Karolyn Benger has a social media network — and she’s not afraid to use it. Benger, who is “deeply concerned about justice and women in Judaism,” said one positive application for the platforms is helping Jewish women finalize long-awaited divorces.
A get (Jewish divorce) is written under the supervision of the beit din (rabbinic court) and presented by a husband to his wife. It is necessary to have the get in order to remarry in a Jewish ceremony as well as to have future legitimate children.
“Unfortunately, we have a situation today where you can get a civil divorce but husbands hold onto the get,” Benger said.
The husbands who refuse their wives a get leave them in a kind of limbo as agunot, or chained women. The rabbinate and Jewish community often apply some economic and social pressure on the husbands in such cases, but Benger said that’s not enough for cases that drag on for years.
Benger suggested that “get refusers” are husbands “manipulating secular outcomes and holding a wife hostage” merely to get a better child custody or financial arrangement. “Sometimes it’s just extortion to release her,” Benger said.
She recently used her social media network on behalf of her friend, Shari Judah — who has been waiting 12 years for her get — by writing emails, making calls and putting the husband’s image all over the internet in order to pressure him to give Judah the get.
“Social media has made it easier to notify people and gain information about where get refusers work and who they associate with and where they go,” Benger said. Years of rabbinical council and pressure hadn’t worked, but after about two weeks of Facebook and Instagram publicity right before Passover, Judah received her get from Josh Pitterman.
“I’ve never had a Pesach more meaningful knowing that she was freed,” said Benger.
But Pitterman maintains the social media campaign caused nothing but harm and the get was coming anyway. Judah believes the campaign is what delivered the get.
Using social media for pressure campaigns isn’t new, but the jury is out whether it is a tool or a weapon and if it should be used for such a private matter.
Keshet Starr, CEO of Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, said a social media campaign like Benger’s “can be extremely effective.” But it’s “not the right fit for every case.” And before using any such campaign there’s a need to be cautious given the “push-pull that comes with any sort of advocacy. It’s a powerful tool,” she said, “but you have to use it thoughtfully.”
Benger’s no naif, however, believing that social media is a benign place — in fact, she doesn’t allow her teenage children on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and wishes all parents restricted their children’s access. But she’s convinced “this is the only avenue available to us and a woman deserves to be free,” she said.
Rabbi Gavriel Goetz, head of school at Yeshiva High School of Arizona, said in his experience “expert rabbinical involvement” rather than social media was what worked. Ultimately, he was just happy the matter was resolved for Judah, a member of his community. “It’s something that needed to happen,” he said, via email.
Betzalel Rothstein, a mediator and divorce coach with Shalom Family Mediation in New Jersey, said he thinks using social media in this way is “a bad idea. Any time you weaponize something and are furthering hostility, you’re putting both parties at great risk,” he said.
Still, he allowed that in some extreme cases where the get is used as leverage and “weaponized,” maybe a social media campaign is necessary. However, he has also seen a new variation on these campaigns wherein a man shamed so publicly will reverse course, saying the get isn’t valid since it wasn’t given willfully.
“As a peacemaker,” Rothstein said, “I’m generally anti-anything that stirs the pot. Sometimes social media is going to be very effective and sometimes it’s going to encourage the man to double down.”
Pitterman said he was going to give the get with or without the social media campaign, which only caused him harm. “It was always coming to an end,” he said, adding that he was waiting to give the get until he had a chance to modify the custody orders, which grant Judah full custody.
But he did feel the pain of the public shaming. He, his parents and his rabbi were doxxed, he said. “Every yahoo demands I try my case in front of him,” he said. But worse is that the public shaming had a negative impact on his son.
Benger said she also received harassment and demands to remove her posts. After Judah received the get, Benger said she took down the offending posts.
But Pitterman said it won’t be so easy for him to clear his name. “I’m going to have to clean it up for years,” he said. “The internet never forgets.”
Even after Pitterman gave the get he continued to be harassed, he said. It changed from people telling him to give it to people asking why it took so long. That is a consequence both Benger and Starr worry about. If someone feels like the harassment won’t end regardless, there is no leverage and no reason to give the get.
Rabbi Dovid Shochet, a rabbi advising Pitterman, derides social media as something that nobody with “a moral compass” would use. Not only was it ineffective, “it was counterproductive,” he said. “The get was already coming.” A synagogue member helping Shochet advise Pitterman, agreed. While “there is not always a simple formula for obtaining a get,” he said Benger’s campaign was an “impediment.”
Rabbi Avrohom Union, rabbinic administrator of Rabbinical Council of California, where Judah’s case officially began, suggested social media played a role, but felt that Shochet’s advice to Pitterman might have been more of an influence in the end.
Social media is a double-edged sword, Union said, via email. Its use can either be “constructive” or “immensely destructive” by “the dredging up of accusations which may be true or may be hideous and disgusting distortions.”
Judah, who doesn’t like the public spotlight, credits social media for persuading Pitterman even though she, too, dealt with its dark side and was harassed by those taking Pitterman’s side. Still, she said it was worth it.
She likens her situation with the get to the case of a dead soldier behind enemy lines. Everyone knows he’s dead but nobody can retrieve the body. “The soldier is dead and everybody’s already mourned them, but it’s still important to recover the body and give the person a burial,” she said.
Benger is relieved that Judah has her long-awaited resolution, although she admitted it’s “a dirty business.” And she does worry — about the child, about her friend, about herself. She asked her rabbi if she was doing the right thing, and “he simply said, ‘Twelve years.’ So I said, ‘OK.’” Benger said.
“We are making a change and we will get every woman freed.” JN