Four-and-a-half years ago, Gital Dodelson, now 25, of Lakewood, NJ, married Avrohom Meir Weiss, part of a respected rabbinic family on Staten Island. Ten months after the wedding, Dodelson left the marital home with their newborn son, claiming her husband was controlling and manipulative. Despite getting civilly divorced in August 2012, they remain married under Jewish law because Weiss refuses to grant the faith’s decree of divorce, known as a “get.” As a result, Dodelson’s life in the Orthodox community is in limbo and she is unable to date, let alone get married again. Now, after more than three years of pleading with Weiss to sign the document that will set her free, Dodelson has gone public with her story in The Post:
I’m helping my friend get ready for a date. It’s Saturday night after Shabbat, and I can see how excited she is as she puts on her makeup and curls her hair. She never met the guy before, but it’s fun to think about the possibilities. Who knows — in just a few months from now, could this be the man she’s engaged to?
As I zip up her dress, I feign a smile — but inside I feel despair. She has what I long for — a life where she’s free to date men. But men can’t even look at me now. That’s because I’m an agunah — an Orthodox Jewish woman whose husband won’t give her a “get.” Under the eyes of God, I’m still married, chained to someone who refuses to release me back into society.
When I first met Avrohom in October 2008, I thought he was great husband material. That’s what my parents and friends told me. After all, in my society you’re expected to listen to them on these matters.
They told me that at 23, he was learned, a great Talmudic scholar from an esteemed family, whose great-grandfather, Moshe Feinstein, was a legendary rabbi.
It’s traditional to arrange the date through a matchmaker. Days later, there was a knock at my front door. My dad opened it and led a handsome, dark-haired man with bright blue eyes into the room. He spoke softly and politely, but seemed shy. I happily got in his car.
Our first date was at a big hotel near the Garden State Parkway, and we sat in the lobby drinking Diet Cokes. In Jewish culture, this is the quintessential way that you get to know a potential partner. Dates always happen in a public place and are very formal. We spoke about our families, and although he seemed interested in what I had to say, it was a little off-putting because he kept fiddling with his phone.
I always think it’s impolite not to accept a second date, so I agreed to see Avrohom again. This time, he only really became animated when he was talking about his expensive watch. I told the matchmaker I wanted to stop seeing him, that we weren’t a fit.
Days later, my parents got an urgent phone call from his parents — begging me to reconsider, saying that the personality he showed me on our dates wasn’t the real him, that he was nervous around girls. My parents asked me to think about it because his parents were so insistent I had the wrong impression of him.
In Orthodox dating, you rely a lot on what other people tell you — what their impression is. So I gave him another chance.
After two months of dating — about twice a week, every week, first sharing sodas in hotel lobbies, then graduating to dinner and visits to the Museum of Natural History — we both knew we were expected to take the next step of getting engaged.
Gital Dodelson is now studying law while awaiting a religious divorce from her ex.
It was a chilly December night, and he took me to a glitzy hotel in Midtown. We were walking around on the mezzanine level, watching all the tourists whizzing around below. Avrohom suddenly dropped to one knee, pulled out a black velvet box with a sparkling, round diamond ring inside, and asked me to marry him.
“Gital,” he said, softly. “We can have a wonderful future together.” He talked about the kind of marriage he wanted, where we’d be equal partners and make decisions together. Suddenly my reservations about him melted away. All I could think about was the excitement of the wedding.
The engagement period in our community, like our dating, is very short. There was so much to do before our February wedding that I didn’t worry too much about our compatibility.
As per our tradition, each side pays for certain things — our side the food, his side the flowers. I didn’t fuss much over these things, but I couldn’t believe how many times Avrohom sent back the invitation because it wasn’t the perfect font. Looking back, I should have seen the signs.
Before I knew it, the big day arrived. Four hundred guests celebrated with us at a gorgeous catering hall in Lakewood. I felt so beautiful in my ivory lace dress and veil, with a white rose bouquet. The band, which Avrohom chose himself, had all the guests, women on their side and men on the other, dancing for hours.
But only three days into the marriage, I knew I made a terrible mistake. It was our first Shabbat together as man and wife — and it was spent in silence. We were about to light the Sabbath candles, and we discussed how each of our families likes to light it. It’s a female tradition, and you typically do what your mother did. When my way contradicted his way, he criticized me and turned angry. Avrohom said: “You have no choice. It’s not my way,” and gave me the cold shoulder for the next 24 hours. From Friday night to Saturday night, we didn’t speak a word.
When I couldn’t stand the hostility anymore, I said, “You can’t just ignore me — this isn’t how a relationship works. We have to be able to talk about these things.” The only response he could muster was: “When I don’t get my way, I don’t know how to function.”
I got pregnant right away. As a Torah-observant man, Avrohom would study in the yeshiva all day while I was in school or working at my mom’s technology company.
I was the sole breadwinner, but he had control over our finances. Several times he would give handouts to his brother, who was unemployed. “Why are you giving away the money that I earned?” I asked Avrohom one day. “You don’t get to make the decisions,” he replied, adding that I’m stupid. “I’m the man of the house.” He wouldn’t allow me to employ an occasional housekeeper so, even though I was pregnant and exhausted, I had to do all the cooking and cleaning as well as work up to 40 hours a week.
His controlling and belittling behavior only got worse. I guess I was in denial about how bad things really were. I couldn’t confide in anybody, not even my mom.
We were sitting down to dinner one night, and I casually mentioned that I’d picked an OB-GYN. “Why didn’t you consult me first?” he growled. “It’s up to me to choose your doctor.” When I asked if he had any better suggestions, he said that I should produce a short list of 10, and that he got final say. He always had to be in the position of control — it’s stifling.
At one point, I suggested we look at places in Lakewood, where there would be more room for the baby and we’d be closer to my family who could help out. He said, “People always fuss too much over new mothers, not the father. You’re too spoiled!” My heart sank. I thought: “How can I bring a child into this world with a virtual stranger? Someone I’m so disconnected from?”
Around my seventh month, after getting the silent treatment over Shabbat again, I told Avrohom that we needed to see a marriage counselor. He flatly dismissed the idea, saying: “You can pack your bags and leave. We’re not going to therapy under any circumstances, and if anyone finds out we have a bad marriage, I’ll divorce you.”
Our son, Aryeh, was born on Nov. 19, 2009 at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. He was two weeks early, and I wonder to this day if it was because of the mental strain I was under during the pregnancy.
The second the nurse handed him to me, the world was a perfect place. I had this beautiful, perfect person. But I was soon reminded that my husband was quite the opposite. My parents had been in the waiting room for hours during the labor.
When they asked to come in to see me afterward, Avrohom steadfastly refused to let them into the room.
I later found out that he actually manhandled my mom, shoving her back as she tried to walk out of the room. That’s a major taboo against women, and she was very shaken up. My father told Avrohom, “Don’t touch my wife,” and he backed off.
Finally, Avrohom gave in, and they came in to see me.
A few weeks after Aryeh arrived, Avrohom agreed to move together to a rented apartment in Lakewood. It was on one condition: that we took the baby and slept over with his family in Staten Island at least once a week.
Two weeks later, on a frigid December night, Avrohom insisted we drive to see his parents. I didn’t want to needlessly drag a newborn out in the freezing cold, so I said no. He was yelling at me, and the baby started crying because Avrohom’s shouting woke him up. He was only 1 month old.
Avrohom had already stormed out of the house twice after two other rows, but this time I reached my breaking point. I said, ‘This isn’t working, I’m moving back to my parents.’ I packed up Aryeh right then and there, and drove off. I told him I wasn’t coming back, and I meant it.
I said: “You’re not a bad man. We’re just not right for each other.” He snapped back: “You would make any man unhappy.”
When my mom met me at the front door, I blurted out what had happened and how terribly unhappy I’d been. Thank God she was sympathetic. She then told me she and my dad had been increasingly worried about his controlling behavior.
Avrohom filed for full custody of Aryeh a few months later, in March 2010, at New Jersey civil court. He broke with tradition — instead of going straight to a beit din (a Jewish court) to resolve our issues, he filed in civil court, which shocked people because it takes a certain kind of person to thumb his nose at Jewish tradition like that.
But it was all a front. He was actually going to use Jewish tradition against me as a weapon.
While he agreed to a divorce in the civil courts (which blocked his bid for full custody of Aryeh but gave him custody every other weekend, plus every Tuesday and Thursday for a total 12 hours a week), he still holds the trump card. He will not sign the “get,” the all-important bill of divorce which is recognized by halacha (Jewish law).
Civil law governs the legal aspects of life, but under the eyes of God — and everyone who’s important to me — I’m still married to Avrohom. On paper, I am a free woman. But this means nothing in halacha, and I’m still imprisoned by my husband to this day.
On my last mission to ask for a get, a month ago, Avrohom said, “I can’t give you a get — how else would I control you?” I think that’s the key to it all. He insists the marriage isn’t over until he says it’s over.
We’ve tried everything — the informal route, negotiations. I’ve asked him myself, my parents have asked his, our camp tries to reason with his camp, but, counting down from the time when he sued for custody in March 2010 and I first asked him for a get, we’ve been shut down for 3¹/₂ years. One proposal his side put forward in January was for me to agree to override the court decision on custody of Aryeh and hand over a payment of $350,000. There’s no way I can afford that.
It’s been an uphill battle trying to appeal to his family — this almost untouchable, powerful rabbinic family. Many rabbis have called on his grandfather, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, who heads the Yeshiva of Staten Island, to influence his grandson to give a get, but he staunchly supports Avrohom. Prominent rabbis have even called for the dismissal of his father, Yosaif Asher Weiss, as editor for the major Jewish publisher . Ironically, [Avrohom’s] great-grandfather Moshe Feinstein was a major champion of agunot, and convinced many husbands to give their wives a get in his day. Now Avrohom is one of those insubordinate husbands.
I would love to find a stepfather for Aryeh, and someone who I could have more children with, but right now I can’t even have coffee with a guy. It wouldn’t be fair to him or myself.
If I move on romantically without a get, I would have to leave this community — my friends and family and entire support system — because it’s committing adultery. My children and I would be ostracized and not welcomed in the community.
Some people might argue that I should ignore the traditions of the Torah. But I’m deeply religious and won’t go against the God I believe in. Why should I?
One good thing is that I have gathered a lot of support from people in the community who are horrified by the whole issue of the agunot [women whose husbands won’t grant gets]. They staged two rallies outside Avrohom’s home in Staten Island, with about 200 supporters each, in June 2012 and June 2013. We asked people to make it as non-confrontational as possible and keep it respectful. He never even came out of his house. Even though withholding a get is defined by Jewish law as a form of domestic abuse, Avrohom refuses to give an inch.
[Calls and e-mails from the New York Post to Avrohom Meir Weiss and his family members have gone unanswered.]
I am currently in my last year of a law degree at Rutgers University, but I was planning on being a lawyer even before I got married. I find the idea of the law helping agunot interesting, and I would be willing to do whatever I could to help anyone is such a situation.
The lesson I’ve learned from this whole thing is not to turn people away when they need help, regardless of what kind of situation they’re in. I hope I can use my legal experience to help people, regardless of whether they’re agunot.
It’s an insulated community. It takes a strong push to step out beyond that. This step I’m taking is difficult but necessary. I’ve decided to go public with my story after exhausting every other possible means. the Orthodox are fiercely private, but I am willing to air my dirty laundry if it means I can finally get on with my life.
Avrohom, if you’re reading this, this is my last bid: Let’s both move on with our lives. Let us focus on Aryeh and our future, instead of being stuck in the past.
More about the get:
Few people outside the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community have heard of the get — the crucial document in Jewish law which a husband must sign before a divorce is finalized in the eyes of God.
Without it, the wife, known as an agunah, is not allowed to marry again. If she has children, they are considered bastards. The man, however, can move on without a get, openly dating other women.
The contentious issue of the get came to public notice last month after two rabbis in Brooklyn were accused of charging vulnerable agunot up to $60,000 each to kidnap and torture husbands who refused to sign the paperwork.
In some cases, electric cattle prods allegedly were used on the recalcitrant men’s genitals.
The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a New York-based nonprofit, condemns all forms of violence and extortion, and acts as an intermediary between the wives and husbands in an effort to secure a get.
“The refusal to issue a get is never justified and is defined in Jewish law as domestic abuse,” says Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of ORA.
Some agunot have been waiting as long as 10 years after their marriages ended in the civil courts. Others have been unable to unchain themselves from husbands who are criminals or even pedophiles.
“It’s the last form of control the husband has over his wife,” adds Stern. “The mentality is, ‘If I can’t have her, no one can.’ It’s fundamentally about control and spite.”
NYC is highly affected by the agunah crisis, with 30 of the 50 cases currently being handled by ORA involving at least one spouse living in the region.
ORA has resolved 205 cases since 2002. (The latest estimates, from a 2011 study, report 462 agunot from the previous five-year period in the US and Canada.) Twenty-three percent of ORA’s cases concern non-Orthodox women.
Stern says that in Modern Orthodox circles, the get is often used as leverage, so his organization tries to broker one before any civil decision is made.
As for the Dodelson case, he says: “It’s shocking that Weiss hasn’t made any public statements about it. What his side says they’re looking for is greater custody/visitation and a large sum of money as compensation for legal fees.
“He was the plaintiff in all civil court matters; now he’s using the get as extortionary leverage.”
For more information, see SetGitalFree.com or getora.org.