A lawsuit that may provide a legal weapon in the United States for agunot (Jewish women whose husbands are withholding a Jewish divorce) resumed this week in Canada.
Stephanie Brenda Bruker, a former resident of Montreal who moved to New York City 10 years ago, is suing her ex-husband, Jason Benjamin Marcovitz, for $1.35 million in damages in Quebec Superior Court.
Her claim: emotional distress and breach of contract.
Though Bruker received a get in 1995, 15 years after she and Marcovitz received a secular divorce, she claims in court papers that her time as a woman unable to remarry or bear children without violating Jewish law "has caused and is still causing serious problems."
The trial, which has had two delays since it began in 1989, represents the first known case in the U.S. or Canada in which a woman is seeking such damages in secular court because a husband refused to grant a religious divorce, according to agunah experts.
"I think it’s a good idea that there should be a damage remedy," says Washington attorney Nat Lewin, who drafted New York State’s 1982 get law and has litigated in several get trials.
Lewin says he has long urged Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox umbrella group, to support legislation that allows recalcitrant Jewish husbands to be sued in secular courts. "The problem is that that would thrust them into the middle of a halachic dispute": such legally enforced financial payments by a husband might be considered "indirect coercion." A get is not considered valid unless it is granted under a man’s free will.
Also, Lewin says, a secular court in this country might be reluctant to interfere in what it perceives as a largely religious matter.
The Bruker case comes while two similar New York-area get cases are awaiting trial: Chani Lightman is suing two rabbis whom she claimed betrayed her confidence in order to aid her husband in a custody proceeding; Chaye Sieger is suing the Agudah Harabbonim of America bet din, or rabbinical court, for libel and fraud for issuing a document that implied she was an unfit wife.
Rivka Haut, a Brooklyn-based agunah advocate, called Bruker’s lawsuit "a wonderful precedent. This is kind of a balance to extortion." Many women without a get have claimed that their husbands commit blackmail, demanding large financial payments or concessions in custody in return for a get.
"A lot of men will have second thoughts about withholding a get if their wives can turn around and sue them for years of emotional suffering," Haut says. "In general, using civil courts to help in get matters … when the batei din [religious courts] disappoint and fail … is becoming more common."
A 1980 consent degree that was part of the Bruker-Marcovitz divorce specified that Marcovitz would give his wife a get "immediately," says Alan Stein, Bruker’s attorney. Marcovitz subsequently withheld the document for 15 years, despite "pressure" by rabbis and other members of the Montreal Jewish community, until a Montreal court approved an end to his child support payments, Stein says.
Neither Bruker nor Marcovitz, a government employee who lives in Montreal, have remarried.
In a declaration for her current lawsuit, Bruker, now 51, states that she had to use her personal assets to maintain her lifestyle, as well as that of her two now-teenage children who were in her custody. She states her status as an agunah "restrain[ed] her from going on with her life.
"Plaintiff has lost serious suitors since she could not remarry in the Jewish faith," according to the declaration, obtained by The Jewish Week. "The plaintiff also lost the opportunity to have the love, affection and moral and financial support of a husband and to have children in such a union."
Marcovitz’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
"What is it like to be alone for all these years?" Bruker asks rhetorically in a telephone interview. "I lost some of the best years of my life."
An interior designer, she lives in Riverdale and is a member of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.
The lawsuit seeks $200,000 on each of three grounds ("restraining her from going on with her life," inability to remarry according to Jewish law, or to have more children) and $750,000 "for the loss of consortium."
Bruker, who has returned to using her maiden name, took the case against her ex-husband to a secular court instead of a bet din, she says, "because he was in violation of a secular judgment" under which he agreed to grant a get.
Stein says the lawsuit could serve as a precedent for trials involving a get in both the U.S. and Canada. "We’re able to cite U.S. cases," and reciprocity is common between the legal communities of both countries, particularly since secular get laws are similar on both sides of the border, he says.
"In the States, probably the [amount of damages sought] would be much larger," Stein says.
"A year in a woman’s life is priceless," says Susan Aronoff, co-director of Brooklyn-based Agunah Inc., an advocacy group. "There’s always a lot of mental anguish in divorce negotiations." A husband who withholds a get presents "a clear-cut case of abuse of powerópunitive damages are clearly in order."