By Daniel D. Stuhlman
Community Resources, the Library and the Agunah Problem
Getting useful information to solve problems is part of everyday life. Librarians are the experts in guiding people not only to print and electronic resources, but also in providing connections to community resources. They don’t know all the answers, but they have the listening skills to figure out the problem and how to guide someone to resources.
The following scenario is a composite of several people because I wish to hide the actual identity of the people involved. An agunah (plural: agunot) is a woman who is tied to a man who refuses or is unable to issue a get (a proper Jewish document of divorce). Someone who is unable may be missing because of war, violence, accident or is purposefully hiding. A husband may refuse to give a get because of malice, meanness, or a desire to extort something from the woman. I know of two women who are agunot because their former husbands refuse to issue them a proper get (Jewish divorce document). These two men are not missing.
One Shabbat afternoon, while visiting a neighbor, a woman told me about her sad situation. Her ex-husband, who was a well respected professional, had dropped many of the Jewish practices that were part of their married lives. He separated from the wife and children and moved to another neighborhood. He did want to maintain contact and help raise the children. He started using the children as pawns to torment the woman. He made promises to the children and ex-wife that were never kept. He refused to give the woman a proper civil or Jewish divorce document. I was a good listener and asked the questions to prod her to fully explain the situation. Her answers contained bizarre stories such as the man telling the kids the mother was doing things all wrong and how he wanted all the children to drop their Hebrew names. He stole money and goods from the woman. Over the course of the past few months, he hauled her into court many times to modify the visitation agreements. Even his lawyer admitted to the woman that his requests were not reasonable. He never seemed to maintain a stable schedule or do anything to indicate co-operation. I am not an expert in personal relations. Until this conversation, husbands who behaved like that were beyond my immediate experience. I found it hard to believe she was describing someone whom I knew for more than 10 years. She asked for my advice and help. Help was clearly beyond my expertise. I could only offer theoretical advice that I learned from reading. However, as a librarian I could help her with community resources and personal contacts.
The first step in the help process was to assure her that she is not alone. She is not the first person to face this situation. Friends were available to lean on and help her find the right path. There are professionals and professional organizations that have dealt with people in these situations and know what works and what buttons to press on the reluctant husband. I made a few calls and found the correct people to refer her to. I referred her to some rabbis who were trained in pastoral counseling and had dealt with people with her kind of distress.[i]
For this particular woman, she contacted one of the rabbis that I arranged for her to meet. The rabbi talked with her and made several suggestions for further contacts such as the local rabbinical organization.
At one time the agunah problem was such a hot topic of discussion that even the non-Jewish guards in Jewish institutions discussed the issue. When I was a student I thought this was an academic or halakhic (Jewish law) problem not a real world problem. Where does a librarian fit into this? The librarian’s job is to provide information that points people in the correct direction to get the answers.
Further reading on the agunah problem ---
Bleich, J. David. “The device of the ‘sages of Spain’ as the solution to the problem of the modern-day agunah.” In: Contemporary halakhic problems, v. 3. New York, Ktav Publishing House; Yeshiva University Press, 1989.
Bleich, J. David. “A 19th Century Agunah Problem and a 20th Century application” In: Tradition. 38:2 (2004): p. 15-48.
Chained women [videorecording] / produced and directed by Laura Granditer. Manchester [England] : BBC, c2001. Originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Everyman television program in February 2001.
Abstract: Documentary about the plight of Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get (Jewish divorce). These women are known as agunot. Focuses on the Agunah Campaign, an organization established by British Jewish women for the purpose of helping agunot obtain divorces. Also describes efforts of some Orthodox rabbis in the United States to help these women through a reinterpretation of Jewish law as well as the reactions of other Orthodox rabbis who, while sympathetic to the plight of the women, believe that Jewish law is immutable.
Chigier, Moshe. “Ruminations over the agunah problem.” In: The Jewish law annual v. 4. p. 207-225. E.J. Brill, 1981.
Hacohen, Aviad and Greenberg, Blu. Tears of the Oppressed: An Examination of the Agunah Problem. New York, Ktav Publishing House, 2004.
Jackson, Bernard S. “Agunah and the Problem of Authority: Directions for Future Research” In : Melilah: Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies 2004/1 p. 1-78. www.mucjs.org/MELILAH/2004/1.doc
Many communities have directories of Jewish organizations and resources. In Chicago directories are published by the Chicago Rabbinical Council, JUF News (Guide to Jewish Living in Chicago), and Chicago Jewish News (The guide). The St. Louis Jewish Light publishes St. Louis Jewish Light Guide to Jewish Life. The Atlanta Jewish Times publishes Atlanta Jewish Times: Best of Jewish Atlanta & Sourcebook. The Northern California Jewish Bulletin publishes, Resource: a Guide to Jewish Life in Northern California. These are just a sample. Some publications are published annually with on line versions and some are updated less often.
In discussing the agunah issue and this paper with a rabbi of the community, he asked, “Why didn’t I just tell the woman to do a Google search?” The World Wide Web is a treasure house of information and Google is a great search engine, but this woman needed professional and personal guidance to find an answer. A Google search gives 32,000 hits; this is too many to process. While the first hit, a general article in Wikipedia is helpful to describe the agunah issue, it does not provide the woman with help. Other hits from the search include many sites with information and names of organizations, such as JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), Agunah International Inc., Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), and ICAR – The International Coalition for Agunah Rights. The search gives much useful information for learning about the problem, but it is not a substitute for personal guidance.
Librarians connect people to information and resources. The resources are not limited to books, periodicals, data bases, and computer files.
Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site Stuhlman.biz to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net/~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.
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[i] The first person to contact should be rabbi of the congregation that the woman is a member of. Since she came to the librarian for help, the librarian should assume that the woman is unwilling to ask the rabbi, does not have a rabbi, or the rabbi of the congregation was unable to help.
Last revised May 15, 2009.