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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The Jewish tradition gives only men the power to grant a divorce. When the husband refuses to give his wife a get, or Jewish bill of divorce, she is unable to remarry. Solutions for these agunot, or deserted women, range from the Reform movement, which does not require a Jewish divorce; to the Reconstructionist movement, whose beit dins (courts) permit a woman to remarry even if her husband does not grant a get; to the Conservative and Orthodox movements, who are instituting prenuptial agreements that use financial incentives to encourage a husband to give a get of his own free will when the marriage is over.

A Demonstration in Borough Park

There was already a knot of people huddled at the demonstration on the corner of 15th Avenue and 46th Street in Borough Park, Brooklyn, by the time we arrived. It was sunny, 20 degrees below zero. broken chains

The crowd grew quickly, and we moved out from 15th Avenue to the courtyard of a dirty grey apartment building. A woman out front took the megaphone and began her admonishment, "Avraham Zvi Silverstein is in contempt of Jewish court. He refuses to give his wife a get (bill of divorce). He is an abomination amongst the people of Israel. The beit din (Jewish court) has asked us to do everything we can to help this woman. He is a shame to the whole community!"

The demonstrators trudged around the courtyard under this man's apartment, chanting "Avraham Zvi Silverstein, give your wife a get!" "Free Esther Silverstein!" Suddenly, a window in the target apartment shot up, a male head appeared, snapped a picture, and disappeared. It was the only time we raised a response from the object of this exercise.

The megaphone blared again, pointing its nose right into the window of the offending apartment, "We demand a get for Esther and all the agunot like her! We want the beit dins to help women to get their gets, to examine the system that imprisons so many women in bad marriages! Set the agunot free!"

Then Esther came to the phone, a young woman with a beret over her wig, and very plain: "I just want to ask Avraham Zvi to let me go, I want to lead a normal life…" she started to cry and the demonstrators supported her.

A black-garbed man walking past paused, listened, and started yelling, "She's just a feminist, that lady with the megaphone, she doesn't care about Jewish law, just likes to make trouble! Why does Borough Park need a demonstration?"

But other, equally black-garbed men shouted him down, "What's this got to do with feminism? Who said she was a feminist? Esther Silverstein's husband won't give her a get and the beit din told her friends to help her out; it's a mitzvah [commandment]!" While they gesticulated and raised their voices at each other, we moved on. All through Borough Park we walked, handing out leaflets, slipping them onto cars and into mailboxes, chanting our refrain, "Avraham Zvi Silverstein, give your wife a get!"

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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.