Free Gital: American-style agunah
While civil court in US approves Gital Dodelson's divorce from Avrohom Meir Weiss, husband uses religious 'get' as weapon, demanding $350,000 and joint custody over their son in exchange for his wife's freedom. 'I can’t give you a get — how else would I control you?' he reportedly tells her
The New York Post published a column written by Dodelson, 25, in which she unveils her miserable married life with Weiss, and calls on her ex-husband to set her free.
Contrary to Israeli law, which allows sanctions against a divorce recalcitrant, the US authorities' hands are tied and there is no way to force Weiss to grant his wife a get. Meanwhile, the battle between Weiss' respected rabbinic family from Staten Island and the family of the agunah (Jewish woman who is "chained" to her marriage) continues.
Dodelson's associates have started a website called "Set Gital Free," which documents the chain of events. An active Facebook page has also been opened under the name "Free Gital: Tell Avrohom Meir Weiss to give his wife a 'get,'" with updates on the battle for Gital's freedom.
"It’s been an uphill battle trying to appeal to his family — this almost untouchable, powerful rabbinic family," Dodelson writes in her New York Post column. "Many rabbis have called on his grandfather, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, who heads the Yeshiva of Staten Island, to influence his grandson to give a get, but he staunchly supports Avrohom."
Other rabbis have even called for the dismissal of his father, Rabbi Yosaif Asher Weiss, as editor for the major Jewish publisher ArtScroll.
"Ironically," Dodelson writes, "(Avrohom’s) great-grandfather Moshe Feinstein was a major champion of agunot, and convinced many husbands to give their wives a get in his day. Now Avrohom is one of those insubordinate husbands."
'We can have a wonderful future together'
Dodelson first met her husband in October 2008 with the help of a matchmaker, according to haredi tradition. "They told me that at 23, he was learned, a great Talmudic scholar from an esteemed family, whose great-grandfather, Moshe Feinstein, was a legendary rabbi," she writes.
Despite the promising start, Dodelson quickly lost interest in Weiss. "My dad opened the door and led a handsome, dark-haired man with bright blue eyes into the room. He spoke softly and politely, but seemed shy. I happily got in his car.
"Our first date was at a big hotel near the Garden State Parkway, and we sat in the lobby drinking Diet Cokes. In Jewish culture, this is the quintessential way that you get to know a potential partner. Dates always happen in a public place and are very formal," Dodelson explains.
"We spoke about our families, and although he seemed interested in what I had to say, it was a little off-putting because he kept fiddling with his phone," she writes.
Dodelson says she only agreed to see him again because she thought it was impolite not to accept a second date. After the second meeting, she told the matchmaker she wanted to stop seeing him as "we weren’t a fit."
"Days later, my parents got an urgent phone call from his parents — begging me to reconsider, saying that the personality he showed me on our dates wasn’t the real him, that he was nervous around girls."
Dodelson agreed to give him another chance, and one date led to the next.
"After two months of dating — about twice a week, every week, first sharing sodas in hotel lobbies, then graduating to dinner and visits to the Museum of Natural History — we both knew we were expected to take the next step of getting engaged."
On a chilly December night, at a glitzy hotel in Midtown, Weiss dropped to one knee, pulled out a black velvet box with a sparkling, round diamond ring inside, and asked her to marry him.
"'Gital,' he said, softly. 'We can have a wonderful future together,'" she recounts. "He talked about the kind of marriage he wanted, where we’d be equal partners and make decisions together. Suddenly my reservations about him melted away. All I could think about was the excitement of the wedding."
'I'm the man of the house'
But only three days into the marriage, she knew she had made a terrible mistake. "It was our first Shabbat together as man and wife — and it was spent in silence. We were about to light the Sabbath candles, and we discussed how each of our families likes to light it. It’s a female tradition, and you typically do what your mother did.
"When my way contradicted his way, he criticized me and turned angry. Avrohom said, 'You have no choice. It’s not my way,' and gave me the cold shoulder for the next 24 hours. From Friday night to Saturday night, we didn’t speak a word."
Dodelson, who got pregnant right away, worked at her mother's technology company while Weiss studied in the yeshiva all day. She was the sole breadwinner, but he had control over their finances.
"Several times he would give handouts to his brother, who was unemployed. 'Why are you giving away the money that I earned?' I asked Avrohom one day. 'You don’t get to make the decisions,' he replied, adding that I’m stupid. 'I’m the man of the house.'
When Dodelson carefully suggested that they see a marriage counselor, "he flatly dismissed the idea, saying: 'You can pack your bags and leave. We’re not going to therapy under any circumstances, and if anyone finds out we have a bad marriage, I’ll divorce you.'
In a separate incident, when she mentioned that she was going to pick a gynecologist, he demanded that she produce a short list of 10 doctors and that he would have the final say.
After she gave birth to their son, Aryeh, Weiss refused to let her parents into her hospital room.
"My parents had been in the waiting room for hours during the labor. When they asked to come in to see me afterward, Avrohom steadfastly refused to let them into the room. I later found out that he actually manhandled my mom, shoving her back as she tried to walk out of the room."
As soon as the baby came into the picture, Dodelson was no longer willing to accept her husband's caprices.
"On a frigid December night, Avrohom insisted we drive to see his parents. I didn’t want to needlessly drag a newborn out in the freezing cold, so I said no. He was yelling at me, and the baby started crying because Avrohom’s shouting woke him up. He was only one month old."
Dodelson says that was when she reached her breaking point. "I said, 'This isn’t working, I’m moving back to my parents.' I packed up Aryeh right then and there, and drove off. I told him I wasn’t coming back, and I meant it."
A few months later, Weiss filed for full custody of the child at New Jersey civil court.
"While he agreed to a divorce in the civil courts (which blocked his bid for full custody of Aryeh but gave him custody every other weekend, plus every Tuesday and Thursday for a total 12 hours a week), he still holds the trump card. He will not sign the 'get,' the all-important bill of divorce which is recognized by Halacha (Jewish law)."
Religious divorce for $350,000
While the civil court has already spoken, the religious get has turned into Weiss' weapon in order to make the arrangement approved by the court more worthwhile for him. "One proposal his side put forward in January was for me to agree to override the court decision on custody of Aryeh and hand over a payment of $350,000. There’s no way I can afford that," Dodelson says.
"Civil law governs the legal aspects of life, but under the eyes of God – and everyone who’s important to me – I’m still married to Avrohom. On paper, I am a free woman. But this means nothing in Halacha, and I’m still imprisoned by my husband to this day.
"On my last mission to ask for a get, a month ago, Avrohom said, 'I can’t give you a get — how else would I control you?' I think that’s the key to it all. He insists the marriage isn’t over until he says it’s over."
Prisoner till the end of her life
Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of New York-based nonprofit Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), told the New York Post that "the refusal to issue a get is never justified and is defined in Jewish law as domestic abuse.
"It’s the last form of control the husband has over his wife,” he added. "The mentality is, 'If I can’t have her, no one can.' It’s fundamentally about control and spite."
According to the NY Post, NYC is highly affected by the agunah crisis, with 30 of the 50 cases currently being handled by ORA involving at least one spouse living in the region. ORA has resolved 205 cases since 2002.
Stern says that in Modern Orthodox circles, the get is often used as leverage, so his organization tries to broker one before any civil decision is made.
"The state of an abandoned woman is a halachic lacuna allowing a husband to hold his wife prisoner till the end of her life," says attorney Batya Kahana-Dror of the Mavoi Satum organization. "The Halacha must introduce an overall solutions which foresees these situations. For example, prenuptial agreements could solve some of the extortion problems.
"A wider solution is marriage with a condition, which means that it is canceled retroactively if the husband disappears, refuses to grant a get, or enters a situation in which he is incapable of granting a get.
"In Israel too we are advancing with the justice minister a bill which will oblige marriage registrars to present a prenuptial agreement to any couple arriving to get married, in order to prevent such situations in advance."