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Dismayed But Undeterred

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For almost three decades I have represented women in the rabbinical courts of Israel. While divorce is almost always an unpleasant business, many couples find a way to dissolve their marriage with a minimum of acrimony and vindictiveness. The hundreds of women whose divorces I have handled, however, were victims of greedy, abusive husbands who refused to free their wives, demanding exorbitant financial and other payments. In a system based on justice and fairness, such men would have been exposed and rejected.

As an observant woman who believes that rabbis are good men, concerned about all Jewish people (including women) and compassionate toward suffering, I have tried to use my professional skills to restore justice to the rabbinical courts. Occasionally, in individual cases, I was able to succeed. Nevertheless, it has been obvious to me for decades that a more systemic change is needed.

My hopes were raised when Rabbi Shlomo Amar was appointed Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi three years ago. Meeting with him regularly to discuss problems, as well as sitting with him on the Commission to appoint Dayanim, I was impressed with his concern for the plight of agunot and his determination to free these women. He had the courage to find innovative solutions to difficult cases and seemed to take his leadership role seriously.

Encouraged by Rabbi Amar’s actions and compassion, we began to talk about the need for a more activist approach on the part of dayanim in Israel and abroad. Having lectured in Jewish communities on four continents, I have heard the painful stories of agunot in many countries. I suggested that the chief rabbi consider convening an international conference of dayanim and leading rabbis, in Jerusalem, to discuss the problem of agunot and mesuravot get, with a goal of finding global solutions.

The International Council of Jewish Women, an umbrella organization representing women in 47 countries, was instrumental in helping the chief rabbi prepare such a conference and encouraging Diaspora rabbis to attend.

I was pleasantly surprised when Rabbi Amar agreed to this proposal and, together with the ICJW, sent a letter to dayanim and leading rabbis in 15 countries, inviting them to participate in an international conference. Its purpose, he said, was “to place the subject of agunot and mesuravot get on the public agenda and to find solutions to their plight.”

Leading rabbis from the U.S., Canada, England, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Australia, South Africa, Turkey and Venezuela responded positively, eager to meet with their Israeli counterparts to discuss the agunot issue and to find solutions to this painful problem. All these rabbis from abroad agreed to fund their travel and hotel expenses for the conference.

Preparations intensified over the next few months, as the program was finalized and rabbis were invited to give papers. This was to be a closed-door conference for an international array of halachic experts to discuss a halachic problem that requires a halachic solution.

Although agunot and the women’s organizations who represent them were not invited to participate in the conference, many of them met with local rabbis who would be attending and were impressed with their sincerity, sensitivity and resolve.

Hopes were raised that this historic gathering, the first involving leading rabbis coming together to discuss the issue of agunot, would result in real progress. Women’s organizations published advertisements in Jewish newspapers in Israel and abroad expressing their support for the chief rabbi and their hopes for positive outcomes. An air of optimism, cautious but real, was tangible.

Behind the scenes, however, other forces were at work. Despite the fact that the haredi communities do not use the rabbinical courts in Israel, preferring their own private batei din, Ashkenazi haredi leaders worked intensively to sabotage the conference.

Courageously, Chief Rabbi Amar appeared to be resisting pressure to cancel the conference but, as the date of the conference drew near, the opposition became more vicious and public. Rabbis from Israel and abroad were approached and warned not to attend the conference, which was described as being organized by “radical feminists” – despite the fact that not one woman would be attending.

On Thursday, November 2, just four days before the conference was to begin, Chief Rabbi Amar sent e-mail and fax messages to all the participants stating that the conference was being called off because of “requests he received in Israel and from abroad to cancel.”

About the Author: Sharon Shenhav is an international women's rights lawyer based in Jerusalem. She is director of the International Jewish Women's Rights Project and the only woman serving on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim in Israel.

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