86 Israeli divorce continues to haunt Healdsburg woman

Looking back, Katheryn Allen-Katz realizes she was "very, very naive."

The Oakland native met an Israeli man while volunteering for the Peace Corps in Liberia in the early 1970s.

They fell in love. She converted to Judaism, and they married in Israel in 1975. Like all other Jews in Israel, she and Gady Nadler were wed through an Orthodox-run rabbinical court, known as a beit din.

"I didn't know what rabbinical courts were all about," she said.

Her ignorance of two decades ago still plagues her today.

The couple had three children but couldn't keep their marriage together. They were divorced in 1986 — again under the jurisdiction of an Israeli rabbinical court.

She eventually met another Israeli man; at that time she still lived in Haifa. The pair couldn't marry in Israel because the man is a kohen, a descendant of the ancient priesthood who as such isn't allowed to marry a divorced woman.

So in 1989 the couple moved to Healdsburg in Sonoma County with her children. Soon after arriving, they were married.

But more than a decade after the legal split from her first husband, Allen-Katz is still entangled in the divorce and in the Israeli rabbinical court system.

She hopes a Sonoma County Superior Court judge will release her from a foreign order her ex-husband filed last year. The order demands $129,000 based on the allegation that Allen-Katz broke the divorce agreement by leaving Israel with the couple's children.

Judge Lloyd Von der Mehden heard from both sides on Jan. 3. Final documents are set to be filed by Monday, Jan. 27.

Nadler, who lives in Israel, was not required to be present at the court hearings. Larry Moskowitz, Nadler's attorney in Santa Rosa, would not comment on the case, saying his client had not responded to the lawyer's requests for permission to speak. Moskowitz would not disclose Nadler's location or telephone number in Israel.

The issues involved in the case are complex, focusing primarily on the validity in the United States of orders from religious courts such as those in Israel that use procedures unacceptable to courts here.

Liz Goodman, Allen-Katz's attorney, argues that Nadler's order is invalid. Allen-Katz was not informed of the pending legal action, was not represented in the rabbinical court and would not be allowed to testify due to her gender, Goodman said.

"The orders are pretty outrageous. When I saw this stuff I felt we are either dealing with a court that doesn't recognize standard 19th-century law or we're dealing with a totally corrupt legal system," Goodman said.

Haggai Carmon, an Israeli attorney who works in New York and acts as the U.S. Justice Department's attorney for civil matters in Israel, offered expert testimony for Allen-Katz.

The judges who preside over rabbinical courts, which are also known as tribunals, must be rabbis but aren't required to have a civil law education. Because they consider themselves spiritual leaders and mediators, Carmon said, these rabbis take measures that would be unacceptable in civil courts, such as meeting with one party without the presence of the other.

"Civil rights and legal rights that exist in the civil system in Israel and outside Israel don't exist in these tribunals," Carmon said.

Nadler has already lost one case in the Sonoma County courts. In 1990, he filed for custody of the three children using a rabbinical court order declaring that Allen-Katz had violated the divorce agreement when she left Israel with the youngsters.

A Sonoma County judge was awarded jurisdiction over the case. Three years later, Nadler lost.

Allen-Katz received another rabbinical court order in the mail in 1995. This one declared that because she had left Israel with the children, she owed her ex-husband $129,000 — amounting to half the value, plus interest, of the apartment the couple once owned in Haifa.

In the divorce agreement, the couple's property was divided equally and she got the apartment. She sold it when she decided to move to the United States.

She ignored the 1995 communiqué until she was officially served in March 1996 with a document from the Sonoma County Superior Court intended to enforce the foreign order.

Around the same time, Allen-Katz decided to seek approximately $23,000 in child support; her ex-husband allegedly stopped paying in 1989 with the approval of a rabbinical court. Their children are now 16, 18 and 19 — the eldest, a daughter, has returned to Israel to serve in the military.

Von der Mehden heard arguments on the child-support issue in December. If Allen-Katz wins, she will still have to file for the money through the Israeli civil court system.

Susan Silverek, a deputy district attorney for Sonoma County who is handling the child-support issue for Allen-Katz, cautioned that American women who marry abroad "better know the law."

Allen-Katz hopes other women can learn from her experience.

"I think women in Israel need to band together and institute civil marriage. That's the only way they'll get away from the stranglehold of the rabbinical courts," she said.

She would also like to see a network of resources develop for women in situations similar to her own. She noted that she had difficulty finding an attorney with expertise in international law.

Allen-Katz said all her problems with the rabbinical courts haven't soured her on Judaism.

"I consider myself Jewish. There's a difference between the religion and the people who administer it."