The revelation last week that an ultra-Orthodox goon squad had kidnapped, tortured and even cattle-prodded recalcitrant husbands into granting divorces shocked the public and sparked provocative tabloid headlines.
But it was the almost universal lack of surprise expressed by one particular group that proved most alarming.
Orthodox leaders say they’ve known about this problem for years, and some say they understand the rationale of the attacks, if not the methods.
The question they continue to wrestle with is how to deal with husbands who refuse all other efforts to get them to grant their wives a religious divorce, or “get.”
“It’s a tragedy on all sides because it certainly is a problem that has crossed onto the radar screen of the organized Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization. “We do look for ways in which you can apply pressure that doesn’t cross the line of compulsion, to try and bring the broken marriage to a proper divorce. It’s a tricky point. You want to create pressure, but not have compulsion.”
In the Jewish tradition, women who are unable to obtain a get from their husbands are referred to as “agunot,” from the Hebrew word for chained. Without a get, the woman is barred from moving on with her life; she cannot remarry, and any future children she may have are considered illegitimate and are unable to marry other Jews.
That’s where divorce gangs come in.
“Using force, that’s the way it used to be done centuries ago,” said Samuel Heilman of New Rochelle, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies expert at Queens College. “Most Jews don’t operate like that anymore, but in this community … it’s a sort of fundamentalist view.”
Gets and the violence they can inspire on behalf of women desperate to be free of their marriages are an example of one of the Orthodox community’s greatest afflictions, which is that it answers to two sets of laws, he said.
In the ultra-Orthodox view, the gangs break secular law for a good cause, he said. Women have little recourse with police if their husband refuses a get because the act itself isn’t a crime. Rabbis who arrange kidnappings or other forceful measures for a get may even be viewed as feminists, Heilman said.
And therein lies the irony, Heilman said. “Within the Orthodox world, they’re working on behalf of the underdog, for the woman, but to the outside world, it looks like a gang of kidnappers.”
The service they offer is criminal, and costs tens of thousands of dollars.
Those arrested last week, accused of being gang members, after the FBI raids in Monsey and Brooklyn include Rabbi Mordechai “Martin” Wolmark, head of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, and Brooklyn Rabbi Mendel Epstein, a prominent divorce mediator.
Instances of beatings to force religious divorces in Ramapo are rarely reported, though police suspect they do happen.
“Because of the nature and closeness of the community, there is no way to say how many times these incidents occur,” Ramapo Detective Sgt. John Lynch said. “You only become aware when there are operations like the FBI raid and people come forward.”
Elya Amsel, a Hasidic activist in Brooklyn who said he was the victim of a similar “goon squad” over a child-custody battle in the mid-1990s, said it was rare for law enforcement to get involved because of the political ties of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
“These are such heinous crimes, horrible atrocities but (district attorneys in Brooklyn and Rockland) turn a blind eye,” Amsel said. “It’s like the 1930s in Chicago with the mob.”
A spokeswoman at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office declined to comment on Amsel’s contentions. She said the office has never prosecuted such a case and that in the one such instance brought to their attention, the case of Abraham Rubin in the late 1990s, Rubin could not identify his attackers and no charges were brought.
Messages left seeking comment from the Rockland District Attorney’s Office were not returned Friday.
The get has been a source of heartache and contention for religious Jews for centuries, but not everyone agrees on the best way to prevent violence and address the plight of agunot women.
A bill supported by Agudath Israel of America and signed into New York law by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1983 requires that both parties of a divorce remove any “barriers to remarriage” for the other party before proceeding. For an Orthodox couple, the law effectively forces the husband to provide a get before the split is validated. (In rare cases, women have refused to accept a get, experts say.)
Though the law is well-intentioned, the secular courts are limited, Heilman said. “What you need is a system by which you can use devices like freezing somebody’s bank account, arbitration … impose things on a husband that are legal but that would still put him in a bind,” he said.
In the conservative Jewish movement, a rabbinical court or “beit din” can annul a marriage when the husband refuses to give his wife a get, provided that a clause in the marriage contract allows it, Rabbi Craig Scheff of Orangetown Jewish Center said. A prenuptial agreement can provide similar protection.
Another, less frequent, method is to convene a beit din that acts aggressively with a recalcitrant husband and grants the wife a divorce, without his consent, Scheff said.
“It’s very rare that we have to resort to such a technique, because the men in the secular world that we serve, the men are not holding the women hostage,” he said.
The get dilemma occasionally confronts Jews outside the ultra-Orthodox community. Divorce lawyer Lydia Cotz of Montebello said many of her female clients who are of the conservative Jewish faith view obtaining a religious divorce decree as a necessary part of the civil divorce process.
“The conservative and reform (populations) do not require this,” Cotz said. “It’s more of a preference … but (skipping it) would not prevent a woman from getting remarried.”
Still, some conservative and reform rabbis are increasingly likely to request the woman obtain a get, she said. On the other hand, some ultra-Orthodox women erroneously think a get is sufficient for the purpose of being remarried legally, Cotz said. But that can come back to haunt them.
Even worse, in some cases, is the use of a get as leverage for the spouse to extort alimony or child custody when a marriage has disintegrated.
Zwiebel, of Agudath Israel of America, said “pressure” is one thing. But physical violence isn’t the solution.
“A get is something that must be given as a matter of a husband’s free will and cannot be coerced. If it’s given under duress, then that’s not a valid signature,” he said.
By Mareesa Nicosia - lohud