A Year of Fighting for Agunot

As I lay in bed, after talking to an international committee of organizations that advocate on behalf of agunot (Jewish women who are trapped in marriages because their husbands will not provide a get, or Jewish divorce), I started to reminisce about the past year… So much has happened in such a short time that it hardly seems real. Just over a year ago, I was a normal guy, working as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for a nursing home and now I’m a world famous agunah advocate. How does something like that happen?!?

Chanie happened. Chanie Wilenkin, a complete stranger to me, ignited a fire in my soul and in my gut; a fire that continues to burn to this day. When I heard that her dying wish to receive her get was being completely ignored, I just couldn’t take it; the match was struck, and the desire for justice was ablaze.

Having come from an abusive and broken home myself, I’ve felt the pain of not being heard — of not having a voice. The day Chanie passed away, I promised myself that I would be the voice for those who try to speak but are never heard. In the past year, my voice has grown louder and stronger than ever before. More importantly, my roar has made it possible for people to start hearing the voices of agunot.

Shortly before the Fast of Esther last year (also International Agunah Awareness Day), I created a t-shirt that shows support for agunot in order to remind and educate passerbys that there is a crisis.

Purim morning Chanie passed away, and I (among others) felt we had to take a stand. I helped organize a rally in the heart of Chabad — the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn — something unheard of in a community where people pretend their problems don’t exist. With the permission of my mother, who is an agunah, I spoke at the rally about the injustice of the agunah crisis, my personal connection as the son of an agunah and a possible solution. Needless to say, that rally and speech went viral.

A few weeks after the rally, Harav Moshe Gutnick (Head of the Sydney Beit Din and a strong supporter of agunot) visited Crown Heights and we organized a public lecture and Q&A with him on the topic of agunot. As a direct result of this event and with the help of Harav Moshe Gutnick, we were able to help free two agunot, including my sister.

When I returned to my hometown for Passover,  I reminded people that my mother was still an agunah and that problems don’t just get solved on their own. During this visit, I realized how hard it could be to disagree with people close to me. On Mother’s Day, I finally met Chanie, by visiting her grave. I sat by her grave, praying for the agunot and crying for justice. In honor of my mother’s birthday, I arranged a public screening in Crown Heights of a film showing the plight of agunot and wrote about how the suffering of agunot affects the entire family especially the children and grandchildren.

Throughout this time more and more agunot were reaching out to me asking for help, and my work was becoming more and more well-known around the world. I worked with an ex-agunah to help create an organization for agunot in Argentina (Agunot Encadenadas), to raise awareness, support and funds for Argentinean women trapped by the crisis. Multiple women have already gained their freedom as a result of this organization. I also set up a GoFundMe campaign to help raise the funds for an agunah in England who couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant Beit Din fees and therefore was unable to receive her get.

In the US, I traveled from Detroit, Michigan to Dayton, Ohio for a rally arranged by ORA to protest a recalcitrant husband. The rally also showed people that unity and public pressure does work, as the agunah got her freedom shortly afterwards. Because the Detroit Jewish News wrote an article about the Ohio rally, with my picture on the front page explaining that I was there to support my mother, the Detroit community was again reminded that things don’t just fix themselves, that my mother is still chained.

My picture was also proudly displayed at JOFA’s 18th anniversary banquet, as an agunah activist, thereby helping even more agunot reach out to me, and allow me to direct them to the best help they need.

At this moment I am part of a committee comprised of approximately eight or nine groups, from countries all over the world, that are fighting for justice for agunot. We worked together on a campaign for International Agunah Awareness Day, one that humanizes the crisis and shows that unity is the best weapon. For Purim, I dressed up as “Gett-Man” – a superhero helping raise awareness of the tragic crisis.

All of this happened because one woman raised her voice to speak, and others opened their ears and hearts in order to listen….

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