Rivky Stein sat with a panel of rabbis early last month in a beit din, a religious court, waiting for her husband Yoel Weiss to arrive. The pair had been separated for two years, but Yoel had refused to give Rivky a get, a document of Jewish divorce.
“I prayed for my freedom,” said Stein. Yoel never showed up.
A surge of news reports followed, adding to an ongoing saga that had been chronicled by publications ranging from The Daily Mail to Haaretz. A call to action was posted on a website devoted to Stein’s cause. Donations poured in to a crowd-funding website that has raised over $22,000 so far.
The coordinated use of publicists, Facebook, Twitter, donation sites, and rallies is becoming common for women like Rivky Stein who seek religious divorces from their husbands. Many Jews give little thought to the get, but in traditional Judaism only men can grant a divorce. Without one, a woman cannot date or remarry without carrying and passing onto her children what is widely considered in the Orthodox world to be a tremendous stigma. So, with few options in Jewish law, more agunot—Hebrew for “chained wives”—are embracing contemporary and high-tech tools to publicly shame men.
“People say, ‘This is a disgrace, you’re washing our dirty linen in public,’ ” said Susan Aranoff, an economics professor who has been an agunah activist for 30 years. “But I understand the women who are doing it, because what else are they to do?”
In late 2010, hundreds of protesters flocked to the Silver Spring, Md., home of Aharon Friedman, a tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, who denied his wife, Tamar Epstein, a get. The rally was carefully planned, with activists distributing flyers and fact sheets while a Facebook event was shared with over 1,600 people.
Three years later Gital Dodelson, who was struggling to receive a get from her ex-husband, Avrohom Meir Weiss, worked with a publicist to set up the website setgitalfree.com. She eventually landed a front page tell-all in the New York Post and a segment on the public-radio show This American Life.
Just a few months ago protesters holding signs reading “Stop the Abuse!” and “Bigamist” gathered at the wedding of Meir Kin, who was remarrying despite his refusal to give his ex-wife, Lonna Kin, a religious divorce. He claimed that he had secured a heter meah rabbonim, the antiquated and seldom-used document, based on a technicality in Jewish law, that permits a man to remarry without a get if he can get permission from 100 rabbis.
Although definitive numbers are difficult to find, a survey conducted by the Mellman Group in 2010-2011 found that there were 462 cases of agunot in North America during the previous five years. That number may be higher, considering there is no official registry of Jewish divorces, a standard definition for agunot does not exist, and many agunot are reluctant to go public.
“There’s no place to go to count these things up unless you contact every individual rabbinical court,” said Jeremy Stern, an Orthodox rabbi and the executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, which is not involved in Stein’s case.
For the past 12 years, ORA has assisted in resolving 220 agunah cases in North America, Europe, and Israel, Stern said. He added that ORA only intervenes in ways that are both legal and acceptable by Jewish law. That includes peaceful demonstrations outside the home of the husband—they organized the protest against Aharon Friedman—and isolating him from his community. If the husband owns a business, ORA may call for a boycott. If he belongs to a synagogue, he may be ostracized.
“What really empowers recalcitrant husbands is the support they receive from their friends and community,” said Stern. Citing the rally in Silver Spring, he argued that there would likely not be another agunah case in the area because of the effectiveness of public shaming. “Before [a husband] takes that plunge he will see he has no one to support him, and that it is a route he doesn’t want to go down.”
While shame and exclusion have worked for centuries, another tactic has raised a great deal of attention: violence. A recent article in GQ details allegations against Rabbi Mendel Epstein, who is referred to as the “Prodfather” for his use of electric cattle prods to coerce reluctant husbands. At 69 years old, Epstein faces 25 years to life in federal prison after an elaborate FBI sting operation led to his arrest and indictment on multiple counts of kidnapping.
And in Israel, where all Jewish marriages and divorces must be made in rabbinic courts, a business for “get detectives” has arisen. Men unwilling to give their wife a divorce sometimes flee the country or try to disappear to areas without many Jews. Until 2003, a get detective profiled by Tablet was being paid $75,000 a year by the Israeli government to track down men who fled the country and refused to give their wives a get.
But public shaming is, in some Orthodox quarters, a more drastic step than violence: It involves exposing a community’s dirty secrets to the gentile world.
I received a call from Rivky Stein late in the afternoon on a Thursday in early September, asking if I would be available to meet that night. She would be juggling two jobs over the weekend—working at a children’s play center Friday morning, then running an hour to a center for the mentally impaired, where she stays until Sunday—so it would be my only chance to talk to her in person for a while.
Her Midwood, Brooklyn, apartment was spare but spacious. A portrait of her two children hung on the wall, but there was little else besides that and a futon. When I found Stein, she was sweating. The air-conditioning was off to save money, and she was wearing a yellow-and-gray striped sweater and a long black skirt. She had been living here for just two days, having been evicted from her last apartment, where she had been staying for two years, by her former foster family.
Stein, 24, was handed her eviction notice earlier in the week and started to panic after she found out that shelters for Jewish women were full. She got a call soon after from another foster mother—she went through many growing up—who said that she should come to her apartment and get herself back on her feet.
“I feel like I’m turning over a new leaf,” Stein said. “I’m starting my own place; I’m really excited. They say in Hebrew, ‘New place, new luck.’ ”
Stein got married at 18 and fled for good with her children, after two unsuccessful attempts, four years later. She claims that Yoel Weiss raped and abused her, and forced her to have sex during times that are forbidden by Jewish law. With the help of her brothers, she recently filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Weiss.
Weiss ardently denies the allegations, and says Stein is spreading lies to newspapers that peddle in gossip. “Everyone knows she’s a sham,” he told me in a phone interview. “My wife is a very good actress, and she’s collecting a lot of money.”
Stein said the difficulties she faced growing up probably made her rush into marriage. Her parents were baalei teshuva—converts from secular to religious Judaism—who had moved from Tulsa, Okla., to Flatbush, Brooklyn. Stein said that she only lived with her parents for a few years before going into foster care, and that she was too young to remember what it was like living with them.
Her mother refuses to talk to her about the family’s situation, Stein said, but from what she has gathered her father was abusive and neglectful. One of Stein’s older brothers told me that their father walked out on their mother and didn’t pay the bills. As a single mother who was raising seven children with no money, one thing led to another, and the city got involved when Rivky was 3 years old.
“I still have that day in my head,” Stein told me. “There were police everywhere, and we had a dog Fluffy and I still remember telling Fluffy, ‘Don’t worry, I promise I will be back.’ I remember running on the lawn in my nightgown and I remember throwing up on my nightgown. It was chaos.”
Stein’s siblings were broken up and put into different foster families, she said, and she changed households every two or three years, once landing with an abusive foster mother. She became close with another foster family to the point where she asked the parents if she could call them mommy and daddy—but two weeks later they had twins and didn’t have room to keep her.
“I just felt like, ‘What am I, an object?’ ” she asked. “They were good to me, but you feel like garbage. It’s like, we don’t need you now—next family.”
By the time she turned 18, Stein was desperate to make her own home. Yoel was the first man she dated, and she was infatuated. They talked about God and Torah, and she imagined their raising a religious family together.
After two or three months, they got married in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—and things immediately changed on their wedding night, Stein said. “He made it very clear,” she said. “He said, ‘I say, “Jump” and you say, “How high?” ’ From right then I felt like I was stuck. I was scared.”
So, in her fight for a get, Stein needed help. In recent months, she has assembled up an impressive team. She hired Shira Dicker, the publicist who worked for Gital Dodelson. They set up the website redeemrivky.com as well as a Facebook page that has nearly 9,000 likes. A 7-minute YouTube video called “Rivky Speaks,” in the style of a close-up sit-down interview, has garnered about 125,000 views. Her donation page aims to raise $36,000, although she expects all of it to go to lawyer and PR fees. Media like the Daily News were invited to the beit din, which is used to resolve disputes including contested divorces. (Dicker told Tablet that “half” the work she did for Stein was pro bono and “the compensation was extremely modest.”)
Weiss is furious about Stein’s taking their divorce public, and he disputes her version of the facts.
“She claims she was kidnapped, raped, beaten, all that stuff. It’s an interesting story and it’s a one-of-a-kind story,” Weiss told me. “All [the media is] interested in is what’s going to sell.” Weiss added that the beit din lacked credibility, which is why he didn’t show up.
Although agunot may be better-equipped than ever, with the ability to instantaneously reach out to thousands of followers through social media, or bankroll an attorney through crowd-funding, the power of divorce is ultimately given to the husband, according to Jewish law. If Weiss is bent on staying married, there is little Stein can do.
And the track record for Stein’s social media-savvy successors isn’t completely encouraging. Publicity ultimately worked for Dodelson, who received a get three months after her story ran in the New York Post (and after she paid her ex-husband a six-figure sum, according to one knowledgeable source). While it was widely reported that Tamar Epstein was “free” three years after the protest against her husband, it seems that she never received her get, instead having her marriage annulled by a sympathetic rabbi or beit din. And after seven years of being civilly divorced, Kin has no get and is still vilified by blogs.
As for Stein, much of her effort at this point goes into prayer. “I feel like I did everything,” she said. “I don’t know what to do anymore, honestly.”
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