Chava Herman (Photo by Anna Rathkopf)

Dalia Oziel is no seasoned social justice warrior.

She is a 25-year-old influencer, with an Instagram following of 34,000. She is known for her ubiquitous beanie plopped on top of her long wig, her sales of long-lasting lipstick, and her signature color: salmon pink.

But Oziel was propelled into activism when she received a direct message from a Brooklyn-based woman named Chava Herman. Herman, a mother of two daughters, is an agunah—a Hebrew term that means a “chained woman.” According to Herman, she has been waiting for a religious divorce from her husband since 2011. (Herman did not respond to a request for comment.) Though she obtained a civil divorce, until she receives a gett, the religious document which only a husband has the power to give, she is forbidden by Orthodox Jewish law from remarrying.

Herman is not alone in this situation; the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot is working on around 300 cases of women trapped in religious Jewish marriages, and some advocates estimate that the real numbers are closer to 500 in the United States alone.

Herman messaged Oziel, asking her to share a poster calling on her husband to issue a divorce. And so Oziel did, on February 9—with the hashtag, #freechava.

Within a few weeks, the hashtag would explode into a rallying cry among young Orthodox women demanding their right to divorce, some going as far as demanding transparency and accountability in the Orthodox rabbinical system, with close to 1,500 posts and thousands more stories. Teenagers, housewives, wig-makers, and food bloggers started coming out of the woodwork across Orthodox communities, posting about women’s rights, creating lip-syncing reels, and some even taking to the streets to protest on behalf of Herman and other women.

Danielle Renov, a food blogger in Jerusalem, posted an Instagram story wearing a pink headscarf, holding her newborn: “There’s a woman whose life is stuck, she can’t go on. So we will keep doing this until we set her free.” These stories appear in between her videos of food prep—chicken and couscous tonight—and Passover prep tips.

“The past month the #freechava campaign took off and has quite literally rocked our world,” wrote Dini Weinberg of Monsey, New York, known for her high-end eponymous wig brand, to her 110,000 Instagram followers. Weinberg invited Herman to her salon and shared a photo of Herman trying on a new wig, which was paid for by a group of concerned women. (In the Orthodox community, many married women traditionally cover their heads, some with wigs, as markers of their marital status.) “It’s gotten us to look around and see the abuse, the inconsistencies, and total falsehood. But it’s also shown us that together, we are unstoppable.”

But the campaign shows something else that is fascinating: The way the internet is being used to fight for justice in a religious community. Here, women are amassing large followings, where they can speak their minds on social issues outside of traditional media.

The campaign is not just about Herman’s plight. It is a message to a wider community: Don’t mess with one of us, or we’ll open our mouths.

The agunah issue has sparked occasional uproar in the community, eventually receding from public view until the next wave of outrage. In pre-war Europe, Orthodox feminist Bertha Pappenheim railed about leadership failures in solving this legal challenge; in 1995, British Orthodox women’s rights activists launched a campaign demanding that the chief rabbi institute a pre-nuptial agreement. But among millennials, until recently, most Orthodox young women rarely opened their mouths about the issue—as religious women, they accepted the yoke of being beholden to religious authority and its interpretation of Jewish law as a central part of their faith. This relative silence may have been largely because agunahs themselves kept their predicaments secret, and at the very least did not share their stories online—while those who knew the stories and decried the agunah crisis were often perceived as radical feminists. But now, those once-fringe issues have moved into the center, nestled in between community news, lipstick sales, and Sabbath recipes.

“Social media works. Activism works. Pressure works,” Orthodox feminist activist Adina Miles-Sash posted earlier this month on Instagram when one agunah finally received her divorce, which many credited to social media pressure. Speaking to gett refusers, Miles-Sash wrote: “We will have you fired from your job. We will publicly humiliate you. We will find ways to have you arrested. And we will not rest until every prisoner is set free.”

A religious Jewish divorce is generally given in front of a rabbinical court, which consists of three rabbinic judges. The laws of religious divorce are complex and fill countless volumes over the centuries: The document must be given of a man’s free will, and not under duress; if the divorce is deemed somehow illegitimate and the woman has a child afterwards with another man, the child might be deemed a bastard; and annulment of marriage without a husband’s consent is deeply controversial.

The power dynamics complicate matters further: In the United States, religious divorce courts are not centralized, have little oversight, and can easily go renegade. Any group of three men can put a logo on a piece of paper and declare itself a court—with some offering a welcome haven for a recalcitrant husband.

“Every gett refuser has a rabbi who is enabling him, whispering into his ear, encouraging [him] to withhold the divorce,” said one ultra-Orthodox rabbinical judge, who requested anonymity for fear of professional consequences. “Enablers are protecting their own interests, be it money or power.” The judge added that, in his experience, an enabling rabbi might have a financial incentive in extending a litigation in his court, for which he receives hourly fees—or simply might want the ability to exhibit power, in controlling which couples get divorced and which must stay married. Many women end up paying for their freedom, whether giving up child support or properties in return for the precious gett.

Among activists, there are varying opinions about their movement’s goals: Some see this as a battle merely against individual perpetrators, involving rallies (at times raucous ones) outside the homes of gett refusers. But others see this as a battle against a system, and advocate for sweeping change. That change can happen through religious pre-nups being standardized; through exposure of ex-husbands’ enablers, who have weaponized the gett process; and through advocating that state legislatures pass bills to render coercive control a felony, as one former agunah and NYC Council candidate Amber Adler is arguing for.

And in the midst of all the solidarity, a sort of “MeToo” movement emerged in the last month—a phenomenon that is radical in a community where divorce is still largely stigmatized. Divorced Orthodox women have been turning on their phones to weep on camera about abusive exes, silent bystanders, and rabbinical courts that let them languish as they waited for freedom.

“Seeing it all over Instagram is super triggering for me,” said Long Island-based hair stylist Devori Ulman on a recent Instagram story. “But two and a half years could have easily turned into ten years,” she said, referring to the time that she waited for her divorce. She went on, “How easy it is for these men to get away with holding you hostage, not letting you continue with your life, not letting you make your own choices? Something has to change, and I hope the change is now.”

Izzy Massre, an Orthodox woman in Cleveland, Ohio, who herself recently received her divorce, said that she had been too afraid to share her experience as she was going through it. “When I finally posted a few months ago that I was going through a divorce, I had so many people reach out to me, I felt so much support,” she said in an interview. “I told myself then, that when I get my gett, I will speak about divorce because I waited so long. On January 15, [2021], I got my gett, and I posted about it on Instagram.” Massre said that she was flooded with messages afterwards from other religious women who themselves had gone through this experience and felt validated seeing her post.

But Herman’s story may have sparked something much greater: a collective rage among young Orthodox Jews over the state of marriage and divorce in their community, and for some, anger about leadership’s inability to solve the issue. It is a fascinating transformation to watch—a platform once used for outfits of the day, for selling dresses and wigs, is now being weaponized into a rallying cry for change. Religious women have built power online, often through small businesses—and that power is now transferring to the streets.

“What’s happening on social media is the start of a grassroots movement,” said Leslie Ginsparg Klein, a historian of Orthodox gender history. “Historically, this is one of the most effective ways change happens in the Jewish community, especially change relating to women.” Ginsparg Klein cites the history of Sarah Schenirer, a Polish Jewish woman who created the first girls’ Jewish schools in interwar Europe, as an example of that sort of change. “Schenirer started organizing on a grassroots level and ultimately shifted communal perspectives on education for girls, to the point where Jewish education is universal today in the community. The women on social media today are following her lead.”

Of course, these sorts of campaigns can easily go wrong—without legal counsel, accounts can be accused of doxxing or posting unverified information. It is a strategy ridden with risk, a suboptimal one, a path which activists argue has become necessary due to a failure of leadership. Community members have essentially become citizen journalists, slowly uncovering what they are experiencing—on Instagram they’re posting pictures of a gett refuser on the run, and on WhatsApp, they’re sharing voice-notes in which women secretly record the abuse going on in their homes. It’s a sad reality in a community which does not always value investigative journalism—and risks errors, with no fact-checking process.

“Information needs to be verified by certain criteria,” said Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, an Orthodox women’s activist based in Israel. “Have these men been warned? Are they in contempt of a decision? Have they been told multiple times that if they don’t give a divorce, sanctions will be enacted? Then yes, we do it. We definitely should not have everyone saying, ‘I also don’t have a gett!’ randomly. We are not here to doxx, we are here to help the community understand that there is abuse going on. Should we not have to do it? Absolutely. But that’s the establishment putting us in this position.”

Others lament that agunahs need to make a public (and very exposing) plea for their freedom. “The line of questioning that is going on, the need for women to reveal personal information about their situation, I think, is not ideal. It minimizes women,” said one Brooklyn-based former agunah, who requested anonymity out of concern about community backlash. “The thing is, if this was going on when I was going through my divorce, I probably would have been one of those women telling my story, because it would have been my only hope. Unfortunately, the rabbis dropped the ball on this subject. There is really nobody to turn to who can help.”

For all the ills of social media, in insular religious communities it is offering a free platform for once-marginalized voices—and for exposure of wrongdoing, in a space where there are fewer gatekeepers. In some ways, it is a welcome development, one that could only happen thanks to independent digital media and to women demanding visibility. In a community where women’s faces are routinely omitted from traditional publications, on the grounds of “modesty”—a practice that has little precedent in religious law yet is the result of growing fundamentalism—the appearance of a woman’s smiling face next to her children, the sound of her voice telling her painful story on a social media feed, has the power to spark a movement.

“It’s baffling to me that people don’t see the connection between erasing women in print and the agunah crisis,” said one ultra-Orthodox female educator, who requested anonymity for fear of backlash. “They’re expressions of the same core philosophy. When women aren’t seen, they aren’t considered. Their experience isn’t factored into the equation and they lose their humanity in the context of the conversation.”

Daniella Presser, whose mother has been waiting for her divorce since 2005, said that she feels grateful for the publicity, but a “bit of resentment” that it took so long. “Where were you all of these years? When we were fighting tirelessly?”

Is this the explosion of an Orthodox Spring? Perhaps, but only if the focus is less on individual perpetrators and more on systemic change, including reforming rabbinical courts. “The pressure for now is great,” Presser said. “But it’s not enough to stop it for the future generations.” She wants to normalize religious pre-nuptial agreements, which would prevent withholding divorces.

Until then, Massre said, “The community is taking matters into its own hands.” 

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is a writer living in New York City. Previously, she was an editor at The Forward; her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vox, Salon, and Haaretz, among others. She does pastoral work alongside her husband, Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.