The Lawyer Helping Free Orthodox Jewish Women — Through Divorce
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
She's serving domestic abuse clients — where faith is the weapon.
By Carly Stern
For Yakira Leah Dorfman, getting divorced proved to be one long and complicated nightmare. As an Orthodox Jewish woman, she not only faced the legal challenges of ending her relationship in the eyes of the courts, but also the religious hurdles of ending her relationship in the eyes of God.
If women are lucky, their husband promptly returns a Jewish bill of divorce, called a “get,” while the couple moves through the civil divorce process. That’s the best-case scenario. Keshet Starr, a green-eyed, millennial, married mother of three, has the difficult job of addressing the worst: When a husband refuses to deliver the get, essentially forcing his wife to remain tied to him within their faith.
It’s a situation that’s difficult to talk about, says Starr, the executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the agunah crisis. The Hebrew word translates to “chained woman,” and it’s estimated that thousands in Israel and several hundred women in the U.S. are refused a divorce from their spurned spouses. The damage of being in such spiritual limbo is significant. If either partner dates or remarries, it is considered adultery: Any future children a woman has can never wed within the Jewish community. Which is why Starr is fighting so hard to end that imbalance — even while working within the system as an Orthodox Jew herself.
Dorfman will never forget the sheer joy and mental quiet that overcame her after finally receiving her get in 2016 following a year-and-a-half separation, with ORA’s aid. “I had forgotten what freedom felt like,” she says. Starr’s organization has raised awareness through more than 350 presentations at schools and synagogues across the U.S. and Israel, while administering free prenuptial consultations and promoting a halachic contract that requires the husband to pay $150 per day if he delays returning the get. About 5 percent of ORA’s cases deal with the reverse: when a woman refuses to receive the get. In the most serious cases, like Dorfman’s, Starr steps in as a mediator between the husband, wife and rabbinical court — not representing any of the individual parties: “My job is to resolve the issue of the get.”
Starr is working to repair the stanchions of a house, not tear it down.
The 34-year-old fell into this work by accident. She grew up the eldest of three in Hawaii and Ohio in a traditional Jewish household, earning an English literature degree from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Starr initially didn’t land the domestic violence internship she wanted, but when a classmate’s interview fell through, “I happened to be in the law school in a suit,” she says. (The moral? Always wear a suit.) The legal services agency had received a grant to represent Orthodox domestic violence survivors and offered her the role.
Starr quickly learned that to straddle the civil and Jewish court systems, she would need to understand the intricacies of both. And what keeps her fascinated more than a decade later is this strategic complexity. She walks a nuanced tightrope with poise, empathy and an ability to remain clear-headed, says Ruchama Cohen, an attorney at Sanctuary for Families who has worked for ORA.
The Catholic Church, Islam and others have their own thorny structures for handling divorce. But get withholding is a unique problem that Orthodox Jews now cite as one of the two most pressing issues facing their community, according to Nischma Research. It’s often part of a long pattern of controlling, abusive behavior, Starr tells me as we sit in a hotel coffee shop on a chilly morning in Manhattan. She explains dense Jewish legalese with a calm, cheerful energy that’s remarkable for someone who spends her days contemplating divorce and violence. Only the husband can give the get — though the wife can refuse to accept it — so the fear of never receiving it turns it into a bargaining chip in the civil divorce. “It’s that last piece of control that they have over the person,” says Cindy Kanusher, executive director of the Pace Women’s Justice Center.
Part of Starr’s job is building awareness that the agunah crisis exists, a challenging task given the shame involved. The divorce rate is 10 percent within the Orthodox Jewish community, but nearly 60 percent of those are reported to be contentious. Starr recalls a high school teacher describing divorce like limb amputation: acceptable only in extreme, life-or-death circumstances, rather than merely falling out of love.
Starr’s most serious cases often involve physical abuse, sexual abuse or even child molestation. After all other negotiations fail, her team and the client sometimes stage a public rally, with a crowd, outside of an abuser’s house or workplace. They sometimes use social media to shame the husband into returning the get. Nobody enjoys those rallies, Starr emphasizes, and she insists they are always a last resort taken only at a client’s behest.
At the same time, it’s ironic that Starr creates stigma when stigma is such an obstacle within her work to start. The New Jersey resident raises a question she’s often asked by those outside the Orthodox community: If a Jewish woman is trapped by patriarchal religious rules, why not move on without them?
Because that’s like the police asking a lifelong Chicagoan to move away because a person she went on a date with is stalking her, she argues. Ultimately, ORA doesn’t advocate for the wholesale change of Jewish law, even though its work exists because clients are at the mercy of that system. Starr is working to repair the stanchions of a house, not tear it down.
Her biggest project is normalizing the halachic prenup. The Rabbinical Council of America mandated in 2016 that all member rabbis require marrying couples to sign it. Young modern Orthodox couples often come into Starr’s office with friends as witnesses, celebrating the prenup as part of their new beginning.
She hopes that signing it will someday be as normal as buying homeowners insurance. Until then, she will keep negotiating the most difficult exits.