NEW YORK (Apr. 21)
Attorneys in 10 states and the District of Columbia have volunteered to assist Na’amat, the largest women’s organization in Israel, in obtaining child support payments for Israeli women from Israeli fathers now living in the United States, according to Sharon Shenhav, legal adviser to Na’amat in Jerusalem.
Here on a three-week speaking tour for Na’amat U.S.A. (formerly Pioneer Women/Na’amat), Shenhav was promised pro bono legal help on five specific cases in three states, and other legal aid as needed. In San Diego, an attorney will seek implementation of a California support order issued when the couple lived there, she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview.
In a Miami case, an attorney volunteered to obtain a judgment against an Israeli engineer living there, who was ordered by a Jerusalem court to pay his wife in Israel support for their four children. Members of the Women’s Bar Association in Florida will also handle a Pensacola and a Hollywood case, Shenhav said. In upstate New York, an order to show cause issued by a Tel Aviv court will be served to initiate a support proceeding.
INSURING EQUAL TREATMENT FOR WOMEN
Shenhav’s contacts with the American attorneys reflect Na’amat’s theme this year for the organization’s annual Status of Women Month in Israel: insuring equal treatment for women in rabbinic courts and religious law, especially in matters of divorce.
In 1953, Israeli law gave jurisdiction over marriage and divorce to rabbinic courts, she said. In matters of custody, support and division of property, civil and religious courts have concurrent jurisdiction.
Na’amat, which offers free legal advice to any of its 750,000 members who request it, advises filing cases in civil court. Then, with divorce as the last step in the process, women can go to the rabbinic court with an agreement in hand. Otherwise, ultra-religious judges often choose the most restrictive interpretation of Jewish law, she said.
Na’amat encourages all members to sign prenuptual agreements, to guard against blackmail over property and custody, and to prevent a situation that creates an agunah (a woman not granted a get, or Jewish divorce, by her husband). In a manual entitled “The Guide to the Perplexed Woman,” Na’amat offers practical steps for dealing with the legal issues of marriage and divorce.
MORE OPEN-MINDED JUDGES NEEDED
Shenhav believes women will be treated more fairly by rabbinic courts when there are better, more open-minded judges. She suggests that a woman be named to the appointments committee, which was created by civil legislation to appoint the rabbinic judges. Two committee members are chosen by the Bar and two by the Knesset. Presently, all four members are Orthodox males and this need not be the case, she said.
Pointing out that 80 percent of the Israel’s population is not Orthodox, Shenhav questioned whether ultra-Orthodox rabbinic judges really know the circumstances of the lives of those who come before them. She said she believes that rabbinic judges who have served in the army have the best understanding of a cross-section of the population.
Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis are exempt and do not serve, she said. Many have never studied psychology, and must deal with testimony from psychologists and sociologists. Some do not even recognize the right of the Knesset and State of Israel to pass legislation, and they are waiting for the return of the Messiah, Shenhav pointed out.
THERE IS A HALACHIC WAY
Na’amat is presently working within the system to try to effect changes, Shenhav said. “There is no reason any Jew can’t challenge the decisions of rabbis. It’s not good enough to say there is no halachic solution for the problems women face in rabbinic courts. Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way,” she said. If the situation does not improve, Na’amat’s membership will pressure for civil reforms, she added.
Shenhav, who studies Talmud one day a week with a group of women, made aliya with her husband and two children in 1979. A native of Chicago, the former social worker received her law degree from Georgetown University in 1969.