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Her crime, as she calls it, seemed insignificant. She got married and had faith in the man she chose. Susan Rosenfeld was in her early 30s, wanted to build a Jewish home and thought she'd found "the one." Soon, however, it became clear she'd made a mistake.
He hurt her with his hands and his words. He threw her against walls and punched her. He said no other man would want her.
All of this, at least initially, she kept to herself. As an Orthodox Jew living within a tight-knit Long Island, N.Y., community, she didn't think these issues were for others' ears. The modest clothing she wore hid the bruises and truth from their eyes.
"I had Battered Woman Syndrome," she explains today. "No one realized how much of a crazy person I was dealing with."
Before she left him, she says the couple tried everything. They met with rabbis, counselors and explored alternative therapies. But the relationship wasn't working, and she found the strength to walk away.
The life she left was awful, but what awaited her would be hellacious, too.
In Deuteronomy 24:1-2, it is written: "When a man marries a woman or possesses her, if she is displeasing to him. . ., he shall write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thus releasing her from his household. When she thus leaves his household, she may go and marry another man."
This bill of divorce, called a get, is required in Rosenfeld's world, one that follows a literal interpretation of Jewish law. The document supercedes paperwork issued by civil courts. Without a get, which in Orthodox communities can only be issued by the husband, a woman is considered an agunah, a "chained" or "anchored" woman, bound to a marriage no matter how over it may be.
For more than two years, Rosenfeld, an ultrasound technologist, has been fighting to get a get. Until she does, she will remain in limbo - unable to date, marry or have children. The implications, if she were to move on without a get, are real. She'd be ostracized in her community, considered an adulteress, and her offspring would be deemed mamzerim, bastards only fit to marry other bastards. She says her husband has vowed to deny the get until he knows she's too old to bear children.
"He's more or less put me in prison.. . . All I want is my freedom, out of this marriage" she says by phone. "If I wasn't living this nightmare, I wouldn't believe it."
It's not that others haven't tried to help her. Hundreds of rabbis have voiced their support for Rosenfeld, but none have swayed her husband. He's refused to appear before an impartial beit din, a religious court of rabbis. Each week, his name appears on a list in The Jewish Press, an Orthodox paper, in an effort to shame him. He's barred from synagogue rites, often yelled at and chased out doors if he's recognized. A peaceful rally, calling for the get, took place outside his parents' home. He sent men to stage a counter-demonstration. They yelled into bullhorns and called Rosenfeld a whore.
Tormenting her has become "his raison d'etre," says Susan Aranoff, a founding board member of New York's Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and volunteer with Agunah International, both organizations to assist women such as Rosenfeld. "He's having a great time."
About a dozen calls to her husband, seeking his perspective, were never returned.
This issue isn't new; such husbands have been disdained and the matter debated for centuries. Moses Maimonides, a leading 12th century Jewish philosopher, advocated the whipping of these men until they acquiesced or died. When Jews lived in small villages with one rabbi, there was built-in pressure to act favorably.
Now, a man such as Rosenfeld's husband can duck into new communities, even find rabbis who work for him. Rosenfeld recalls one rabbi who phoned saying if she forked over her ring and dog, kept her non-working husband on her health insurance and shared her pension, he'd get her her get. She says she offered all of this, but then her husband wanted an additional $100,000.
Aranoff estimates thousands of women worldwide are living as agunot, the plural of agunah. In the U.S., where church and state separation rules, there's little recourse available through the justice system. In Israel, where Jewish and state laws blend, recalcitrant husbands can be thrown in prison.
Some American Orthodox rabbis have found ways, within Jewish law, to solve the problem, but Aranoff says their approaches haven't taken hold because the community isn't sufficiently outraged.
Rabbi Benny Zippel, an Orthodox rabbi with Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, recommends a "prenuptial agreement" before he performs marriages. The document states that whichever party refuses the get will be forced to pay $250 per day from when the civil divorce comes through to the time when the get is given. Though rare, he says there are cases where women will not accept a get.
Zippel's intention is good, but it's only "a Band-aid," says Aranoff. Enforcing such an agreement would cost thousands in legal fees, few offenders have the money to pay up and, most importantly, she says, "It lowers the conciousness in the community by making people think there's a solution."
Plus, it leaves women such as Rosenfeld, who has no such agreeement, behind.
Some ask why Rosenfeld doesn't turn her back on Orthodox Judaism. Other denominations don't have the agunah problem. Reform Judaism has nullified the need for a get, and Conservative Judaism has empowered its rabbis - in cases where gets are refused - to issue annulments to override the requirement.
Simply put, abandoning the only community she's known and one she still loves, in possibly every other respect, is not the answer. Her husband has punished her enough already, and she'll be damned if she'll let him rob her of her Judaism.
"I definitely have my angst, my gripes against God," she says. "But this is who I am."
Read about a Utah woman's more positive experience at http://www.sltrib.com/faith.