Orthodox Jewish Woman Fights for the Right to a Divorce

Photo courtesy Rivky Stein
Photo courtesy Rivky Stein

When Rivky Stein was just 18 years old, she married Yoel Weiss, a man eight years her senior from a wealthy family who had been courting her. However, as soon as the wedding was over, she says saw a scary side of her new husband. He became physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive, sometimes locking her in a room for weeks at a time and denying her enough to eat, according to Stein. Although her Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, N.Y., frowns upon divorce, Stein says she didn't want her two young children to grow up in a home she describes as abusive so she eventually took her kids and moved out. But getting a divorce in the Orthodox community is far from simple. Because of the religion's marriage laws, which require a man's permission to have a "get" (religious divorce), Stein is now known as an "agunah," or "chained woman."

Stein's brother has set up a website, Redeem Rivky, to educate people about the plight of his sister and other agunot (the plural of agunah). And the Redeem Rivky Facebook page now has more than 5,000 followers, and some supporters have called and emailed Weiss to pressure him to give his wife a get.

"Every woman should have freedom, just like the men do," Stein tells Yahoo Shine. She alleges that Weiss is withholding the get because he wants full custody of their children, and Stein has refused to grant that She and her estranged husband currently have shared custody, and because of the way their religion works, Weiss has the option to date or marry someone else, while Stein does not.

The couple had a son within a year of marrying and a daughter the following year. Stein has leveled some serious accusations, saying that her husband and his family would deprive her and the children of food until they became malnourished and that she was cut off from all friends and family.  "He always had somebody watching me. He went through my phone, my emails. Nothing was mine. I felt trapped," she claims. "I was praying for clarity. I looked at my kids and said, 'If I don't leave, my daughter is going to marry someone like him, my son is going to be like him.' God gave me the strength."

Weiss, however, paints a different picture. "I have offered her a get, and she doesn't want it," he tells Yahoo Shine. He alleges that Stein is simply cooking up allegations in order to get money. "I am not here to shame her. She is the mother of my children. She's not well. She is lying to the public." 

He encourages people to take Stein's comments with a grain of salt. "She is trying to spin the media. People who don't know her feel bad for her. She was a lead actress in her school. That's what she does. She likes the media attention," he insists.

Stein says that leaving her husband was only the first step in a long journey. At first, Stein and her children lived with a foster family that had helped to raise her, but after Weiss allegedly threatened their business, she says she had to find another place to live. Stein says she's also in debt because of the legal fees she has accrued during the custody battle, which has now been going on for two years. However her story ends, Stein says she's been encouraged by the fact that she isn't fighting alone. Other women in her close-knit Jewish community have opened up to her about their own struggles with domestic violence, which, she says, has inspired her to be vocal about her own story.

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