Getting divorced in Israel in the COVID-19 pandemic

Antonio G Ginting
When the rabbinical court issued their annual report in January of this year, citing that divorce rates dropped slightly during COVID-19, lawyer Jay Hait reacted with surprise. Consulting many of his fellow attorneys who also practice family law in Israel, they all came to the same conclusion – this report did not reflect their reality. In fact, since January 2021, 80% of the work in his practice – which has offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ra’anana, Binyamina, and Modi’in – has involved divorce.
“When the first lockdown period ended, there was an absolute flood of appointments,” said attorney and Rabbinical Court Advocate Moriah Dayan, coordinator of the public affairs division of Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center, a division of the Ohr Torah Stone network and the director of its mitgashrim (mediation) center. “I don’t know about the statistics the rabbinical courts cited, but our services were really needed!”
Yad La’isha’s services include one free meeting with women contemplating divorce and seeking guidance to ensure they receive a get (Jewish divorce document) during the formal divorce proceedings. Meanwhile, their mediation division, which helps couples work out all the details of their divorce outside of the court system, was literally overrun with appointments after the first lockdown ended.

According to Hait, the primary issues his office deals with includes problems with visitation after the couple is already divorced, and issues of violence in the family. “Most Anglos don’t have an as high incidence of domestic violence as some of the other ethnic groups in Israel,” said Hait, although it’s not completely uncommon.

For Chantal*, 40, an Anglo mother of six living in the center of the country, the pandemic gave her the courage to finally leave her abusive marriage. Married in the United States at a young age, their relationship was plagued by physical violence and verbal abuse from the outset. Chantal felt helpless to leave her abusive spouse because they already had young children. When her husband decided to move the family to Israel five years ago, a place where she had no family or support network, she was hopeful the fresh start would end the abuse. The abuse worsened as they encountered significant financial struggles and language issues.

“I’m a tour guide specializing in culinary tours across the country, while my husband floated from job to job, never able to find long-term employment. I’m the sole provider of our family so when the pandemic hit and everything shut down, all our income dried up. The beatings became more frequent, as did his drinking, and I had no way of escaping the violence.”

In the summer of 2020, when the lockdowns eased, Chantal used the freedom away from her home and husband to quietly consult with a divorce attorney. Overwhelmed by the process, and the possibility she would not be granted primary custody or her husband would withhold her get, Chantal abandoned the divorce proceedings. The cycle of violence continued during the fall holidays and after Sukkot, Chantal contracted coronavirus from a visiting relative. While forced to quarantine alone at a state-run corona hotel, Chantal realized she couldn’t continue living with the abuse, and officially filed for divorce as soon as she recovered.

“I know it sounds crazy but having COVID-19 actually healed whatever was broken inside me that kept me in such an abusive marriage. It gave me the courage to finally leave, and I’ve never been back. I’m slowly picking up the pieces of my shattered life but it’s not easy, and as I feared, my ex-husband is withholding my get,” she said.

The Great Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)The Great Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

While the solitude gave Chantal the final impetus to leave her abusive marriage, the quarantine period is what contributed to the end of many others. Micki Lavin-Pell, a Jerusalem-based marriage and family therapist and relationship coach, saw her practice triple since the start of the pandemic. Within the first few days of the first quarantine period, her phone started ringing off the hook with couples looking for counseling, and the need has been steady ever since.

“The pandemic scared the crap out of a lot of people,” Lavin-Pell notes candidly. “When confronted with death they realized it was time to reassess their lives. For many, they started asking themselves, ‘if this is the end, is this how I want it to be? If I only have a year left in my life, do I want to be with this person?’ While others with intimacy issues went into lockdown and – not used to spending so much time with one another – were suddenly forced to deal with these issues.”

THE PANDEMIC didn’t just wreak havoc on relationships, it created new issues for couples already divorced and sharing custody. 

According to Hait, his practice has been overwhelmed with problems regarding visitation. “The lockdowns created an opening for people to take advantage of established visitation agreements. If a child is with one parent and must be in bidud, isolated in quarantine, they won’t let the child go back to the other parent even if that’s when the parent legally had custody. And if one parent had to go into bidud, the other parent wouldn’t let the child go even if it was the other parent’s days with the child.”

According to Leah, a divorced mom originally from London, her ex-husband purposely put their child into bidud at his home, so she would be forced to stay for an additional eight days. That meant that she missed out on having her daughter home with her during the entire Passover holiday. Leorit’s ex-husband – she is a divorced mother of four originally from Los Angeles – refused to take the kids during any of their time in bidud even when it was his days to have them. 

At one point, she spent more than three weeks straight in quarantine, which made working from home in a small apartment with no outdoor space nearly impossible. “It has been very hard without the previous custody arrangement in place,” said Leorit, “but for the kids, it was even harder. It was really hard when they couldn’t see their father.”

Custody arrangements aside, the vaccine created further issues for contentious divorced parents who needed to agree to get their children vaccinated. Shani, a divorced mom of two teenage boys living in the North, could not get her husband on board. “It’s not like he’s an anti-vaxxer, and I honestly understood his initial concerns about some of the heart-related side effects, but he was listening to conspiracy theories he read online and he blocked my sons from getting vaccinated. I’m livid because he’s putting them – and all of us – at risk based on what, stuff he’s reading from Joe Schmo who’s not an MD on Twitter?”

Our nation’s retirees were not immune from relationship struggles during the pandemic, also forced into long quarantine periods that kept them away from routine, family and friends. Hait has a rule that he won’t immediately move forward with divorce proceedings among people aged 70+ who have been married for many years, recommending counseling as a first step.

“I got a call from an 82-year-old who said he wanted to get divorced. They were married for 53 years and got on each other’s nerves during the quarantine period. We were able to get their children involved and they went into counseling.”

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of contributors.

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