“Many people have a vision of a beth din as three rabbis sitting there, looking very intimidating, who are not understanding at all to women,” says Naomi Maryles, using the Hebrew word for rabbinical court. “There’s a sense that I’m going to walk into the beth din and there will be a bias against me because I’m a woman.” That picture is false, says Maryles, at least when it comes to the Beth Din of America, one of the largest and most respected religious courts in the United States. “Our dayanim [judges] are the most approachable, understanding and sensitive dayanim.”
Still, having a woman in the room is helpful to the women (and men) who walk through the doors of the Jewish court.
Maryles is that woman. In law school, she volunteered for the Battered Women’s Project and while working as a corporate attorney for eight years, she served as a liaison to inMotion, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence. Last year, she joined the BDA, where she is the primary case manager and the first female attorney to serve on any rabbinical court in the U.S.
“We joke that I am giving a softer side to the beth din,” she says. Her work, however, is anything but soft.
In commercial arbitration and matrimonial cases, she walks both parties through the hazmana (summons) process to hearings and possible appeal. The BDA handles approximately 300 gitten (Jewish divorces) a year, and the most difficult emotionally are the cases involving a recalcitrant spouse. “Most issues boil down to children and money,” she says. “The worst thing is to have an agunah,” a woman who is trapped in a marriage because her husband refuses to grant her a get, or divorce.
Maryles is a staunch proponent of the prenuptial agreement, since both parties are agreeing to arbitrate the get before the BDA, and the agreement is enforceable in a court of law. The BDA “believes that the get should never be used as a bargaining tool in a civil divorce,” she says.
She hopes other religious courts will hire female attorneys. “Women are always coming up to me and saying, ‘You don’t know how much it meant to me to have a woman to talk to.’”
Fiery personality: When Maryles’ husband proposed to her over a candlelit dinner, her hair caught on fire. Luckily, they were able to quickly douse the flames.
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