By Cindy Mindell
NORWALK – Last week, Norwalk Hospital was the site of an unusual gathering, when the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) led a protest against employee Ephraim Ohana, director of information security.
Ohana has continually refused to grant a get – a writ of Jewish divorce – to ex-wife Cynthia since the couple divorced in 2005.
An agunah (plural: agunot) is a woman whose marriage is functionally over, but whose husband cannot or refuses to give her a get, unconditionally and in a timely fashion.
The refusal to issue a get is considered a form of domestic abuse, says Rabbi Jeremy Stern, ORA executive director. There are several primary motivations behind get-refusal, “all of them about control,” he says. “That is the definition of domestic abuse: a pattern of controlling behavior, not just black-and-blue marks, but a wide range of actions that negatively affects someone’s life.”
Based in Manhattan, the not-for-profit ORA assists divorcing couples in resolving contested Jewish divorces in a timely fashion and in accordance with the highest standards of Jewish law. ORA facilitates open communication to arrive at quick and amicable resolutions to contested divorces.
Since its founding in 2002, ORA has assisted in the resolution of more than 170 disputed divorce cases and is currently working on 70 open cases. ORA provides its services free of charge and operates under the guidance of Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva (head of school) at the Yeshiva University Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), in cooperation with an extensive team of attorneys, rabbis, mental health professionals, and community volunteers.
ORA works to raise awareness in Jewish communities where get-refusers live, as a way to exert pressure on the individual to change course. Often, those who do not grant a get are trying to use it as leverage for financial concessions, or for concessions in child-custody and visitation. Others withhold the get for spite, in order to pain the wife, or to try to force her to come back into a relationship that she doesn’t want to be in.
Refusing to give a get and refusing to receive a get are both offenses in Jewish law, but the former is far more serious, Stern says.
In the Torah, a woman is only allowed to have one husband but polygamy is permissible, though rare. Some 1,000 years ago, polygamy was outlawed in the Ashkenazi Jewish world, due to a rabbinic enactment after the Torah was given.
“For a woman who says, ‘My husband is refusing to issue a get and I want to remarry,’ it would be considered adultery, and children of the new marriage would be mamzerim [bastards], with extremely dire consequences,” notes Stern. “If a woman refuses to receive a get and the man takes another wife, there is only a rabbinic prohibition, a lower violation, so it’s not considered adultery and the children of the new marriage are not mamzerim.”
Stern says that ORA has processed cases of women refusing to receive a get, but these are both short-lived and few and far between. “Like domestic abuse, where 85 percent of victims are women, the vast majority of get-refusers are men,” he says.
Some 25 people and several ORA staff members attended the rally, held across the street from the hospital entrance so as not to disturb patients or operations, Stern says. Several area modern Orthodox rabbis had publicized the event to their congregations, among them Rabbi Elly Krimsky of Young Israel of Stamford and Rabbi Yossi Pollak, out-going spiritual leader of Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk.
“Our intent was for hospital employees and Ohana’s colleagues to know about this matter and for him to be ashamed,” Stern says. “He’s been moving around from Jewish community to Jewish community, every time we rat him out. We’re hoping that he’ll get tired of this and will want to improve himself and give the get.”
According to Stern, Ohana has lived in Norwalk for several months and was attending a local synagogue until his identity was discovered, when he was asked to leave.
“We want to raise awareness in the local community and increase the pressure by Ephraim Ohana’s colleagues so that he can’t hide,” Stern says. “We hope the Jewish community will state that he’s persona non grata in its shuls.”
ORA organizers were also able to gather new information about Ohana, Stern says. “We will continue to put pressure on him, via all halachicly acceptable and civilly legal means,” he says.
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