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‘Mitzvah Night Is CANCELLED’

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Photo: Courtesy of subject

Fifty miles northwest of New York City is a town built as a kind of experiment: an attempt to insulate a religious community from the vagaries of time and assimilation. There, the women serve Sabbath meals that would not be out of place in 19th-century Eastern Europe — gefilte fish, golden challah, buttery kokosh cake — and the men dress in black coats and long sidelocks. In that town, a girl grew up to be a woman, and she got married, and the marriage turned bad.

For four years, 30-year-old Malky Gold Berkowitz has been fighting to be freed from her husband, Wolf (“Volvy”) Berkowitz, a man who she says has subjected her to extensive harassment and physical assault. Malky lives in Kiryas Joel, or the City of Joel, a reference to the original leader of the Satmar Hasidic sect whose adherents form a majority of the town’s residents. It is an ultra-Orthodox enclave whose strictures on women make it an outlier even among other ultra-Orthodox sects — a world within a world within a world, global home to a subsect of a sect of a minority religion.

It’s a primarily Yiddish-speaking enclave that does not welcome outsiders and is doctrinaire in its approach to rebels. Malky grew up under the aegis of this faith, an obedient girl who, like her peers, expected to be wed at the age of 18 and produce as many children as possible. But Malky was 21 when a matchmaker set her up with Volvy — an old maid by Kiryas Joel standards, which made her more likely to receive an unfavorable match. The couple met in person for 15 minutes before their marriage.

Malky says Volvy began to act erratically immediately after the marriage; as Malky bore him two children, she says, he became more erratic and even violent. “It got worse from year to year,” she told me.

According to hospital records provided to New York, Volvy has schizophrenia, with stints of messianic delusions. He has been hospitalized multiple times with symptoms of “hypersexual” and otherwise alarming behavior, including running around with a knife and an alleged instance of exposing himself to a minor. In a complaint filed in Rockland County court, Malky claimed that Volvy physically assaulted her and cautioned his 3-year-old daughter not to sit on his lap, saying that he might get an erection. After enduring this situation for three years, in a marriage she called “Siberia,” Malky decided to seek a religious divorce.

Yet due to the unique qualities of Orthodox Jewish marriage, a man has the absolute right to refuse a divorce decree, known as a gett, no matter the circumstances, and thus prevent his wife’s remarriage. Gett refusal has haunted the dissolution of Jewish marriages for millennia, and there is a term for a woman trapped in legal limbo: agunah — a woman in chains. Should she remarry without obtaining her gett, any future children would technically be considered products of adultery; they would be mamzers, a category worse than bastardy. Mamzers are forbidden from marrying other Jews, and the taint is passed to their children. (The same taint does not apply to the children of men who remarry without obtaining a religious divorce.)

Growing up Orthodox, I was taught to treat gett refusers (mesorevei gett) with revulsion: They are lower than low, monstrous creatures who use sacred laws for their own ends, which can involve financial gain, more favorable custody or child-support arrangements, or straightforward abuse and control. Fans of The Sopranos might recall that show’s depiction of such coercion: The mafia is brought in to work over a Hasidic man holding his wife’s gett hostage for a 50 percent stake in his father-in-law’s Catskills motel. Tony Soprano’s approach was actually tame compared to a real-life debacle involving Mendel Epstein, a rabbi from the heavily Orthodox town of Lakewood, New Jersey, who became known as “The Prodfather” in the tabloid press after he was convicted of conspiracy to kidnap gett refusers and torture them with cattle prods and stun guns until they agreed to grant the divorce, charging hefty sums to the wives and their families for the service.

During her seven years in “Siberia,” Malky has sought out multiple solutions, from begging her husband for a gett (he subsequently blocked her from his phone, she told me) to begging his family for help: “I reached out to his mom the witch, she didn’t even wanna hear that I wanna offer them anything to get my blood soaking Get. She screamed on me like a wild dog and knocked down the phone,” Malky told me in a text message. (Her first language, like Volvy’s, is Yiddish.) Malky pleaded her case to multiple Jewish religious courts, or batei din, and succeeded: According to documents I reviewed, courts in Borough Park, Lakewood, Midwood, and Monsey issued siruvim in her favor, decrees that prohibit community members from doing business, praying, or speaking with the gett-refusing husband until he agrees to appear in court — a rare coup in a system that often seeks to bury marital problems to avoid strife. But Volvy and his family have circled the wagons and refused to acknowledge the decrees of courts that exist outside their insular community. (Multiple members of the Berkowitz family refused to comment when reached for this story.)

That’s when Adina Sash got involved. In January, men within the Satmar sect who do quiet advocacy for agunot reached out to Sash on Malky’s behalf. Known by her moniker @FlatbushGirl on Instagram and other social media, Sash has become something like the agunah’s secret weapon, with a reputation for going after recalcitrant husbands with ruthless and creative energy. It was Sash who came up with the idea in March for a mikvah strike — a sex strike, in other words, against men throughout the Orthodox world, creating a concentric circle of pressure that would eventually reach Malky and Volvy’s community.

Sash made clear to me that she isn’t looking for radical reform of Jewish law. She wants religious courts to actually use the many weapons they have at their disposal against gett refusers, from voiding marriages to issuing proclamations that allow for use of force against recalcitrant husbands. Sash contends that the last few decades have seen dual trends: an uptick in female-initiated divorces and an attendant reluctance among courts to use these drastic measures, even when necessary, instead often pushing women to remain in marriages that have run their course. “This is not about pushing for reform or modernization; it’s more about a refining that needs to happen,” Sash told me. What Sash wants to see, for Malky and others, is a Jewish world in which gett refusal is seen as the perversion of faith that it is — a twisting of the sacrament of marriage in order to hold women hostage.

Adina Sash is all of five-foot-two, with huge brown eyes, a long fall of dark hair, manicured brows, and a wide, generous smile. But her small stature and china-doll looks hide a fountain of energy and resolve. She’s amassed 70,000 followers on Instagram through a combination of activism, comedy skits, and videos featuring her two kids; in 2019, she ran unsuccessfully for New York’s 45th-District City Council seat, door-knocking all around Flatbush. Since then, she’s been on something like a holy mission for agunot. In three years, she has freed nearly 20 chained women. “We’re advocating not just for women who want freedom. In many cases, these women are victims of domestic violence,” Sash said. “I believe that the agunah crisis can only be solved with all Jewish women helping.”

Sash, 36, was born and raised in Flatbush in a deeply observant Orthodox home and attended Bais Yaakov, an ultra-Orthodox all-girls’ Jewish school. Engaged at 17 and married at 18, Sash then went to Brooklyn College to study medieval literature in the hopes of better understanding the religious texts she grew up with. She graduated with a master’s degree in the same subject in 2012 and spent the next few years working retail and raising her toddler. In 2015, she tried to find a job in marketing in the Flatbush Orthodox community. But she found her progress blocked, she told me, by male-run Orthodox publications that refused to allow her to advertise her services using a photo of herself, telling her she could use her husband’s face “or a flower” instead.

So she turned to social media, creating an Instagram account in 2017. Almost immediately, she became an advocate for women within the Jewish community — starting with issues she deemed “low-hanging fruit,” such as fixations on the modesty of women’s wigs. “I never had Facebook or Instagram, never had any social-media app until the moment I realized I couldn’t compete with the way the patriarchy was censoring my ability to communicate with my Jewish sisters,” she told me.

Since 2020, she’s been involved in Ezras Nashim, a female-staffed ambulance corps that serves the Orthodox women of Brooklyn, whose concerns over modesty led them in the past to delay seeking urgent medical care from male EMTs. Its creation in 2014 was so contentious that Hatzalah, the male-staffed Orthodox ambulance corps founded in the 1960s to serve the Yiddish-speaking community, attempted to block the service from getting its own ambulance. Sash serves as an EMT for the service.

She’s a divisive figure within a deeply patriarchal community — a woman who shows her face unashamedly and isn’t afraid to command the stage, whether on Instagram or at protests. She said teachers from her Bais Yaakov days have called her up, critiquing her for a lack of modesty. “I just started seeing all the hypocrisy for what it was — and the hypocrisy specifically within the gender divide,” she said. “In synagogue, we’re sent to the back or upstairs or the basement, it’s not right — we’re spectators in our own religion. So I started whistleblowing on my own community in hopes to help fix it, and I got lambasted as being a self-hating Jew.”

In Kiryas Joel, especially since her involvement with the Berkowitz case, she is also known by other epithets: a machasheifah (a witch), an agent of Soten (Satan), and a tum’ah (impurity).

The town of Monroe began its association with Kiryas Joel in the 1970s. Joel Teitelbaum, the Grand Rabbi of the Hungarian Satmar sect, had led his congregation from ghettoes in Hungary and Romania during the Holocaust to the more welcoming shores of Brooklyn, but after a few decades, he felt his followers needed a more rural outpost — a shtetl, free from the pollution, both physical and spiritual, of their dense, urban environs in Brooklyn. A few pioneering Satmar families moved to the sleepy upstate town, which had previously been best known for being the birthplace of Velveeta cheese. In 2017, after several decades of uneasy and sometimes hostile coexistence, the town of Monroe and Kiryas Joel officially split, with the latter becoming its own township. By then, those initial families had grown into a population of more than 20,000 Hasidim. In 1999, Moshe Teitelbaum, the Grand Rabbi of the Satmar sect who succeeded Joel, divided the dynasty between his two sons, Aaron and Zalman. The two erstwhile leaders of the sect feuded over the succession and effectively split the dynasty in two: Zalman reigned in Williamsburg, while Aaron took over in Kiryas Joel. (The competing factions, which also publish dueling Yiddish newspapers Der Blatt and Der Yid, are known as “Aroinim” and “Zalis.”)

Kiryas Joel is infamous in the Jewish community for its extremism: Women are not allowed to drive, on pain of expulsion from the community, and they must keep their heads shaved, wearing the turbanlike head covering known as a shpitzel. Divorce is not unheard of in Kiryas Joel, but it is stigmatized and might result in less favorable future matches for the parties involved. And should a community member prove a rebel — by driving while female, for example — she may lose custody of her children, a potent threat that hangs over would-be nonconformists.

But Malky Berkowitz never wanted to be a rebel or a nonconformist. She just wanted a gett.

Accordingly, Sash used some tried-and-true methods to pressure Volvy and the Berkowitz family to give Malky her gett. First there was a social-media campaign and flyers put up around Orthodox neighborhoods. Then there were the robocalls: a call to 8,000 households in Kiryas Joel in Yiddish, addressed to the women of the town on a Thursday, the eve of the Sabbath. “Holy righteous women, at time of candle-lighting, have in mind that Malka, daughter of Leah Freidel, should be released from her agunakeit,” the message said, a reference to her status as a chained woman.

Then there were the demonstrations.

In early February, Sash and a few dozen others — almost entirely women — set out to protest on Malky’s behalf in Kiryas Joel. Holding up signs depicting Volvy and Malky’s mother-in-law, and slogans like “Volvy Give a Gett” and “Gett it. Got it? Good,” the women chanted “Free Malky!” and “Let her go.” A gender-segregated crowd, with men and women on different sides of the street, quickly gathered around the protesters.

“I don’t know if there were any men on the other side of the street who were supporting what we were doing in any way; they were gawking, joking,” said Amber Adler, an Orthodox activist and politician in Brooklyn. “Some of them were mocking us and laughing, a lot of rude jokes and condescending slurs, and then it began to turn into things like eggs were being thrown.”

The protesters had eggs hurled at them from cruising cars. Men jeered at them and accused them of breaking modesty laws for supposedly raising their voices in a sexually provocative manner. A similar protest for Malky, during which Sash and others handed out “halachic prenups” (legal documents that mandate financial penalties for gett refusal) to passing women in the heavily Hasidic enclave of Borough Park, was met with even more hostility: According to videos provided by Sash, a crowd of young men and teenage boys gathered and began to pelt the demonstrators with eggs and other projectiles and eventually set their pamphlets on fire.

“If these boys and men were willing to behave that way in public, imagine what they’re like in private. That’s terrifying,” Ashley Stern Mintz, a Modern Orthodox woman based in Manhattan who attended the Borough Park protest, told me in a text. “I think a lot of people, including women, also felt very far removed from the agunah crisis. I warned them that it could G-d forbid be them, or their sisters, mothers, daughters, or other loved ones. They didn’t seem to understand this or care, or they were preoccupied with their immediate concerns about tznius (modesty).”

There was the plane that flew over Kiryas Joel in February with a banner reading, “Free Malky! Give a Gett! Free Agunos!”

And there were the trucks.

In a technique she’s used before to shame gett refusers, Sash hired LED Truck Media, a company that provides LED-screen-equipped trucks that run advertisements, usually for corporations or political campaigns. Sash provided the company with an ad campaign of her own: a “Free Malky” display that included a blown-up photo of Volvy’s mother; photos of the siruvim issued by various rabbinical courts; “Free Malky” and “Volvy Give a Gett” signs; and messages in Yiddish targeting the Berkowitz family.

I spoke to Luis (he declined to provide his last name), a truck driver for LED Truck Media who participated in two campaigns with the “Free Malky” truck in Kiryas Joel, one on January 30 and the second on February 5. During the first foray, he said, one of Volvy’s brothers rammed the truck with his car, breaking his own mirror and causing scratches to the truck.

While the truck was parked on Garfield Road, a popular gathering spot near Kiryas Joel’s most important synagogue, a crowd surrounded the truck. Luis said they were providing cover for a man who began to spray-paint one of the screens depicting Volvy’s mother, because in much of the Hasidic world, images of women (even in full Satmar garb) are considered immodest. Eventually, under cover of the crowd, both sides of the truck were covered with black spray paint.

“It was thousands of dollars of property damage, no restraint on whether they cared or not to be arrested,” Luis told me on the phone.

By the time of the second campaign, Luis had a bad feeling about Kiryas Joel, particularly going there on his own. “It’s its own little Jewish country,” he told me.

Returning to the gathering point on Garfield Road, Luis found his truck surrounded once again. A man began spray-painting the sides of the truck. Luis jumped out of the truck to confront the man, who ran away, and then Luis stood beside the truck, looking up and down the street. At that point, someone jumped into the driver’s seat and stole the truck, leaving Luis stranded.

Then a crowd of Satmar men emerged.

“I saw 50 Jews coming at me,” Luis told me. “They were all surrounding me, maybe 50 or 60 of them, very intimidating. This one guy was disguised with a hoodie, and he had a hammer and he was swinging the hammer around at my head, and yelling something like, ‘You better get the fuck out of here this second or you’re gonna get fucked up.’ I started running. He made it known he was not playing games.”

Once the crowd stopped chasing him, Luis called the police, who were able, with the help of the company, to locate the truck through GPS at the end of a dead-end road on the outskirts of town. On returning to Garfield Road to retrieve his dropped AirPods, however, Luis says he found himself surrounded again, the truck hemmed in on all sides by a swarming crowd. He sat there pinned as the crowd punctured his tires with metal strips and nails, and the man with the hammer swung it at the truck repeatedly. When Luis called the police again, the officer who arrived just told him, “Get the hell out of here.”

“So I did,” he said, driving on tires that slowly deflated all the way back to New Jersey. “The extent of that campaign was me showing up to one place, getting assaulted, having the truck damaged, having two tires punctured, and damage from a hammer. I had to have a drink after that campaign. What if I had gotten hit in the head with the hammer?”

Sash had run through her usual playbook to no avail, and she began to consider ways to influence Kiryas Joel from the outside. What if there were some way for women in the broader Orthodox world to put pressure on their husbands, who could then put pressure on their rabbis — the word traveling up the chain until it reached Zalman Teitelbaum, the leader of the sect to which the Berkowitz family belongs?

The idea of a sex strike was inspired in part, Sash told me, by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play by Aristophanes, which she read when she got her master’s degree at Brooklyn College. In the play, the women use the strike to end the Peloponnesian War; as the titular character says:

Their stirring love will rise up furiously,

They’ll beg our arms to open. That’s our time!

We’ll disregard their knocking, shove them off —

And they will soon be rabid for a Peace.

Sash had never used this strategy before. “I knew that it’s high-risk — if we do it and we fail, it’s a huge failure for Orthodox women to have to admit to themselves and to the patriarchy that they are not empowered enough to do this,” Sash told me. “When I got to my wit’s end and felt like I had no more ideas, I realized this was the nuclear weapon that I had to try.”

The term “mikvah strike” refers to the ritual bath women are required to undergo to cleanse themselves from menstrual impurity before having sex. If they refuse to bathe, it renders any sexual congress a sin. Calling a mikvah strike, though highly unusual, is not unprecedented: Sash kept hearing stories of purported mikvah strikes on behalf of agunot, although no one could pinpoint a specific town or time. One persistent rumor, which surfaced in several Jewish publications, told the tale of a group of Canadian women who engaged in a sex strike when a woman in their community found her gett held for a $25,000 ransom; however, the details were impossible to pin down, forming a kind of Orthodox folklore.

What is probably the earliest story of a mikvah strike comes from Jewish divorce-court records in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, in the 13th century: A woman who claimed her husband was abusive stopped going to the mikvah for over a year. Her husband brought her to court over causing him to sin. She claimed she had done nothing wrong, implying that her refusal was an act of retaliation against his physical and sexual abuse. That’s the thing about Jewish history: It’s cyclical in extraordinary ways, and a tactic used in the 1200s can come around again, this time on an activist’s Instagram Story.

A month after Luis says he was chased with a hammer, Sash announced the sex strike. “Mitzvah Night is CANCELLED,” she wrote on Instagram on March 7, referring to Friday night, which is considered, in Orthodox spirituality, to be the holiest night to consummate a marriage. The post garnered over a thousand likes and hundreds of comments — some supportive, but many furious at Sash, alleging that she would be responsible for the dissolution of marriages and for the sin of masturbation among men. But the post was featured in The Economist, of all places, plus an assortment of Jewish publications. It got conversations started around Sabbath tables and sparked a movement among Orthodox women all around the world who began to embrace the notion of sexualized conflict as a way to initiate change. In short, it was the A-bomb, the near-mythical last-resort weapon in a gett campaign.

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A post shared by Adina Sash (@flatbushgirl)

Being an agunah can be immensely painful for Orthodox women, for whom spirituality is at the forefront of their lives and manifests in myriad ways every day, from scrupulous following of kosher dietary laws to modest dress to prayer. To be spiritually connected against one’s will to someone who has caused you pain, and to be unable to escape from that bond and fulfill one’s desire to be a wife and mother with someone else, is a continual violation. Amber Adler was an agunah for two years after requesting a divorce from a husband who had gone on violent rampages in their home. In one particularly frightening incident while she was in the apartment with their 6-month-old son, her husband punched a framed photo and smeared the walls of their apartment with blood.

The state of limbo left her emotionally exhausted and spiritually defeated, even after receiving a divorce in 2018 thanks to the efforts of a persistent rabbi. “I had been fighting for so long, I was overcome with emotion, and I haven’t remarried,” she told me. “I’ve lost my 30s and part of my 20s to a relationship where I suffered a lot. And I’m still impacted by it; my children are still impacted by it.”

Adler has advocated for New York to adopt a “coercive control” statute like the one New Jersey has, which makes “a pattern of behavior” that “unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty” a criminal form of domestic violence. Adler argues that gett refusal is such a form of coercive control.

“There are so many women who have become agunahs, but there are even more women, the majority of women, that seek divorces, who are forced to give up many things they should never have given up — everything from money to pay off their husband for a gett to giving up child-support agreements to get a divorce,” Adler told me. “I know women who have paid $25,000 to $400,000 for a gett after years, and in one case, over a decade.”

Even in the best of circumstances, it can be intimidating to have your marriage dissolved by a beit din, which is the only court that can free an Orthodox woman of her bond. In my own Orthodox divorce in 2016, there was no gett refusal. Before our wedding, my then-husband and I had signed a “halachic prenup.” Still, walking into that building, the Beth Din of America at 305 Seventh Avenue, and standing before an all-male panel of rabbis was a forbidding experience. In the divorce ceremony, a sofer, or Jewish scribe (who is male), writes the text of the decree with a quill in front of male witnesses; it is folded by the scribe and then given to the husband, who places it in his wife’s hands. The room was hushed; the whole world felt blurred, with a group of men peering at me; and despite free-flowing tears, I remember moonwalking backwards out of that room in total silence, determined to make a statement without saying a word. And this was the easiest kind of divorce — we had no children, no property to speak of, nothing but a scribed document that said we were free of one another.

Sash’s strike has since spread to Orthodox enclaves from the Hendon neighborhood of London to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Jerusalem, and beyond. “I just felt I had to do something,” said a 35-year-old woman from Passaic, New Jersey, an Orthodox redoubt who was withholding sex from her husband. “And if maybe my husband mentioned something to his rabbi, who said something to the next rabbi, then it would be completely worth it.”

Another woman told Sash she withheld sex for two consecutive weeks, trying to pressure her husband to speak to his rabbi. She said he told her, “No one gives a shit what I say, but fine, I’ll talk to the rabbi.” A Williamsburg-based Satmar woman said she’d refrained from sex for five weeks and felt increasingly disconnected from her husband, who insisted that Malky did not deserve a gett. Another woman, who was postmenopausal, didn’t abstain from sex but rather from serving an elaborate meal on the Jewish holiday of Purim to her husband and his disciples. “I told my sons when Malky gets her gett, things will go back as it was. They wanted to kill me,” she said. “One son asked me, ‘Are you on her side?’”

After Gittel, a 40-year-old Orthodox woman from Flatbush, began refusing sex to her husband of 20 years, he bought a sex doll and parked it in his bed. “He buys her/it lingerie and says he’ll buy her/it jewelry if I don’t start opening it up,” she told me. But she wasn’t deterred. “If I can deprive him of using me, for a good cause, I’m in. And I’m a Bais Yaakov girl and I encouraged my friends to withhold sex too.”

It’s not that these women necessarily want to be free of Orthodoxy; rather, they want to see the sacred laws they live by applied fairly. Within Judaism, the complexities of divorce have long been acknowledged: There is an entire tractate of the Talmud that elaborates on the many laws associated with the dissolution of a sacred marriage. Jewish sailors used to sign documents releasing their wives in the event that they might be lost in a storm; there are systems in place for messengers to take the place of the divorcing parties in court; there are debates about whether a divorce can be written on an olive leaf or the horn of a cow (permissible if the husband then gifts his ex-wife the cow). What there isn’t, among all this judicial complexity, is a communal decision to ensure that women’s Jewish marriages don’t turn into prisons for the soul — the kind of decision that can lead to change, even in a profoundly conservative world.

One side effect of the mikvah strike is women rediscovering their ability to say no. In an environment in which marital sex is viewed as a holy commandment, refusal even for one night a week is a subversive act. “The sex strike got backlash from men who couldn’t handle that women should assert themselves, and that dug up a whole other issue, the community’s relationship to sex,” one Lakewood-based source told me. The mind-set is straightforward: “You’re married. You got sex on demand, it’s a mitzvah, and there’s no way she can say no.”

Until they did.

As one sex striker recounted, “I avoided sex on mikvah night to show that just because you’re ‘allowed,’ it doesn’t mean you can have it, because we women have lives and can decide what we want and when we want. We aren’t controlled.”

“This should be a lesson to all Jewish people everywhere that women are held hostage in dead marriages because of controlling, sick men,” one sex striker based in Los Angeles told Sash. “And that if we don’t come together as one community to help, it’s as if we have turned our backs on our own faith completely.”

Malky said that, to her, the mikvah strike has been heartening, even as her struggle continues. She is waiting for God to relieve her suffering. “The community showed their anger about gett withholders and feel the loneliness of women chained,” she told me.

Thanks to Sash’s efforts and the global campaign, Malky has finally gotten a date to proceed with the civil divorce from Volvy. The pair are due in Rockland County Family Court in mid-May, which is, as Sash points out, more progress than has happened in four years, even if it still falls short of Malky obtaining her gett. But ultimately, it remains up to the men who control every institution in Orthodox life to recognize that change is not only an urgent necessity but a means of strengthening their religion.

The concerted efforts of religious leaders like the Satmar Rebbes have striven to preserve a certain type of Judaism in amber and isolate it from the modern world. But Jewish law is not static: It has always been porous, influenced by the world around it, changing according to thousands of years’ worth of commentaries, rabbinical answers to congregants’ queries, exile, disaster, and time. What makes Malky’s story different from the many agunot that have preceded her is the fact that her plight has been recognized by a network of Orthodox women around the world, able to communicate with each other directly without the mediation of patriarchal systems. These women may be part of a faith that regards them as “less than” — unable to complete their own divorces, to stand up in front of a congregation and lead prayers, even to serve as witnesses in rabbinical courts — but they are talking, and from such talk change can arise even in a hidebound world.



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Talia Lavin , 2024-05-15 13:00:39

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