Israeli rabbi in San Francisco settles thorny divorces

An ex-Israeli in Houston had been refusing to grant his first wife from Beersheva a get — divorce under halachah, or Jewish law — for 28 years.

The man married, had children and divorced twice under U.S. civil law, but had left his first wife in halachic limbo, unable to remarry.

Enter Rabbi Eliyahou Atzour. He jetted from Jerusalem to the Lone Star State, where after some cajoling, convinced the man to grant the get. The stubborn Houstonite was moved to change his mind during a trans-Atlantic call to his long-lost daughter in Israel.

Some time later Atzour met the divorcee. "She said, `I'm already 56 years old, an old woman. Who will marry me?'" he recalls.

Despite her misgivings, the case was all in a day's work for the man who has the final word on divorce, custody battles, property settlements and child support in Israel as president of Israel's Rabbinical Court.

Atzour was in the Bay Area handling three divorce cases for the chief rabbinate. He spoke recently at San Francisco's Congregation Chevra Thilim on divorce, Jewish-style.

Atzour, also a judge on Jerusalem's Supreme Court, is "one of the biggest experts" in Jewish divorce law, according to Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, director of Israel's rabbinic courts.

As such, Atzour travels to Jewish communities from Colorado to Colombia, Miami to Vienna, helping resolve disputes among Jewish couples. In a typical year he handles between seven and 18 divorce cases.

The rabbi recalls that 1991 was one of his best years: He was sent to work on 18 cases, and Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi told him he would be happy if Atzour resolved just one dispute. He settled 17.

"It is an honor to have Rabbi Atzour here," Chevra Thilim's president, Charles Lewin, says.

Just what underlies Atzour's strategy? His rulings rely on halachah, though he is happy to use such modern tools as jetliners and polygraph machines to find solutions to problems.

"The Torah," he says, "doesn't change."

Atzour tells the story of Rabbi Hayyim Hezekiah Medini, a 19th-century scholar and author of an 18-volume encyclopedia of halachah. When Medini was chief rabbi of Hebron, one couple came to him seeking a divorce.

"He put them in his home for one week. They left united," Atzour says.

Today things are different. Young Israeli couples, religious and secular, face unprecedented economic pressures that give way to marital woes, he says. Yet Atzour is hopeful that the Jewish state is moving ahead: Social friction between Ashkenazim and Sephardim has softened; the country has absorbed 800,000 immigrants in the past few years,

Among the immigrants were 40,000 Ethiopian Jews who initially were governed by their own rabbinic court. Today, he adds proudly, they have been "integrated" into Israel's religious mainstream.

And Atzour is similarly hopeful that the Jewish people will overcome greater obstacles. While Israel remains "in pain" from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, he is confident that Jews from all political camps will achieve the goals for which he strives when handling personal conflicts.

"People," he says, "want to unify."