Friday, October 06, 2006

Baltimore: Case of Domestic Violence - Jewish Divorce Case Grabs Public Eye

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Jewish Divorce Case Grabs Public Eye
By Laura Berg
Baltimore Jewish Times - OCTOBER 06, 2006

Cynthia Ohana says she plans to do whatever it takes to obtain a get, the divorce document required under traditional Jewish law, from her ex-husband, Ephraim Ohana.

"I've learned to be my own best advocate," said Mrs. Ohana, who secured a civil divorce from Mr. Ohana in May 2005 after 19 years of marriage. "I'm not going away."

Mrs. Ohana, 40, has recently received a good deal of local print and broadcast media attention, and the resulting buzz, as part of a community push to free her from remaining an
agunah, "anchored down" in Hebrew. Until she receives a get, Mrs. Ohana is prohibited by Jewish law from remarrying.

"I would like to be in a healthy relationship for me and for my children," said Mrs. Ohana, who has sole custody of her five children. Mr. Ohana does have visitation rights and spends time with his children, several of whom still live in the area.

On Sept. 18, a rally attended by a few dozen people was held outside the University of Baltimore School of Law, where Mr. Ohana is a student.

"It was very important to do it right before the holidays, hoping that maybe it would appeal to [Mr. Ohana's] conscience," said Mrs. Ohana.

The rally, initiated by Mrs. Ohana and sponsored by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot Inc. (ORA) in New York City, was the community's third public attempt to pressure Mr. Ohana, 44, into granting a religious divorce.

Two other rallies were held in June and July, both outside of Mr. Ohana's home in Upper Park Heights.

The case also has gained attention in the Reform community, which does not make Jewish religious divorce decrees mandatory.

Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter, of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, attended one of the rallies outside of Mr. Ohana's home. He said the case cuts across denominational lines because "this is not just an Orthodox issue. This is an issue of Jewish justice."

Although Mr. Ohana gave a lengthy, detailed interview to the Baltimore Jewish Times last week regarding all accusations against him, he decided to retract his comments, per a previous agreement with the Jewish Times. Instead, he issued a statement (see sidebar). Mr. Ohana's civil divorce attorney, Roanne Handler, also declined to comment.

Mrs. Ohana disputed her husband's statement, saying that she sent 13 letters to Rabbi Simcha Shafran, secretary of the Baltimore Bais Din, to request a hearing date. She said that she received permission from Rabbi Shafran to sue in secular court when Mr. Ohana refused to come.

Mr. Ohana's father, Rabbi Samuel
Ohana (AKA: Shmuel Ohana), of Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Los Angeles, and a dayan (judge) recognized by the chief rabbinate in Israel, said he is still hopeful that Mrs. Ohana will receive a get.

"I have recommended to my son that he give the get," said Rabbi Ohana. "However, I was disappointed how the Jewish community has acted in a selective way," referring to his belief that other situations were handled quietly.

"He is not an abuser and has been a good husband and a good provider," Rabbi Ohana added. "This is a man who went to work as a plumber in the winter to provide for his family."

The Counseling, Helpline & Aid Network for Abused Women (CHANA), a program of the Women's Department of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore became involved when Mrs. Ohana became a client in September 2003.

In a final protective order, dated Dec. 21, 2004, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Sylvester B. Cox found that on Dec. 13, 2004, Mr. Ohana put Mrs. Ohana "in fear of imminent serious bodily harm."

Additionally, on May 31, 2005, as part of the divorce judgment, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Audrey S. Carrion found Mr. Ohana "voluntarily impoverished himself." Judge Carrion ordered him to pay future monthly child support as well as outstanding child support and alimony.

Mrs. Ohana's complaint to the court for divorce included that Mr. Ohana engaged in several adulterous affairs, according to Larry Feldman, an attorney for Mrs. Ohana who said he is working pro bono on the case.

For the past eight months, the Rabbinic Council of Greater Baltimore, also known as the
Vaad HaRabbonim, has banned Mr. Ohana from area synagogues and Jewish homes. In a letter posted in area synagogues dated Feb. 17, 2006, Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer, president of the Rabbinic Council, wrote, "Mr. Ohana has conducted himself in a manner that is unacceptable and that will not be tolerated within our community. As such, we declare Mr. Ohana persona-non-grata within our community."

Rabbi Moshe Hauer of B'nai Jacob Shaarei Zion, and a member of the Rabbinic Council, added, "We're trying every which way to bring across to Ephraim that granting the get is the right and appropriate thing to do. Once he does that, we look forward to welcoming him back to the community and we will offer him every opportunity to appear before a Bais Din."

Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, of Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring and a professor of law at University of Maryland Baltimore, also sympathizes with Mrs. Ohana.

"Unfortunately, there are people who use the get to victimize, and this is a very repulsive and repugnant thing to do," said Rabbi Breitowitz. "Even if there are disagreements, a get should not be used as blackmail or a bargaining chip."

But it has not just been Baltimore's religious Jewish community that is supporting Mrs. Ohana.
The Awareness Center, Inc., the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse in Rockville, Jewish Women International in Washington, D.C., and CHANA are some of the agencies involved.

"At the rallies, I was surrounded by Jews, non-Jews, women working for the House of Ruth, as well as rabbis from each denomination of Judaism, because after hearing Cynthia's story, people in the community want to go out and support her," said Nancy F. Aiken, director of CHANA.

Such public pressure is often seen as a step of last resort.

Yehoshua Zev, director of
ORA, said the non-profit group organizes rallies for agunot throughout the country. Over the past two years, more than 15 rallies also have been held in support of Sarah Rosenbloom, whose husband, Sam Rosenbloom of Gaithersburg, still refuses to give her a get, even though a civil divorce was finalized in 1999, Mr. Zev said.

Mrs. Ohana said she hopes her case will dissuade other husbands who refuse to grant gets to their ex-wives.

"It's validating to have the community's support," she said. "The exposure is terrifying. But I know there's another guy out there who is going to try and pull this same stunt, and I hope instead he thinks, ‘No, I don't want it be like what happened with Ohana.'" n

The following statement was provided to the Baltimore Jewish Times by Ephraim Ohana

I have not been vocal about the tragic difficulties in this divorce because I feel it is very detrimental to my children's wellbeing. While it would be too involved to address all the issues, I would like to highlight one.

A Jewish divorce is most often worked out in a Bais Din, and usually as a legally binding arbitration. Cynthia and I signed two agreements to enter into arbitration through the Baltimore Bais Din. She continuously breached these agreements and chose to address issues in other arenas, which included false allegations and malicious abuse of the judicial system.

Over the past year-and-a-half, my attorney has sent several letters to the Bais Din and met with its representatives in an effort to pressure her to abide by those agreements. She refused and the Bais Din remained silent. I have also made many attempts to offer to resolve our differences through negotiation asking only that she cease the hostilities she continues to instigate. She has refused all of these attempts. More recently, Judge Kathleen Sweeney recommended that we enter into mediation. She again refused.

There are still many outstanding issues that need resolution, including the get, and my offer to resolve them still stands


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