When 'Fairy-tale' Marriage Turns Sour, Help for Religious Women

A formerly abused ultra-Orthodox woman has started a network offering psychological, legal and religious support to women fleeing bad marriages and rigid stigmas.

“Every culture has its own fairy tales,” she says. “Haredim have their own, too.”

We are sitting at an outdoor cafe in Jerusalem’s leafy Baka neighborhood, deliberating over the dessert menu.

Fainy Sukenik, 31, has smiling blue eyes. When I ask questions, she answers firmly, quickly, in an unwavering voice: I want to change things.

“Our fairy tales promised me a life that would be simple, beautiful,” she continues, flicking the bangs of her well-coiffed wig away from her face. “One marries young, the wife works while the husband learns Torah, children are born right away, and together they build a ‘Torah home’ with not a single want or flaw.” She pauses.

“So I trusted them. I married at 22, had three children right away, but things were not working out for us ... I heard there were other women whose husbands beat them, but who stayed anyway. But I decided I’m not going to be that woman ... I picked up the phone and called the police. That was the beginning of the end.”

Sukenik was then working at a religious seminary for women in Haifa, a fresh-eyed teacher and mentor for young women, many of whom were engaged to marry. With the news of her separation from her husband spreading, voices began to murmur: How could a woman who calls the police on her husband teach the young girls, serve as an example for the next generation of wives and mothers? How can we let her stay here?

“They wanted to fire me,” Sukenik tells me. “They forgot that Sarah Schenirer, the founder of Bais Yaakov [a network of schools for young religious women, founded a century ago], was divorced, too. Later, when I had more courage, I said to one of the teachers that Sarah Schenirer would be rolling in her grave if she heard them. You’re telling me that a divorced woman cannot teach in Bais Yaakov? How does that make sense?”

Letters were sent to the principal by parents concerned about her questionable influence on their daughters, but Sukenik was able to keep her job. “I told them, ‘I am exactly the kind of woman you need as an example for the girls.’ And I stayed. I would cry all night, but wake up in the morning, force myself to smile, to dress well.”

The change began in the quiet of solitary evenings at home, during the two years of separation and another year of the divorce process. With three small children asleep, Sukenik would spend hours reading divorce advice and online forums, looking for people going through similar experiences. She soon became active on the Facebook page “Haredim Naim L’hakir” (Ultra-Orthodox, Pleased to Meet You) and started blogging for the women’s online magazine Saloona under the name “Separated Haredia.”

“One should never have to deal with this alone, and in our community, no one speaks of divorce,” Sukenik explains. “No one knows how to deal with it. Tragedy, yes, death, yes, but not this. No one speaks with you about important things, no one asks if you need help, people don’t want to even get close to you, as if it’s a contagious disease. You become a pariah, people stop acknowledging you, they stop saying hello in the street. No one asked me, ‘Where are you on Shabbat?’ Now, I understand them, I forgive them. People are afraid.”

Sukenik had two friends who supported her throughout the divorce – one was 27 years-old and unmarried, the other married but childless. “Each of us was suffering because we were different, and that brought us together,” she says. “We hadn’t chosen to be that way, we weren’t seeking to be provocative, but our society had closed us off.”

Several times she repeats the same familiar mantra: “I was naive, naive, I was so naive.” Sukenik smiles sadly. “I was a young girl, and I truly believed in a perfect Torah world: Torah, justice, straightforwardness, judges! I didn’t realize what I was dealing with ... until all this evil came upon me. I began to understand the real corrupt workings of the beit din [religious court], and all I could think was: Where is the religion? It was a crisis for me: I believe in God, I believe in Torah, but when one sees people acting in an opposite manner, one loses faith.”

The waitress brings out coffee and tiramisu, and places it timidly on our table; Sukenik continues, impassioned: “And I couldn’t speak to anyone, to friends, to my parents – what would I tell them about? About the judges, the courthouse, the rabbis, the humiliations I’m enduring? Why make them suffer more? ” Her voice grows suddenly soft: “What would I tell them: ‘Abba, Ima, this world is corrupt’?”

And she was free

After more than two years of threats and pressure to accept a get (Jewish bill of divorce) under the conditions her husband insisted on, Sukenik surrendered. “They told me if I didn’t, I’d be sorry. So I broke,” she says, waving a hand. “I was willing to give everything up for freedom. I said: Take the money, take the apartment. I don’t care, I’m sick of this, take it all. Leave me alone.”

And then she was free. The frustrations, however, lingered, and only grew, as Sukenik realized that her experience was in no way unique. She continued to meet separated and divorced Orthodox women, each with her own stories of humiliations and blatant abuses in the presence of silent communities. “Why must I suffer? I have not sinned, I have not transgressed, I have not committed a crime. I am not rebellious. I am a Haredi from top to bottom – how can this society shove me aside?”

With the help of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, Sukenik proposed to start an organization aiding Orthodox women in the separation and divorce process. The vision? To change the position of the woman in this community. “If a divorced woman doesn’t merit basic human interactions, if a single woman or a childless woman is treated as second-class, what does that say about a community’s treatment of women overall?”

And thus, B'Asher Telchi was born – named after the iconic words of the bibilical figure of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi: “Where you go, I shall go.”

Based on polls and meetings with other divorcees, Sukenik began to build a network that would offer everything a religious woman needs when going through a divorce: assistance from lawyers, psychologists, family counselors, rabbinic advisors and lobbyists, social workers, as well as a growing, supportive community of other Orthodox divorcees and recently separated women.

Rarely do such women have the money for lawyers or the connections with rabbinic authorities who could defend their case; few would ever dare walk into the office of a therapist specializing in domestic abuse.

“People need a backbone of those who are ready to advise and help,” Sukenik says. “And they need the Internet to reach that information. Because knowledge is power: Once she knows, a woman no longer feels helpless.”

In the ultra-Orthodox world, there is a social stigma about seeking help which creates boundaries more rigid than any halakhic (traditional Jewish) law.

“It’s an absurd cycle,” Sukenik half-laughs. “If you go to a secular organization for help, everyone says that you are like a Reform Jew, like a feminist! Or the other way around. People will say: Ahhh, she must not be truly religious, and because of this she is divorced. Look how she is dressing already, so modern, not modest enough. If she were more religious, she’d be married still!”

With the assistance of the Orthodox-oriented B'Asher Telchi organization, supported by some leading figures in that community and run by religious women, Sukenik hopes a woman will worry less about the stigma that comes with seeking help. She has been working tirelessly to secure rabbinic support for her project.

In the past six months the team of Sukenik and her partners – Lital Ya’akobobich Deri, Michal Mizrachi, Meirav Ozery and Rivka Zinamon – has already provided assistance to 60 women, ranging from ultra-Orthodox to religious Zionist to formerly Orthodox. Women hear of the group by word of mouth, and call from all over the country.

“But just read what they write ...,” Sukenik sighs. She whips out her smartphone, begins to race through a blur of names, stories, text messages, Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages. Here, one sees that a sort of sisterhood has evolved.

Afraid of disgrace

The young Malky, (“We call her “our little girl”), 20, is married to a student from an illustrious family. Coming from a simple family herself, the bride had wondered why her husband’s powerful family had taken an interest in her. It was only after the wedding that she found out that her husband was mentally ill; she was apparently an easy shidduch (match), from whom the illness could be hidden. When he began beating her, she fled to her parents', but her family sent her back to her husband, afraid of the disgrace.

“She texted us in the middle of the night saying she was crying on a bench in the town square,” Sukenik says. “We got her psychotherapy and are helping her through the divorce; her family is still shunning her. We are the only ones talking with her.”

Another woman, a mother of five sick children, has been separated for five years and unable to secure a divorce. “The rabbis told her, ‘Deal with it, your husband is from an important family from Bnei Brak,’” Sukenik explains.

Her phone rings. She apologizes and takes the call. “I’m sorry,” she says a few minutes later, after a rapid, hushed conversation. “We had a woman jump out the window a few months ago, she left the Haredi community after her divorce, and I’m afraid a friend of hers will do the same. We are trying to get her help.”

Suicidal cases are not uncommon among women who have left their community and find themselves alone in the foreign territory of secular Israel, and among those who barred from seeing their own children.

For the most part, B'Asher Telchi works with a certain segment of Israel's religious population: namely, the lower classes. Divorce is a less problematic among members of affluent Haredi communities, where rabbinic support and a bill of divorce are more easily purchased. But for the poorer ones, who constitute an overwhelming majority in the local ultra-Orthodox world, reality is harsh for a separated woman: She often has no source of income, no education or skills, and no work opportunities – and most likely has several children. Such women are incapacitated from the start; they cannot even afford bus fare.

Much of B'Asher Telchi’s work, explains Sukenik, is thus concentrated on finding jobs and vocational training for women in need.

“This is my life project,” she declares. “I am obsessed with it, because it’s pervasive: It’s not just about divorced women. It’s about the woman’s role here. I can’t accept a place where I am only worth something when I am a “wife of.” People ask me: ‘Why stay in the religious world? Come to the secular world – they will love you there.’ But I don’t want to become secular. I am fully Haredi, with an open mind, but Torah observant. I keep the simple laws as much as the difficult ones. I am a believer and I am not shy about it. I love the Haredi community. But there are things we need to change here.

"So we work slowly, and wisely. We stay away from politics, we use the correct language. It’s all about strategy, the strength that comes with gentility; it’s impossible to come from above, from outside, to fix us. We need to fix things from inside.”

Sukenik herself is now happily remarried – and while one may be tempted to find a "happily ever after" here, she won’t hear of it.

“This is just the beginning. I haven’t forgotten what it was for me,” she says, shaking her head. “I cannot bear the thought that other people would have to go through what I went through. I have already paid my price, and I am obligated to help others, to serve as an example of social responsibility. And my children need to see this value of passion, how important it is to care in this life. That’s what I tell my students: You must care, you must help.”

Contact Fainy Sukenik at fainym@gmail.com

Gil Cohen-Magen