Dr. Shani Paluch, Director of the Breast Oncology Unit at Shaarei Medical Center in Jerusalem, is highly accomplished. While she is self-confident and articulate professional on the outside, she has kept inside growing hurt as her marriage failed and she was denied a divorce by her husband and the rabbinate.
This week, Dr. Paluch appears in the first Trailblazers clip, a new documentary series produced by NIF in partnership with Ynet to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence. For nearly 40 years, NIF has teamed up with trailblazers from communities including Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian citizens, Russian-speaking immigrants, Ethiopians, women, and LGBTQ people to create change. These are communities who blazed trails for inclusion, for equality, and for social change not just for the good of their own communities, but for the good of Israel’s diverse society.
Dr. Paluch married when she was 21. “I thought I was very mature and all that but I understood nothing about life. But despite all the difficulties I love him very much and didn’t think that living without him was an option.”
However, as the years went by, love faded, and her self-confidence in the relationship waned. “I became an expert at hiding this. My girlfriends would complain about their husbands but I acted as though everything was fine. The only witnesses were the walls and walls don’t speak. But the moment came when I decided to break the silence and the abuse.”
Dr. Paluch filed for divorce and in January 2015 her case was heard in Jerusalem’s Rabbinical Court. The judge was sympathetic and in May issued a divorce recommendation.
“Then I started waiting,” recalls Dr. Paluch. “I kept asking the court again and again for a date on which I could get the divorce and eventually January 6, 2016 was set. I looked for the original judge and he wasn’t there.” The case was referred to a new set of rabbinical judges who ignored the previous recommendation and started the case from the beginning.
Fighting for women’s rights in general—and in the context of the religious establishment in particular—has always been a priority for NIF through a range of grantees such as Mavoi Satum, Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum, Center for Women’s Justice, Kol Ha-Isha and the International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR). According to the rabbinate there are up to 400 women whose divorce has “been delayed.” Mavoi Satum estimates that 20% of Israeli women have been unable to freely leave their marriage leaving them vulnerable to extortion on matters like the division of property and the custody of children.
Dr. Paluch took her case to Knesset committees and other forums before eventually getting her divorce. “I still feel a sense of shame about what I’ve been through and it will be with me for years to come. But I want to speak out on behalf of all the women who are still on this terrible journey and who tire and break down and can no longer speak out.”
The Trailblazer clip has already been featured on Ynet, one of Israel’s most popular news websites together with comments from Shatil’s Religious Freedom Director Yael Yechieli. She said, “Marriage and divorce in Israel are subject to the Orthodox establishment and divorce cases are handled by judges whose outlook and halachic legal criteria were correct 2,000 years ago. The result is that women are shackled. This is the tip of the iceberg in a system that perpetuates gender inequality.”