One Rabbi Unchaining Jewish Women

One rabbi is doing something other than yapping about the agunah problem.
From this rabbi you can run, but you can't hide

By Ari Rabinovitch
Reuters Sunday, February 11, 2007; 7:55 PM

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - When Jewish husbands skip out on their wives and refuse to grant them a divorce, a 58-year-old rabbi assembles a team of investigators to track them down anywhere in the world and untie the bonds of matrimony.

According to Orthodox Jewish ritual law, a woman abandoned by her husband is considered single and free to marry again only if he gives her a bill of divorce, known in Hebrew as a "Get."

Israel's Rabbinical Court, which oversees Jewish marriages in the country, said that each year, dozens of husbands maliciously refuse to sign the decree, leaving their wives "agunot," or "anchored" to their previous marriage.

Some of the men also leave the country: that is when Rabbi Yehuda Gordon, 58, and his small team of investigators step in.

He makes about five trips a year overseas, all of them sponsored by the Israeli government, to find "fugitive" husbands and persuade them to divorce their wives.

"It can take years to track each husband down," Gordon said from behind his desk at the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem.

"A lot of (the husbands) turn out to be criminals with ties to the underworld. Each one demands a unique approach," said the rabbi, who wears traditional, ultra-Orthodox Jewish clothing and has a gray beard that reaches down to his chest.

While a husband is still in Israel, the Rabbinical Court can pressure him to grant a divorce by having his bank account frozen and driver's license and passport revoked. In some cases, the man can be arrested and jailed.

But once a husband goes overseas, it is up to Gordon and his team to persuade him to sign a "Get."

"Once we find them, we need to be smart and good psychologists. Our target is not to rat them out or take their money. We never actually become violent," Gordon said.

"We use delicate threats," he said, declining to elaborate.


Gordon, who said he speaks six languages fluently, works mostly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where he has connections with local politicians and law enforcement.

Although hesitant to reveal his network of contacts, he hinted that it often begins with bribing the right official.

Gordon also arranges for a safety "umbrella," usually a local rabbi and armed guards, to meet him at the airport. When he shows up at a husband's front door, many times he finds the man remarried and with a new family.

"I talk to the man, for hours at a time. I'm always smiling and I try to reason with him," Gordan said.

It may take days, he said, but usually they reach an agreement. Sometimes money changes hands or local authorities get involved.

In 1998, Gordon flew to Siberia on a "Get" mission. After being threatened by police and spending three days in jail, he returned to Israel with a signed document allowing the man's wife to remarry.

Gordon said he once convinced a drug-smuggler living in Grozny, Chechnya to sign his Israeli wife's divorce papers in return for teaching the man how to pray.


But for some women, the Rabbinical Court is not doing enough to help them break free.

Linda Rasooly, 42, from Jerusalem, said her husband left Israel for the United States almost nine years ago without granting her a "Get."

"For seven years he forced me to be married simply because he wanted to punish me," she said.

Rasooly said it took several years before the Rabbinical Court formally accepted her case as an "Aguna" and began exerting pressure on her ex-husband, who agreed to sign a "Get" just last year.

"I was 33 when we separated but 41 when we divorced. I lost eight years waiting for a 'Get'," Rasooly said.

One advocacy group called Mavoi Satum, or Dead End, said it opens about 100 files each year for women whose husbands refuse to divorce them.

"The 'Get' becomes a bargaining card that the husband can use to extort his wife in order to get what he wants out of the divorce," said Reut Una-Tsameret, the group's public activities coordinator.

Jewish law gives the husband a lot of the power, and wives remain at their mercy, she said.

The Israeli government spends a few million shekels each year on the hundreds of cases of agunot, said the Rabbinical Court's spokeswoman Efrat Orbach.

"In 2006 alone we helped 71 agunot women, most of them with their husbands abroad," Orbach said.

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