Gital Dodelson never intended to be the poster child for the effort to free agunot. But then again, she never expected to be a “chained woman,” whose husband refuses to give her a get, or Jewish divorce decree. She finds herself a reluctant public figure after taking her story first to social media, then to the Jewish press, and ultimately to the New York Post.
In a widely circulated story, she told the Post how, shortly after her marriage four-and-a-half years ago to Torah scholar Avrohom Meir Weiss, scion of a famous rabbinical family, she realized she had made a mistake. Dodelson claims her husband became controlling and manipulative, and he refused to work on improving the relationship. After 10 months, Dodelson could not take the situation anymore and left together with the couple’s newborn son. She returned to her parents’ home in Lakewood, New Jersey, and enrolled in law school.
Dodelson, 25, and her husband were civilly divorced in October 2012, but Weiss has since refused to give Dodelson a get. After private attempts to convince Weiss to issue her the religious divorce failed, Dodelson, with the support of her family and publicist Shira Dicker, decided to go public with her plight to bring pressure on her recalcitrant husband and his family.
“I knew I’d lose my privacy by speaking to the mainstream media, but I figured it was worth it if it could help bring me closer to gaining my freedom,” the agunah told The Times of Israel this week. The strategy seems to be working, with her estranged husband’s father and uncle resigning this week from their positions at Artscroll, a leading Orthodox publisher, in the wake of the divorce scandal.
In a letter published by Artscroll, Yosaif Asher Weiss and Yisroel Weiss said they were no longer drawing salaries from the publishing house because the controversy had the potential “to distract Artscroll from its holy work.” However, they did not leave without taking shots at Dodelson, saying her accusations against the Weiss family were a “campaign of slander” and that the Dodelson family was committing a “heinous desecration of G-d’s name.”
Dodelson notes that the “Boycott Artscroll” petition that contributed to these resignations was started by people in England, whom she does not personally know.
“I was really shocked and amazed that so many people have taken to time to look at our Facebook page and then do something,” she says.
‘People recognize that this is a bigger issue than just my situation’
“I have received emails of support from all over the world — Australia, South America and South Africa,” Dodelson shares. “People recognize that this is a bigger issue than just my situation. There is no excuse to withhold a get.”
Dodelson knew the November 4 Post article would be a turning point and she felt it was time to take things to the next level.
“My community has been extremely supportive of me. I went to the larger community because my community has done all they could for me,” she explains.
It was a case of go big or go home, and she wasn’t quite prepared for some of the fallout from her strategic move.
She says that while response has been overwhelmingly positive, there has been a backlash. She’s handling it by deleting negative emails and allowing her family to confront naysayers on her behalf.
“I’m lucky that I don’t have to face the bad stuff personally,” she says.
The hardest part for her has been her loss of privacy.
“It isn’t pleasant,” she reflects about having strangers know so much about her personal life before meeting her. “When I meet people, they already know my back story, and that is uncomfortable for me.”
‘It would be nice if I were the only one in this situation, but I’m not’
However, she is coming to realize that this is a small price to pay for the major attention she is bringing to the agunah issue (Newsweek did a story on it this week), and for the example she is setting for other chained women. Not only have many former agunot reached out to her offering support, but she has also been approached by other current agunot seeking advice.
“A woman who has been an agunah for five years contacted me. I felt so bad because she told me she couldn’t raise awareness like I’m doing,” Dodelson recounts. “It really breaks my heart to hear these women’s stories. It would be nice if I were the only one in this situation, but I’m not.”
Dodelson’s public fight for a religious divorce has changed her, especially in terms of how she might approach future relationships.
“It’s kind of too depressing for me to even think ahead to this, given my current situation, but I do now understand why people live together before marriage,” she says. “I’ve even told my mother that next time I like a guy, I’m going to live with him for five years first. Of course I was joking. I know what I would and wouldn’t do — and I would never do that.”
This is because one major thing she is not allowing her struggle to do is convince her to leave Orthodox Judaism.
“I’ve never blamed my religion for this situation. I blame Avrohom Meir for it.”
‘I’ve never blamed my religion for this situation. I blame Avrohom Meir for it’
As she sees it, Judaism is not bad, but there are Jewish people who do bad things.
“I don’t want Avrohom Meir to ruin my religion for me,” she asserts.
Other than finding herself an agunah, Dodelson claims that she has always felt empowered as an Orthodox woman. However, she is uncomfortable with the “feminist” label.
“Being a feminist is beyond what I am putting my energy into right now,” she states.
Dodelson (who admits to not even having really been aware of the agunah issue before becoming one herself) may not be ready to formally lend her voice to the Orthodox feminist movement, but she does recognize the responsibilities that have come with becoming the face of what some, including Rabbi Avi Weiss, say is the most pressing problem in America’s Orthodox community.
“I didn’t want this, but now I have a responsibility — though I am not sure exactly what its practical application will be,” she says.
‘I didn’t want this, but now I have a responsibility’
“But if there is one thing I have learned from all this, it’s that nothing is more hurtful than when you go to someone for help and they not only don’t help you, but they look away and don’t even care,” she adds. “So, if there is someone out there who needs my help now, I know I couldn’t possibly turn them away.”
Dodelson looks forward to the moment when her husband releases her, so she can finally move on with her life. Moving on, however, does not mean moving off the path she embarked upon by going public and consequently becoming a role model and inspiration for other women denied divorces by their husbands.
“I won’t walk away from this once my story is done,” she promises.