Though she may be jailed, observant woman won’t enter rabbinate court for divorce

Conservative rabbinical student Nathalie Lastreger ready to be civil marriage’s ‘Rosa Parks’. Won’t let the Orthodox control her life, will take fight to Supreme Court

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Nathalie Lastreger signing her ketubba (marriage contract) ahead of her 2004 Conservative unreported private wedding ceremony. (courtesy)
Nathalie Lastreger signing her ketubba (marriage contract) ahead of her 2004 Conservative unreported private wedding ceremony. (courtesy)

With only her dissertation to complete, Nathalie Lastreger is scheduled to become an ordained rabbi by Jerusalem’s Conservative-affiliated Mechon Schechter this summer. Ironically, she may soon find her busy schedule freed up for writing: Lastreger is facing a warrant for her arrest and possible jail time for refusing to enter an Israeli rabbinical court for divorce proceedings.

In a classic Israeli religion versus state scenario, Lastreger was shocked upon learning — through rabbinical court summons — that despite her efforts to prevent this situation, the rabbis indeed hold legal jurisdiction over her halachic, but unreported marriage 12 years ago.

Although Lastreger, an observant, yet Liberal Jew, needs a get (decree of divorce) for her marriage’s dissolution, she would prefer to go through the Conservative movement, which she said was an agreed precondition to marriage.

But since the 1950s, in an Israel that has divided jurisdictions between secular and religious authorities, the law requires that any Jew in Israel who wishes to divorce needs a state-sanctioned rabbinic court decree.

According to Itim, a non-profit organization that helps Israelis facing life-cycle events to negotiate religious bureaucracy, “the rabbinical court is the correct address for divorce for every Jewish couple including [here it lists a variety of scenarios] … a couple that was married in a private Jewish service (that is not recognized in Israel), e.g. within the framework of the Reform or Conservative movements.”

Additionally, “to avoid any uncertainty, you will be expected to arrange a ‘get l’chumra’ (a get required as a stringency) or a ‘get m’safek’ (a get that is required because of uncertainty), just in case your marriage is in fact halachically valid, and binding until issuance of a get.”

Rabbinical student Nathalie Lastreger reads from the altar at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. (courtesy)
Rabbinical student Nathalie Lastreger reads from the podium at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. (courtesy)

Having taken a vow after her divorce from her first husband to never set foot in the Israeli rabbinical court system again, Lastreger did not comply with the June rabbinical court summons. A subsequent restraining order preventing her from leaving the country preceded the current warrant for her arrest, valid since July 3.

With emergency bags packed and her valuables locked away, Lastreger told The Times of Israel that she is ready to face jail for the causes of pluralism and separation of church and state.

‘I’m hardly the first who wasn’t registered as married and got sent to the rabbinate’

These issues fly under the public’s radar, said Lastreger. “I’m hardly the first who wasn’t registered as married and got sent to the rabbinate.”

Since she went public with her story, a Hebrew Facebook post depicting her situation has been viewed over 700,000 times and she’s been profiled in mainstream Hebrew media.

“People are talking about this. They’re saying, ‘Rega, rega, rega [wait a minute], what does this mean for me?’ It’s unbelievable the number of people who are coming forward with their own horror stories,” she said.

“I’m against anarchy: there must be a civil path to marriage to prevent chaos,” said Lastreger. “But if I’m already here in this situation, I’ll be civil marriage’s Rosa Parks.”

Once burned, twice shy

The 48-year-old French immigrant grew up in an Orthodox home in Paris. It was only after her aliya to Israel, marriage to a Modern Orthodox rabbi and subsequent bitter divorce through the Israeli chief rabbinate, that she left Orthodoxy and began exploring Liberal Judaism.

Time passed and Lastreger, a young mother of three, began dating again. She related, however, that even on her first meeting with the Modern Orthodox man who would become her second husband, she had several conditions for a future marriage. Among them, she told The Times of Israel this week, were that she wouldn’t cover her hair, and under no circumstances would she be married by the rabbinate.

In 2004, Lastreger remarried — in an officially unrecognized and unreported halachic Conservative ceremony. After a decade of marriage, unfortunately, she and her second husband recently decided to divorce. Even more unfortunately for Lastreger, and counter to what she claims is their verbal pre-marriage agreement, he opened a file for an official state-recognized get (divorce decree) via the rabbinate.

Nathalie Lastreger participating in prayer at Jerusalem's Western Wall. (courtesy)
Nathalie Lastreger participating in prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. (courtesy)

A summons to the rabbinical courts was handed to Lastreger mid-June. “I was sick and didn’t really pay attention to it,” she said. She has documentation of her ambulance trip to and stay at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, which she submitted to the court.

But she also didn’t think then that the summons was significant: They weren’t registered as married in the Ministry of the Interior, so how would the rabbinate have jurisdiction over this “unofficial” divorce?

Lastreger, an active member of the feminist Women of the Wall, said that for the rabbinate, one of its concerns in pushing for a state-sanctioned get is that “God forbid there will be mamzerim [children from a forbidden marriage].

Lastreger said she feels she is being singled out because of her affiliation with the Conservative movement

“I’m already a grandmother! Mamzerim is really just another word for ‘Woman, know your place.’ It’s a politically correct way to say, ‘What will happen if we don’t control you any more,'” said Lastreger.

Lastreger said she feels she is being singled out because of her affiliation with the Conservative movement. She said the protocols from the court’s proceedings so far have referred to her as a “reformi” — Hebrew derogatory slang for “rebellious” Jews who do not observe Jewish law.

The head of the Israeli Masorti movement, lawyer Yizhar Hess, supported Lastreger’s struggle and emphasized that the only thing more deafening than the silence from the country’s politicians is her potential incarceration.

Being a known observant Liberal Jew may be an advantage in jail, half-joked Lastreger. She hypothesized that if indeed locked up, she could push the system even further and request equal access to a Torah and a minyan [prayer quorum] for her thrice-daily prayers, something the rabbinate would likely find problematic.

Preparing to face the Supreme Court

Back in June, Ella Cahan, the lawyer Lastreger had employed to oversee the breakup of the couple’s mutual property, tipped her off as to the seriousness of her case. Cahan advised Lastreger to immediately file for divorce in a civil court to avoid possible rabbinical jurisdiction on the couple’s capital.

“She warned me, based on other cases she had been involved in, that the rabbinate is going to go after me. She saved me,” said Lastreger.

Now, as Lastreger is preparing to face jail for her principles and to raise public awareness, lawyer Batya Kahana-Dror, head of Mavoi Satum, an organization that largely deals with agunot — women whose husbands refuse to give them a get — is negotiating Lastreger’s warrants and preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Lawyer Batya Kahana-Dror is head of Mavoi Satum, an organization that largely deals with agunot -- women whose husbands refuse to give them a get. (courtesy)
Lawyer Batya Kahana-Dror is head of Mavoi Satum, an organization that largely deals with agunot — women whose husbands refuse to give them a get. (courtesy)

“Nathalie’s struggle isn’t a private battle. This struggle highlights the impossible situation that Israeli citizens are living under in which their wedding ceremonies, whether religious or private, are rejected,” wrote Kahana-Dror, who is Modern Orthodox, in an email.

“Absurdly, the fact that Nathalie married in a halachic ceremony caused her to become a criminal because she didn’t cooperate with the state’s institutions,” she said.

“The State of Israel must understand the need for an immediate civil marriage registry which will grant citizens the religious freedom to choose the way in which they wish to commit to one another,” said Kahana-Dror.

Head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber echoed Kahana-Dror’s outrage and said Lastreger’s case is “a great example of a broken system.”

Speaking from New York, Farber said the government passed a “ridiculous law” in 2013 making a private chuppa illegal. (There is a growing trend, especially among modern Orthodox, of couples choosing to bypass the rabbinate with alternative wedding ceremonies. Taking the issue into Israel’s mainstream, Channel 2 reported last week that both the couples and those performing the ceremony could face up to two years in jail.)

“The consensus then was that it would never be applied. But having gone unchecked, the next government doesn’t even understand the original intent and pursues the letter, if not the law,” said Farber.

He warned, however, that if two Jews want to get divorced in Israel, it is legally entirely in the jurisdiction of the rabbinate to decide how. “Even if they were married in Cyprus, the rabbinate gets to decide.”

Rabbinical student Nathalie Lastrager is ready to be civil marriage's 'Rosa Parks.' (courtesy)
Rabbinical student Nathalie Lastreger is ready to be civil marriage’s ‘Rosa Parks.’ (courtesy)

For Lastreger, and for thousands of Israelis trying to circumvent the rabbinate’s reach, this is a blow.

“The rabbinate doesn’t recognize the rabbi who performed the ceremony,” but is forcing her to divorce under its auspices, she lamented.

She said she feels hunted. She’s added a coded lock to her garden’s gate, although she knows it can easily be broken, and looks forward to Shabbat, when the police won’t legally come. She wonders if the upcoming Tisha B’av holiday will likewise allow refuge, though, as a day of mourning, she joked it may be a suitable time for her arrest.

“I have no desire to go to jail. It will be very sad to learn [that according to the state] there’s a better and worse Jew,” she said.

When asked about how her family is reacting to the situation, she said her children hope it will quickly pass, but that her aging Orthodox French immigrant mother said she’d pitch a tent outside her jail in support.

“It is my war, my life, my decisions, I pay the price. This is my faith,” she said. “I am not a fundamentalist — I reject the rabbinical court system… and I thought I had done everything so the rabbinate couldn’t control my life,” she said wistfully.

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