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Meet Joanne Greenaway - the Beth Din woman taking a tough stand on get-denial

Meet Joanne Greenaway - the Beth Din woman taking a tough stand on get-denial

    Joanne Greenaway at the London Beth Din:
    Joanne Greenaway at the London Beth Din: "Everyday I am making progress" (Photo: John Rifkin)

    At the age of 83, Valerie Cocks is the oldest agunah in Europe.

    For the past 45 years, Herman Laub has refused to grant her a get (a religious divorce). Without it, they are still considered halachically married.

    He has repeatedly ignored pleas from senior rabbis, friends and even the couple's two children to release Lady Cocks, who once ran Labour Friends of Israel, from the status of agunah (Hebrew for chained woman).

    Lady Cocks - who went on to marry the late Labour Chief Whip Michael Cocks, who was not Jewish, after receiving her civil divorce 45 years ago - is convinced that she will never receive her get from Brussels-based Mr Laub, 91.

    She says: "I really would like to be free of him. I would very much like to have the get, but he said he'll never give it to me as long as he lives.

    "One rabbi at the London Beth Din told me that if I die before Herman, God will still think I'm married to him. I went home feeling depressed.

    "When I was younger, it would have stopped me re-marrying a religious Jewish person. I don't have anyone to marry now, but nevertheless I would rather be free of Herman."

    Lady Cocks's case is one of many that are now being monitored by Joanne Greenaway, the first female lawyer ever to have entered the London Beth Din, the largest Jewish court in Britain.

    The Beth Din can handle around 100 divorce cases at any time. It is estimated that less than 10 per cent of those are considered difficult cases when it comes to obtaining a get.

    Denial of a get means a woman cannot remarry under Orthodox auspices, and her future children will have the status of mamzer (illegitimate).

    Mrs Greenaway joined the Beth Din from city firm Herbert Smith Freehills. She worked on cases at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, negotiating investment treaty disputes between governments and companies.

    But now the 39-year-old is focusing on her part-time role at the Beth Din, which she says she finds "much more meaningful". She deals with men who have refused to give their wife a get for years - and some women who are reluctant to receive a get from their husband.

    "Sometimes they just want revenge, sometimes they want their partner back. Sometimes they're in denial, sometimes they want things that are illegal. Other times, they can be too proud to acknowledge that someone doesn't want them," she explains.

    Victims have said that blackmail is not uncommon. Some women have said they would start crowd-fundraising campaigns to give their ex-partners cash in exchange for what one agunah described as "my liberty - you can't put a price on it".

    But Mrs Greenaway is firmly against the practice. "I won't let any woman do it. Sometimes there is suggestion of money - but any kind of extortion is just not acceptable."

    Mrs Greenaway has brought a tougher approach toward get-deniers. Three London Beth Din notices, naming and shaming men who have refused to give their wives a get for years, have been put up at local shteibels and synagogues and placed in the JC. Using her linguistic skills (she also speaks French, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew), Mrs Greenaway has translated notices into languages in order to reach all communities to which the get-denier has contact. For the first time the US this month enacted by-laws that stripped one get-refuser of his burial rights.

    Mrs Greenaway explains: "Unlike Israel, where rabbinical courts do have the force of law, we can't enforce anything like prison sentences or fines. We have to do what we can - working with communal sanctions that do have a basis in Jewish law."

    She has fostered links with judges administering the civil divorce procedure, in a bid to ensure the two processes occur as close together as possible.

    "It's the judge's discretion but you can delay the civil divorce indefinitely - they normally agree to withhold the civil divorce until the get is given," she says.

    According to Mrs Greenaway, tackling the issue of get denial "takes innovating thinking, energy and recourse.

    "It's always important to think: 'Where is that person [denying the get] from and what is that person going to be affected by? How can we reach the people he cares about?"

    "Getting a Jewish divorce is a big deal for people in the community. They don't move on with their lives. Someone without a get is not able to remarry in an Orthodox shul.

    But for all of this, Mrs Greenaway has yet to convince a single get-refuser to grant a divorce.

    "Unfortunately, it hasn't worked yet. One man [who was publicly named and shamed] has disappeared off to America and another to France," she says.

    "It's very disheartening but every day I am making progress. Sometimes, someone agreeing to come in for a meeting can be a massive achievement."

    In the past, some agunot have felt that the Beth Din has not been entirely on their side. One woman, who did not want to be named, said the experience of going to the court to receive her get was "utterly awful".

    She says: "My ex-husband held the get over me - and he could because the Orthodox Beth Din gives men all the power. The judges always believe the men over the women. They told me my husband was an outstanding citizen.

    "My ex told me he would only give me the get if I gave him back some jewellery - it was a pathetic bribe."

    Mrs Greenaway says: "The Beth Din have quite a small team, and I think they recognised that it's actually very important to have a woman involved as part of that team - that it would be good to have a woman helping them with their cases.

    "Each case is someone's life so for me there isn't any limit on how much energy we should put into it."

    She adds: "I think that the actions we have taken so far send out a very strong message and I feel very strongly that they have created a deterrent. Other countries are now following our lead."

    Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has hailed her work. He says: "To have such a gifted and widely respected lawyer who can focus directly and sensitively on outstanding cases of agunot who are left in extremely difficult, often tragic, situations shows how important this issue is for our Beth Din."

    Manchester University's Professor Bernard Jackson, director of a research unit into agunot, believes the issue has not received enough attention, "in part because many traditional authorities regard any movement on this as a concession to feminism.

    "Moreover, they often minimise the numbers involved by adopting a highly restrictive definition of an agunah and not taking account of cases where the wife (or her family) have already accepted the husband's extortionary conditions before coming to the Beth Din."

    On Wednesday, around 100 people attended a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa) event in north London to raise awareness of get-abuse.

    Jofa's UK ambassador Dina Brawer believes more can be done by the Beth Din, asking why it had taken so long to publicise the case of John Abayahoudayan who has refused his wife a get for 15 years?

    "There is flexibility on halacha, but it's not always used… In the United States, most modern Orthodox rabbis will not marry without a halachic pre-nup."

    Bar-Ilan University professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who spoke at the event, said more could be done to raise awareness in the UK.

    She says: "Lay people must put pressure on the leadership to force them to face this problem, not deny it, to acknowledge it."

    AGUNAH SAYS: 'I'VE BEEN TRAUMATISED'

    Get-denier Yossi Elkouby

    In February, the London Beth Din called on synagogues in London and Paris to deny entry to Yossi Elkouby until he gives Rifka Meyer a get. They have been separated for four years.

    She said: “I never comprehended the severity of what it meant to be an agunah. I did not realise how hard it was until it happened to me.

    “Unless you know someone personally, then it does get poo-pooed. I know four other women who are agunot.

    “There is always this burden – this connection. I don’t even think about meeting someone else. I’ve also been traumatised a lot so I need to reinstate some trust.

    “I need the get for closure. I can’t move forward as long as it’s there.

    “This is not a marriage. We simply have a contract between us and we need to terminate the contract.

    “It bothers me that in Jewish law we are still married. It is not surprising that some women move to Progressive movements. I can understand why they would do that. You feel hurt and let down. As a woman, you feel it’s very much a man’s world out there.

    “It’s been rough ride, but I’m still young. I want to find someone and settle down."

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