Agunah

Spirited rally for an agunah in Kiryas Joel, despite gawkers, jeers, and egg throwers

Protesting on behalf of Malky Berkowitz, a diverse group chanted “give a get” and “let Malky go,” facing a sometimes hostile crowd

Protesters in Kiryas Joel on behalf of Malky Berkowitz. Credit: Adina Sash

Feb 6, 2024 3:55 PM

Updated: 

Scores of protesters gathered on Sunday in the center of Kiryas Joel to protest on behalf of an agunah, a woman who has been refused a religious divorce by her husband, facing jeers and egg-throwing from some Hasidic men in passing cars and a crowd gathered across the street, according to activists who attended.

The protest, which was organized by Adina Sash, an activist known on Instagram as @flatbushgirl, was on behalf of Malky Berkowitz, who has been asking for a get, or Jewish religious divorce, from her husband, Volvy Berkowitz, but has been refused for over two years. According to Jewish law, a woman must receive a get from her husband before she is permitted to remarry. 

Protesters supporting an agunah in Kiryas Joel. Credit: Adina Sash

According to Sash, the get is being withheld in this case at least in part due to pressure Volvy Berkowitz was receiving from his parents and other family members. Shtetl also reviewed letters from multiple rabbinical courts that placed the blame for the get refusal on the husband’s parents.

Chanting “give a get” and “let Malky go,” the protesters were a spirited crowd of mostly women and some men from diverse Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds. Some held up signs that read “Free Malky” and “Volvy, give a gett.” Many of the signs had images of various Berkowitz family members, including Volvy Berkowitz’s mother and brother. “Goldie Berkowitz, shame on you!” many of the protesters chanted, referring to Volvy’s mother.

Facing the protesters from across the street was a crowd of Hasidic men, with one man shouting at the protesters through a loudspeaker: “Insolent women!” 

While some in the crowd were clearly hostile, Sash told Shtetl that most were just young men gawking at the group of mostly women shouting slogans — an unusual sight in the mostly Satmar village, where women are expected to conform to strict modesty rules and to not assert themselves vocally in public.

Counter-protestors at a rally supporting an agunah in Kiryas Joel. Credit: Adina Sash

Sash also said that New York State Police prevented some counter-protesters from throwing eggs they had stockpiled. “I know they were on the verge of arresting a few people a few times,” she said. Still, lots of eggs were thrown, especially from men in passing cars. Some of the eggs hit the activists, Sash said, including one woman who “really got egg all over her face. The shell actually hurt her.”

“I was frightened from beginning to end,” Sash told Shtetl, but overall, she felt the protest provided an opportunity for “tremendous education and public awareness and the deconstruction of the gittin process,” referring to the religious divorce system facilitated by rabbinical courts.

There were also locals who supported their cause.

Amber Adler, an Orthodox Jewish woman and Democrat politician who attended the protest with her sons, told Shtetl, “A number of women from the area came out and stood in solidarity.” Those women supported what the protesters were doing, Adler said, even though “they might not come out and shout on megaphones.”

Adina Sash among protesters supporting an agunah in Kiryas Joel. Credit: Adina Sash

Sash also hired a truck with LED displays to drive around Kiryas Joel in the days leading up to and following the rally. Among other things, an image on the side of the truck showed Goldie Berkowitz. The truck was vandalized one night by a group of people who used black spray paint to cover Goldie Berkowitz’s image, presumably because images of women in public violate Kiryas Joel’s modesty norms.

At the protest, some also took issue with women’s voices. In a video of the rally circulating on WhatsApp, men are heard chanting “kol be’isha!” — a reference to the halachic rule that forbids men from listening to a woman sing. 

Still, Sash said the protest appears to have had an impact on the case, and that she was optimistic about the outcome. And, she added, the protest was about the bigger issue, too. “Of course, it’s about Malky,” she said. “But this is a crisis that goes back centuries.” She believes her work on behalf of agunahs is part of an “Orthodox women’s rights revolution.”

Sash did not request a permit for the protest, she told Shtetl. “I take chances, and if local enforcement tells me I need to move, I’ll comply.” She also said that she was grateful to the New York State Police and the local safety patrol, Kiryas Joel Shomrim, for managing the crowd. “They were very professional,” she said about Kiryas Joel Shomrim, commending them and the state troopers “for protecting our First Amendment rights and for focusing on diminishing any dangers or injuries.”

Lauren Hakimi is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, New York Jewish Week, WNYC/Gothamist and more. She graduated from CUNY Hunter College with degrees in history and English literature. Hailing from an Iranian Jewish community on Long Island, she looks forward to shining a light on stories that matter to the Jewish community. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi.