In the realm of Jewish marriage, the plight of agunah women, who are unable to obtain a “get,” a Jewish divorce, has long been a pressing issue. Addressing this challenge head-on is The LEV Organization (Lev meaning heart) with the mission of liberating these women from their agunah status and enabling them to move forward with their lives.
In just two years, the organization has successfully obtained 19 kosher gets, with 20 additional active cases and new cases emerging regularly.
Rabbis Attend the Event Despite Threats
Recently, an Agunah Awareness Event was held at the DSN Beach Club in Deal, NJ shedding light on the issue of get refusal, with Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Rabbi Ronnie Kassin, and several courageous women sharing their stories. Also, Rabbi Daniel Friedman described the effects of get refusal, and he provided his perspective as a child of an agunah of 26 years.
Steven Ashkenazie, President of The LEV Organization, emphasized that the organization would not be deterred in supporting these women, their children, and their families, despite attempts to silence them through fear tactics.
The sensitivity of the subject matter was evident, as threats were made against rabbis involved in the event, necessitating heightened security measures. “If this is how they act towards our beloved rabbis, you can imagine how they act towards their wives,” Ashkenazie said.
He condemned the bullying and affirmed that the organization’s focus remains on aiding agunah women and preventing anyone from being threatened or abused. The strength of unity against adversity was highlighted, even though one rabbi chose not to speak due to threats against his family.
Turning Pain into Peace
“The LEV Organization has a mantra and a goal that should be something we should strive for everyday of our lives, that is, turning pain into peace. If we can minimize some of that pain, we will be doing something so great,” said Rabbi Krohn. The rabbi spoke about the difficult Covid years and gave examples of situations in which one determined person made a difference that changed the world. He spoke of how it is each person’s obligation to be involved, not with anger, but with peace and kindness.
One of The LEV Organization founders, Elana Dweck, was the moderator for a panel discussion. The stories shared by the agunot at the event highlighted the devastating impact of get refusal on their lives. Along with Rabbi Friedman, the speakers included two current agunot (seven years each) and one former agunah (three years).
Rikki, who was the first agunah to receive her get through the work of The LEV Organization said, “The LEV Organization did not turn me away because I was not from the community. They embraced me and they worked with me and effectively at the end of the day, they got my get!!”
“I remember the first time I called for help. I called this one organization and I called again and again. They said we are sorry; we have no resources to do more.”
“I called the LEV (Organization) before Pesach. They said to me, ‘You will make Pesach and take them (my children) on a trip during hol hamoed.’ I took them to Great Adventure, and I was on a roller coaster, speaking to them. They said, ‘You are not alone; you have an army behind you. We will support you and back you,’ and I believed them. I started to cry in Great Adventure. I realized I am not on my own.”
“We were invited to an agunah event (with other families) and my child said, ‘I want to meet those people.’ So we went, and after my son said, ‘This was best night of my entire life. Until tonight I didn’t believe anyone cared. Look how many people cared about us.’ That’s something powerful.” On the morning Rikki received her get, her daughter cried tears of joy, later sending her mother a note about how proud she was of her for fighting for them.
Agunot Speak Out
Mazie Levy has been agunah for seven years. “It feels like a lot more than seven because you suffer for many years before that. We try to make it work but when it doesn’t, you leave. I was on an emotional roller coaster from anger to sadness and back again. Everyone has hopes and dreams and with this you can’t plan for the future. Your health is affected. So many years are lost. Your whole life is on hold. The LEV (Organization) never let us give up. They encourage us to move forward.”
“I didn’t know how to explain the pain,” said Esther Ohayon, who has been an agunah for seven years. “I did not realize the challenges for myself and my children. I am a mother and father to my children. I had to deal with the daily expenses, and it was me and only me they had to rely on.”
The prolonged absence of a get not only prevents them from pursuing new relationships, remarrying, or having children but also perpetuates a lifetime of emotional distress. The LEV Organization aims to transform this pain into peace.
The LEV’s Assessment and Guidance
Each agunah case is carefully assessed through an intake process, to see if reconciliation is an option, as the organization does not advocate for divorce. Unfortunately, many cases referred to The LEV Organization have already surpassed the point of reconciliation, having exhausted counseling and reconciliation efforts.
Attempts are made to listen and speak with both parties involved to peacefully mediate the issuance of the get, and deal with any custodial and assets involved. The organization serves as a safe space for individuals seeking or looking to issue a get, and they actively seek guidance from community rabbis to navigate the complexities of Jewish halacha.
Raising awareness about the issue of get refusal and showing support for agunot is crucial to preventing future cases. If a Seruv (a form of contempt of court order issued by a Bet Din (rabbinical court) in an effort to compel action by an individual) is issued against the get refuser all members of the community are forbidden from having any dealings with him. It is forbidden to count him as part of a minyan. It is forbidden to answer “Amen” when he recites the Kaddish prayer. He is not to be given any place to sit in a synagogue or bet midrash. It is forbidden to inquire on his welfare. He is not to be buried in a Jewish grave.
Working for Systemic Change
The LEV Organization aspires to bring about systemic change, ensuring that each agunah knows they are not alone and providing them with a voice.
Couples can also take preventive measures by considering prenuptial agreements, such as those offered by the Rabbinical Council of America and the Yashar Initiative, which can help prevent future complications. Couples should speak to their rabbi to learn more and see which option is best for them.
Volunteers can contribute in various capacities, and financial support can significantly assist the agunot who often find themselves without resources to support their families.
“We [LEV] are rescuing people that are drowning in the ocean,” said Rikki. “I am here for so many women who were left behind. [After I got my ge] my family asked me, ‘Why are you not moving on? Get a life; do something.’ We are Jewish people, we have a heart, we have empathy, how can we move on when there is one other person suffering?”
The Power of Unity
Steven Ashkenazie concluded the event by emphasizing the strength and power of unity, urging everyone to join the cause against get refusal.
Elana Dweck closed out the panel discussion with a truly heartwarming appreciation for all who attended and who were watching around the world. “It’s an unbelievable thing to see, a full room in front of me when we kind of all started from WhatsApp groups and texting each other.” As the tears ran down Elana’s face, she said, “I’m going to be honest, I never knew anything about this world, and it is very sad that nobody really does. So I just want to thank everybody for being here. It’s unbelievable to see because I could have never imagined this.”
By standing together, supporting one another, and spreading awareness, the organization aims to bring freedom and harmony to those trapped in the chains of get refusal.
In the face of adversity, The LEV Organization seeks to make a difference, one get at a time, and pave the way where our children and grandchildren never have to know the plight or meaning of an agunah.
Those who need help or want more information should go to www.thelev.org.
A genealogist and historian, Sarina Roffé is the author of Branching Out from Sepharad (Sephardic Heritage Project, 2017). She is researching a new book: Syria – Paths to Freedom. Sarina holds a BA in Journalism, an MA in Jewish Studies, and an MBA.