Thursday, December 23, 2010
Not letting go: The anatomy of an Agunah
His name is Aharon Friedman, and he is refusing to give his ex-wife a get.
Activists blast Friedman, a high-profile lawyer for the House Ways and Means Committee, for withholding the religious document that would enable his ex-wife, Tamar Epstein, to remarry, making her an Agunah, or “chained woman. “But Friedman’s supporters maintain that is the last resort of a man desperate to maintain a relationship with his young daughter, and that the get is a so-called “nuclear” option in a messy divorce.
On Sunday, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a group that works to facilitate the granting of gets from recalcitrant husbands, held a rally at Friedman’s apartment in Silver Spring, MD. According to Rabbi Jeremy Stern, the director of ORA, 300 people attended.
“Despite offers by the wife, which she’s put her name to and signed, rabbis have vouched on her behalf, the husband has not been willing to agree to anything,” Rabbi Stern said. The group has been working to persuade Friedman to give Epstein a get for several months but has been unsuccessful. The rally was the second one the group held for this case; the first took place in Brooklyn in August.
Among the attendees in Maryland was Rabbi Shmuly Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.
“Aaron Friedman should give his wife a get immediately,” Rabbi Herzfelt wrote in an email to The Jewish Star. “I call upon the other rabbis in the area to ‘take a stand’ in this matter and to strongly condemn Aaron’s behavior.”
Epstein and Freidman were married in 2006, when Epstein was 22 and Friedman was 29. According to Epstein, the marriage was “rocky from the start,” but the couple had a daughter together in Maryland.
Friedman declined to speak to The Star. In 2008, Epstein moved back with her parents in Philadelphia. Friedman filed an emergency motion to get the couple’s daughter back. No immediate action was taken on the motion, but the couple agreed to go to the Baltimore Bet Din. Months passed, but the Bet Din didn’t come to a verdict and the case returned to a secular court where Epstein was granted custody.
Court documents provided to The Jewish Star show two parents engaged in a bitter custody dispute over their daughter. “Defendant is a loving mother and has been the child’s primary caregiver since birth…,” the judge wrote in a memorandum in 2009. “Plaintiff is a caring father and actively participated in meeting the child’s daily needs prior to the parties’ separation.”
When Epstein asked for her get after the civil divorce in April 2010, Friedman refused.
This is a particularly difficult case for ORA, since Friedman refuses to mediate in person and instead relies on intermediaries; so far, Rabbi Stern says, Friedman has not responded to proposed changes in the custody agreement. More shockingly, according to Rabbi Stern, Friedman’s representative demanded $1 million or 5 percent of Epstein’s family’s net worth to ensure that she keeps to any new custody conditions.
Friedman’s brother, Menachem, called the claims about the escrow “false.”
“Aharon has acted in good faith and al pi halacha,” Menachem wrote. ”Aharon has been seeking a fair, workable, and sustainable arrangement that will allow him to maintain a real relationship with their daughter, who needs both of her parents in her day-to-day life. Aharon is eager to reach such an agreement at which point — but not before which, as he has been advised by poskim — he would give Tamar a get.”
Epstein said she believes that Friedman is holding on to the get since he’s unable to let go of the marriage.
“It’s very unclear what he’s trying to get from me other than getting back at me,” Epstein said. “I know he has a lot of anger at me for leaving him ... I don’t understand what would justify him not giving a get other than getting back at me.”
A Facebook group in support of Epstein has garnered more than 2,500 members.
Efforts have already begun to pressure Friedman into giving a get through his workplace. Rabbi Herzfelt sent a letter to Friedman’s superior, Jon Traub, at the House Ways and Means Committee.
“It is your ethical and professional responsibility to tell Aharon to give the Get immediately,” Rabbi Herzfelt wrote. “If you do not do that you are indeed complicit in his behavior.”A number of prominent rabbinical figures have already weighed in on the case. Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University, ORA’s rabbinical leader, and Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky of the Philadelphia Yeshiva, have both demanded that a get be given.
“I must there again urge anyone who has any connection to Aharon Friedman to attempt to convince him to end her suffering,” Rabbi Kaminetzky wrote in a letter that was distributed by ORA.
Friedman’s brother countered with letters from Rabbi Yisroel Belsky and Rabbi Ben Dahan, an Israeli court judge, saying that the custody issue should be resolved before the get happens.
Rabbi Stern said that rabbis had been “deceived.” “He pulled the wool over the eyes of Rabbi Ben Dahan and Rabbi Belsky,” Rabbi Stern said. Efforts to reach Rabbi Belsky before The Jewish Star’s deadline were unsuccessful.
Menachem Friedman maintains that the current custody would not enable his brother to see his daughter, given that the time with his daughter begins at 6 p.m. on Friday afternoon.
“If that was the only issue this entire case would have been settled six months ago,” Rabbi Stern said. “Tamar doesn’t violate Shabbos, Aaron doesn’t violate Shabbos — there has never been a violation of Shabbos.”
Epstein maintains that she has already made repeated offers and provided documentations to The Jewish Star.
“I don’t see any evidence of him being genuine about negotiation process,” she said. “I’ve put on the table three different proposals.”
Menachem wrote that “Aharon is committed to giving a get after he and Tamar have agreed on a fair, workable, and sustainable custody arrangement that allows their daughter to have both of her parents involved in her day-to-day life.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, a rabbi in the Baltimore Jewish community, said that he didn’t support Freidman’s not giving his get and was acting “totally improperly.” However, he added that his behavior, is, “the pained and desperate response of a helpless and distraught father to the loss of his only child.”
He also criticized ORA.
“Humiliation tactics are not necessarily the best way to break the impasse.” The Baltimore Beis Din that initially presided over the case has not given an order for Friedman to give a get.
Miriam Colton, a staff member at ORA who is handling the case, says that regardless of the story, the case is a very simple one.
“There’s a he-said and she-said,” Colton explained. “The reality of the situation is that there is a civil divorce, custody went to the court and he’s still refusing to give a get. “