Suicidal women accuse Jewish courts

EXCLUSIVE: Women seeking a religious divorce say UK batei din take years to process their cases and force them to accept unfair settlements


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Women seeking a religious divorce, including victims of domestic abuse, have accused UK Jewish courts of taking years to process their cases and coercing them to accept unfair settlements, leading several to the brink of suicide.

One agunah — or ‘chained woman’ — told the JC she had been waiting five years for three batei din to facilitate a get for her and that at one point she tried to take her own life.

This was followed by several attempts by a beth din “to coerce me to accept an amount far less than what was awarded to me in court”.

She said: “I felt totally alone… a feeling of no support from the community, the batei din.

“I asked how I was meant to live. I held down four jobs just to survive. I was sent from dayan to dayan telling my horror story over and again. Their coercions and manipulations caused me increased suicidal thoughts. Especially when I think, ‘Why is my ex not being “coerced” to grant me the get?’”

Another woman, who has been waiting almost two years for a beth din to process her get, said:

“Every night I consider swallowing pills... The only thing that stops me is my son.

“I feel like I am slowly being tortured. The beth din gives me no hope, they don’t do anything and they don’t care. What do I have to live for if I can’t get married and have a loving family?”

Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, who has been an activist for agunot for more than a decade in Israel and has recently been involved with cases in the UK, told the JC:

“Each case is unique, and some far worse than others, yet there is an underlying commonality in them all: an overwhelming lack of response and urgency, and a tendency to tell women to give up their rights for freedom”.

Others, while not suicidal, suffer severe mental distress — and not all are women. “Mordy”, who has been waiting one and a half years for a get, said: “The hardest thing …  is the manner in which the dayan treats me, despite knowing that I’m a survivor of domestic abuse. I’m still waiting for a response to an email I sent over two weeks ago.”

“Sara”, who revealed that both she and her children had been abused by her get refuser, told the JC how a “respected member of the community” suggested that the best way for her to secure a divorce would be to have an affair. It was later suggested to her that she should pay £100,000 for her freedom. This left her “numb” and in “shock”, and experiencing days when she “would drive and think if I just let my car drift into the oncoming bus it would be all over”. 

She said: “I sat in the beth din numb and in shock, having been asked by the dayan if I was sure that all the allegations were true. I felt like a noose was around my neck, continually...The leaders of my community had the power to fight for me, to carry me through this dark chapter. Had I gone through with it [suicide], they would have my blood on their hands.” 

Ms Keats Jaskoll said: “Batei din claim they have no power, while failing to respond to phone calls and emails. They fail to stand up against extortion — and it is extortion when a woman is told to give up her rights to property, child support and financial assets.” 

Batei din have the power to order communal sanctions against a refuser when the marriage is clearly over. Yet when asked, one court would not divulge the sanctions they order. 
“A person who insists on waiting for all civil matters to be handled — often years — should be considered a refuser. Allowing someone to extend abuse is being party to that abuse,” Ms Keats Jaskoll told the JC. 

“If dayanim can look at a woman, pregnant, caring for children and working multiple jobs and tell her to give in, they can surely look at a man with little to lose, holding all the cards, and tell him extortion and abuse is against the Torah. Batei din who are overly cautious about coercing a get out of a man, but unconcerned with the coercion they place on women, betray their mandate.”

Ms Keats Jaskoll added: “Worse, the lack of action by the batei din causes significant mental distress and adds to suicidal thoughts. 
“People awaiting their freedom are excruciatingly vulnerable. This is exponentially more true when they are in an abusive situation.  Let us recognise now that this is true pikuach nefesh, a matter of life and death. God help us if we wait until it is proven to be so.”

One Jewish psychologist, who did not wish to be named, said: “It’s also important for the batei din to realise that the stress levels are increased by the sense of one’s religious world failing to help, leading to lack of trust and a sense of betrayal. This is heightened by the fact that  dayanim are not simply anonymous judges… but named and revered individuals.” 

David Frei, Registrar of the London Beth Din, said: “The allegations are extremely serious and deserve to be treated with the utmost care and priority. The complex and often distressing issue of agunot is one faced by batei din worldwide.  The London Beth Din leaves no stone unturned in the cases we deal with in our efforts to support agunot and we have been able to resolve a number of challenging cases.

 “The London Beth Din takes great care over every case we deal with. Our Dayanim and our team provide a sympathetic ear to those stuck in this terrible plight. Nobody should be pressured into handing over money in return for a get and the thought that one lady has contemplated suicide is simply heart-breaking. If she or a representative is able to call us we would very much like to see whether we can help.”

Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll heads Chochmat Nashim, which promotes women's rights in Orthodox communities

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