Legal Aid Center Advocates Double Efforts
May 12, 2003
in the Face of National Public Sector Strike
Yesterday, an agunah won her freedom. Without a shadow of a doubt, this woman would still be in chains had it not been for the compassion, knowledge, quick-thinking and dedication of Sarah Markowitz - a graduate of the Ohr Torah Stone Women's Advocate Program and the first employee of the Legal Aid Center.
In 2000, R.V, a young woman in her thirties and mother of two, came to the Legal Aid Center and explained that her husband M had disappeared five years earlier, in the middle of the divorce process. Although the rabbinical court continued to set hearings and issue orders for his appearance, he had literally vanished without a trace, rendering all of their warrants powerless and irrelevant. "It was as if the earth had swallowed him up," remembers R. "We had no idea if he was in Israel or abroad; if he was alive or dead."
Sarah took on R's case with a vengeance. Her first step was to convince the court to hire a Private Investigator, but he turned up no clues as to M's whereabouts. Next, she asked the courts to take out advertisements in the major Israeli newspapers; still, no one responded. Then, Sarah located a mobile phone number registered in M's name. Since he never answered the phone, Sarah petitioned the courts to force the cellular phone company to send her an itemization of phone calls, hoping to track him down. Once again, however, R's hopes were dashed: the phone accepted prepaid cards only.
Employing a different tactic, Sarah scrutinized the couple's wedding video and ketuba, and interviewed several of the guests. She was hoping to find something that would render the union invalid and retroactively free R. But here too Sarah met up with a wall: unfortunately, everything was in order and the marriage was as real as the chains binding her client.
One day, Sarah heard a news story on the radio about a soldier who nearly froze to death in the Hermon but was tracked down by the signal emitted by his cellphone. She immediately remembered M's mobile phone and once again petitioned the courts and the cellular phone company, who traced the signal to an area in eastern Jerusalem. R was hopeful as the police searched the region, but M was not found. The police offered the theory that perhaps M's mobile had been stolen - small comfort to R.
No matter where they searched, no matter what strategies they devised, M had left behind no trail. Indeed, it seemed that he had fallen off the face of the earth, but even so, until they could prove that he was no longer alive R was destined to remain an agunah, unable to progress with her life.
In one of the suicide bombings shortly after, this time a bus traveling from Tiberias to Tel Aviv, one of the 18 victims was unidentifiable. R clung to the hope that the body would turn out to be M's, which would finally free her from her hostage status. Although she knew she was grasping at straws, Sarah interviewed survivors of the tragedy and talked to police. She learned that Channel Two was preparing a newscast, spoke to the producer and discovered that the unidentifiable man had conversed with a soldier on the bus; the details the soldier remembered were inconsistent with M's life and personality. Another dead end.
In rare cases, where a husband disappears and all efforts to locate him turn up empty-handed, the courts have discretion to rule "avad zichro" - literally, "his memory has been erased." Armed with all of the relevant details and legal arguments, Sarah approached the late Judge Rabbi Mashash and asked him to study the material that might free her client. "I studied this case for a full day," wrote Mashash in his decision, "attempting to find an angle which would allow me to declare M lost and to unshackle R from this dead marriage." Nonetheless, he concluded, there were too many legal problems, compounded by court transcripts from which Mashash determined that M was very likely alive and in hiding. Now, Sarah had no choice left but to find him. Although they had every exhausted every possible option, Sarah had still not unearthed any clues as to M's whereabouts - alive or dead. She convinced the court to publish photographs of M in the local papers and yet again, she and R hoped for the best.
One day, a woman in the southern part of Israel picked up her morning paper and was astonished to see her sister's longtime live-in boyfriend's face staring back at her. After three years of living comfortably, M's past finally caught up with him, and he was unceremoniously ejected by his girlfriend and her family for being a mesurav get - a man who refuses to divorce his wife. As it turns out, M had been receiving outpatient treatments for the past several months from a psychiatric clinic; now, his paranoia increased. Having no job and no money, he made his way to Eilat, where he slept on the beach. Which is exactly where R's friend, a taxi driver, saw him during the Passover holiday. R was phoned immediately with the news - M was alive! He was alive and in Israel! R was ecstatic: she finally saw the light at the end of her tunnel. Sarah entreated the police to pick M up and bring him back. However, once again M slipped through their fingers, for by the time they arrived he was no where to be found.
But M's paranoia was getting the best of him, and a few days later R was shocked to receive a phone call from his sister, who lived in America. M was in a Beersheba psychiatric hospital, she was told. Would R be good enough to visit him and see that he was all right? Though the request was absurd in light of the circumstances, R embraced the idea, elated to finally know where M was. She set out for Beersheba, taking with her Sarah's strict instructions to observe his mental state but not to breathe a word about divorce: Sarah understood that, as difficult as it had been to locate M, it would be nearly impossible to receive a get from him if he were to be deemed mentally unfit. Their job now was to keep him calm and sane, not to upset him.
M was moved to a facility in Beer Yaakov, near Ramle, where he was initially placed in a closed facility - and Sarah and R held their breath and awaited diagnosis. After two days, he was moved to an open unit. Sarah knew that they must move immediately, or they risked his being discharged and once again disappearing. And so, although it was Memorial Day, she turned to the special court for agunot with a warrant request, asking that M continue to receive treatment, but under confinement, like any criminal. And then another cruel wrinkle appeared in this case: although the order was granted, the police were overwhelmed with Memorial Day and couldn't provide officers. Sarah pleaded with the district commander, but to no avail. The regional psychiatrist was on vacation, there wasn't enough manpower. But Sarah wasn't about to let M get away this time. She instructed R's father to guard the facility with the arrest warrant in his hand. Finally- at 7:00 AM on Thursday morning, the 8th of May, the police arrested M. A court date was set for the next Wednesday, the 14th.
Now that M was in custody, R began to experience hope once again. But, in keeping with the roller-coaster nature of her marriage, another twist of fate plunged her back into despair. The country's labor union declared that the public sector strike, which had paralyzed the nation just a few days earlier, would now continue in the form of sanctions. And so, when the police officer accompanied M into court on Sunday in order to extend his remand, there were no clerks available to direct him to the right tribunal. Not knowing what to do, the policeman brought M into another courtroom - one in which the judge had no knowledge of M's history. M spun a convincing tale of a wife who refused to accept his divorce despite the fact that he was willing to grant it. He shed tears and professed his desire to end everything peacefully and amicably.
The judge wanted to know where the wife of this poor man was, and why she was refusing to come to court! The policeman called R and notified her that M was to be released. A frenzied R called Sarah's mobile and, as luck would have it, Sarah answered the phone in her car, just meters from the court complex toward which she was already heading for the hearing of a different case. She parked and ran into the building, frantically checking in every courtroom, on every floor. There were no clerks, no one had seen M, no one had noticed a policeman. It was several precious minutes until Sarah was able to locate them.
As Sarah explains, under normal circumstances this process would have been straightforward: M would have been arrested, his remand would have been extended in light of the impending trial date. The original tribunal would have imposed sanctions upon him and ordered him to grant R the get. But, as with the rest of this case, nothing was normal. Sarah knew she had no time to lose; she was not willing to let M get away again. She barged into the courtroom to which the case had originally been assigned - in the middle of a get process - and demanded immediate action, shouting "this man has evaded his wife for years! They're letting him go right now, downstairs! You must help her!" She ran back down to confront M and his police escort, catching them just as they exited their courtroom with the prize release order in their hands.
Sarah filled the police officer in on M's history. "Fortunately," she recalls, "he was a mentsch. Another policeman might have finished his job and left, but this man let me convince him to accompany M upstairs, to the correct courtroom." It was now or never: Sarah called R and told her to drop everything and come immediately. Meanwhile, to expedite the process, she began phoning in the paperwork.
And then - another snag. The scribe, an integral party to the get ceremony, would not come to the courtroom. He was sitting at his desk in the building, but unable to perform ceremonies due to the strike. Sarah cajoled, begged, even offered to pay him privately out of her own pocket, but although he sympathized, he was afraid of losing his job if he crossed the picket line. Any other advocate would at that point have given up hope, but Sarah pursued the matter and called the Director of the Rabbinical Courts, Rabbi Eliahu Ben Dahan, on his private (unlisted) cellphone. Ben Dahan initially saw no way around the problem, but he also knew Sarah well enough to know that she would not have called if it weren't a real emergency. They discussed convening a special exigencies committee, but he was extremely skeptical. Sarah hung up the phone with uncertainty and pondered her next move.
When Sarah came back inside, climbed up the stairs to the second floor and entered the courtroom, she was stunned and exhilarated to see the scribe there! Ben Dahan had apparently decided to take unilateral action to save poor R, and had called the scribe personally to instruct him to go to work.
The Happy Ending
And so, the end of the arduous trail was in sight. Sarah re-initiated the get process that M had deserted so many years before. M began to negotiate: he wanted visitation rights, he wanted to be set up with a job and an apartment, he would only pay support for one child. But Sarah maneuvered around him, convincing him to let the social workers work out the settlement terms afterwards.
R arrived with her brother, the three justices were hastily convened, two witnesses were found, the scribe recorded, and the get - held up for over seven years! - was granted on the spot: May 11th, 2003.
A settlement hearing was scheduled for two weeks later, in which R and M will work out the divorce terms. Sarah points out that the child allowance issue is important, since R works full time but does not make enough to support the children. But at this point, the outcome is practically irrelevant. R has her life back.
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