Rabbi becomes target for backing ‘aguna’

Rabbi becomes target for backing ‘aguna’

A local Conservative rabbi has been receiving threatening phone calls after writing a letter in support of a Lakewood woman seeking a religious divorce from her husband.

Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick suspects the callers are “yeshiva bochers,” or religious students, who have taken the husband’s side in what has become a widely reported example of the plight of the aguna — that is, an observant woman whose husband refuses to issue a get, or divorce decree required under Jewish law.

Wolkoff did not know either spouse in the dispute when he wrote a letter to the husband’s Staten Island yeshiva, urging its leaders, including the husband’s grandfather, to “isolate” the husband until he agreed to issue the get.

“This is a disgrace and casts a shameful shadow on your Torah institution,” he wrote. “How can he be allowed to immerse himself in our sacred Torah while violating it so immorally?”

The letter appeared on a website supporting Gital Dodelson, the wife in the dispute. The next day, Nov. 27, Wolkoff said, he began receiving harassing, expletive-laced phone calls, many in the middle of the night, from “yeshiva bochers.”

The students “were going to block all my phones calls,” Wolkoff told NJJN. “I get voicemails that they were going to make me pay for getting involved with this. In some calls they [were] cursing at me and calling me names.”

In some cases, however, the callers “were reasonable and asked a halachic [Jewish legal] question and left a number to call somebody back.”

The case is one of the more public ones involving the often contentious world of Jewish religious divorce, in which advocates say women are often subject to blackmail and extortion from recalcitrant husbands.

Dodelson was civilly divorced in August 2012 from Avrohom Meir Weiss, whom she married more than four years ago. The two have a son. Orthodox blogs, Jewish newspapers, and even the general media have paid close attention to the case, in part because of Weiss’s prominent family ties. His grandfather, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, is rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Staten Island; his father and uncle were employees of ArtScroll, a prestigious publisher of Orthodox books; and Weiss’s great-grandfather is the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a revered figure in Modern Orthodoxy.

Wolkoff said he got involved and wrote his letter to the yeshiva at the request of a congregant who worked with Gital Dodelson.

Wolkoff said the congregant gave a copy of the letter to his coworker Dodelson, who posted it to the setgitalfree.com website and to facebook.com/FreeGital.

The Facebook post has garnered 637 “likes” as of Jan. 8 and numerous positive comments.

Wolkoff termed the threatening calls “the pot calling the kettle black” and “totally ridiculous,” adding, “There was something humorous in that many of them assumed I was on the payroll of the bride’s family when I had never heard of these people before. They were just trying to defend the indefensible.”

Wolkoff said he was shocked that many of the callers believed they were performing a “public service,” saying other women needed to be taught not to act as Dodelson had.

“The idea that they were doing Jewish husbands a favor by putting wives in their place is just so bizarre,” Wolkoff said. “It just goes to show that sincere religiosity can be made perverse. To the Orthodox women I know, including my own wife, that perspective would be profoundly offensive, as it should be to anybody.”

Wolkoff emphasized that he had respect for Orthodox wedding traditions. He said he recently spoke to two Orthodox colleagues and their reaction was that the husband’s actions were shameful and he should give his wife a get.

In the letter to the yeshiva, Wolkoff wrote that “it appears [Weiss] is using the get as blackmail in order to change the terms of their civil divorce.”

Although Weiss filed for custody of their son, a New Jersey court granted Dodelson primary custody, with Weiss being granted visitation rights.

According to Dodelson’s website, Weiss wants the custody agreement changed and is demanding payment of $350,000 and the right to make all educational decisions for their son.

Rabbi Yisroel Weiss of Edison, whom Dodelson describes as the family spokesperson, is the uncle of Avrohom Meir. When contacted by NJJN, the rabbi said: “It is not an affair that should be fought in the press. The two parties should work out an agreement like civilized human beings, as we’ve tried to do.”

Wolkoff, who devoted his column in this month’s synagogue bulletin to the issue, said the congregant who had asked for the letter has since “apologized profusely” for unwittingly causing him so much trouble.

But, he said, “I don’t feel bad about it. I’m happy I did it.”

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