Esther Schonfeld, Esq.
Esther Schonfeld, Esq.
Esther Schonfeld, Esq.

By Larry Gordon

I once worked with a young man who told me that he had made two significant mistakes in his life. The first one, he said, was that he got married. The second mistake that loomed just as large and impacted just as dramatically on his life, he said, was that he got divorced.

Since that exchange many years ago, it seems that the stigma of divorce in the frum community has been measurably reduced. A quasi-community has organized to support one another through negative experiences and move forward in a positive way.

“Divorce is never really a pleasant experience to endure,” says prominent Five Towns attorney Esther Schonfeld. She and her associates deal on a daily basis with divorce and the ancillary issues that result.

When a marriage cannot continue, for whatever combination of circumstances or reasons, there is usually a civilized process through which to facilitate the desired outcome. In too many cases, however, on the way to that objective there is a breakdown of the protocols and prescribed process. This means that there will be no peaceful divorce, which sometimes results in years of waiting and the ruination of people’s lives.

That’s where Rabbi Jeremy Stern of ORA–Organization for the Resolution of Agunot–comes into the picture. Founded in 2002, the organization has, through extensive efforts, arranged for the freedom, so to speak, of over 230 women over the last decade. These women were classified as agunot, usually due to the fact that their husbands refused to deliver or grant the get, or Jewish divorce. Some had legitimate motivations, but more often the catalyst is a level of extortion or the desire to punish or inflict emotional pain on a spouse.

The way Jewish law has been interpreted and applied from time immemorial is that it is the prerogative of the man to grant his wife a divorce, and if he decides not to then she is just stuck in limbo. Rabbi Stern, who lives in Israel but travels frequently to the U.S., explains that when a marriage dissolves and when a couple decide they can no longer live together, there are four possible reasons that usually precipitate ORA’s involvement in convincing the man to give his wife a get, which represents her ability to be free to marry again. These reasons include his desire for money in exchange for her get; custody of the children; just to spite the other party, paralyze her social life, and inflict emotional pain; and that the man does not want to grant the divorce. On this last issue, Rabbi Stern says that the man either desires to keep the family together and really wants to try to work things out or just wants to perpetuate a broken-down relationship that often involves abuse.

On the matter of last year’s arrests of a number of people on charges of kidnapping and resorting to violence to induce men to grant gittin to their wives, Rabbi Stern says that ORA rejects those types of activities which are an obvious violation of both civil and Jewish law. He adds that ORA pressures recalcitrant husbands by resorting to legal and proper bethdin-sanctioned efforts. These include, as you might have seen in the news, protests outside of people’s homes and businesses and publicizing the fact that they are abusing Jewish law. Rabbi Stern agrees that today’s agunah bears little resemblance to the agunah of Talmudic times. In those much-studied cases, a man was either lost at sea while traveling or visited a war zone and did not return.

Another aspect of how divorce has, in a sense, come of age in our community is the creation of the Frum Divorce group that was featured in the January 30 issue of the 5TJT. The name of the group is both poignant and descriptive, as it states in a specific fashion exactly what it is about. The group’s founder, Benny Rogosnitzky, said that when he was divorced a few years ago he Googled the words “frum divorce” and all that came up were names of attorneys who specialized in this area of law.

This realization led to the informal founding of the group, which is planning a Presidents Day weekend gathering that will feature an array of outstanding personalities to address the nearly 300 guests expected for Shabbos at a Westchester County hotel. Today, Frum Divorce has 3,800 members who have attended these weekends or other lectures or events that the group hosts throughout the year.

As to the need for such an organization, Rogosnitzky, who is the associate cantor at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, says, “Let’s face it: divorce is still a stepchild in the Orthodox Jewish community.” He says that the group is not judgmental and exists so that people who have endured the ordeal of divorce have a forum in which they can begin to put their lives back together and move forward.

The organization and what it offers its members is so rare, he says, that on a Shabbos like the upcoming one, people will be attending from as far away as Europe and the West Coast of the United States. “We are not a singles’ group,” Rogosnitzky said, “as much as we are an organization that provides chizuk for those who need it.” He adds that they do have a shadchan at events like the upcoming one–at which it will be 5TJT columnist Baila Sebrow–and that so far, over the few years of the group’s existence, six shidduchim have resulted.

Rogosnitzky says that in dealing with both divorced men and women he has found a serious lack of education in the community about events that lead up to divorce and then the ramifications on a family once divorce occurs.

Ms. Schonfeld, of the Cedarhurst-based firm Schonfeld and Goldring, concurs and goes even further in talking about the pain inflicted upon those who are victims of what she calls get-refusal and what is otherwise referred to in the community as an agunah situation. She says, “As matrimonial attorneys, we all too often see men and women who have suffered indescribable physical or emotional abuse and who have been so traumatized that they frequently remain with their abuser for fear of what the consequences might be were they to attempt to separate. These men or women carry the scars of the abuse with them forever whether they manage to effect their independence or not. The important goal to achieve for them, should they choose to leave, is an exit strategy and permanent separation that meets their comfort level and ability to move forward. We often find that alienation of children, withholding of a get, and financial pressures are the most significant hurdles in effectuating their success. Of late, the agunah crisis has rightfully been gaining attention and will hopefully gain enough outcries to force change.”

Schonfeld, one of the most sought-after attorneys in her field, with extensive knowledge as well as a deep personal sensitivity, adds: “Get-refusal is no different from the mainstream forms of spousal abuse that we all unfortunately hear about on the news. We all know the story of the football player who hit his fiancée in an elevator, but few are aware of the case of the childless woman whose husband refuses to give her a get until she shows him proof that she will never have more children.”

To that end, the law firm is hosting a showing of “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” an Israeli-produced hour-long film on the emotional impact of damage caused by get-refusal that goes on for years. The film will be shown next Tuesday, February 17 at the Malverne Cinema on Long Island. The film was recently nominated for a Golden Globe award.

As you can see, the matter of difficulties in marriage and the resulting issues that come to the fore can be endless and indeed irreparably hurt families, especially young children.

For Esther Schonfeld, who is involved in many hundreds of such cases each year, there are matters that leaders in the community, she says, are simply not dealing with. “There are issues of hidden mental illness, as well as intimacy issues, that are at the core of what unravels most marriages,” she says.

On the sensitive subject of intimacy, she says that men and women are hearing different and sometimes conflicting instructions from their respective chassan and kallah teachers. “I think the teachers and instructors need to compare notes and at least talk to one another,” she says. “I believe that it is a matter that can definitely save young marriages from breaking up.”

And as long as we are on the subject, Esther says, another issue causing problems in young marriages in particular is “how parents get involved, impose their will, and use their children as pawns.”

On the matter of divorce’s impact on children, this is an issue that concerns Mr. Rogosnitzky and the leadership of Frum Divorce as well. They are very mindful of the way these proceedings between parents affect children. To that end, they have already hosted several events that are exclusively for children–one was held last Chanukah and another is coming up before Purim–that have drawn over 300 young people.

“We are aiming to devote some of our programs in the near future to family wellness and to make it known that situations do not only occur in the extreme, that not everything is either black or white, either one way or the other,” Benny Rogosnitzky says.

Whether it is Jeremy Stern of ORA, Benny Rogosnitzky of Frum Divorce, or matrimonial attorney Esther Schonfeld, there seems to be a consensus that these situations need to be shown the light of day and discussed so that when it happens in a family it is not taboo.

With the education, the lectures and discussions, they all seem to feel that the result will be a better-functioning community, and, most importantly, when a problem of this nature does occur we will all be familiar with the protocol and know how to deal with the matters effectively and successfully.

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