Orthodox Jewish divorce spurred by technology, some say
Counselors and community members are reporting a rise in divorce in the Orthodox Jewish community, and some say Facebook is to blame.
But Baruch Herzfeld, a community liason between the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn, says “the technology is the excuse.”
“There is unhappiness, and Facebook presents options,” Herzfeld explained.
Hindie Klein, Director of Clinical Projects for Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, also felt that social media can be “very seductive.”
Klein said that seeing what other people have and how they live can lead to comparisons that can and do contribute to divorce.
“Before, someone would get divorced and leave the community,” Herzfeld elaborated. “Now even if they move, you see them [on Facebook] and they take off their wig and they go to Miami and they are drinking a cocktail, and you ask yourself, why should I be in prison? Let me get out.”
Lani Santo works at Footsteps, an organization that helps men and women who want to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. Santo reported seeing an increase in the number of people leaving ultra-Orthodox communities and said “technology is a piece of that.”
“It used to be that they had to go to the library, sneak out and physically get to a place where they can find more information — and now you have technology at your fingertips, even in the Orthodox community,” Santo said.
She said the internet allows restless, questioning young people in the ultra-Orthodox community to see “groups of people that have lived successful lives outside of the community.”
How the community deals with divorce
Herzfeld brought up the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jewish women and men marry very young, and often don’t know each other very well beforehand, which Santo says contributes to why a lot of the women she works with choose to divorce and even leave the community entirely.
Fraidy Reiss is one of those women — on a few levels, in fact: Reiss is divorced and left her ultra-Orthodox community, but is also the daughter of divorced Orthodox Jewish parents, a rare experience for her generation.
“I was the only one I knew whose parents were divorced,” Reiss said. “It was like I had two heads because my parents were divorced, I was considered really just a freak.”
Reiss said she thinks it’s getting easier simply because it’s becoming more common.
“It’s hard to consider a certain group of people freaks when the group gets bigger and bigger,” she pointed out.
But Santo said it’s often still a struggle, and can be a scary one at that.
“The entire community will pool their resources to make sure whoever’s leaving doesn’t get custody of the children, whether it’s a man or a woman,” Santo said. “Things get incredibly ugly, it’s not a fair game that’s being played.”
Reiss knew about that first-hand: she said that when she attempted to divorce her husband and get custody of her two daughters, one rabbi threatened to kidnap her children, and another threatened to testify in court that she was an unfit mother.
It wasn’t only rabbis, however: her friends wanted to testify against her as well.
She doesn’t hold it against them. Having grown up in the community, she understands what motivates them.
“There’s a belief in that community that if you’re not religious, you’re unstable and not a fit mother,” Reiss explained. “They really believe the kids are not going to have a good life.”
Traditional Jewish divorces
There are actually laws that exist in traditional Jewish law that were “constructed for divorces to be able to happen,” noted Santo.
“In the Jewish community, divorce has never been as taboo as in, say, the Catholic community,” she added.
However, Reiss explained that under Jewish law, a woman can only request a divorce. Her husband has to grant it with a document called a ‘get.’
“What happens is that men realize this power that they have over their wives,” Reiss said, adding that men will often withhold the get while demanding money, property, custody, or freedom from alimony in exchange.
While the woman is without a get, she is an ‘agunah,’ Reiss explained, which means “chained woman,” and can’t remarry. Women face the possibility of being alone for the rest of their lives, Reiss said.
Reiss’ mother waited seven years for her get.
After Reiss’ own divorce, she refused to accept the get from her husband. The get is not valid unless it is either signed by the wife or by 100 rabbis, Reiss said.
She received several calls from rabbis for a few months, until they seemingly decided it was easier to round up 100 rabbis than deal with this stubborn woman.
Reiss’ mother stayed in the community despite her divorce; Reiss broke away. They’re now estranged, but Reiss said she wished she could have told her mother about her act of ‘get’ rebellion.
“Even though I’m sure she would complain to her friends and say how terrible I was being, I think some small part of her would have said, ‘yes, you go, Fraidy,’” Reiss said.
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat