A woman's plea for closure

Orthodox Jewish community rallies against husband who denied a religious divorce

September 19, 2006|By Liz F. Kay .. | Liz F. Kay ..,Sun reporter

Cynthia Ohana hasn't lived with her husband for three years, and she secured a civil divorce more than a year ago.

But under Jewish law, the Park Heights woman remains trapped - an agunah, or "anchored down" in Hebrew - because Ephraim Ohana refuses to grant her a divorce agreement recognized by Orthodox Jewish law.

Without what's known as a get, Cynthia Ohana isn't permitted to date or remarry in the Orthodox community - even though the civil court found that her husband had abused her.

But the Orthodox community is supporting her. Yesterday, the campaign to secure a religious divorce for Cynthia Ohana moved to the University of Baltimore School of Law in the form of a rare public rally, where Jews sought to pressure Ephraim, a student there.

"I'm sorry we have to go out in the streets like this. ... We take Jewish law very seriously," said Mark Hart, a neighbor who carried a "Free Her Now" sign. "We just want to make sure there's closure, so the family can resume a normal life."

Ephraim Ohana did not return phone calls yesterday, but his former wife of 19 years said she needs to complete the religious portion of the divorce as well as the civil action.

"I feel like I've done my job. I've gotten away from an abuser, I've gotten my children away from an abuser," Cynthia Ohana, 40, said. "I need closure in order to come full circle."

"It's pretty powerful, and it's wrong that he has that kind of power," she said.

The mother was granted sole custody of their five children last year. "This is the only unsolved piece of the puzzle," said her lawyer, Larry J. Feldman.

Under Orthodox Jewish law, one member of the couple approaches the bais din, or rabbinical divorce, to seek a divorce, said Rabbi Barry Freundel, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches at Baltimore Hebrew University. The husband gives her the get, a document that nullifies the marriage bond and frees her to marry someone else, Freundel said. The wife can accept it, and there are mechanisms to strongly encourage her to agree to the divorce, the rabbi said.

The termination of the marriage must be a voluntary action, said Rabbi Daniel Lerner of Beth Tfiloh Congregation .

Because her husband would not cooperate, the rabbinical council gave Cynthia Ohana permission to seek a civil divorce.

"She can't, in terms of her faith, date or be remarried and provide a home that is economically more sound and a healthy relationship for her to enjoy but also to model for the kids," said Nancy F. Aiken, director of CHANA, which helps victims of domestic violence in the Jewish community.

So over the past eight months, the community has rallied around her, applying increasing social pressure.

Since February, Ephraim Ohana has been banned from Orthodox synagogues, known as shuls, and homes by order of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore, an organization of Orthodox rabbis. About 100 people also rallied in front of Ephraim Ohana's Park Heights apartment in June, Aiken said.

"The support is very validating," said Cynthia Ohana. "The exposure is very intimidating, though ... I feel safer with everybody's support."

Baltimore attorney Bruce M. Luchansky, who led the demonstration yesterday, thanked those who had gathered "for offering your actions as a tefillah, as a prayer" before leading a chant: "Ephraim Ohana, unchain your wife."

"The tool of control, of abuse is a tool that uses religious law," Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation told the group.

"The community has tried to work with him, to convince him, to cajole him, and he has refused," Hauer said in an interview. "I hope that he will do the right thing, and we will be happy to welcome him back."

Protesters said they believe that Ephraim Ohana's refusal needs to be called out in public until he relents.

"This is obviously behavior that the Jewish community and the Torah tradition frowns upon," said Ayda Rottman, 25, of Pikesville, over the shouts of demonstrators.

Aiken said she hopes that men within the community will decide they do not want things to escalate to this point, and that women in abusive relationships will realize they would receive similar support if they find themselves in difficult situations.

"It's been used really as a weapon of intimidation the entire time," Aiken said. "As [Cynthia Ohana] had secured different civil and criminal remedies, it's been held over her head. It's the one thing that is in his power and control now."

Lerner said during the rally that the legal systems in most jurisdictions - aside from the state of New York and Israel - offer little help for women in this situation.

In 1999, the Maryland legislature considered a bill that would have required people seeking a civil divorce to remove all religious barriers to remarrying. But news reports from the time say the proposal was dropped after some lawmakers expressed concern about potential intrusion on religious practice.


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