NETIVOT, Israel (JTA) — Ariella Dadon still marvels at being free.
For more than 2 1/2 years she was married to a man she describes as unfaithful, physically violent and emotionally abusive. For four years she struggled to get a divorce. But the rabbinical court ruled repeatedly that she needed to bring in "proof" of her husband’s infidelities.
"I had the names and addresses of the women he cheated on me with, but they wanted photos and I asked, ‘Where can I get those?’ " said Dadon, 30.
Dadon asked the court, known as the Beit Din Ha’Rabbanim, to subpoena the women to testify, but it never did.
Desperate and exhausted, Dadon, an otherwise upbeat young woman with long dark curls, turned to an organization that helps women whose husbands refuse to grant a Jewish writ of divorce, or get.
Mavoi Satum — Hebrew for "dead end” — offered her a novel solution: the services of a private investigator.
On his first day, the investigator snapped photos of her then-husband emerging from a car and into the home of a girlfriend. On the second day he photographed him with another woman.
The photos did the trick.
The judges, who long had said there was no room for reconciliation in such a marriage but nevertheless had demanded the evidence, ordered Dadon’s husband — once he finally showed up in court under police arrest a few months later — to grant the divorce.
Mavoi Satum, which provides legal and practical assistance to women like Dadon, as well as general advocacy and lobbying on the issue, decided several years ago to start using private investigators to help put pressure on recalcitrant husbands to grant divorces.
Often the task of a private investigator is simply to find the husband and bring him to the Beit Din Ha’Rabbanim, the religious court overseen by the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate that oversees matters of marriage and divorce in Israel. Even if there are orders for a husband’s arrest, the police often do not manage to find him.
"I’ve always said using private detectives is an extremely important route to be able to have because it strengthens women who feel like they have no power anymore, who feel helpless," said Gittit Nachliel, Mavoi Satum’s lawyer and an advocate who represents the organization’s clients in the rabbinic courts.
"And sometimes, for example, the man lives with another woman but there is no way to prove it, so we saw the importance of being able to hire a detective," she said.
But now, with the economic downturn taking a heavy toll on nonprofit organizations, Mavoi Satum has had to suspend the detective service following a 20 percent decrease in funding over the past two years.
A few weeks ago, Mavoi Satum managed to raise money for an Ethiopian Israeli woman to use a private investigator at a cost of about $200 an hour; it was the organization’s first such case since funding floundered. Federations and family foundations fund the group.
For 15 years, since Mavoi Satum was launched, it has assisted some 50 women a year at a cost of some $300,000, helping them on a practical level in the rabbinic courts and offering other support like psychological counseling.
"We fight on all fronts," Nachliel said. "If you are able to put pressure on the husband, ultimately he does give” the religious divorce decree. Under traditional Jewish law, the get must be presented by the husband to the wife for a divorce to take place.
The situation leaves women in a fairly powerless position, dependent on their husbands to release them from a marriage. According to at least one study, by Bar-Ilan University, some 40,000 women in Israel have been refused gets in Israel since 1995.
A rabbi who is an official in the Israeli Chief Rabbinate dismissed such figures as exaggerated.
"There are problems as there are in every system, but they are the exceptions," he said, adding that the court was compassionate to the plight of women — an assertion challenged by advocates for the women.
According to Nachliel, the religious courts have become even more conservative and stringent in their rulings in recent years, making the use of private investigators an especially important tool.
An investigator who has worked for Mavoi Satum — a former police detective who agreed to be identified only by his first name, Boaz — said his efforts mostly involve trying to locate husbands. Aware that they are being pursed by their wives and the authorities, they often live on the move and only rarely live in apartments registered under their own names, Boaz said.
One husband he followed lived with another woman and had children with her.
"I get a photograph of him and to the places he might be and track down various leads," Boaz said. "It can take a long time to finally catch up with him, which is part of why this can be an expensive undertaking."
In one case, after much difficulty, the ex-detective finally caught up with the husband — after discovering that he had been checked into a mental hospital. Boaz found out when he was going to be released and helped coordinate with the police for his arrest.
A Mavoi Satum-hired detective also helped in the case of Galia Iron, 51, a Jerusalem mother of four who spent nearly three years trying to track down her husband of 22 years. He went to work one day and never came home, leaving her with saddled with $200,000 of debt.
Her husband refused to appear at rabbinical court hearings and there was no way to trace his whereabouts, she said, because he kept moving.
"He had no desire to give me a get," Iron said. "He was much happier with things as they were — that the authorities would come to me for his debts as long as we were still married."
Iron and her children were forced out of their home when she defaulted on their mortgage payments. She started to work three jobs to support her family.
Her husband, meanwhile, started living with another woman, she said. Iron gave the detective both of their photos and rough information on where he might be living.
The detective soon found him.
"The private investigator went into the apartment with the police," Iron said. "They had to physically force their way in, and when they did they found him hiding in the bathroom. He was arrested and finally agreed to give me the get."
Iron said the detective was the solution.
"For women like myself with little means, this was the only way," she said. "I was surprised it worked out so well and so fast."