Voting with Our Feet: Heeding the Call of ORA’s Rabbi Jeremy Stern

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, who serves as the Executive Director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) recently penned a powerful piece entitled, “Why I Rescinded My Shul Membership.” His piece has gone viral as it provides a tangible action step that we can take in order to insure that all Orthodox marriages are conducted with a halakhic prenuptial agreement. What would it look like to implement his call to action?  

Approximately two years ago, I looked around a full room of my friends and neighbors, all with smiles on their faces, dressed up in their finest with champagne glasses in hand. It was quite the affair for Skokie, Illinois. Pictures were taken by a professional photographer, in addition to selfies galore, to capture this great festivity. It was Chicago’s first halakhic postnup event. Davar Skokie organized a fun night out, including hors d’oeuvres, wine and other delicacies from the upscale Shallots restaurant. The room was filled with those who had signed a halakhic prenup before marriage, but wanted to support spreading awareness. Others attendees had not signed a prenup before marriage, and this was their opportunity to sign a postnup.  

In addition to the social element of the evening, attendees had the added benefit of hearing Rabbi Yona Reiss, the Av Beth Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, share the motivation behind and the effectiveness of the prenup in preventing agunot.  I was surprised to see how many lined up to sign a postnup, the highlight of the evening.  It was a long line and surprisingly included a number of young couples. The prenup was introduced in 1994 by Rabbi Mordechai Willig, Sgan Av Beth Din of the Beth Din of America, and a Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. As a member of the planning committee of the postnup party, I was expecting to see an older crowd in line to sign the postnup as anyone in their 30s or younger should have certainly signed the prenup. About half of those signing fell into the younger age bracket. Why would they have not signed the prenup? They obviously cared and wanted to prevent agunot. When asked, couples responded that they just forgot, they weren’t sure why; it simply was not important to sign it. They were not against the notion, it was just not a priority.  

Rabbi Shlomo Weissman, Director of the Beit Din of America, shared the findings of a recent study of the prenup at the 2014 OU Convention. The study found that there is no correlation between signing a prenup and marital dissatisfaction. It also found that only 24% of those Modern Orthodox couples surveyed signed a prenup. While the prenup has been endorsed since 1994, why are these numbers so low?  

To be clear, I do not believe that a halakhic prenup solves all of our problems. There is still room for abuse, by women or men with a halakhic prenup, although instead of hundreds of agunot we would be down to dozens of agunot. For the past two decades, organizations, including JOFA, ORA, Mavoi Satum, Kolech, the Center for Women’s Justice, Go Get Your Get, The International Coalition for Agunah Rights and others have tried to spread awareness about the prenup. It has been taught, written about, blogged about, presented about at conferences, weddings and pulpits and has even garnered the media’s attention. Nonetheless, the numbers of couples who sign are low. The question is how can we make the prenup a standard part of the wedding and marriage?Rabbi Jeremy Stern argues that we should take our rabbis to task and require them to require the use of the prenup.

According to the Beit Din of America, “The Prenup has been successful in preventing cases of agunot in 100% of the divorce cases that have come before them, so long as the Prenup was properly signed and a copy available.” Rabbi Weissman refers to it as the “magic potion.”

It seems that engaged couples do not think of the prenup as a priority, but they do not seem to be against or disagree with the innovation. An easier way to protect women from becoming agunot, to protect women who regularly call ORA or JOFA for help, would be to make the prenup a universal standard for Orthodox couples. How would that happen? If all Orthodox rabbis required couples to sign a halakhic prenup as a condition of officiating their weddings. The solution is simple.

While the prenup is not foolproof, an abusive husband could enjoy his wife’s suffering even to the tune of $150 a day, it has helped in 100% of cases thus far. It would save years, decades for some, of suffering and despair. In those rare cases where the prenup proved to be ineffective, women could take advantage of the new International Beit Din.  

The International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), has a policy that all members can only officiate at weddings where couples sign a prenup. 100% of couples married by these 180 rabbis will have the halakhic prenup. While the RCA does not require their members to only marry couples who have a halakhic prenup, there are individual prominent RCA members who have publicly taken stances on this question, even turning away couples who refused to sign.

JOFA would like to help us bring Rabbi Jeremy Stern’s call to fruition. We are asking all of you to help by clicking hereWe are launching a campaign to create a list of Orthodox rabbis’ stances on the halakhic prenup. We are asking you to identify your rabbi or clergy person as falling into one of the following categories:  

  1. Those who require couples to sign a prenup in order to be married by him/her.
  2. Those who will allow and possibly encourage signing the prenup, but do not require it when marrying couples.
  3. Those who will not marry a couple with the prenup and/or ban the use of the prenup.

What can you do? Add people to the list. Allow those who are taking this obvious, simple step to be recognized for doing the right thing. Some rabbis may change their position because of this list. As Rabbi Stern suggested, we will be encouraging our rabbis to take a stand and hold them accountable.

Once the list is posted on our website, check the list.  If your rabbi is on it, share the page on your Facebook wall, tweet it, email it, etc. to praise your rabbi for doing the right thing. If your rabbis are not on the list, set up a meeting. Let them know about this initiative. Get them on the list.

When a solution that would prevent suffering, hardship, depression and the inability to bear children, has been around for two decades, it is time to ensure that the “magic potion” is used. It would help hundreds of women and their loved ones. Do your part.

Click here to add your rabbi to the list of Orthodox rabbis who require the halakhic prenuptial agreement.

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