On International Agunah Day, Sanctuary Stands with Jewish Orthodox Survivors

Learn about the plight of “chained women” and how you can support our work within the Jewish Orthodox Community.

On the eve of Purim, the Jewish Orthodox community observes Ta’anit Esther to commemorate the plea of Queen Esther – a Jewish woman who saved her people during their exile in the Persian Empire. Like many Jewish women today, Esther was trapped in a forced marriage to the king of Persia and spent years fearing her husband might kill her.

Today, Sanctuary joins advocates around the world to observe the International Day of the Agunah – a day marked yearly on the Fast of Esther to bring awareness to the plight of the modern-day agunah, or “chained woman” – and stands in solidarity with Jewish Orthodox women in New York and across the world who have suffered from get-refusal and are trapped in unwanted marriages.

According to Jewish law, a marriage can only be dissolved once the husband voluntarily grants a get, or religious divorce, to his wife – something many men refuse to do out of malice or to use as leverage when negotiating financial settlements and custody arrangements. Get-refusal is thus a form of domestic violence by which the husband asserts power and control to deny his wife the opportunity to separate and move on with her life. Orthodox Jewish women in these situations are called agunot, or chained women, for they are not allowed to remarry. For agunot, any new relationship they have is considered adultery, and their children will be considered illegitimate if conceived outside of marriage.

At Sanctuary, we recognize get-refusal as a form of gender violence that harms women, their children, and the wider Jewish Orthodox Community. In 2015, seeing that many women seeking help with civil and religious divorces had virtually nowhere to turn for help, we launched the Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project. In the years since, we have provided clinical and legal services, shelter, and economic empowerment to hundreds of Jewish Orthodox women and their children. Furthermore, we have actively engaged with rabbis, community leaders, and peer organizations, to build a network of advocates committed to raising awareness about domestic violence within the Jewish Orthodox community and protecting the rights and wellbeing of survivors.

Please consider demonstrating your solidarity this International Agunah Day by donating to Sanctuary’s Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project.

Survivors Organize First-Ever Leadership Conference

What does it mean to be a survivor? Why is it important to speak out?

What does it mean to be a survivor? Why is it important to speak out? How do we share our experiences while protecting our emotional and mental health? Can we create a safe space for survivors of all backgrounds to share and celebrate their stories?

These were some of the questions that guided our survivor leaders as they organized and led Sanctuary’s first-ever Survivor Leadership Conference in October.

dscf7148-editHosted by Gibney Dance, the Conference aimed to celebrate survivors’ journeys, strengthen resiliency and build survivor leadership within Sanctuary. Drawing on these questions and common goals, Conference organizers developed a program as empowering as it was healing.

dscf7143-editThe day’s events began at noon with a delicious buffet lunch catered by survivors and conference participants. As attendees filtered in and settled down, Sanctuary’s Executive Director Hon. Judy H. Kluger welcomed everyone and introduced Gwen Wright, Executive Director of the NY State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. As a survivor of domestic violence herself, Gwen’s deeply personal speech about her abuse, escape and evolution as a survivor leader set the tone for the afternoon.

dscf7196-editPanel discussions throughout the day covered a range of topics and were interspersed with self-care exercises and art-therapy projects. The first panel, moderated by a Sanctuary board member and survivor leader, highlighted the diversity of survivor experience through powerful testimony. Panelists spoke of their experiences as survivors of sex trafficking, forced marriage, breast ironing, and domestic violence in heterosexual, as well as same-sex relationships, and shared how they are each working to raise awareness through community, education, art and nonprofit advocacy.

dscf7314-editThe second panel delved further into the process many survivors go through in realizing and nurturing their inner leader. Between panel discussions, attendees wrote notes on a Sanctuary tapestry, snapped a few photos for the survivor-led selfie project and practiced meditation to ease the weight of the day’s discussions. Towards the end of the afternoon, staff members shared how survivors could get involved in survivor leadership opportunities at Sanctuary, including advocacy and outreach efforts, and the larger movement to end gender violence.

Joan Hutton Mills

The conference came to close with a special interpretive dance performance by a survivor entitled Points of Change and the reciting of a poem titled, “Change,” by Sanctuary survivor and poet, Joan Hutton-Mills.


Sanctuary is grateful for the generous support of Gwen Wright, Gibney Dance, and Project Playdate (which oversaw childcare during the conference). A special thanks is of course due to Sanctuary staff, volunteers, our board members, and the survivors who organized and led this incredible event.

For over 30 years, Sanctuary has served those escaping abuse, helping them transform from victim to survivor. Moving forward, we will build on this experience, working closely with our survivors, to create an organization that not only helps victims become survivors but helps survivors become leaders. By harnessing their energy and knowledge we, as a movement, will transform society’s response to gender violence.

Will you walk with us?

1 in 3 teens experience dating violence. Join us on April 16th.

Did you know that 1 in 3 teens experience some form of abuse within their romantic relationships?

And yet, 81% of parents say they don’t believe teen dating violence is an issue, or don’t know about the issue.

Sanctuary for Families is dedicated to serving ALL survivors of domestic violence, regardless of their age. That’s why we’re co-sponsoring the NYC Teen Dating Violence Awareness Walk-A-Thon on Saturday, April 16th.

Will you join us at the walk? Register now.

Sanctuary staff, supporters and teen survivor-advocates will join hundreds of other activists to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, bringing attention to the serious issue of teen dating violence in our city and around the world.

The walk will conclude with a press conference where survivors with share their stories, and a party hosted by Hot 97 with prizes, swag and music. All registered attendees will receive a gift bag, and Sanctuary attendees will receive a Sanctuary tee shirt.

How can you join us at the walk? Register online now – please disregard the payment request, as Sanctuary has already paid for your registration.

Attending the walk? Here are a few important details:

– The walk is scheduled for Saturday, April 16th from 9 am – 12 pm
– Meet the Sanctuary group at 9 am in Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn
– Contact Martha Perez Pedemonti with any questions at mperezpedemonti@sffny.org.

Thank you for joining us at this exciting event!

Teen Walkathon

5 things you need to know about vacation cutting & FGM in the United States.

Vacation cutting affects more girls than you may realize.

Tell the New York State Assembly to stop vacation cutting in our state. Sign now.

1. The number of girls and women affected by female genital mutilation (FGM) has been massively underestimated.

A new UN study reveals that over 500,000 girls and women in the United States have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGM, a dangerous and non-medically necessary procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs. This number is almost three times larger than previous estimates.

2. Girls in New York are especially at risk.

In the New York metropolitan area alone, over 65,000 girls are considered at high risk of undergoing FGM. Other states with high rates of risk include California, Texas, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.

3. FGM is not a product of a single culture or religion.

FGM takes place in many different cultures, in the United States and around the world. It is NOT a practice tied to or condoned by any major religion, and in fact the practice pre-dates Christianity and Islam. Religious leaders across the world have denounced the practice.

4. FGM is illegal in New York State, but vacation cutting remains legal.

Vacation cutting is the practice of sending girls and young women out of New York, where FGM is illegal, to a country abroad where they can undergo the dangerous procedure. New legislation would make vacation cutting illegal in New York State, but since 2013 the state Assembly has failed to pass this critical bill.

5. You can take action to stop vacation cutting in New York.

Vacation cutting hurts girls and harms our community. We’re rallying supporters to sign a petition calling on the New York State Assembly to pass the vacation cutting ban. We need 1,000 signatures by February 29th to make a big impact. You can sign today.