Program spotlight: Helping Orthodox Jewish women escape abuse.

Orly Kusher recently began working at Sanctuary for Families, where she is heading up our brand-new Orthodox Jewish Matrimonial Project, created in response to an increasing need among our clients. Orly spoke to us about this new role, the challenges she expects to tackle, and why serving Orthodox Jewish women is such a personal mission. 

Hi, Orly! Can you tell us more about your new job here at Sanctuary?

Orly: Sanctuary has created a new position entitled Orthodox Jewish Community Matrimonial Staff Attorney. This position serves Orthodox Jewish clients who are victims of domestic violence.

I represent victims in contested and uncontested matrimonial and other family law actions in New York City civil courts. These cases include divorce, custody, visitation, child support and related matters. My clients can also access Sanctuary’s range of counseling, shelter and economic empowerment services.

This position is unique because I will also represent women in divorce proceedings before the Beit Din, the Jewish court.

How did you get into this work?

Orly: I attended Hofstra University School of Law where I focused on public interest family law. I was a Child and Family Advocacy Fellow, a staff member of the Family Court Review, and a recipient of the Pro Bono Service Award of Excellence. After law school, I worked at a private law firm where I represented clients in matrimonial and family law matters.

When Sanctuary opened the Orthodox Jewish Community Matrimonial Staff Attorney position, I was excited to apply because it fit so many aspects of my background and my desire to pursue public interest family law.

I am half Israeli and I speak Hebrew fluently. I attended a Jewish day school so I was raised with a religious education. I consider myself Modern Orthodox. I observe the Sabbath and keep kosher, and therefore I share a strong connection with the community I will have the opportunity to serve.

“Orthodox” is an umbrella term for a large segment of Judaism. Who exactly are the women you serve?

Orly: I help any woman in the Orthodox Jewish world – whether she considers herself Modern Orthodox, Traditional Orthodox, Chabad, Chassidic, Charedi, or another strand of orthodoxy – who is a victim of domestic violence.

Is domestic violence a big issue in the Orthodox community?

Orly: Domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of religion, class, ethnicity or background. It happens in the Orthodox community just as it happens in any and every community.

However, the cultural context and means through which domestic violence is perpetrated can vary between communities. For instance, the concept of shalom bait (Hebrew for “peace in the home”) is very important for Orthodox Jewish families.

Shalom bait is about cooperation between family members in order to maintain a healthy and peaceful home. In some instances, the concept of shalom bait is used against a domestic violence victim. Peace in the home is placed above individual rights and, as a result, the victim is expected to remain married in spite of abuse. The pressure to remain married can cause women to delay seeking help.

This cultural and religious factor shapes how abuse is viewed within the individual home and in the wider Orthodox Jewish community. Shalom bait is one major element that separates Orthodox Jewish victims from other domestic violence victims.

Because I understand the values, I know the customs, and I speak the language, I can connect with my clients in a meaningful and culturally competent manner. That means I am better equipped to understand them and advocate for them.

Can you tell us more about the get? What is it? Why is it so important?

Orly: A get is a divorce document in Jewish law. The get must be voluntarily given by the husband to the wife. A marriage remains in effect up until the time that the get is given by the husband. Obtaining the get is the only way to get a divorce in the eyes of Jewish law.

I can’t emphasize enough how critical the get is to many of the women I serve. The get is tied to their identity. Even if there is a civil divorce, without the get, they are still married under Jewish law. They can’t move on with their lives nor can they remarry; any new relationship, without a get, is considered adultery.

It is important to note that not all husbands refuse their wives a get. The process can be non-contentious. For many women, it is a significant and valued religious matter. But when a husband does refuse, the failure to obtain a get can have an intensely harmful impact upon a Jewish woman’s life. Women whose husbands have refused to give them a get are called “agunot” or chained women.

Do you only serve women seeking a get who are also victims of abuse?

Orly: Get refusal is a form of abuse. My role is to serve victims of domestic violence, which involves an abuser exerting power and control over the victim. Because of the deep power imbalance inherent in the granting of the get, and because of the damaging ramifications of refusal, woman refused a get are victims of abuse.

What role does the Beit Din, or Jewish court, play in your work?

Orly: A Beit Din is a Jewish court that presides over various business related and commercial disputes, as well as issues related to marriage and divorce. The Beit Din facilitates the process involving the get. Since most Jewish couples in the United States are married under both civil and religious law, they must have their marriage dissolved under the laws of both the civil courts and the Beit Din.

In my current position, I am representing clients in both legal systems. Although it may be challenging to appear in a forum such as the Beit Din, where women may be at an inherent disadvantage, I am committed to advocating for my clients and providing them with comprehensive and effective legal assistance.

How do you plan to get the word out about your services?

Orly: Word of mouth is the best kind of referral. I intend to reach both the victims in need of our services, and the community leaders who will be partners in this cause. I plan on collaborating with other individuals and organizations in this area both inside and outside of the Jewish community.

Right now, I am reaching out to rabbis, community leaders, and peer organizations in an effort to build up a circle of advocates who are engaged in these issues and willing to spread awareness. I know the work we do at Sanctuary will be well received within the Orthodox Jewish community and I look forward to providing our services to those in the community.

Thank you for taking the time to share with us, Orly!