By Jennifer Medina, New York Times
March 21, 2014
LAS VEGAS — The wedding was a modest affair, held in a reception hall overlooking an artificial lake tucked behind a suburban strip. But just minutes after it ended, the bride and groom hurriedly scurried past dozens of protesters here who were chanting “Bigamist” and “Shame on you!”
One of the wedding guests on Thursday evening glared at the demonstrators, repeatedly hissing: “Mazel tov. Mazel tov. Mazel tov.” The bride, in a lace and sequin floor-length gown, grasped the hand of her husband and looked at the crowd in silence.
Meir Kin, the new husband, has been divorced for more than seven years, under California’s civil law. But he has refused to give his previous wife the document known as a “get,” as required by Orthodox Jewish law to end a marriage. In the eyes of religious authorities, the woman he married in 2000 is what is called an agunah — Hebrew for chained wife. Without the get, the woman, Lonna Kin, is forbidden under Jewish law to remarry.
Jewish law prohibits men from taking multiple wives. But Mr. Kin, according to several rabbis here, apparently relied on a legal loophole, which says that if a man can get the special permission of 100 rabbis to take a second wife, he is able to do so.
The case has become a powerful symbol for what activists say is a deepening crisis among Orthodox Jews — hundreds of women held hostage in a religious marriage, in some cases for years after civil cases have been settled. According to the intricate religious laws dictating marriage and divorce, only the husband has the power to grant a divorce.
“What has happened here is really shameful,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp, who drove from Los Angeles to protest the wedding, along with other rabbis and congregants from Orthodox synagogues there. “Not only is he in clear violation of Jewish law, but he is utilizing and corrupting Jewish law to commit cruel domestic abuse.”
Ms. Kin, who runs a real estate company, and her supporters say that Mr. Kin, a physician assistant, is demanding $500,000 and full custody of their 12-year-old son in exchange for the divorce. And they cast doubt on whether he really has the support of 100 rabbis. Reached at his Las Vegas home on Thursday, as a photographer took pictures of him and his bride in the driveway, Mr. Kin declined to comment.
Traditionally, Jewish communities relied on the threat of ostracism to persuade a recalcitrant husband to give his wife a divorce, but many say the threat became far less potent as these communities opened and spread out. In recent years, Orthodox activists with the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which organized the protest at Mr. Kin’s wedding, have tried to publicly shame men into giving the get.
When a congressional aide refused to give his wife the decree several years ago, protesters wrote to the congressman, created sophisticated social media campaigns and protested in front of his Washington apartment. Last year federal prosecutors filed charges against a New Jersey rabbi whom they accuse of taking tens of thousands of dollars to kidnap and torture recalcitrant husbands refusing to give their wives a religious divorce.
Ms. Kin’s nearly decade-long fight for a religious divorce illustrates the limited power of such women.
“This is not supposed to happen, that even with all these people against him he can marry anyway,” Ms. Kin, 52, said in a telephone interview from her home in Monsey, N.Y., where she lives with their son and three daughters from a previous marriage. “I would like to find a man who could be a good life partner, to have the kind of marriage my parents have. I want to marry someone and have a life like that, but now I am chained to a dead marriage.”
When she heard several weeks ago that Mr. Kin planned to remarry, Ms. Kin said she felt a momentary sense of relief — it was a clear sign that he was ready to move on with his life. But his new marriage could make it even less likely he will give her the document she desperately wants.
“He’s basically a bigamist,” she said, “and basically, I’m just stuck.”
The couple first separated in January 2005, shortly after Ms. Kin filed for divorce in New York. But she withdrew the motion, on the advice of a lawyer who later told her that it would be easier to secure a get if her husband initiated the civil divorce. Mr. Kin then moved to Los Angeles, and filed for divorce there six months after he arrived. Long before the divorce was finalized in 2007, she said, he told her he never planned to give her the religious document.
Typically, such disagreements are adjudicated by a religious court made up of three rabbis, known as a beit din. Mr. Kin was approached by a local rabbi with a list of several such religious courts his wife would be willing to submit to, but he has not responded, according to Rabbi Yehoshua Fromowitz, who runs the Ahavas Torah Center, a synagogue here.
Instead, Mr. Kin, who in recent years moved to Las Vegas, has repeatedly insisted that Ms. Kin agree to binding arbitration from one particular religious court based in Monsey that is controversial and has been widely denounced by rabbinical authorities in the United States and Israel. Several leading rabbis, including the chief rabbinical office of Israel, have said they would not accept a divorce document signed by this particular court. Mr. Kin has said that the head of the beit din, Rabbi Tzvi Dov Abraham of Monsey, granted him dispensation to marry again.
“The rabbinical court system is such an ad hoc system where any man is able to call himself a rabbi and any three rabbis are able to call themselves a court, so that even if it’s not accepted by anyone, he is able to hide behind this,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, the executive director of the group that organized the protests against the wedding. “What empowers him to continue is the support of friend and family and community. We need everyone to say clearly we will not tolerate this kind of behavior.”
A Las Vegas rabbi declined to perform the wedding on Thursday. The groups protesting say they believe Mr. Abraham traveled from New York to officiate. He did not return repeated phone calls for comment.
Mr. Kin, according to several members of the small Las Vegas Orthodox community, has worshiped at two synagogues affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, which is known for welcoming a broad array of Jews. The rabbis at those synagogues do not count him toward a quorum needed for prayer because of the controversy over his divorce case, but they have declined to publicly rebuke him or force him out, according to Rabbi Shea Harlig, the head of Chabad of southern Nevada.
Mr. Stern and other rabbis supporting Ms. Kin say they will continue to press that Mr. Kin be exiled from the local Jewish community.
Ms. Kin is still holding out some hope she will receive the get — she communicated with Mr. Kin by email as recently as this week, she said, and she continues to send her son across the country several times a year to spend time with his father.
Little is known about Mr. Kin’s new wife, Daniela Barbosa, who is said to have recently emigrated from Brazil. Friends who attended their wedding refused to answer questions from a reporter. If their marriage were to disintegrate, she, too, would need to receive a get for a religiously valid divorce. Although rabbinical leaders outlawed men taking multiple wives in the Middle Ages, the practice is biblically allowed.
“We’ve outlawed this for thousands of years,” Rabbi Fromowitz said. “It is totally unacceptable.”
But Rabbi Fromowitz conceded that Mr. Kin had historical precedent to rely on. After all, he said, the biblical patriarch Jacob had four wives.