At Long Last….

Despite political wranglings and machinations, 22 new Rabbinic Court  judges (dayanim) were recently appointed to the Rabbinic Court (Beit Din) system in Israel. This is the judicial forum in which all Jewish couples in Israel must divorce (divorce in the narrowest sense – the actual dissolution of the marriage).  Some couples also adjudicate issues relating to the end of the marriage, such as property, alimony and issues pertaining to children in the Beit Din.

As noted in the previous post, there is a tremendous shortage of dayanim, and a terrible backlog of cases.

Marissa Newman of the Times of Israel covered this development in an unfortunately predictable trope – the bad guys are the haredi (ultra-orthodox) dayanim, the better dayanim are from the less haredi world, and the haredi dayanim don’t understand what’s going on in Israeli society. These are all stereotypes and caricatures, and don’t lead to a serious understanding of the problems with the Beit Din, of which there are many.

Following a four year stalemate, it took just 15 hours earlier this month for lawmakers to carry out a major overhaul of Israel’s rabbinical courts, possibly paving the way for “historic” changes in the body that controls divorces for the country’s Jewish citizens.

While the judges were picked by party line, as part of an agreement between the three major religious Knesset factions, the move could still change the way Israelis wind their way through the sometimes byzantine divorce process, activists and others say….

…The total amounted to roughly one-third of Israeli religious judges sitting on divorce courts.

Eight of the picks were from the religious Zionist community, and 14 were ultra-Orthodox, seven Ashkenazi and eight Sephardic — corresponding roughly to one-third for the three political parties in the Knesset: Shas, United Torah Judaism, and the Jewish Home.

The seven slots for the Rabbinical High Court of Appeals, which requires eight of 11 votes to approve a candidate, were left vacant as the four female candidates on the committee and the ultra-Orthodox members faced off in opposing blocs, and with the debate centered on a rabbinical judge who issued a divorce last year to a woman whose husband was in a vegetative state — a ruling that was deemed revolutionary by supporters, and radical by the Haredi opposition.

According to Dr. Rachel Levmore, a committee member and director of the Agunah Prevention Project of the Young Israel movement and Jewish Agency, the appointments were nothing less than a “historic occurrence” that will determine the religious character of the courts and personal status issues for “generations to come.”

With the approval of roughly one-third of all rabbinical judges in Israel determined in just one day, the ramifications of the appointments on world Jewry, as well as Israelis, are immense, the rabbinical court advocate maintained. And with two positions left open for regional rabbinical judges, and seven for the High Court of Appeals, it is “imperative” Diaspora Jewry make their voices heard, she said.

“The appointment of a full third of the dayanim [rabbinical judges] in the Israeli rabbinical courts will determine the halachic [Jewish law] approach regarding personal status for generations to come, not only for the Jews living in Israel, but for Jews the world over,” said Levmore.
Why it matters

The fate of “chained” women, or agunot, whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, or religious bill of divorce, largely rests in the hands of the religious divorce courts. The courts can level financial sanctions against the recalcitrant husbands, or sentence them to jail until they comply. Without the religious divorce, the women are barred from remarrying in the State of Israel.

These “husbandless wives,” as Levmore termed them, are often stuck in limbo for years. Prior to the committee meeting, some 30 agunot penned a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imploring the committee to appoint “moderate judges” who will find innovative legal loopholes to extricate them from their marriages.

This is one of the problems of the discourse around the Beit Din in particular and Family Law in general in the State of Israel. The headline we all like to see and around which we can all rally is the problem of agunot. However, most couples get their actual divorce within a reasonable period of time, and without giving in the extortion in exchange for a get (religious bill of divorce). What often feels like an almost exclusive focus on this issue – which must be addressed – detracts attention from the problems relating to children, inefficiency over the division of property and incoherent judicial policy regarding child support, to name a few.

In addition, pro-active dayanim who are ready and willing to take on recalcitrant husbands (or wives) are not, in my professional experience, a function of where they align themselves on the religious spectrum.

The article goes on to quote Rabbi David Stav, the head of the Tzohar religious-Zionist organization:

“The divorce courts are mostly comprised of people who live in a closed Haredi world, and do not understand what’s happening around them. They don’t understand that when they delay divorce proceedings in secular society, it has terrible ramifications. It causes women to betray their husbands and husbands to betray their wives. They don’t understand that every delay is a catastrophe,” he said.

With all respect to Rabbi Stav, the notion that the more ultra-orthodox dayanim sitting in the beit din don’t understand that the delays in divorce proceedings may lead to infidelity is a notion – pardon the pun – divorced from reality, to say the least. They see people every day from all walks of life, listen to the news and are well aware that people may not maintain fidelity to their spouses through divorce proceedings. And is this really the primary quality that we want in our dayanim and judges? I would like to ask candidates  – do they understand the impact of divorce on children? Are they aware of the manifestations and ramifications of emotional abuse? Do they understand the need to make decisions quickly?

About to return to my desk after this major holiday season in Israel, I look forward to a flurry of notices from the Beit Din, decisions on petitions I filed months ago, and to a spate of hearings in cases which haven’t been heard due to the shortage of dayanim.

Unfortunately, though the latest round of appointments has filled some of the spaces in the Regional Rabbinic Courts, there were no appointment for the Rabbinic High Court.

The ultra-Orthodox members of the committee, however, were not the only ones to band together to block appointments. When it came to the High Court appointments, which require eight out of 11 votes rather than a simple majority, the women on the panel — Shaked, Swid, Levmore, and bar association representative Efrat Rosenblatt — insisted that Rabbi Uriel Lavi be appointed.

Under a 2013 law, the committee was required to have at least four female representatives — a minister, a Knesset member, bar association representative and court advocate. The September 10-11 meeting had the largest female representation ever on the committee, and presenting a unified front on the subject, the High Court appointments were deadlocked.

Lavi, a rabbinical judge in Safed, came under fire by the ultra-Orthodox after he granted a divorce to a woman whose husband was in a persistent vegetative state for six years, with the approval of his family.

Rav Lavi is a wonderful dayan, and it’s  a loss to the system that his appointment has thus far been blocked.

Let’s hope that the movers and shakers in charge can see their way to making the appropriate High Court appointments in the near future, to unclog this system.


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As readers even slightly familiar with Family Law in Israel know,  in Israel there exists a system of more or less parallel jurisdiction between religious courts (Muslim, Jewish and some Christian groups) and the Family Court. Thus, a Jewish couple seeking a dissolution of their marriage in the State of Israel must at some point go through the Rabbinic Court, which in certain cases may also have jurisdiction to deal with issues of children, spousal support and division of property.

While most court system are plagued by delays, the delays in the Rabbinic Court system are worse than those in the Family Courts; it’s not infrequent to be called for a hearing at 9:00 am and not walk into the courtroom until noon.

Dr. Rachel Levmore recently published an article in Ynet describing the abysmal shortage of Rabbinic Court judges, known in Hebrew as dayanim, in the Rabbinic Court system.

Just to give a taste of the discrepancy between what’s happening in the general court system as opposed to the Rabbinic Court system, take a look at these statistics:

In 1960 the general population of the State of Israel was 2,150,400 and there were 129 judges in the general court system.

In 2013 the general population of the state was 8,134,500 and the number of judges 652.

Meaning, over the same period in which the population increased 3.78 times, there was  a five-fold increase in the number of judges.

By contrast, since 1960 the Jewish population of the State of Israel – the population served by the Rabbinic Courts – increased 3.2 times, while the total number of dayanim increased only 1.4 times.

The following chart tells the story quite clearly. The red line indicates the general population, the green the Jewish population, the blue the number of dayanim and the yellow the number of judges.

הפער שלא ייאמן ()


Continue reading

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Vaxing Public Policy

As with many Western countries, Israel also has it’s share of “anti-vaxxers”.

I know such people, but didn’t really think that it was an issue on the radar of policy-makers until I saw this article in the Times of Israel.  Apparently, there was an iniatitive by MK (Minister of Finance in the previous governement) Yair Lapid to  actually cancel the child allowances paid monthly by the National Insurance Institute to families who do not vaccinate their children. Child allowances, currently around 280 shekels for one child, are slated to rise with the new government. For many families, they are an important element of the family budget.

That condition — which did not specify which vaccines would be included — revives a six-year-old debate on the legality of linking over the past few years welfare benefits to vaccinations. It also comes on the heels of a quiet climb in the number of parents opting out of some or all vaccinations, primarily from within some segments of the ultra-Orthodox community as well as Bedouin families in southern Israel with limited access to medical treatment (another group is found among upper-to-middle class Israelis, based on ideological grounds).

The Haredim and Bedouin, among those most resistant to inoculations, are also among Israel’s most impoverished and have the largest families, so they are ultimately the most dependent on the monthly allowances. Hinging benefits on vaccinations, then, puts them in a tight spot.

I’m not quite sure how it came to pass that anti-vaccination became popular in the ultra-Orthodox community, given the insistence in Jewish Law and practise on taking care of one’s body and health.

Be that as it may, while I am very much opposed to the anti-vaxx movement, this seems like a draconian – in incorrect measure. In the words of Dr. Yitzchak Kadman:

“This is a serious act, even worse than the previous attempt in 2010 to harm the allowances. Then, a reduction of the allowance was being discussed… now this refers to canceling the entire allowance,” lamented Yitzchak Kadman, director of the Israel National Council for the Child, in an email.

Given the public health threats involved with failure to vaccinate, it would seem that limits on public school registration would more effectively target this growing problem.


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Tribute to the Moms

Yesterday was Mother’s Day in the US and Canada, and Rabbi Elchanan Poupko has written an important, if not to say sensitive, article in the  Jewish Press, A Tribute to Orthodox Single Moms.

Well worth reading, and I dedicate this post to those of my clients – past, present (and future) – and friends, who so deserve this tribute.

Here’s a taste, but read the whole piece:

Jewish single mothers – a growing demographic in our community – often find themselves facing a unique situation unparalleled even in the challenging world of other single moms. Responsibilities for which they have not prepared, scenarios they never imagined, and social settings that are not their natural turf – all are all tackled with skill and competence by so many Orthodox single mothers, and in a manner so humble and successful that it often goes unrecognized.

In the Orthodox community more than any other, single moms find themselves filling roles predominantly assumed by men and they do it in environments that are dominated by and filled with men. They find themselves helping their sons with Judaic studies homework that may require a yeshiva background; teaching them to say Kiddush, HaMotzie, and other prayers; and actively engaging in religious matters that traditionally have not been part of a woman’s domain.

Time and again I witness mothers in our community whose husbands have passed away, left due to divorce, or simply disappeared going to extraordinary lengths to make sure their children are brought up as upstanding Torah Jews. I know mothers who take the time to research the learning style and atmosphere at a given yeshiva; mothers who make sure to get their sons a solid bar mitzvah or Talmud tutor; mothers who make endless sacrifices to ensure their children get a quality Jewish education.

I have seen single moms making sure that their children get seats in the synagogue for the High Holidays and that their sons, who of course are seated in the men’s section where mothers can’t be present, are seated next to someone who can help them navigate the prayers. I know moms who arrange for their sons to participate in prayers throughout the year or whenever their dad is not around to take them to shul.

(Hattip – and kudos- to EZP)

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Pre-Nups in the News

I’ve written a number of times about pre-nuptial agreements in general and specifically, halachic pre-nuptial agreements intended to prevent issues of refusal to give or accept a get, a Jewish bill of divorce.

The Tzohar organization in Israel has recently formulated a new halachic pre-nuptial agreement, which they refer to as a  “love agreement”. Not sure I would have gone with that particular moniker, but if it works….

The agreement was formulated by a number of very knowledgeable and responsible people in the fields of Family Law and Jewish Law, so I expect it will be widely used. Having said that, as good as an agreement may be, it’s always the wiser part of discretion to consult with an expert before signing any kind of an agreement, to make sure it serves your needs.

In addition, an article by Chicago filmmaker Beverly Siegel- director of the 2011 film “Women Unchained” –  in the Tablet recently caught my eye. It’s a great survey of the whole issue of pre-nuptials. Here’s a segment  of the article, but I highly recommend reading the entire piece:

The earliest prenuptial agreement to prevent get refusal was developed by rabbis in Morocco in the 1950s and endorsed in concept by the chief rabbi of Jerusalem in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Rabbi Mordechai Willig developed an American version at the behest of the Rabbinical Council of America, the main association of Modern Orthodox and centrist Orthodox rabbis, with which the Beit Din of America, a rabbinic court, is affiliated. A decade later, Israel came out with its own version, known as the Agreement for Mutual Respect.

The BDA agreement contains two simple provisions: First, if either spouse requests, the couple agrees to appear before a panel of dayanim, judges, and to abide by their decision regarding the get. Second, if the couple separates, the husband’s obligation under Jewish law to support his wife will be set at $150 a day, indexed to inflation, from the date he receives notice of her intention to collect, until the time that they are no longer married under Jewish law—i.e., until he gives a get.

The prenup says nothing directly about a get, as that could be interpreted as compromising a man’s free-will decision to give it; the man must give the get freely—although in the 12th century, Maimonides created a loophole that allowed rabbis to beat a man to help him realize that he willed his wife her freedom. Instead, the prenup just enforces the husband’s obligation, as set forth in the ketubah, the Jewish wedding contract, to support his wife. Basically, the prenup imposes a monetary cost to a husband’s decision to stay married to her.

But if the wife fails to appear in beit din or abide by the court’s decision, the husband’s support obligation ends.

“It’s a rock-solid solution,” said Rabbi Yona Reiss, head of the religious court of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and past director of the Beit Din of America. The prenup, said the Yale-trained lawyer, “has produced a get in a timely fashion in 100 percent of the cases where it was duly executed.”

Before it was challenged in civil court, however, some critics contended that if the prenup worked, it was only because the men who signed it would have given a get without a dustup anyway. Doubts about the prenup’s ability to withstand a legal challenge were significantly allayed in February 2013 when a Connecticut court affirmed its constitutionality. In the opinion of the judge, the BDA prenup, in terms of enforceability, was no different than a secular contract.

“It’s a huge win for the Orthodox Jewish world,” said Dr. Rachel Light, the agunah in the case, who received a significant award and a get.

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Free-Range Sabras

Inspired by the recent ruckus in the United States over “free-range parenting” as opposed to “helicopter parentingJessica Steinberg of the Times of Israel has written an interesting – anecdotal – article describing the freedom given to Israeli children.

Every day, most Israeli kids head to school. Some get dropped off by their parents, others take a public bus or ride a bike, and many get there on foot, often alone, sometimes accompanied by an older sibling.

Call it limited-range parenting.

When an American 10-year-old accompanied his 6-year-old sister to the library in a Maryland suburb a few weeks back, the local police ended up bringing the children home and threatening the parents with social services.

The event prompted numerous Facebook threads, blogs and tweets about “helicopter” parenting versus “free range” parenting, pitting parents who hover closely over their offspring against those who want their kids to roam free, or at least as far as the local playground.

From afar, it’s easy for Israeli parents to scoff at overprotective American parents who don’t or can’t let their kids walk home from school by themselves….

The impromptu debate also offered an opportunity to look at some of Israel’s parenting methods, and why Israeli kids are still allowed — by and large, and usually as of a certain age — to roam on their own.

For while Israeli parents worry about national and political security — and about their kids entering the army at age 18 — those concerns don’t usually translate into limitations on kids in their immediate surroundings.

“The culture in Israel is much more free and neighborhood-centric,” said Asher Ben Arieh, a professor of social work at Hebrew University who has researched child well-being for much of his career. “The Israeli community still exists and therefore kids are a part of it.”

Israeli neighborhoods tend to still be safe places, said Ben Arieh. There are exceptions, of course, such as December’s arrest of a Jerusalem taxi driver who is suspected of kidnapping and sexually abusing a 7-year-old girl after picking her up from school where she was waiting for her ride home.

Yet there is a sense of security in most neighborhoods. Kids often recognize their neighbors and even if they don’t, there is an ingrained tradition of looking out for one another, as exists in many places.

In Israel, precautions are taken to protect children when they’re out on their own. Schools have older kids serving as so-called “gold guards,” crossing guards garbed in neon yellow vests at crosswalks close to schools who offer a safe route for children walking on their own to school each morning. Public service announcements are broadcast on the radio, recommending parents that only kids aged nine and up can ride bikes and cross streets by themselves.

You can read the entire article here.



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Wanting Out

One of my earlier blogposts was entitled Aliya and Shaky Marriages, about the pitfalls of making aliya in the hope of saving a bad marriage. (Spoiler alert: it’s a bad idea).

A recent decision by Judge Rivka Makayes of the Family Court in Petach Tikva, emphasizes yet another, highly problematic aspect of the move to Israel; specifically, when one spouse cynically plans the move to exploit tactical advantages in a legal battle with the other spouse, a battle which he or she has planned, but (obviously) conceals from the other partner. It’s actually a really crass and cynical attempt at forum shopping.

The case before the court was brought by a woman who lived in the United States with her husband and family. The couple went through a crisis and the marriage was pretty much on the rocks. The husband suggested to the wife that they come to Israel for a six-month trial period, in order to engage in counseling, and get the wife away from her lover in the States.

They had return tickets, and there were clear objective indications that the wife understood they weren’t here to stay. Nonetheless, after about two or three months in the country, the wife and minor child applied for Israeli citizenship, which, according to the wife’s testimony, was a result of the husband having convinced her they needed to do this to be eligible for health insurance.  At around the same time their citizenship came through, the mother was served with a divorce suit from the Rabbinical Court, attached to which were suits for property, spousal support, child support and child custody.

Obviously, anyone stuck in a country where they don’t want to be – in which they had no plans of living for more than six months – is in a lousy position when hit with a lawsuit like this. At the outset the playing field is not level, since she wants to leave and get back to her home. Consequently, regardless of where something like this happens, she is going to negotiate an end to the suit on conditions that are less than favorable to her.

When this happens specifically in Israel, a woman who has never worked or has little earning power is at a distinct disadvantage, since in Israel, there may be no spousal support before the divorce and certainly no alimony with the dissolution of the marriage. Often, there is no spousal support at all if the husband has serious grounds for divorce, which is the case where there is adultery. So, here is a case where the husband – apparently a successful lawyer with property, and knowledge and control of all the family finances – might be free of any obligation to pay spousal support or alimony, which in all likelihood would not have been the case had the divorce proceedings taken place in the United States. Continue reading

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