Orthodox women in New York launch ‘sex strike’ to protest against religious divorce

A group of Orthodox women are refusing to enter the mikveh in protest over a fellow community member’s plight


Demonstrators call for Malky Berkowitz' freedom from her husband Volvy Berkowitz, who has refused the get document necessary for an Orthodox woman to be able to divorce her partner. (Photo: Adina Sash)

A group of Orthodox women in the US have embarked on a “sex strike” as part of a campaign to help a member of their community obtain a religious divorce from her husband, allegedly after several years of trying.

Orthodox women in upstate New York’s Chasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel have been protesting against the Chalachic law that makes Malky Berkowitz, 29, an “agunah” or “chained woman”.

Berkowitz’s husband, Volvy, allegedly continues to refuse to sign the “get” – halachic divorce papers – that would complete their divorce and allow her to remarry.

Orthodox activist Adina Sash initiated the “mikvah strike” to draw attention to the centuries-old religious law that campaigners say keeps women trapped in unhappy and often abusive marriages.

For the last seven weeks Sash, known by her Instagram handle FlatbushGirl, has led activists in pursuit of a get for Berkowitz, and announced the strike last week as a way to escalate the campaign.

Jewish tradition encourages married women to have sex with their husbands following the ritual mikvah bath that takes place after menstruation.

In the Orthodox world, this time can be referred to as “mitzvah night”, which is an apt target for their campaign, Sash said.

“The goal is to stand in solidarity with Malky,” she said. “We’ve been beseeching more male participation within our patriarchal system – the men are completely dominating the rabbinical courts. There's no court oversight, it’s completely corrupt.”

Sash explained that Halachic law, which stipulates that the will of the husband is the determining factor in deciding whether a couple divorces, is often misused in rabbinical family court proceedings that are overseen strictly by men and are not equipped to handle get withholders.

Sash said that Berkowitz, who separated from her husband in 2020, has been to five different rabbinical courts and they’ve all issued “meaningless” documents of either excommunication for the husband or “conclusion documents” stating the relationship was effectively terminated, but none have been enforced.

She added that Berkowitz has shied away from public demonstrations and does not involve herself with the campaign. She did not reply to the JC’s request for comments.

Orthodox women have reportedly embarked on small-scale mikvah strikes to support local agunahs in the past, but most activists like Sash rely on public demonstrations and social media campaigns to advocate for agunahs.

Known as “Lysistratic non-action” for its connection to Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata in which the women of Athens refrained from sleeping with their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War, sex strikes have been successful in some contemporary iterations. In 2003, Liberian women went on a sex strike to end the country’s civil war, and in 2011 Filipino women enforced peace in their rural village through a sex strike.

But Daphne Lazar Price, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, told JTA that “it shouldn’t take the threat of women to withhold sex from their husbands in order to get men’s attention — nor to get men to behave as allies toward women, and toward the halachic system that they purport to hold so dear. Using sex as a form of coercion is also highly problematic.”

American-Israeli activist Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll countered this view, writing on X: “Across the Jewish world, there are thousands of women who are being denied a divorce, some women waiting literally decades, many being extorted.

“The Torah has solutions but our leadership refuses to use them, preferring instead to leave women trapped, making Jewish marriage a joke. It's absolutely tragic and an abuse of our daughters. And when women try to free one another with extreme means? Well of course they're not kosher... If you give us no power in the community, if you deny our dignity and our rights, try not to be so surprised when we take whatever power we have left.”

As the campaign for Berkowitz’s freedom enters its seventh week today, Sash remains steadfast: “We’re ready for another seven weeks of battle. We’re not giving up.”

Volvy was contacted for comment. 

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