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Julia Haart is fighting to change coercive-control laws to save 'chained women' trapped in marriages

Joshua Zitser   

Julia Haart is fighting to change coercive-control laws to save 'chained women' trapped in marriages

Having spent most of her adult life in Monsey's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, Julia Haart of Netflix's "My Unorthodox Life," recalls being surrounded by "chained women."

These women, also called agunot, bear the label because their husbands refuse to grant them a divorce under Jewish law.

Their existence was no secret to the other residents of the Hasidic enclave of New York, Haart said. In fact, if anything they were an "absolute constant."

But the housewife-turned-reality-TV-star remembers a "hands in the air" mentality from leading rabbis, who were reluctant to intervene.

Now Haart, who famously left Monsey for a secular life in the city, doesn't want to leave that legacy behind.

She and other Jewish activists in the US are taking matters into their own hands by advocating for coercive-control legislation that they say could unshackle these chained women.

In the UK, using secular courts and coercive-control laws to get husbands to free their wives is increasingly the approach of choice.

That was the case with Rifka Meyer, who spoke to Business Insider about her experience of being refused a gett — a document in Jewish law that puts in force a religious divorce.

But across the Atlantic, such legal recourse is rare.

New York has a couple of laws that aim to prevent the misuse of the gett system. California, Connecticut, and Hawaii have legislation against coercive control — but none include any reference to getts.

Haart and fellow activists want more laws in more states, and they want them quickly.

"It's often the difference between life and death," she said.

'I was a non-entity at my own divorce'

To obtain a religiously accepted divorce in Judaism, women require a gett.

Under traditional interpretations of Jewish law, a woman has no power to obtain a gett herself, or otherwise commence divorce proceedings.

And when a husband refuses to grant a gett, the women become "agunot" — making them unable to date, remarry, or start new families under the Jewish law.

How many "chained women" there are in the US is unknown, with no organization tracking the exact number.

According to the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), there is a fundamental lack of data on the topic.

But a 2011 survey identified hundreds of cases.

Although Haart was never an agunah herself, she underwent a lengthy process to obtain a gett following the end of her first marriage.

The process was long and, although it wasn't contentious, it nonetheless colored her perception of how Orthodox Jewish women are treated by the Jewish courts, the Batei Din, during divorce proceedings.

Haart provided BI with videos from her proceedings, which showed her as the only woman in the room, seated at a distance from the presiding religious judges.

"They never once looked at me," she said. "I was a non-entity at my own divorce, as I was throughout my marriage."

This experience, which left her infuriated, is now driving her to advocate for women in worse situations.

Sanctuaries, prenups, and other solutions

Haart's initial idea to resolve the crisis was to establish a sanctuary for chained women, with financial resources and secular education.

In the second season of her show "My Unorthodox Life," which was released in 2022, Haart visited two buildings in New York City which she said she hoped to transform into a center providing housing, education, and childcare to agunot.

But those plans are on hold, she said, until her civil divorce from fashion executive Silvio Scaglio is finalized because her assets are "locked and frozen."

"The minute that that divorce is over, that is my first order of business," she said.

In the meantime, she is exploring other strategies.

One approach, which is becoming increasingly popular in some religious communities, involves promoting halakhic prenups to newlyweds.

These prenups, rooted in Jewish law, get each spouse to agree to appear before a Beth Din and abide by its decision with respect to the gett. It also creates a monetary incentive for a spouse to give the gett.

"At least it's something," Haart said.

But there's a downside: the approach is preventative and it doesn't help women already in marriages.

'Gett refusal is a form of domestic abuse' Keshet Starr, executive director of ORA.

For women trapped in marriages without prenups, activists are instead focusing on introducing state-level laws to classify gett refusal as coercive control.

"That will be a really brilliant way to use American laws to force these people to release these women," Haart said.

A gett can't technically be forced under Jewish law, because it becomes invalid if either party is believed to be acting under duress.

But Keshet Starr, the executive director of ORA, said there is still value in the effort.

"Those of us working in the field to help agunot know very clearly that gett refusal is a form of domestic abuse, in which one spouse manipulates and weaponizes the Jewish divorce process to control his or her partner," Starr told BI.

"Coercive control legislation is one important way to make sure our legal system understands this critical issue," she added.

Making it a Class-E Felony

Amber Adler was an agunah for two years. She told Business Insider that she was made to feel isolated and afraid in her own home.

This year, Amber unsuccessfully ran for New York City Council to represent District 48, which covers several ultraorthodox communities in Brooklyn.

She hoped, if elected, she could have brought about city-wide legislation against coercive control.

She had already been pushing for new legislation for some years, working with members of the New York State Assembly to try to introduce a statewide law that would mark coercive control as a form of abuse as well as a Class E felony.

Adler told BI that passing a bill to establish the crime of coercive control in New York would set a precedent, hopefully prompting other states to do the same.

A delicate balancing act

However, the US Constitution prohibits courts from excessively engaging in religious matters, and Jewish law has several prohibitions against interference from secular courts.

According to Adler, lawmakers are struggling with this balance, which keeps killing the bill.

But if legislation does manage to overcome these obstacles, it will send a powerful message to gett-refusers, Adler said.

A landmark case in the UK last year put the use of such legislation to the test.

Alan Moher was sentenced to 18 months in prison for controlling or coercive behavior after he refused to grant a gett to his wife, Caroline Moher-Maxwell.

For Haart, it's a hopeful sign that, with the right laws in place, women like the ones she knew back in Monsey might one day be free.

"People are saying that truly things are never going to change," she said, before adding: "If I actually believed that I wouldn't be doing the work that I do."

Photo Credits:

Photography: Clark Hodgin
Lighting Assistance: Conor Cunningham
Hair: Tiffany/ L' Appartement Hair Boudoir TN Group
Makeup: Asami Matsuda/Saint Luke Artists

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