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New Handbook Offers Women Guidance on Dealing with Jewish Religious Courts

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It’s rarely easy to get a divorce, but it’s even more difficult if you’re an observant Jew because to some extent you live in two worlds. You must secure not only a civil divorce but a Jewish one as well. If you’re a Jewish woman, you face an extra set of hurdles. You can’t obtain a Jewish divorce — called a get in Hebrew — but must wait for the man with whom you once stood under the wedding canopy to give it to you.

If you’re a fervently Orthodox woman, as most of attorney Margaret Retter’s clients are, there’s the possibility that you’ve been so terrified of going before a Jewish rabbinical court, or beit din, and so pressured by the man you wanted to leave, that you bargained away what should have been yours just for that get.

Retter is the founder and head of Din Legal Centers, a group that provides legal representation for women in both civil and religious courts. Using money provided by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, this spring her New York-based organization compiled and published The Din Handbook: A Resource Manual.

The book provides information about batei din, including questionnaires that representatives of three prominent courts filled out for her, along with emergency phone numbers and other help.

“This is the first time that the working and procedures and rules of a Jewish court are open to the public,” Retter said.

“We were very excited about this,” said Joan Wachtel, a board member of the Jewish Women’s Foundation, which gives grants to organizations that support Jewish women and girls.

“Personally we all knew someone who had been through the morass of divorce; there wasn’t anybody who didn’t know somebody who had been through it,” Wachtel said. “I get emotional talking about it, because it’s such a frightening thing. It can take years, and these women are stuck.”

She can’t think of an issue that dovetails more directly with its mission than Din, Wachtel said. “It’s a quintessential women’s issue.”

Demystifying the beit din’s procedures is likely to help women, Retter has learned.

“I appeared before many Jewish courts representing women, and I realized from the clients coming to my office and talking to me that there is great fear,” she said.

Most of that fear is based more on myth than reality: The widespread assumption that batei din routinely mistreat women is not true, Retter said.

“When we’re there, our clients are treated with respect, and the rabbis listen,” she said.

Because of that fear, however, a husband often can threaten to withhold a divorce from his wife unless she agrees to punishing financial settlements, Retter said. The wife often fears that a rabbinical court will not protect her, and she fears losing custody of her children.

Often that fear leads her to ignore summons to the Jewish courts, which then rule against her in their absence. Because agreements worked out in civil and religious courts are tied together, and because the final judgment of a beit din cannot be appealed, it’s necessary for the wife to be represented in both places.

Sometimes women sign settlements that they find impossibly constricting, just to make the whole process stop.

“We want women not to be afraid of the beit din,” Retter said, “because they ultimately have to appear there anyway. With the handbook, we’re trying to make them more user-friendly.”

Retter, who is married and has four children, grew up both inside and outside the fervently Orthodox world in Monsey, N.Y., and Miami. Her parents were both Holocaust survivors, and her father was a businessman with strong connections to the Satmar Chasidim.

She went to law school in Florida and was an assistant federal public defender. Then she moved to New York and worked for Legal Aid’s criminal defense division.

Retter had planned to stay in criminal law, but found that Orthodox women who learned she was a lawyer often asked for her help.

“They just assumed I would know what to do for a woman who was abused or needed an order of protection,” she said.

Drawn by the women’s stories, Retter eventually left criminal law to found Din.

One of Retter’s clients, who requested that she be called “M.” because she fears publicity will harm her ongoing case, agreed to talk about Din. M.’s case is not atypical, Retter said.

M., 34, got married at 18 and had four children; her marriage lasted 11 years.

When counseling didn’t work and with her marriage in tatters, M. asked her husband to leave. He refused.

She was afraid to go to a beit din because the folk wisdom in her community was that it would refuse her custody of the children. She knew about women who tried and failed to obtain a get. Those women, called agunot — “chained women” — live in limbo, unable to remarry, unable to have more children, unable to live their lives.

And she was afraid to go to a civil court, which was outside her religious world.

“In the end, in order for him to even agree to leave the house, I had to sign a whole agreement,” M. said. “He said that the only way he’d go to a beit din would be with that agreement. Pretty much everything in it was the way he wanted it. I didn’t have a lawyer — I didn’t have any money for a lawyer. I actually sold my diamond ring for a rabbinic adviser, who told me pretty much the same thing: ‘If you try to go to a civil court they’ll look at you funny,’ ” she said.

Eventually M. signed what she thought was the best deal she could get: She could keep the children, but there would be no maintenance and no child support. The beit din agreed to the terms.

Eventually M. got a civil divorce, but the legal arguments continued as the civil and religious courts bounced her case back and forth. She had no money and no hope. Then she heard about Din.

“Margie got involved,” M. said of Retter. “She knew how to talk to the beit din. She knew what my rights are. When I started calling they didn’t listen to me, but when Margie called they listened.”

“If I hadn’t heard of her, I’d be at the end of my rope. I had so much misinformation,” she said. “I was under the impression that there is no way that a woman has any rights, and that’s just not true. But it’s not about what’s true, it’s about perception.”

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