Ramie Smith

Lessons from Leah about fighting ‘get’ abuse

One brave woman struggled for years to be free from her marriage but the system failed her


Chained hands

February 03, 2023 15:26

My father once told me that everyone has their public life, their private life and their secret life.

Three weeks ago a beloved client passed away, still chained to a marriage she had been trying to escape for nine years. Leah knew she was dying and yet insisted on being freed from her marriage. Leah grew up and lived in the Chasidic community of Stamford Hill, a community where women are taught that advocating for themselves, even in the most dire of circumstances, is immodest.

She dressed the part, walked the walk, talked the talk, raised children and grandchildren and was beloved by many. She looked on the outside like the quintessential Chasidic bubbie. She spent her life putting her children first, and in her final years she told us that she was finally ready to put herself first. This meant fighting for her freedom, making noise, even though that would not be received well by her community, her rabbis, and even her family.

There is so much to learn from the way she lived, she fought and she died.

Leah was a very active member of the GETToutUK community, attending our events, classes, and participating in our WhatsApp group. She was wise, empathetic and wickedly funny. She often took the opportunity to remind the group that we must never forget that men suffered too from get abuse (the withholding of a Jewish religious divorce), something that affected someone close to her. Leah was a leader in our community, a space that was truly significant to her, that so few in her other life knew about.

Leah granted several interviews in her final years, speaking soul-piercing truths — and I was shocked by the critical things she said about the leadership in her community, not because I disagreed but because I had never heard such a religious woman speak so candidly. I know I am not alone in this; her community and family did not even know about these feelings she held on to for so long. These feelings resonated deeply with many in our group and Leah’s courage in starting this conversation led to meaningful conversations about leadership and faith.

This is what I learned from Leah, that I will take with me for the rest of my life and career:

Pain forges leaders
Leah did not look like someone who challenged authority and who advocated for herself. She did not look like a leader who led a community of women sharing in her pain. We can never know where leaders will come from and we can certainly never judge them from appearances.

What I do know is that deep suffering has the power to turn the most conventional of people into the most courageous of leaders.

Get abuse is not an ‘Orthodox Issue’
There is a misconception that get abuse is a problem exclusive to the Orthodox community. This is untrue. Our organisation represents women and men across the full spectrum of Judaism, from the most strictly Orthodox to those who are unobservant. Some of our most difficult and long-standing cases of get refusal have come from people who have never set foot in a synagogue.

While our GETToutUK community is certainly diverse, the shared experiences and the shared pain have a power to band us together like few other things. Instead of letting this issue divide us as a people, the fate and safety of each and every Jewish marriage depends on our ability to create healthy and functional spaces where, if necessary, those marriages can be ended.

If the government will not implement oversight, we must
When Batei Din operate without any regulation, they rely completely on the integrity of their Dayanim and employees. While there are certainly Batei Din who operate with integrity, we have seen all too often that this is a setup for disaster. If there are no legal standards to meet, if there is no bar for professionalism, no accountability, and no clarification as to what a Beit Din’s role is, our community needs to create these standards and hold ourselves to them.

We will never be a light unto the nations if we struggle to be a light unto ourselves, and meet the most basic standards of professionalism and morality. We can and must do better.

The lessons I learned from Leah will last a lifetime. Her courage, her leadership, and her fight are something we should harness and in her memory and her honour let us create communities that protect the most vulnerable amongst us, a community that we are truly proud of.

Rabbanit Ramie Smith is director of GETToutUK

February 03, 2023 15:26

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