant O her divorce.
However, instead of applying sanctions, the Agunah Tribunal insisted on reconsidering Y's demand for custody of the couple's son. In fact, the Tribunal issued decisions refusing to order Y to give O a get unless O complied with Y's demands.
In 1998, O came to us at the Yad L'isha: Legal Aid Center and Hotline.
Our advocates appealed the decisions of the Agunah Tribunal to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. After many hearing and motions, finally, in March 2000, the Supreme Rabbinical Court agreed, and returned the case to the Agunah Tribunal with specific instructions to apply sanctions against Y until he granted O the get.
But the lower court ignored the higher court's rulings, as it had ignored the original district court's ruling in O's favor. Twice, we had to appeal the Agunah Tribunal's court's decisions to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Twice the Supreme Rabbinical Court remanded the case to the Agunah Tribunal.
(Are you getting exhausted from all the legal bureaucracy and see- sawing? Think about O, who meanwhile had to forgo a potential marriage and could not have children!)
A year ago, after the lower court again ignored its ruling, the Supreme Rabbinical Court agreed to apply sanctions against Y. But the sanctions had no impact on him; Y did not care if he could not drive a car or hold a bank account. As a result, our advocates decided to sue Y for civil damages in the Jerusalem Family Court, while simultaneously appealing to the Supreme Rabbinical Court to put Y in jail.
Three dayanim (Rabbinical Court judges) heard the case in the Supreme Rabbinical Court in November 2001. One dayan held that Y should go to jail; one agreed to put Y in jail -- but only if the decision to do so was unanimous. The third dayan felt that, because of technical determinations that had not yet been factually decided, the case should be remanded back to the lower courts.
Since the court was not unanimous in its decision to incarcerate Y, the ruling was made in accordance with the minority decision: that is, to return the case to the lower court. (Going crazy with this one? So were we. No way were we going to go back to the Agunah Tribunal. Been there. Done that.) Instead, we wrote to Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel's Chief Rabbi, asking him to set up an extended court of 5 dayanim. We argued, amongst other things, that the factual determinations of technical nature were irrelevant and unnecessary in order to put him in jail on the issue of get recalcitrance. Rav Lau agreed. He persuaded the Supreme Rabbinical Court dayanim to retract their decision and set down the case for another hearing before 5 dayanim for May 12, 2002.
Yesterday, on May 12, 2002, a group of women wearing black sat outside the doors of the Supreme Rabbinical Court in support of O. At the request of the Yad L'isha: Legal Aid Center, five other women's organizations also sent volunteers to the courthouse protest. Our message was clear: this time, O was not going to be turned away empty handed.
Inside, instead of arguing the case, Y informed the extended Supreme Rabbinical Court that he would agree to give the get in exchange for O's agreement to retract the civil damages lawsuit. Although our advocates were hoping to win a high damages award against Y, O readily agreed to drop the case in exchange for her freedom. Despite the fact that it was Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month), a day on which the get tribunal is not traditionally convened, the dayanim determined to enact the get process (due in no small measure to the presence of the protesting women in black outside).
Even the get ritual itself was fraught with blunders and oversights which prolonged the process and shattered O's nerves. First, the scribe miswrote a letter in Y's name, and the dayan presiding over the get ceremony almost had the scribe rewrite the entire bill of divorcement. The dayan also demanded that O cover her head for the get rite. There were no available head coverings for her to use, so O covered her hair with my orange sweater. Nothing would stop us. It was painful, but we did it.
Without the persistence, the professionalism, and the paperwork of the dedicated, devoted and compassionate staff of Yad L'isha: Legal Aid Center advocates, O would never have received her get.