As long as there have been Jewish divorces, there have been examples of men who withheld a get as a form of leverage. To the astonishment of the average person, these men would live for years, sometimes decades, in refusal of rabbinical courts while living ostensibly observant lives. In recent years, the days preceding Purim have been used to amplify agunah cases in public, with rallies at the homes of recalcitrant husbands. This year, the voices of advocacy did not fade after Purim.
“It is simply somebody having control over another person. We have the rabbis backing us up, because that’s the type of person that Nechama is,” said Berel Solomon. A sales trainer with thousands of online followers, he used his Instagram this past Motza’ei Shabbos to highlight the case of Nechama Wasserman, who has been waiting for her get for seven years. Nearly 1,200 people watched his live interview with Nechama, her sister, brother, and fellow social media influencers expressing support for her.
“If there are issues, deal with it in court,” he said.
Wasserman’s estranged husband David has the support of his mother, who has been hosting him rent-free in her Monsey home. Efforts to pressure Rivka Wasserman to reason with her son have not been successful. Likewise, the school where she works also refused to get involved as its employee continues to support a get-refuser. Resulting from Berel Solomon’s live interview, on the following evening a crowd gathered outside Wasserman’s home in Monsey, chanting for Nechama’s freedom to remarry.
In Brooklyn, another crowd gathered to demand the same for Chava Sharabani, who has been an agunah for more than a decade. Attention to her case was raised by Jerusalem-based songwriter Dalia Ozeri, who launched thegetbusters Instagram account to highlight cases of halachic divorce refusal.
The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot has one open case listed in Queens: Rego Park resident David Setereshenas, who has been estranged from his wife Yafit since 1999. Smaller rallies outside his home have taken places as recently as December 2020, without any results in his case, which includes a p’sak issued by the Israeli Rabbinical Court.
Earlier this year, there was another case of a protracted divorce in Queens that was not on social or traditional media. I have a colleague whose daughter was going through a divorce where the husband was delaying the get. “She signed the “pre-nup” where he can be held liable for tens of thousands of dollars for not granting the get,” she told me. “She could take him to court, but she does not want to do this. She simply wants the get.”
My colleague’s daughter is not Orthodox, but like many in the Bukharian Jewish community, she had a halachic wedding and has enough respect for observance that she requested the get. She has been waiting for the get for nearly two years. “Speak to his rabbi; surely he understands the importance of the get,” I told her. “They’re both young, and I’m sure that he would like to move on with life and remarry as much as she does.”
Fortunately, this case ended with a positive outcome earlier this month, but had the former husband refused, how would our community have responded? Would we unite to call for an unconditional get, or dismiss it as a private matter that is not our business?
In 1992, the State of New York adopted a Get Law that allows courts to consider the withholding of a get as a factor in the equitable distribution of marital property. The law did not eradicate cases of divorce refusal, but it gave women a measure of leverage against men who did not play fair with the application of the get.
Earlier this year, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi of Forest Hills proposed legislation that would make “coercive control” a Class E felony. Relying on existing legal definitions of coercion, the bill notes that such control limits the victim’s “behavior, movement, associations, or access to his or her own finances or financial information.” The bill is co-sponsored by Nily Rozic of Fresh Meadows. At this time, there are no other co-sponsors in the Assembly, nor is there an identical bill in the State Senate. Religious arguments against this bill may argue that legal action against a recalcitrant husband reduces his free will that is required in a divorce. But at the least, it recognizes that get refusal is not a private matter of conscience but a method of coercion worthy of prosecution.
So far, public rallies, halachic pre-nups, seruv lists, get laws, and social media campaigns have not been able to eradicate get refusal. Certainly, such things have raised public awareness of this matter. Perhaps in our lifetimes this injustice will become as rare as polygamy, and the granting of a get will become as much a formality as the passing of a chalitzah shoe to a yevamah.
By Sergey Kadinsky