Canada’s Parliament Fixes Jewish Divorces

What began as one woman’s passionate crusade for get reform grew into a powerful coalition of Canadian-Jewish organizations, then into a national lobbying campaign to the Canadian Parliament, finally culminating in the enactment in August 1990 of the only national law anywhere in the world reducing obstacles to Jewish divorce.

In Jewish divorce, a get document must be issued by a man and accepted by a woman in order for the woman to remarry in her own Faith. Without a get, should a woman remarry, her children will be considered mamzerim, bastards, according to halakha [Jewish law] able only to marry other mainzerim or converts to Judaism. Because a woman cannot issue a gel herself, men have frequently abused the system, blackmailing their ex-wives, refusing them their liberty out of spite, or attaching conditions in the civil divorce to the granting of the get.

While a halakhic response to the problem must come eventually, Canada’s secular approach appears to be successful. The new amendment to the Canadian divorce law stipulates that initiators of civil divorce suits must ensure that all potential obstacles to a partner’s religious remarriage are removed. It sets procedures in place to assure this and grants judges the power to use sanctions against a recalcitrant partner.

Passage of the amendment came about, according to Norma Baumel Joseph of Montreal, through “an incredible consensus process among different groups of women.” A key player in the passage of Bill C-61 amending the Canadian Divorce Act was the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, chaired by Evelyn Brook of B’nai Brith Women of Canada (BBW).

The Coalition was formed in 1986, shortly after Joseph addressed the executive of BBW in Montreal about the plight of agunot. (An agunah is a woman anchored to an absent husband. She is unable lo marry according to halakha because she has no get.)

Joseph, a feminist Orthodox Jew, scholar, teacher, social activist. Rabbi’s wife, and mother of four, has been sensitizing the Montreal and Toronto communities about Jewish divorce since the 1970’s. A fiery and compelling speaker with a seemingly inexhaustible well of compassion for the thousands of women caught in the trap of get abuse— hundreds of whom she has counselled personally—she is often taken for an augunah herself.

But she is not. For Joseph, the issue of Jewish religious divorce cuts to the heart of the integrity of the Jewish people. “For me it was the meeting ground of my interest in women’s issues and my belief in Judaism. . . If Judaism is a just system, if it comes from God — it has to be able to fix this.”

Credit for bringing together the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get goes to Evelyn Brook, past Public Affairs Chair’ of BBW and present Chair of its Social Violence Committee (both voluntary positions). Brook (a full-time administrator in a textile company) added advocacy to the original educational campaign spearheaded by Joseph.

Five national women’s organizations participated in the coalition in addition to BBW: Canadian Jewish Congress’s Status of Women Committee, Emunab, Na’mat. Hadassah- WIZO. and the Montreal Chapter of ORT.

National organizations gave their mandates to local Montreal chapters to act on their behalf, thereby extending their political clout to local organizations, yet allowing for streamlined decision-making. The key to their success, according to Brook, was meticulous research and follow up, tight scheduling, and a formidable letter-writing campaign to targeted Members of Parliament (those with large Jewish constituencies or those known to be interested in social reform) and the Canadian Justice Department.

“We just wrote letters all the time.” says Brook. No woman ever left a conference of any constituent coalition without writing her own letter about get reform in support of the stand taken by the organization. (Organizers always brought pens and paper and supplied four different styles of sample letters for women who didn’t feel able to compose their own.)

At a House of Commons Committee hearing where Joseph gave a spellbinding presentation in March 1990, the Coalition was given a hero’s welcome. Joseph. Brook, and the ten other Coalition members who had travelled to Ottawa to make the brief were astonished when members of Parliament sought them out to commend them on the efficacy of their lobby. The Committee unanimously passed the proposed amendment, and five months later the bill became law.

Whereas the specifics of the bill’s passage were particular to the Canadian Parliamentary system, the Coalition’s methods are specific to neither Canada nor divorce. Brook is, for instance, currently using the same approach to bring about changes in the administration of domestic violence laws.

“It was a women’s issue and could be best resolved by women.” says Brook. “No one understands it from the inside as we women do. . . people told us we’d never get a federal law passed about Jewish divorce. It took nearly five years, but we did it.”