After separating from her husband 12 years ago and divorcing nearly 10 years ago, Cynthia Ohana has finally received a get, a divorce document sanctioned by Jewish law necessary in order to remarry.
On Jan. 23, Ohana’s attorney, Larry Feldman, who worked on the case pro-bono for 11 years, reached an agreement with Tim Faith, Ephraim Ohana’s attorney, bringing to an end a legal battle that lasted 11 years.
“I’m beyond elated. Any type of freedom, of course, is welcoming, but it’s difficult,” said Cynthia Ohana. “I’m still processing. It’s emotionally overwhelming, but it’s been 11 years. I don’t want to say it’s a little too late, but I can’t get back 11 years of my life that were taken from me.”
Her case sparked national attention and inspired waves of rallies and community support in Baltimore. The rallies were largely initiated by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a New York-based organization that fights on behalf of so-called “chained women” known in Hebrew as agunot. Because their recalcitrant husbands refuse to give them a get, they see themselves as shackled to marriages that long ago were ended in the eyes of civil law.
The organization’s executive director, Rabbi Jeremy Stern, estimates the group held at least a dozen rallies outside of Ephraim Ohana’s homes — he moved several times — as well as outside of the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he was a student.
“Once it became clear that there was no way to resolve this amicably, we applied pressure,” Stern said.
While this was one of the organization’s longest cases — ORA was involved for nine years — it has similarities to other cases, Stern said.
“Fundamentally, what motivates these guys is the same thing that motivates every other domestic abuser, which is the feeling that they need to assert power and control over their spouse,” he said. “That’s what makes get refusal a form of domestic abuse.”
Ohana first sought the help of CHANA, a Jewish aid program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, in September 2003 for domestic violence and secured the first of several protective orders from her ex-husband on Dec. 21, 2004. Although they secured a civil divorce in May 2005, Ephraim Ohana would not grant a get.
[pullquote]“Fundamentally, what motivates these guys is the same thing that motivates every other domestic abuser, which is the feeling that they need to assert power and control over their spouse.”[/pullquote]
Cynthia Ohana, who would later volunteer at CHANA for two years and is now an employee of seven years, said she sees men using gets as bargaining chips with her clients.
“When, for instance, a woman gets a protective order, the get becomes a bargaining tool where her husband can say, ‘If you dismiss your petition against me, I can give you a get.’ It becomes a bargaining tool regarding custody and visitation of the children as well as financial issues, distribution of property and so on,” she said. “This creates another opportunity to further abuse, oppress and withhold her freedom.”
An attorney for Ephraim Ohana could not be reached for comment.
Cynthia Ohana said a secular divorce is not enough in the Orthodox community, and not just for remarrying purposes.
“It affects me and any other woman who’s going through the same struggle in that it prevents her from going forward in having a stable and loving relationship at home and remarrying,” she said, “and, ultimately, there’s closure that’s lacking.”
In addition to community support and rallies held with ORA and other organizations such as the Awareness Center, Inc., the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse and Jewish Women International, CHANA also advocated on behalf of Ohana. Rabbis Shraga Neuberger of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and David Herman of Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue also advocated on her behalf.
Nancy Aiken, executive director of CHANA, said her organization is grateful for the support.
“CHANA is grateful to ORA and for all the public support for all women in these situations,” she said. “We’re just grateful that so many people care about the issue and that ORA worked tirelessly for this case as they do for so many others.”