Agunot study turns up unexpected results
November 8, 2011 | Jewish Tribune
TORONTO-WASHINGTON, DC – The lead researcher on a groundbreaking survey of North American agunot hopes it will spur fundraising efforts to improve services for Orthodox women stuck in marital limbo.The term agunot is the plural of agunah, the term used to describe a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage because her husband is unwilling, or unable, to grant her a get (a religious writ of divorce).
“The idea is to provide emotional, financial and legal support” for women who may spend years waiting for their husbands to grant them a get, said Barbara Zakheim, founder, Greater Washington Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, in a telephone interview with the Jewish Tribune.
“I almost look at them as the forgotten group,” she said. The Torah says we must care for widows and orphans but “an agunah is in a situation that may be worse than a widow” because she cannot remarry. “I don’t believe that was the intent of the Torah law,” which mandates the get. “The idea was not that this woman should suffer.”
The first survey of its kind in North America was conducted by The Mellman Group in 2010-11. Major organizations which put their names to the study include the Orthodox Union, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Jewish Women International.
A seven-page questionnaire was mailed to more than 70 Jewish organizations across the United States and Canada; 20 responded. Most of the organizations that opted out cited a lack of cases involving agunot, in many cases, as a result of serving cities without a significant Orthodox Jewish presence. In addition, some Orthodox Jewish organizations declined to participate.
The women themselves were not identified or questioned; rather, organizations were asked to provide information about services they provided to agunot, as well as specific details pertaining to actual cases. The survey was intended as a census to ascertain the number of agunot in North America one, two, and five years ago.
“What we have captured is that there were 462 agunot in the past five years who have reached out” for help. Zakheim estimated that the actual number could be from 20 to 50 per cent higher; at this time, no one knows. For example, “we probably didn’t capture all the cases in the ultra-Orthodox community.”
Some of the results were unexpected, Zakheim said. “I was surprised by the number of agunot. I would have guessed it would have been around 200; it was 462…. I was also surprised by the number of women living at, or close to, the poverty level. That was very troubling.” She was also taken aback that “so many of them didn’t know where to turn and where to get help.”
The completed surveys revealed that organizations are insufficiently funded and poorly prepared to assist agunot, many of whom are younger women with children, who are trying to leave their first marriages.
One of the groups involved in the study, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, is working specifically on the Halachic side of the issue, Zakheim said, but there are no organizations or programs to help with the day-to-day lives of women while they are trying to obtain their get. It’s a question of “helping them to lead their lives in a more comfortable way during that period.”
Zakheim said she plans to work with existing Jewish groups to help find ways to raise money for agunot. The study was not intended to stand alone; its goal was to encourage practical responses to practical needs.
“If we can’t do anything with the data to make the situation better, then to me, it was pointless,” she said.
To download a copy of the 2010-2011 North American Study of Agunot, visit: http://www.box.net/shared/gi53njreybst85s29ahe.