Contemporary Activism to Save Agunot

An activist for agunot traces her development from demonstrator to promoter of prenuptial agreements that help protect women in the event of a divorce.

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When we reached 13th Avenue, the shopping mecca of Diaspora Jewry, our numbers had swelled. Mr. Silverstein would have his name defamed before the entire Sunday shopping crowd." You know what the Satmar Hasidim do with these men?" one bystander said to me. "They take him to a cemetery and break his bones. Why don't you do that?" Another woman asked, "And how long has Esther been waiting for her get?" When I told her it was five years, she snorted, "That's nothing, I've been chained to my ex for 15 years!"

Our final destination was the shul [synagogue] where Mr. Silverstein usually came for Afternoon Prayers. By then, every child in Borough Park had a leaflet to swap with friends, and the Yiddish chatter grew loud in our wake. The streets were littered with pictures of Avraham Zvi's stiff mustachioed face. Our petition had hundreds of signatures on it.

Esther was the last to sign. A rotund, long-coated Hasid hovered around her as the demonstration broke up.

"Why don't you call me any more?" he asked her in his singsong Yiddish accent.

"You know," she answered, "the telephone rings at both ends."

How long will she wait? I wondered, as I took the subway home.

Moving from Demonstrations to Legal Innovation

The issue of the agunah, the woman whose husband could not, or would not, give his wife a get, consumed my young single life. I considered this cause an issue of civil rights, balancing the blatant asymmetry in power between the woman and man in Jewish family law. Only the man could perform the indispensable act to end a Jewish marriage, namely handing his wife a get, or asking his agent to do so. If he chose to withhold the get, a woman could be "chained" indefinitely, unable to remarry.

But much more importantly, a woman who has not yet received her get and lives with another man is considered an adulteress; any child born of the adulterous union is a mamzer. A mamzer may not marry anyone except another mamzer or a convert, and the status of mamzer lasts for 10 generations (some people hold forever). In contrast, if a man fails to give a get to his former wife, and then enters into a second relationship, he has violated no biblical prohibition. He violates the prohibition of the Ashkenazi (European) rabbis against bigamy, but children of the second relationship will in no way be tainted. They are free to marry whomever they wish.

My passion about the agunah issue coincided with a rising interest in the topic worldwide and a burgeoning number of organizations to which I could attach myself. I started by fighting on behalf of individual agunot, organizing freedom battles one by one. Once a woman had a declaration from the beit din that her husband was in contempt of Jewish court, we planned strategies to humiliate and pressure him in places where he was most vulnerable. These included sit-ins at the husband's business; having him publicly thrown out of synagogue; picketing his home. But we never resorted to violence. I felt like I was fighting against the Jewish gender apartheid.

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Viva Hammer

Viva Hammer is a tax attorney in Washington, D.C. She was the co-founder and director of the Wedding Resource Center, which was established with the goal that no Jewish marriage take place without a Marriage Protection Agreement. She has written for The Washingtonian, Lilith, Jewish Action, Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and many other places.