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Progress for ‘chained´ women

NEW YORK, May 7 (JTA) — An international grass-roots organization has won the backing of major Orthodox rabbis and organizations around the world to help ease the plight of women whose husbands refuse them a Jewish divorce. Jews who live according to halachah, or Jewish law, require a get to dissolve their marriages. Only a man can give a get, and some husbands withhold them out of vindictiveness or to extort financial or custody settlements from their wives. The issue has long rankled many in the Orthodox world because of the impact on women, some of whom are trying to escape abusive relationships. Women denied gets are forbidden from remarrying or even dating, and are called agunot, which means "chained women." The new developments, the result of advocacy by the Brooklyn-based L´maan B´nos Yisrael International, include the expansion of standards for batei din, or rabbinical courts, to prevent recalcitrant husbands from using certain loopholes to avoid granting their wives divorces, according to Marilyn "Mattie" Klein, the group´s president and founder. The standards have been endorsed by several rabbinical courts and Orthodox organizations, including one of Israel´s two chief rabbis, Yisrael Meir Lau, the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University President Rabbi Norman Lamm and England´s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. Lau has called on all rabbinical courts in Israel to cooperate and recognize only those rabbinical courts outside Israel that accept the above standards, Klein said. In addition, the Rabbinical Courts of the State of Israel have agreed to keep records of all Orthodox divorce certificates given by rabbinical courts in the United States, she said. Such a registry will serve as a backup in case the certificates are lost. Since those records will only be kept for rabbinical courts approved by Israel´s Rabbinical Courts, it will encourage people to use respected, established courts that adhere to the standards. One of the biggest loopholes that has been used recently to block women from obtaining gets is the heter me´ah rabbonim, which literally means "exception of 100 rabbis." Under the heter, a man who obtains 100 signatures from rabbis can withhold a get from his wife, but still remarry. Initially intended to be used when a wife is incapacitated, the practice has been widely abused in recent years, Klein said. "There are people who are selling heter meah rabbonim and women who are not being given the right of getting this get," Klein said. People have been known to obtain the signatures by going to yeshivas in Israel, where no one knows the parties involved in the divorce, and misleading young rabbis into believing the heter is justified. "The bottom line is they´re keeping a wife chained as an agunah while freeing the husband," Klein said. At a recent Brooklyn conference that attracted approximately 400 people, some of them agunot or former agunot, the new steps, as well as other new initiatives, were announced. L´maan B´nos Yisrael International announced that it is creating an information center to help women seeking a divorce by gathering and distributing information about which batei din, or rabbinical courts, have been helpful to women and which have not. "It´s like the Better Business Bureau," Klein told JTA. "Otherwise people go to a Beis Din," or rabbinical court, "with less information and thought than they do when buying a wedding gown," she said. People go to the courts with "eyes closed and their lives are turned upside down." The group is also launching a petition drive in support of the rabbinical court standards, asking people to have their rabbis, community leaders and community members to sign on or explain why they do not. "People have to take a stand," Klein said. The group is also creating the L´maan B´nos Yisrael International Children´s Fund, a children´s charity project to generate funds for agunot and their children. The project also aims to promote awareness among children about the plight of children of agunot.

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