Monday, July 29, 2013

The Unfortunate Truth About Women in Stock Imagery

Last year, I was working on a graphic art submission to the National Organization for Women (NOW)’s Love Your Body Poster Contest. To execute my concept, I needed to find a lot of stock photos of women.

Since I wanted to celebrate multiculturalism and include women of several different races, I needed stock images of white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American women. I never expected how difficult it would be to find suitable stock photos. Searching for stock imagery of white women wasn’t a walk in the park, since a large percentage of the photos I found were sexualized (even on websites that were mostly clean and reliable). Stock images of women of color were so scarce that I almost gave up trying to find them. I am being completely literal when I say that those photos that I did manage to find of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American women were all extremely sexualized. I had to scour the Internet for months until I found usable, clean stock images of women of color.

As the graphic art piece was specifically about loving your body regardless of whether or not it adheres to societal beauty standards, I also wanted to celebrate size diversity. Whenever I searched a general keyword like “women,” only photos of thin women came up, so I had to specifically look for photos of bigger women. I felt bad having to search keywords with stigmatizing language like “fat women” or “overweight women.” Although I did find some stock photos of bigger women, they were all centered on weight, with the women holding food, exercising, or being weighed. Since I was unable to find any photos of bigger women just posing or involved in activities that were not weight-related, I ended up having to use these. I just Photoshopped the food out of the model’s hands and the scale out from underneath her feet.

I think that the availability of stock imagery of only certain types of women is a sadly accurate lens onto our culture. The media routinely erases women of color; it’s easy to see this from the ubiquity of television shows with all- or nearly-all-white casts to a dearth of movies with leading ladies of color. Non-white women have few political role models to emulate. After all, Congress is 82% male, the US Senate is 95% white, and US House of Representatives is 81% white. Women who don’t adhere to arbitrary beauty standards are also ignored by our culture, as few heavy women (or men) make appearances in the media. When they do, it’s usually in relation to encouraging the viewer to avoid looking like them.

I could encourage all of you readers to sign a petition or send emails to stock image websites complaining about their lack of racial and size diversity, urging them to feature more photos of minority women and bigger women. I won’t, though, since that won’t solve the problem. Our stock imagery just reflects our culture. If we want stock photo sites to host more inclusive images, we need a more inclusive society.

This sort of paradigm shift will not happen overnight. Frustrating as it may be, it’s something that will gradually happen over the years. It’s not easy to put on a smile and patiently open the minds of our friends and acquaintances, but it’s what we as feminist activists must do. The only inspiration I can give is that our children and grandchildren will benefit from our work. Hopefully, they’ll be able to easily find non-sexualized stock photos of women of every race and body type.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jeopardy! Should Consider Women and People of Color

Watching Jeopardy! is a family tradition. My mother watched Jeopardy! with her maternal grandmother as a child, and the two would yell out the answers, my mother in English and my great-grandmother in her native Hungarian. After she got married, my mother watched Jeopardy! with my father, and the two always yelled answers at the screen. (Between the two of them, they always knew the whole board.) My parents raised me on a steady diet of a half-hour of Jeopardy! per day, and I’ve grown into a diehard Jeopardy! fan. I’ve even taken the online test to get onto the show, and have auditioned in-person a few times. (No luck getting onto the show yet. Let’s keep praying.)

Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy!, has announced that he’ll be retiring in 2016. Jeopardy! fans are eager to know who will be hosting the show after Trebek, so the blogosphere has been buzzing with the names of possible successors. Some candidates that have been mentioned so far are Matt Lauer, Anderson Cooper, Seth Meyers, Andy Richter, Ken Jennings, Brian Williams, and Dan Patrick.

If you didn’t notice, all of those as-of-yet named potential replacements are white men. Don't get me wrong - there’s nothing inherently wrong with having another white male host of Jeopardy!. However, it would be prejudiced and unfair for the casting directors to exclude women and people of color from the pool of possible hosts.

Jeopardy! doesn't have a great track record with race and gender relations, as it has been criticized for its mostly white and male contestant pool. Having watched hundreds of episodes, I can confirm that women and minorities are indeed underrepresented on the show. Out of the three competitors on every episode, there’s usually only one female player. Although a game played by three men is not uncommon, the biggest number of women I can remember seeing on an episode is two. People of color are even more uncommon than women on Jeopardy!; although you can usually count on at least one female player per show, you can’t expect the same for non-white contestants.

According to this very unscientific record that an avid Jeopardy! watcher kept over 78 episodes in 2001, there were 103 men (59%) and 71 women (41%) contestants. The race demographics are embarrassing: 161 white players (91.5%) versus 15 people of color (8.5%).

However, I’m not sure if it’s fair to blame the disproportionately low rates of women and people of color on the Jeopardy! casting directors. In order to compete on TV, hopeful contestants have to pass the online test, perform well at the in-person audition, and then be chosen by the casting directors. Only the people at Jeopardy! would know the demographics of who takes the online test and auditions, but I think that there’s a sex and race imbalance in who tries out. The three times that I auditioned for the high school tournament, about half of the students were male and half were female, but I don’t remember seeing any African-American or Hispanic teens. When my mother auditioned for regular Jeopardy!, she said there was a handful of women and no non-white people there. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, fewer women and people of color either take or pass the online test, and thereby don’t make it in big numbers to the audition round. As a result, I don’t feel comfortable blaming Jeopardy! for the low rates of women and minorities on the show.

However, I do feel comfortable blaming Jeopardy! for only considering white males as potential hosts of the show. Should a woman or person of color be chosen simply because of their gender or race? Of course not. But there are completely qualified female and non-white candidates who could succeed Trebek as host, and they should at least be considered. We're in the 21st century. It’s only fair.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Red Star Line Museum: A Story of Immigration

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, hundreds of thousands of Jews left their European countries of birth and immigrated to North America. Many of these Jews traveled from the alter heim (old country) to the United States via the Red Star Line (RSL), a transatlantic passenger ship line operating from 1873 to some time in 1934. During this time period, about 2.6 million passengers sailed on RSL ships to the US and Canada, about one-quarter of whom were Jewish. The list of notable Jews who immigrated through the RSL includes Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Irving Berlin, and my mentor and National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder Sonia Pressman Fuentes. All but Einstein came as children.

Sonia was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1928. Five years later, Hitler rose to power. Sonia’s 18-year-old brother Hermann realized that Germany would not be a safe place for Jews and had the foresight to flee the country. In May of 1933, he traveled alone to Antwerp. His parents refused to go with him as they had lived in Germany over twenty years and were well established there. They thought Hitler and the Nazis would shortly blow over. Two months later, his parents and five-year-old sister Sonia joined him. Hermann spent nine months trying to obtain permanent residence permits for the family to remain in Belgium, but was unsuccessful. Threatened with deportation to Poland, the family managed to book passage on the RSL’s SS Westernland. They arrived in New York City on May 1, 1934, safe from Nazi brutality.

Many Jews, like Sonia and her family, traveled on the RSL to escape Hitler’s oppression or earlier anti-Semitism and pogroms. Others left to escape poor economic times or for the opportunities for advancement they believed lay in the goldene medine (golden land). Some traveled for pleasure.

Although the RSL ceased operations some time in 1934, its history is still alive almost eighty years later. On September 28, 2013, the RSL Museum will be opened in Antwerp dedicated to immigration and the RSL. It will include exhibitions about Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest seaports, and the passengers on the RSL. One exhibit will be about the journey Sonia and her family took from Berlin to their temporary residence in Antwerp and then to their permanent move to the U.S. The Museum will also show a documentary film it commissioned about Sonia.

“[The Museum is] a story about ships, but more importantly, it’s a story about people,” said Philip Heylen, Antwerp’s vice mayor for culture and tourism in an August 6, 2011, speech to Sonia’s congregation, the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Sarasota, Florida. The Museum’s motto, “People on the Move,” underscores this point. The Museum is intent on preserving the stories of its passengers who traveled on RSL ships to find a better life.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Women in Leadership: We Need to Be 50.8%!

When I first saw this infographic, it didn't tell me anything new. I always knew that women are wildly underrepresented when it comes to major leadership roles in the political and business sectors. You don't have to be majorly involved in women's rights advocacy to be able to tell that there are very few women leaders in America. However, it really affected me to see how stark the percentages are. Women are half the people; in fact, they're slightly more than half. How is it fair that they're only 10% of governors? It doesn't make sense that they're only 4.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs! If women are 50.8% of the population, then they should be 50.8% of all leadership roles, too.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Irena Sendler: Savior of 3,000

The Talmud in Sanhedrin says that someone who saves one life is like someone who saved an entire universe. If this is true, then Irena Sendler saved nearly 3,000 universes.

Since its inception, Yad Vashem has been in the forefront of identifying and honoring Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during WWII. Many of these individuals hid Jews in their homes or organized hiding places that allowed Jews to escape the Nazi dragnet. Stories like those of Oskar Schindler (of Schindler's List fame) and Raoul Wallenberg are well-known. Others, no less amazing, are only now beginning to come to light.

One such story involved a Polish woman who saved about 3,000 Jews. Although she was honored by Yad Vashem in 1965, her story was almost forgotten until a group of Uniontown, Kansas students began to investigate the story. Their research resulted in a wide-ranging project which they called Life in a Jar. Their dedication and persistence, including funding from the Jewish-run LMFF, have resulted in a book, website, and nationwide performance which ensure that an important historical event will never be forgotten.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker living in Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. The Germans immediately began to isolate the Jews of Poland through persecution and outright murder. Many Jews were sent away to labor camps or interned in ghettos. Sendler joined the Zagota Polish underground, which was specifically dedicated to helping Jews obtain false papers that identified them as Polish Christians so that they could integrate into Polish cities. Historians estimate that in her capacity as a Zagota member, Sendler assisted over 500 Jews in this manner.

The Warsaw Ghetto, a 3.4 square mile area in the middle of Warsaw, was established in November of 1940. Over 400,000 Jews were interned in the small space, and there was little food available. Dozens of people died every day as the Germans rounded up other Jews to send them to the Treblinka death camp.

Sendler obtained papers that identified her as an infectious disease specialist. She was then able to enter the ghetto with medicines and food when she recognized that the Nazis intended to murder all of the Jews in the ghetto. Sendler began to take street orphans out of the ghetto with her every time she left -- sometimes hidden under her tram seat and other times sedated and placed in packages. Within a short period of time, she also started to approach families to try to convince them to allow her to take their children to the "safe" side of Warsaw.

"I talked the mothers out of their children," Sendler said during an interview that was conducted over half a century after the events. "Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."

Sendler and her Zagota comrades often sedated young children and smuggled them out under in pieces of luggage or in toolboxes. Older children were led out through the sewers that ran below the city. Sometimes Sendler hid the children in carts under garbage or placed barking dogs on top of a cart that held a child to distract the German guards.

Once a child was successfully transported to the other side of the ghetto wall, Sendler and her friends obtained false documents for the child and sent the child into hiding, sometimes with sympathetic Polish families and other times in convents and orphanages. The children had to learn Catholic liturgy to internalize their new identities, but Sendler recorded their true names and hiding places on pieces of tissue paper, which were hidden in glass jars in her yard. She hoped that one day, she would be able to reunite them with the Jewish community.

Sendler and her comrades successfully saved nearly 3,000 Jewish children and hid them for the duration of the war. Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and interrogated, but she didn't reveal any information. As she was being led to her execution, Zagota members procured her release and she spent the rest of the war years in hiding. The Jewish nation is indebted to Sendler for protecting 3,000 of our children.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tzniut and Street Harassment

As a female who lives in New York City, I’ve received my share of unwanted looks from guys. However, I’ve never really been the victim of anything worse than a creepy stare. Ever since I learned about the existence of the term street harassment, I’ve tried to figure out why I’m an exception to the nearly 100% of women who have been harassed on the street. The only (weak) reason I could think of is because I’m an Orthodox Jew who mostly adheres to the laws of tzniut (modesty) in dress, meaning that I only wear skirts past the knee, sleeves that at least touch the elbow, and nothing low-cut or too tight.

If we accept my assumption for why I have never really been street harassed as true, one could argue that the solution to street harassment is for women dress according to tzniut. However, this solution would be unfair and ineffective for several reasons.

First of all, a woman’s mode of dress doesn’t always influence a would-be harasser. A few weeks ago, I began discussing street harassment with a group of my friends, who were unfamiliar with the term. After I described what constitutes street harassment, one of my friends - someone who also dresses according to tzniut - shared how she had been groped and stalked for several days while going to and coming home from school when she was in ninth grade. Hearing this friend’s story helped me realize that although it’s possible that how a woman is dressed may sometimes impact a man’s words or actions towards her, it isn’t the definitive cause for street harassment.

Another reason is because it’s women’s right as human beings to walk down the street, whether in a foreign country our own neighborhoods, without being harassed. We can’t blame the victim and tell women that it’s their job to protect themselves from street harassment; instead, we have to tell the perpetrators not to harass women on the street. Although I have chosen to dress in the manner of tzniut, and perhaps it has spared me from being victimized by street harassment, I strongly discourage women from dressing in a certain manner just to avoid street harassment. They’re our streets too, and we have every right to walk down them undisturbed. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Feminist Book Review: Helga's Diary

Several diaries chronicling life in the Nazi ghettos and concentration camps have been published since the 1940s, the most popular being Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Holocaust diarists can now welcome Helga Weiss into their ranks, thanks to the publication of her memoir Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. The book is a deeply touching, personal account of life during the Holocaust, chronicling a young woman’s experiences going through the hell known as Nazi concentration camps. Written during the war and right after liberation, Helga’s Diary gives the reader a comprehensive understanding of life during the Holocaust.

When Helga kept her diary, it was impossible for her to know the historical import of the events she was recording. As a result, it’s fascinating to read about what happened during the war from someone who was living through it.

It’s fortunate that Helga had both the desire and capability to keep a diary. “Events were such that I started to write them down,” Helga stated simply when asked why she started recording events. “I was writing only for myself.” She was able to continue her diary while in concentration camp, as she was sent to Theresienstadt, a propaganda camp that treated inmates more humanely and gave them access to luxury items like writing materials.

It’s truly astounding that both the diary and its author survived the war. Only a stroke of sheer luck - the fact that Helga’s uncle worked in the records department of Theresienstadt and could hide her diary when she was deported to Auschwitz - preserved it. Considering that only 100 out of the 15,000 children from Theresienstadt who were sent to Auschwitz made it through the war, Helga’s chances of survival were even lower than those of the diary. This series of fortunate events culminated in a priceless historical document.

Part of why Helga’s Diary is so invaluable is because Helga recorded her experiences through art as well as writing. Although other Holocaust diarists may have been artists like Helga, they were interned in ghettos or hiding from the Nazis without access to expensive goods like art supplies. Since Helga was in Theresienstadt, she had the opportunity to produce art and give the world a unique perspective on the era. Following her father’s command to “draw what you see!”, Helga sketched scenes like people going on the transports to other concentration camps and the overcrowded waiting room of the emergency clinic.

It’s easy to lose faith in humanity while reading Helga’s Diary. Reading about the ripping apart of families, public executions, starvation, forced labor, interminable roll calls, and other forms of physical and psychological torture that Helga witnessed or experienced makes a person wonder about the extent of human cruelty. This question becomes even deeper when one considers the fact that the Nazis inflicted such torment on people simply because of their ethnicity, race, physical ability, religion, sexuality, or political ideology.

The reader’s hope is restored by reading about the small acts of kindness that Helga experienced. For example, soon after Helga and her mother were deported to Auschwitz, a guard gave young Helga her handkerchief. “She saw Mom covering my [shaved] head with her bare hands and it must have awakened a bit of human kindness in her,” Helga said. After the two were liberated and returned home, their neighbors opened their home to them, even though giving shelter to the two emaciated, sickly, and physically and mentally exhausted women was a great expense and burden.

As my grandmother’s entire family was taken to Auschwitz in 1944, it was particularly meaningful for me to read about Helga and her family’s deportation to the same camp in the same year. Reading Helga’s experiences and knowing that my grandmother went through the same things made the diary so much more personal.

You don’t have to be related to a Holocaust survivor to relate to Helga’s Diary, though. You just have to be a person who cares about the welfare of other human beings. The purpose of analyzing major historical events and reading literature from those eras is to learn from the mistakes that were made and apply the lessons that are learned to the modern day. Although Holocaust remembrance for its own sake is a worthy goal, it should not be the only one. Readers of Helga’s Diary must come away from the book with the understanding that humankind cannot allow Nazi-like genocide to occur ever again. However, we have not learned this lesson in time. In Somalia, in the Congo, in Sri Lanka, in dozens of countries, we have stood idly by and allowed for systemic murders of entire peoples. From Helga’s Diary, we must draw inspiration anew and learn that we cannot allow for senseless murder and baseless hatred anymore. We have to stop the genocide. And we have to stop it right now.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Where Were the Right-Wing Orthodox Jews?

For purposes of this article, I am defining Modern Orthodox Jews as adherents of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and right-wing Orthodox Jews as adherents of the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). I know that Modern and right-wing Orthodoxy are a lot more nuanced than I paint them, and that many people would strongly disagree with my description of the two. For the sake of conversation, let’s work with the definition above.

As a feminist activist and BaisYaakov graduate, I’m uncertain about what form of Orthodox Judaism I prefer to identify with. At the moment, I straddle the divide between the left and right, counting myself as part of neither Modern nor right-wing Orthodoxy.

At the Agunah Summit last week, few other attendees or presenters visibly shared my identity crisis. The vast majority of the crowd was solidly in the Modern Orthodox camp. I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me, as the summit was sponsored by a Modern Orthodox feminist organization. However, it did.

Perhaps the reason I was so surprised is because I’m used to Jewish-themed gatherings being run by right-wing Orthodox Jews, like the anti-Internet Asifa and the Siyum HaShas. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve spent the past four years surrounded by right-wing peers and teachers in school. I don’t believe that either of these reasons are the cause of my surprise, though. I think the Agunah Summit’s all-Modern Orthodox attendance took me aback because I was shocked that only Modern Orthodox Jews seem to care about the plight of agunot.

I know that it’s unfair and incorrect of me to accuse right-wing Jews of completely disregarding agunot. An innumerable amount of right-wing rabbis and laypeople have done a lot of amazing work to help resolve agunot, and they deserve recognition. However, the Agunah Summit was billed as “a historic summit of Jewish leaders gathering to resolve the agunah problem.” There is no specification of denominational affiliation; the summit was an open forum for Modern and right-wing Orthodox Jews alike.

And yet, right-wing Orthodox Jews declined to attend. Where were they? If I heard about it, then they knew it was happening too. Why weren’t they there?

During the summit, Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari pointed out that get refusal becomes more common as religious level goes up, showing that the right-wing Orthodox community should be even more concerned about agunah than the Modern Orthodox community is. Then why doesn’t the right-wing community seem worried over agunah? Why haven’t there been any large-scale Agunah Summits convened by right-wing organizations like the OU, RCA, or Agudath Israel?

Nearly all of the presenters and audience members at the Agunah Summit were extremely concerned about finding solutions that will help agunot from every point on the religious spectrum, not just Modern Orthodox ones. It’s not fair that the Modern Orthodox community is concerned about the right-wing agunot, but there seems to be little anxiety from the right-wing community about Modern Orthodox (or right-wing, for that matter) agunot.

When I made this complaint to a right-wing friend of mine, he said that major right-wing rabbis and leaders don’t have the time or patience to attend a conference where the content is not halakhically based. Putting aside the fact that all but one of the suggestions presented at the Agunah Summit were halakhic, right-wing rabbis should make it their business to attend summits like this and ensure that the solutions offered are indeed based in halakha. That way, valid halakhic solutions can be presented and supported and the women of their communities can be protected.

“There are two conversations going on, one in this room and one on the RCA listserv….We need to bridge these conversations,” Rabbi Jeremy Stern said during his presentation at the summit. His words hit the nail on the head. Based off of what I heard at the Agunah Summit, it seems like the Modern Orthodox community will be more than happy to work with the right-wing Orthodox community on this issue. It’s up to the right-wingers to accept the invitation and start working together to end agunah. Time is of the essence, as the number of agunot in existence and the rate of get abuse is alarmingly high. We need to bridge the conversation to end the agunah crisis, and we need to do it now.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Musings on the Agunah Summit

A rally in Los Angeles pressuring a man
to give his wife a get.
Last Monday, I had the privilege to attend the Agunah Summit. (You can find my notes on it here.) Co-sponsored by The NYU Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), it was a full day of programming dedicated to resolving the agunah crisis. An agunah is a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (divorce papers), thereby chaining her to a dead marriage and keeping her from going forward with her life. Considered a human rights violation by CEDAW, agunah is clearly an immoral manipulation of halakha (Jewish law) that must be ended immediately.

Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, director of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, presented horrifyingly high statistics of get abuse. According to Halperin-Kaddari’s survey of 320 divorcing women in Israel, 1 in 3 were subject to threats of get refusal, and 70% of women who had divorce settlements to their disadvantage that deviates from normal laws were subject to get refusal. It disgusts and shocks me that seemingly normal, upstanding men of the Jewish community would participate in something as inhumane as get abuse, which is a form of domestic violence.

My hope in mankind was restored when I saw all of the men at the summit who were dedicated to ending the injustice of agunah. It was really heartening to see that so many men care about this issue, even though agunah usually only directly affects women. Agunot have a lot of male allies, in the rabbinate as well as among the laypeople.

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz’s keynote speech about the moral challenge that agunah presents to halakhic Judaism was the most compelling presentation of the day. Professor Dershowitz was brief, eloquent, articulate, and arguably the best speaker at the summit. His dedication to ending agunah shows that you don’t have to be a feminist activist to champion the cause; you simply have to care about human rights.

As I am not a halakhic scholar or full-time agunah activist, I was unable to fully understand a lot of the halakhic solutions that were discussed at the summit. However, I didn’t need to be a gemarakup (Talmudic genius) to understand that five different resolutions for agunot, all of which have been employed by reliable batei din (rabbinical courts), were presented.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi and agunah advocate, said that he disagrees with Blu Greenberg’s belief that “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.” He does believe that “there is a rabbinic won’t,” as there are so many viable halakhic techniques that could resolve agunot that are not being utilized. Riskin believes they aren’t being used because dayanim (rabbinical court judges) “are so wedded to their sefarim [religious books] that they can’t see people suffering.” It frustrates me that there are agunot who could be freed with relative ease, but are left chained by insensitive dayanim. “The problem isn’t halakha, it’s the dayanim,” Riskin said.

As an action-oriented person in a room full of my kind, it was a pleasure to see that everyone wanted to leave the summit with practical resolutions for agunot. Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Women’s Justice, felt that the only surefire way to avoid agunah is to avoid halakhic marriage. Most of the audience, me included, was dismayed by her suggestion. It’s an unreasonable solution to propose, especially considering that Joseph Weiler, director of the Tikvah Center, stated that the summit would be built on the principle of “a commitment to halakhic normativity.” The whole reason women become agunot is because of their desire to receive a halakhically-sound get. Accordingly, we need to figure out a halakhic way to help these women.

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of ORA (Organization for the Resolution of Agunot), had a more realistic solution to offer: a halakhic prenuptial agreement mandating the giving of a get. “In the 400 cases I’ve worked on, I’ve never seen a couple with a valid prenup where the get was not given in a timely manner,” he said. “It’s been 100% effective.” As few couples actually sign prenups, it’s imperative to encourage rabbinical organizations like the RCA and IRF to standardize a prenup and forbid their members from officiating at weddings without them.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, said that not only will he not officiate at a wedding without a prenup, but he will not even attend a wedding without one. “Laypeople have to do this too,” he urged. The audience and panelists were not so receptive to his suggestion. Although I agree that it’s unfair to expect people to boycott weddings without prenups, the idea deserves some credit. I would never stay away from friends’ weddings just because they don’t have prenups, but I plan on informing my newly-engaged friends about the importance of prenups, and will do everything in my power to get them and their fiancés to sign one. As Stern said, “friends don’t let friends get married without a halakhic prenup.”

Throughout the conference, several presenters discussed creating a special beit din that would be sympathetic to agunot and strive to find solutions for them. Although a beit din like this did exist in the past, it was not widely accepted and disbanded years ago. Consequently, a new one - one whose resolutions are considered kosher by most of the Orthodox community - could and should be established. Rivka Haut, longtime agunah activist and founder of Agunah Inc., was inspired by the possibility of this new beit din. “I’m leaving here optimistic. I think there is a chance now for real change,” she said. Haut, among many other activists and laypeople in attendance, urged the rabbis in the room to create this beit din. Fortunately, many seemed amenable.

Blu Greenberg, mother of Orthodox feminism and founder of JOFA, closed the conference by reading the laws that Moses commanded the Jewish people at the same time as divorce, like helping a fallen neighbor, not delivering an escaped slave, and paying day laborers on the same day they did their work. “The context is about protecting the downtrodden,” Greenberg said. “Think of the Torah intent and God’s will as you advocate for justice for agunot.”