Mavoi Satum
Religious Pluralism & Women’s Rights

Meet four incredible individuals driving some of the New Israel Fund of Canada’s projects this year and blazing trails for inclusion, for equality, and for social change: Batya Kahana Dror, Edan Ring, Ghebrehiwot Tekle, and Nisreen Alyan. Click here to read about all four of their stories.

What does her work entail?

Batya Kahana Dror spends a lot of time arguing in front of bearded, religious men. These are the rabbinic judges who Batya, a lawyer for Mavoi Satum, convinces to issue rulings obligating husbands to grant their wives a get (a religious divorce).

On behalf of Mavoi Satum, an organization that provides legal and psychological support to women refused a get, Batya defends women known in Hebrew as agunot (literally meaning, “chained women”). Jewish law, which is upheld by Israeli law, gives the religious courts total authority over marriage and divorce. 

Religious law forbids these women from remarrying. If they have a child with another man, that child is considered a mamzer, or bastard, and that child’s progeny are prohibited from marrying another Jew for 10 generations.

The repercussions of this predicament are massive. Agunot are stuck, unable to move on with their lives because their husbands – out of spite, revenge or sheer meanness – won’t allow them to.

The injustice of this reality burns in Batya.“Every woman who is an aguna is a woman whose right to be free has been violated,” she says. “So we will represent her…our activist work for social change is through this representation.”

Batya also advocates for policy change, putting pressure on the courts to recognize civil marriage. So far, she’s helped amend a law so that rabbinic judges must determine within one month whether to place sanctions against an intransigent husband. Unfortunately, Batya says, the new rule isn’t enforced. Her recourse in these cases has been submitting a complaint to government authorities, or alerting the media of the violation.

Her work is intense. In addition to appearing in court, she regularly meets with the women she’s representing and works to raise awareness for the plight of agunot – she writes articles and does interviews with media, meets with potential collaborators and gives public lectures.

Whose lives does she impact?

The women that Mavoi Satum supports face a range of challenges. In some cases, a husband has disappeared, or is in a coma. If so, Batya asks the court to cancel the marriage. In others, the husband simply refuses to grant his wife a get, and Batya will ask the court to place sanctions on him or force him to grant one – a task the court is typically reluctant to do, she says.

“If the issue of a get was causing men to suffer, religion and government would long ago have been separated”

All told, Batya has represented agunot in Israel’s 13 religious courts, and in the highest religious court, where appeals are made.

In addition to legal work, Batya and her colleagues encourage the agunot they defend to throw off the role of victim, to become women “who not only fight for their own get, but for other women’s gets. We might ask them to appear in the Knesset, or be interviewed on television. We turn them into activists.”

What adversaries does she come up against?

The fact that all religious court judges are men is a big problem, says Batya. Beyond stubborn and abusive husbands and inflexible judges, she faces large, systemic challenges, like ingrained sexism and Israel’s insufficient separation between religion and state.

“The balance between a Jewish and democratic state is a very fine one. We’re always working on this complex balance: to have a Jewish state but one that does not discriminate. This is no small challenge” 

“If [the issue of a get] was causing men to suffer, [religion and government] would long ago have been separated,” Batya maintains. “The balance between a Jewish and democratic state is a very fine one. We’re always working on this complex balance: to have a Jewish state but one that does not discriminate. This is no small challenge.” 

Who are her allies?

Batya and Mavoi Satum have worked with a respected Ultra-Orthodox rabbi to establish an ad hoc, independent rabbinical court. In July, that court succeeded in voiding the marriage of a client whose husband had been refusing her a get for nine years. Mavoi Satum and the rabbi also launched a private marriage initiative in which couples are married in independent halachic ceremonies not recognized by the rabbinate. These marriage ceremonies can be egalitarian, and include stipulations to safeguard against a husband’s get refusal.

Mavoi Satum collaborates closely with major women’s organizations like WIZO and Naamat, as well as the NGO Kolech, the Conservative Movement and the Israel Women’s Network. Batya is heartened by the huge support Mavoi Satum gets from the Israeli public – including from the Haredi sector.

“The public understands that we help people, we help women. They are our biggest allies,” she says.

Written and reported by Ruth Mason.

Meet three other trailblazers who are working to make Israel a better, fairer, more equal place. Click here to read about all four of their stories.

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