A bill introduced into Washington, D.C. city council last week targets men who refuse to grant a Jewish divorce.
The Justice for Ex-Spouses Amendment Act of 2015 would require those seeking a civil divorce to certify that they have not created a barrier that would impede their spouse from remarrying.
The bill also paves the way for a civil suit against those who “maliciously interfere” with their spouse’s ability to remarry, setting a course for the injured person to receive financial payment.
“For the women who are being coerced, it’s very significant. It’s a recourse when they had none,” said Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s director of social justice.
A Jewish woman without a get, a religious divorce, cannot remarry or even date, according to Jewish law, Steinlauf explained. The husband uses his veto power “as a bargaining chip” to work out the terms of the divorce and visitation, she said.
So-called “chained women” are “uniquely vulnerable,” Steinlauf said. “It’s very hurtful, and the emotional power it exerts over women, it’s very hard to imagine a women who can’t move on with her life.”
The next step for the bill is a hearing by the council’s Committee on the Judiciary. A date has not yet been set for that hearing.
The bill, previously introduced in the beginning of 2014, floundered in committee in part because Rabbi Barry Freundel, the former spiritual leader at Kesher Israel in Georgetown, actively opposed the bill, Steinlauf said. Freundel is serving a 6 ½-year-sentence after pleading guilty to voyeurism for surreptitiously videotaping women preparing to use the mikvah, a ritual bath.
The bill currently enjoys broad support in the Jewish community, including Kesher Israel, said Steinlauf, who said she is unaware of any opposition.
But the bill does not only apply to a Jewish divorce. Its aim, according to Council member Brandon Todd, one of the bill’s sponsors, is designed to ensure that everyone can move on with their lives following a divorce.
The JCRC and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom have been working together on this issue, Steinlauf said, who added there was legal precedent for this as a similar bill was adopted in New York.
Todd, who was elected this year to represent Ward 4 which includes Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, said that he was approached about the need for this bill while he was running for office. At that time, he was asked to help women whose husbands were delaying their divorce as a bargaining chip to gain better custody rights or lower alimony payments, he said.
“I’ve heard from people all over who really feel it’s a women’s rights issue; a woman should be able to divorce and be able to move on with her life,” Todd said.
The chances of this bill becoming law are good, as eight council members out of the total 13-member board are sponsors. It only needs a majority of council support for it to be adopted.
Said Todd, “If everyone co-introduced the bill voted for it, it would certainly pass the council.”