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Get Busters

Social media vigilantism comes to Brooklyn’s historically private Syrian Jewish community

by
Esther Levy-Chehebar
March 17, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night in March and Ghostbusters’ eponymous hit song is blaring from a loudspeaker in front of Aaron David Ohayon’s home on East 5th Street in Brooklyn. A boisterous crowd is gathered in protest. Some hold up signs. Among them are the slogans: “Free Esther,” “Unchain Esther,” “Give Her the Get.”

As the titular song escalates in all of its ’80s glory, a man rises above the rest, his white megaphone pointed toward the sky. It’s Murray Betesh, the rally’s organizer.

“WHO YA GONNA CALL?” He shouts.

The crowd dutifully replies: “GET BUSTERS!”

Fired up by a fast-moving social campaign on Instagram, the crowd is here to drag Ohayon, who is accused of refusing to give his wife of 25 years a get. Ohayon and Esther have been civilly divorced for four years, but without the traditional divorce document granted by a husband to his wife, a Jewish court will not recognize the civil divorce. As a result, Esther has been rendered an agunah—a woman who, by definition, is chained to her husband and cannot remarry.

A man suspected to be Ohayon peeks out from behind a curtain.

“That’s him!” Someone shouts.

The crowd begins to solemnly chant “we see you” over and over again. An egg is lobbed at the window. Eventually, one of Ohayon and Esther’s own children gets on a speaker to claim that his father was physically and emotionally abusive. Ohayon’s phone number is publicized and we are encouraged to use it.

This stretch of Brooklyn is not exactly known for political protest. And yet, in the past week or so, the issue of get refusal has generated a tidal wave inside the Syrian Sephardic Jewish community’s proverbial walls. Indeed, the Ohayon rally was one of about a dozen that have recently popped up in the Midwood area of Brooklyn, drawing attendees from all walks of the community—mothers, yeshiva high school students, professionals, etc. It began at the start of March with a fundraiser promoted by important community foundations and rabbis, such as the Kassin Chesed Fund and Rabbi Eli Mansour. The campaign bulletin on the Chesed Fund website read: “Help free Elizabeth! A young woman in our community who has been refused a Get for almost four years and needs her life back!” A picture of a young smiling woman accompanied the appeal. Interest in her situation began with this fundraiser but only truly ballooned when community Instagram influencer Abe Manopla (@mexicanpacino0528) shared her story on March 9. Manopla’s account identifies him as a “Sephardic Jew. Blogger. Seeking the truth.”

Elizabeth’s cause struck a communal nerve and catapulted people to the streets in protest. Chants of “Free Elizabeth” could be heard on the corner of Ocean Parkway and Kings Highway.

Within a few days, a viral social media campaign exploded in the community’s small corner of the platform.

On March 11, word began to spread of another get refuser. Mr. Dibo “Jeff” Khafif stood accused of withholding his wife Evett’s get for 17 years even as he went ahead and remarried (there are legal loopholes that men can manipulate to get remarried even without giving their first wives a get). Manopla broadcast live on Instagram with Evett and her daughter as they counted the years blighted by Khafif’s decision. Ten minutes later, there were 500 people outside of Khafif’s home.

New accounts like @free_the_chained, @freesyagunot and @get_busters rapidly gained followers as they communicated what quickly became known as the “Agunah crisis” to the community at large. T-shirts adorned with the victims’ names were manufactured and already on the backs of the movement’s supporters. And the withholding husbands became household names on Instagram in a matter of minutes: Like Naftali Sharabani, accused of being a get refuser for 10 years, or Joey Mochon, for 17 years. Names of neighboring get refusers popped up like pinned locations on Google maps.

In many ways, the ‘agunah’ crisis feels like a proxy for other communal tensions that have simmered beneath the surface for years.

In a matter of days, the campaign did what longtime agunot have been trying to do for years, their voices either drowned out or simply ignored. A day after his name was publicized, Khafif’s employer took to Instagram to say that he had been fired. Soon thereafter, he was reportedly arrested on charges of abuse after a disturbing audio recording circulated among the community. A few days after that, his wife, Evett, was granted her get after 17 years. A photo op of her husband granting her a get soon followed. Live videos from these occasions showed a palpable sense of joy. Comment sections were ablaze with ecstatic emoji and congratulations. More than once, a user pointed out that another staged rally was lagging and needed bodies. “Get here! Celebrate later!”

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Manopla joked. Prior to becoming the de facto face for the cause, he used his Instagram account primarily to rate pizza. Now he watched in astonishment as scenes from protests played out on his phone. Since his original post, Manopla has been streaming hours each day with community guests in spectacles that fall somewhere between Dr. Phil and Howard Stern (Manopla’s professed hero). As views climbed in the thousands, Manopla has been criticized for inviting women who have been refused a get and also men who have withheld them “to give their side of the story.” There have been disputes over who deserves credit for what and videos accused of glorifying men who bowed to pressure and gave the get. As a friend commented, “These gets are great but these gets are long overdue. It’s like celebrating me getting dressed today.”

The agunah crisis isn’t new, nor is it unique to this community. What is notable is the impassioned community response, the societal pressure and the viral social media crusade against these men. The agunot issue inflamed this community in ways that other issues have not, in part because marriage and family life are the bedrock of our social pillars. More specifically, it is the women who are tasked with ensuring the stability, tradition, and essence of a Syrian home. We have a word for this: Suffeh; the way of life. To see it compromised is devastating, but until recently there was no way to coalesce our feelings—and certainly no way to express them, all together and publicly. In the past month, women voiced their fury both on and off screen as dozens of get refusers were uncovered, their names splayed across Instagram in bold type.

One former community agunah who asked to remain anonymous likened the experience to being in jail. “It feels like you are the living dead,” she told me. “I was alive on this earth but my soul was dead. Slowly after I got the get I started to feel alive again. It’s a very deep feeling.”

The stakes continued to rise. On March 12, following community pressure, the rabbinate of the flagship Syrian synagogue, Shaare Zion, issued a new policy: Any person who fails to issue a get within 10 days following the delivery of a rabbinical request shall be prohibited from entering the congregation’s facilities for any reason. The ban includes services, classes, and social functions. Being barred from the zenith of Sephardic spaces is a pointed step toward excommunication. For a member of a tightknit community, there are few punishments more severe. Still, a “rabbinical request” in this case means a request by 75% of the congregation’s senior rabbis. And as many pointed out, more could be done to empower women who often enter marriages with little to no understanding of how the Jewish divorce process works. For example, promoting education of the Halachic prenuptial agreement of Beth Din of America. The Halachic prenup, which has been normalized in many Ashkenazi modern Orthodox communities, has been hailed as a solution to prevent most agunah cases. It is a legal agreement by which a recalcitrant husband—if the Beth Din deems him so—must continue to pay his wife daily spousal support until he gives her the get. The Sephardic Community Alliance (SCA) has partnered with the Beth Din of America to educate the community on it as a critical option to alleviate this situation.

Many also pointed out that while much activism has resulted in solving high profile agunah cases, there is a greater systemic problem at play: Women are not given seats at the table in the rooms where these cases are resolved and communal policy considered. Photo ops of rabbis and laymen sitting around tables upon which gets had been given spread on Instagram and WhatsApp groups. “ANOTHER AGUNAH FREED THANKS TO THE PUBLIC PRESSURE CAMPAIGN,” one read. But as a commenter observed, “Another agunah released BH. But another man in a photo of men celebrating. Another photo where women are invisible ... This is at the heart of the problem.”

The use of social media as a prosecutorial tool raises other issues as well. Viral hashtag campaigns are vulnerable to misinformation and often favor binary thinking over nuance. A handful of men have been wrongfully accused and more than once, a man was said to have given a get when in fact he had not. A woman who has had close contact with many of these cases stressed that while the crisis is dire, each situation is unique. “There are multiple sides to every story, and that gets missed on social media,” she said. “Many times the get is used as a weapon for other things.” For example, leverage in a bitter custody battle. But when a horror reaches your feed, it’s human to want to see the swift fall of the ax rather than wait for the careful deliberation that many complex issues deserve. Hopefully, justice eventually follows, but it won’t look the same every time.

“I would love to see everybody use a little more discretion. Let it be more informative and less reality TV,” said Dina Kraiem, who has been rallying behind the scenes for years in support of community agunot. “But that’s also what keeps people watching. You have to take the good with the bad. There is no one way.”

Which raises the question: What is the responsibility of the community personalities, who have in effect, become the public faces of this cause? While some hail the Instagram Live videos as heroic, others are disturbed to see the details of private lives aired so publicly. One woman described watching Manopla’s interviews as “magnetic, like watching a train wreck. You know it’s a disaster but you also know it’s important and you can’t look away.” Another said: “I keep finding myself somewhere on this line between thinking this is all out of control and needs to stop, and that this Instagram Live phenomenon is the only reason any of this is even happening.”

Some social media community personalities are beginning to think about these questions. “We took a page from the world’s playbook,” Murray Betesh told me, referring to the art of the social media protest. Still, Betesh seems to understand well the dangers of playing with this art: “Before I publicize a case, I verify that it’s real. I speak to people close. I speak to rabbis. I would never want to embarrass or promote the wrong person.”

But as the cases began to mount and the intensity both online and offline grew, another issue began to creep into the narrative. On the one hand, stories were developing of men from other communities who heard about what was going on and preemptively granted their wives a get for fear that they would be “outed” on social media. But what if a get refuser doubled down on withholding, citing the vitriol of the protesters as the cause? While flawed, the concerned logic seemed to go something like this: I was hated before, but now I’m really hated, so why should I even give the get? The number of confronted men who have given the get outweighs those who have not, but after protests reached a fever pitch, some began to worry about their long-term efficacy. Indeed, certain observers noted that the strategy overlooks a crucial pathological element involved in get refusal: Refusal is a power struggle and in itself—a form of abuse. I spoke to one agunah who didn’t seek a get for two years, because simply asking for it would ensure that her husband wouldn’t give it.

“Something about the rioting makes me uncomfortable,” Manopla admits. “It can cheapen the movement, which is 100% about the women and supporting them.”

One rally I attended felt like being in a pressure cooker one millisecond after release. I felt excitement and energy, but also like we were a bunch of little atoms buzzing about the ether, glad to be united by a cause but mainly, together. Or, as one attendee aptly put it: “They should open up a Starbucks here and make some money.”

In many ways, the agunah crisis feels like a proxy for other communal tensions that have simmered beneath the surface for years. On March 17, Manopla, encouraged by commenters, pivoted to another hotbed issue: the tuition crisis. Laments about the price of attending yeshiva poured in as various guests debated solutions. Another get win engendered a conversation about the range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds within the Syrian community and the broader Sephardic one. The sheer volume of attention and passion around these topics signals something deeper at play here. To many, having these conversations in the public square feels akin to “airing out your dirty laundry.” As one community member told me, “There is no law and order anymore.” Others feel relieved to be openly discussing things that have plagued people for years. Perhaps then the true transformation here is not what people are saying, but how they are saying it.

Still, many of the most influential discussions tend to be had in private, absent the noise and distraction on social media.

“They’re here, doing one as we speak,” said Alice Adjmi in her home, which over the course of the week has been used for countless negotiations and quite a few get victories. Together with her husband, Harry, they’ve been facilitating discussions and providing a space to solve cases that have lagged for years. A few moments later, I receive a screenshot of a post by #freethechained. It reads: “Michelle is free!”

“I’m deeply thankful that these women are being freed,” Emily Labaton, a community educator, told me. “But to me, the goal of this movement is about getting to a place where agunot do not need Instagram accounts to whip up a frenzy of public opinion in order to be free.”

When asked what he wants out of this movement once the fire dies down, Manopla said: “I want people to respect our leaders again. People are looking to our Rabbinate to enact change.” Manopla adds that he was encouraged by community rabbis to keep going, to continue giving these women a platform on his account. “It’s the women in our community who really spearheaded this movement. They saw my first video about a young girl [Elizabeth] and realized that it could’ve been any one of them. They just went nuts.”

In fact, the agunah firestorm has triggered more honest conversations on a broader range of subjects—including the wider issue of Jewish divorce, women’s rights within the context of Orthodox Judaism, and the spectrum of emotional abuse. There have been countless Zoom panels and Instagram Live appearances in the past few weeks. “The kids are watching,” Manopla said. So too are our leaders, who appear motivated to moderate the sea change occurring beneath us. As Mrs. Labaton put it on a Zoom SCA panel on March 15, “talking about divorce does not lead to more divorce. If you can start accessing support in the beginning of the divorce, it can be a much healthier and calm process.” It’s a matter of shifting the narrative. “For example, if you have a parenting coach who can talk with optimism about shared custody, then it’s not as terrifying for people.”

The picket signs will eventually bear a new cause. Sephardic Instagram will inevitably move on, populated once more by Passover ads and split family rentals in Gravesend. But one of the beauties of community is living with a collective memory—and many hope it won’t forget the events of the past week.

“At the end of every get ceremony the rabbi essentially says ‘go on and rebuild,’” Labaton said. “The Torah believes in that. And the mitzvah of get is a recognition by the Torah that life isn’t perfect. In the face of life’s imperfection, we can rebuild. The Torah wants us to rebuild.”

Esther Levy-Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.