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Survey seeks to paint fuller portrait of ‘chained’ wives

WASHINGTON (Washington Jewish Week) — Her marriage of 18 years was marked by severe spousal abuse and ended in 2005 with a civil divorce.

But in the eyes of rabbinic authorities, the 44-year-old former Silver Spring, Md., woman remains married because her husband has refused to grant her a Jewish divorce by giving her a document called a get.

Known as an agunah, or a chained woman, she has been unable to start a new life. She has suffered financially and emotionally as a result; so have her five children.

"It definitely takes a toll," said the Baltimore-area resident, who asked not to be named for fear of possible repercussions. The husband "used to have control over the household, and now the only control he has left is deciding whether or not I have my freedom."

Agunot such as this woman are the focus of an unprecedented information-gathering campaign spearheaded by Silver Spring resident Barbara Zakheim, the founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington.

The effort — believed to be the first U.S. national survey of agunot — aims to illustrate the nature of the problem, its prevalence, and what communal organizations and other institutions can do to better assist these women, said Zakheim.

The survey, she adds, presupposes that the Orthodox rabbinic community will not make it easier for women to procure a get.

"This takes the problem out of the halachic box," said Zakheim, using the term that refers to Jewish law.

The survey, which is scheduled to go out this month, seeks to paint a fuller picture of agunot by inquiring about such matters as their overall numbers, finances, number of children, existing support network, relationship with rabbis on the rabbinic court, unmet needs and how long they’ve been chained.

Questionnaires will not be sent directly to agunot but rather to about 60 non-rabbinic organizations throughout North America that likely have dealt with these women and/or other victims of domestic abuse in the past five years.

Organizations collaborating on the project include Jewish Women International, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot and the Orthodox Union.

Deborah Rosenbloom, Jewish Women International’s director of programs, says she hopes the survey results will help spur rabbinic courts to action.

"This has been dragging on and on, and it seems that the rabbis will not respond in any effective manner until they see the extent of the problem," she said. "Their actions have been totally irresponsible."

Rosenbloom is concerned, however, that the survey may undercount the number of agunot because it is unlikely to reach women who have not contacted an organization for help.

Survey information will be gathered, processed and compiled into a report by The Mellman Group, a Washington-based national polling research firm. A spokesman for the organization was unable to estimate when the report would be issued. He said the turnaround time for the project would depend largely on when the completed surveys are turned in.

(This article first appeared at http://washingtonjewishweek.com.)

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