This past summer, Esty Sompo’s Kafkaesque nightmare ended, when after nearly five years her abusive ex-husband agreed to grant her a religious divorce, or a get, as it’s known in Hebrew.
“There’s a photo on Facebook that shows that moment and how it felt. It’s me screaming. It’s the scream of a wounded animal; it’s not a scream of happiness. It’s a scream that comes after so much time fighting and so much desire and so many dreams of some kind of peace and freedom. It’s just a release,” she said this week.
For just short of five years, from September 2016 to August 2021, Sompo was an agunah, a so-called chained woman, still technically married to her husband — who was then residing in Greece to avoid the massive debts he had accumulated in Israel — but living entirely on her own in Israel, caring for her two children as a single parent.
Despite being recognized by Israel’s religious courts as an agunah, the designation carried no weight with the country’s civil authorities. For the government, being technically married to her husband was all that mattered. For the purposes of tax breaks, she was not considered a single parent, and on top of that, she was legally responsible for her husband’s massive debts.
“When I broke my leg at work, the money that I received as compensation from the National Insurance Institute went to my husband’s debts,” Sompo said.
Sompo spoke to The Times of Israel ahead of Yom Ha’aguna, or Chained Woman’s Day, an annual event created by the International Coalition for Agunah Rights that is marked on the eve of the Purim holiday, a fast day known as the Fast of Esther.
There are two varieties of “chained women.” One is an agunah (plural, agunot), a woman whose husband has gone missing or otherwise cannot be found to provide her with a religious divorce; the other is a mesurevet get, a woman denied a divorce by her husband whose whereabouts are known. Though “agunah” has emerged as a catch-all term to refer to both types of cases, the majority are in fact get denials.
Sompo was considered an agunah because her husband was hiding out in Greece at the time.
The issue of “chained women” is a complex one, particularly in Israel where all marriages and divorces are overseen by a national rabbinate and must conform to its views of Jewish law. There is no such thing as civil marriage or divorce. Under the rabbinate’s interpretation, there is no way to dissolve a legally valid marriage without the consent of the husband. Rabbinic courts can impose sanctions, including prison time, on husbands who are recognized as refusing to give a get, but they cannot force them to give one.
Pnina Omer, the CEO of Yad L’Isha, a female-run organization that helps women who have been denied a get — including Sompo — explained that there are two main types of men who refuse to give their wives a divorce: ideologues and extortionists.
The former are unlikely to be swayed by sanctions of any kind and are willing to be in prison or live abroad to avoid having to give their wives a get. “Sanctions won’t help. We have two clients whose husbands have been sitting in prison for more than two years and still refuse to give them gets. They’re willing to go with this to the death,” Omer said.
More common are husbands who try to use the power of withholding a get to negotiate more favorable terms for a divorce settlement, normally as it relates to property, as well as to further abuse their wives. These men are more amenable to sanctions.
“They are not ideologues. They are denying [their wives a get] because they can. Once it costs something, once it has a price, they normally relent and the get can be sorted out quickly,” Omer said.
“In a lot of cases, you don’t even need to apply the sanctions, just to threaten them,” she added.
Sompo said her now ex-husband was like this. “Why did he deny me a get? Because he could. There was no other reason. It was only after there was massive pressure on his ultra-Orthodox family here in Israel that he agreed to give the get,” she said.
The problem, according to Omer, is that it is often extremely difficult to get to the point where rabbinic courts impose sanctions, as it can take a considerable amount of time, even years, for a man to be recognized by the courts as a get-denier.
Precise numbers on the prevalence of get denials and agunot are highly contentious, as the figures put out by rabbinic courts refer only to those women recognized by the courts as such. Because the process can take years in some cases, advocates say the official figures are far, far lower than the true number of women who are in this limbo state.
According to the Center for Women’s Justice, there are between 2,500 and 3,000 women who have been waiting at least two years to receive a get, but only a few hundred of these are recognized by courts as being denied a get from their husbands. Just a few dozen of those get-denying husbands are subjected to sanctions from rabbinic courts.
In Sompo’s case, she was recognized as an agunah relatively quickly once she appeared before a religious court, but getting to that point was extraordinarily difficult.
From Israel to Greece to Israel to Greece to Israel
For years, she had been living with her husband and their two children in Greece because of the significant debts he had accumulated back in Israel.
“It wasn’t violence that started suddenly. You don’t suddenly get hit. It takes time to realize you are in a relationship where you are totally controlled — financially, sexually. And then there’s violence toward the kids — and that’s why I fled,” Sompo said.
In 2015, Sompo took her two children and escaped Greece for Israel, a move that required considerable planning as her husband had hidden their passports and regularly inspected her cellphone, meaning none of her preparations could leave a trace. “It took a long time to plan that trip,” she recalled.
Soon after she reached Israel, however, Sompo was forced to go back to Greece as her then-husband filed kidnapping charges against her for taking the children with her. “I was found guilty and sent back,” she said.
Within a few months, Sompo was allowed to return to Israel with her children, and on September 11, 2016, she was recognized by Israel’s rabbinic courts as an agunah.
That designation initially meant very little in terms of sanctioning her now-ex-husband as he lived abroad, outside the jurisdiction of the Israeli courts.
Despite the rabbinic courts’ limited ability to take tangible action against her ex-husband, Sompo was regularly required to appear, specifically in the rabbinate’s agunot department.
Sompo has nothing good to say about the department, an office in the rabbinate that has in the past been subject to scathing criticism from the state comptroller for poor and ineffectual management.
“That department is useless. It does everything possible to get in the way, to prevent action. The people who work there are not working for the good of God. That’s my experience,” she said.
Sompo recalled appearing before a representative from the agunot department who refused to read her case file in advance, forcing her to tell the same story and answer the same questions over and over again.
“Read the file! It’s the minimum of professionalism,” she said.
Sompo said things changed when she began appearing in front of other judges, who approached her case with greater compassion and care.
“They let me express myself and explain things more. I had a much better experience and it was then that things happened,” she said.
At the first of those hearings, the rabbinic judges agreed that if her then-husband was still recalcitrant after another round of negotiations, then sanctions would be imposed on his family here in Israel.
“That’s how it ended,” she said.
A free woman
By the summer of 2021, she and her husband had worked out a divorce settlement, which guaranteed him four visits with their children each year.
“I was in a place that I had been many times before. Until the moment it was actually signed, I didn’t believe that it would happen,” she said.
However, despite agreeing in principle to give her a get, he refused to do so until after the children had made their first visit to him in Greece.
She formally received her get last August.
Despite the immense relief from being freed from her husband after years in an abusive marriage and five years as an agunah, Sompo said she is still figuring out what it meant.
“Getting that change of status set me on a path of self-discovery, despite already knowing who I am,” said Sompo, who is also still dealing with the financial ramifications of her marriage, having been forced to declare bankruptcy in order to get out of her ex-husband’s debts in Israel.
“It’s a very powerful thing. What does it mean to be a free woman, with no debts? I am still a mother to two teenagers, but I’m a free woman,” she said.
What to do about get refusal?
While Sompo was freed from her status as an agunah, hundreds or even thousands of women have yet to be.
Omer, the Yad L’Isha CEO, said that her organization, which provides not only legal assistance to “chained women” but also social services and emotional support, helps roughly 50 women a year obtain a get.
But Yad L’Isha is also approached for help by the same number of women each year, meaning the net total remains about the same. Omer said the Sisyphean nature of her work does not get her down.
“I wake up every morning to save women’s lives. We have successes, and that motivates me. I am filled with passion and strength. But the reality drives me crazy. It is unconscionable, just unconscionable, that this is the situation,” she said.
“I identify as a religious feminist. This is our responsibility as a religious society,” she said.
To address the issue, Yad L’Isha encourages anyone getting married to first sign a prenuptial agreement that forbids the husband from withholding a get, and advocates for current rabbinic judges to issue more compassionate rulings toward “chained women,” as well as for picking future rabbinic judges who are inclined to do the same.
Yad L’Isha is part of the Modern Orthodox Ohr Torah Stone network of organizations. It does not look to do away with the rabbinate system entirely, though Omer said it supports the right of civil marriage.
The Center for Women’s Justice, which also advocates on behalf of women denied divorces, supports a more radical change — doing away with the current rabbinate-controlled marriage and divorce system entirely, in favor of a civil model.
Removing the rabbinate’s control opens up the issue to other, potentially more lenient interpretations of Jewish law to give “chained women” additional options to obtain a get or to have their marriage dissolved in other ways.
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