S, an aguna - Hebrew for a 'bound woman', whose husband has refused her a divorce - who recently received her get [writ of divorce] and with it her freedom, wished for herself an ordinary life, devoid of complexity. With the approach of the Hebrew New Year, artist Elana Stein turned S's wish into a Rosh Hashana card with a painted picture of chopped up vegetables and a salad in the making: the regular, everyday dinner of a regular, everyday person.
The hopes and wishes of nine other agunot who, like S, were freed from chains this year served as the inspiration for nine other Israeli artists who also volunteered their time and talents to illustrate New Year cards. The project, called "Illustrating Freedom," was created by the Ohr Torah Stone network's Yad La'isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Women, the largest, most comprehensive and most experienced aguna support organization in the world.
At the end of last week, Yad La'isha held an exhibition of the artwork at Jerusalem's First Station, including a toast to all the 'chained women' the center freed this year, and an descriptive presentation of the artists' works and the stories behind each one. During the course of the evening, which concluded with a panel featuring former agunot, packages of the the Rosh Hashana cards were on sale – with all proceeds going toward the release of other women being represented by Yad La'isha.
Gilat, one of the women who participated in the panel, told her story: "I was refused a get for five years, but for the first four I didn't even know that I was an aguna. During those years I was busy with the everyday business of survival. I didn't think about my situation and simply made by way from hearing to hearing. When I saw that the situation wasn't improving, I decided to fight for my freedom and sought out Yad La'isha. It was only after my first meeting that I understood that I was an aguna, a chained woman being denied a divorce by my husband. And I want to tell all women that if your divorce proceedings are carrying on and on with no end in sight, that means that there's a problem. If this is happening to you, do not hesitate, don't think that you should stick it out for the sake of the children, just get up and get help and support. My advocate at Yad La'isha didn't let things grow more protracted; she set deadlines and boundaries and suddenly things started moving. And today I am in a completely different place than I was in at the beginning."
Merav, who also participated in the panel, was married for 16 years to a violent man before attaining freedom through Yad La'isha. "The Merav who existed at the beginning of this journey no longer exists. All of the obstacles that I overcame and the sleepless nights have empowered me. I would tell the old Merav, 'dare to do it'; it's not a cliché to say that there is a light at the end of the tunnel."
Several of the artists who designed the postcards are well known; some illustrate children's books while others are still students. But all ten accepted the request on a volunteer basis, out of an understanding of the importance of the issue. Galit Movshovitz, an artist and graphic designer who illustrated Shira's story says, "I joined this project because it is the absolute least I can do in order to help raise public awareness to the painful, terribly sad plight of agunot. The work of Ohr Torah Stone and its Yad La'isha organization is 'avodat kodesh' – holy work. We, the public at large, have a responsibility to shout until everyone understands that the issue at hand is about cruel violence. We must all stand with the agunot. Each person with the tiniest bit of power has a responsibility to move heaven and earth for these women, who are captives at the hands of these cruel men."
Pnina Omer, Director of Ohr Torah Stone's Yad La'isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline: "The phenomenon of get-refusal is a disgrace to the Jewish world; the idea that men willfully enchain their wives and hold them captive is inconceivable. Tonight we chose to focus on the moments of joy of the women who have received their get and their freedom, as opposed to our usual occupation with the exhausting journey they are undergoing. We asked ten of the women we freed this year to express a dream or a wish they have for the New Year. Of all the wishes, the one that touched me the most was that of A. With all she could wish for to get her life back on track, all A desired was the freedom of her friend, who has now been trapped in marriage for 17 years. I too dream of realizing many moments of joy in the coming year, as each trapped woman receives a new lease on life. There is no greater feeling of fulfillment."