The recent death of Leah Hochauser z”l, who died while still chained to her husband, highlights a pattern of systemic negligence on the part of a Beit Din that repeatedly neglects the Halachic and communal tools available to help and discourages people from using those made available by the British legal system.
Leah sought a divorce from her husband for the past nine years filing with Kedassia, her local beit din. The judges repeatedly questioned Leah’s pleas for a get, when, in their opinion, she wouldn’t marry again. When she told the dayan that being chained to the man she considered her abuser was a noose around her neck, the dayan allegedly replied, “What noose, explain to me this noose?” She was met with complete denial of her suffering.
After years of what she felt was inaction and indifference, Leah turned to GETToutUK for assistance. We asked the Beit Din for permission to prosecute under the Domestic Abuse Bill 2021, which was enacted to help women like Leah.
The tactics her ex used were nothing if not coercive and controlling. Kedassia said it wasn’t “appropriate” to go to court in this case, implying that if she did, her get would be seen as forced – and thus invalid.
Leah begged for a seruv (notice of recalcitrance). She was told that they would issue one, allowing for communal sanctions to be placed on her ex, but they reneged. The Beit Din said such sanctions might impact “his mental health.” They said that it wouldn’t help to obtain her get.
It isn’t just Leah who has suffered from Kedassia’s refusal to act on abuse. When another client, who had suffered unimaginable domestic violence that was being dealt with in the secular court, asked to speak to the dayan in the hopes of obtaining a get, she was told to come to his home at 11pm on a Saturday night. The dayan’s wife suggested she tell the court that she fabricated the abuse, in hopes that her ex would relent.
Another client was told: “In order to get divorced I needed a psychological evaluation to prove that I couldn’t live with him.”
A third woman was forced to relinquish almost all rights to the marital assets. When she sought a fairer deal, she was told that doing so could cause her get to be overturned – a shocking threat.
When Leah told a dayan that being chained to the man she considered her abuser was a noose around her neck, the dayan replied ,“What noose, explain to me this noose?” She was met with complete denial of her suffering.
Unlike the Federation of Synagogues, which employs a dayan who is a certified mediator, Leah was referred to a local askon, an unofficial mediator. In our own dealings with him, he has proven not only unprofessional, but abusive. In one meeting he yelled that a client “deserves to die” for seeking sole custody amidst abuse allegations. On another occasion he demanded I formally apologise for “disrespecting” him by showing “a good inch of hair” at the front of my headscarf.
When Dayanim task unqualified people to do their work, it does a disservice on both sides. Those who rely on Kedassia to facilitate religious divorce have nowhere to report such unprofessionalism, negligence and abuse of power.
Batei Din are organisations that operate without regulations or oversight in the shadows of insular communities. The competence and morality of a Beit Din completely relies on the integrity of its dayanim and employees. That is a powder keg. Leah was the spark.
In other professions where one is entrusted with sensitive information and works with vulnerable people, there are procedures, standards, and an overseeing body.
There is no body that oversees our courts so we must call on Batei Din to create concrete and public guidelines and policies to be held accountable. Batei Din who do this will not only serve as exemplars to their peers, but safe spaces for all Jews to turn to.
Batei Din are organisations that operate without regulations or oversight in the shadows of insular communities.
As Jews, we are judged by the worst among us. Meant to be a house of justice, Kedassia’s failings reflect on us all. We are commanded, “Justice, justice shall you pursue”. When we don’t hold our courts to any standards, let alone the highest of them, we commit a massive Chilul Hashem and violate the commandment to protect the most vulnerable among us.
In the meantime, as advocates for those seeking religious divorce, we urge the community not to use Kedassia. Any organisation that refuses to meet the most basic human rights standards is one that should be avoided at all costs. We ask anyone needing a Beit Din to use the Federation of Synagogues, who hold their dayanim and employees to the highest of standards.
- Ramie Smith is co-founder of GettOutUK. Click here for more information.
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