What happens after the divorce?

The Cleveland Jewish News has a fascinating story on interfaith divorce titled “After divorce: will the children still be raised Jewish?”

The article looks at three former “interfaith” couples who are now divorced; I use “interfaith” in quotes because two of the couples are conversionary, that is, the non-Jewish partner converted for the sake of the Jewish partner.

In all three cases, an understanding during marriage to raise the children exclusively Jewish appears to have been complicated by the non-Jewish partners’ religious decisions after the divorce. In the two conversionary couples, the converted spouse decided after the divorce to re-adopt Christianity:

“Benjamin” is concerned because he doesn’t know what the mother has been telling the girl about Christmas or Christianity. How will he raise a Jewish child when she spends half her time in a home with no Jewish content and perhaps Christian icons and content? Will his ex agree to take the child to Hebrew school? Will she start taking the child to church?

And here’s the story of “Jared,” also a Jewish man whose wife converted for their marriage:

“The minute we got divorced, my ex-wife got a christmas tree. I learned all these things (strong feelings about her Catholicism) she had been holding inside for years that really bothered her,” he said. She started going to church as well. Fortunately, Jared had been proactive: His divorce agreement includes a statement to the effect that “the mother acknowledges the children will be raised Jewishly.”

“She stuck to the idea that we had brought them into the world as Jewish kids, and she agreed to raise them Jewishly,” Jared said. However, as often happens in these situations, professionals say, it became solely Jared’s responsibility to arrange for and drive the children to religious school, synagogue, or bar and bat mitzvah tutoring.

Moreover, in addition to their formal Jewish education, Jared’s ex told him that she would, on occasion, expose the children to her church as well as something she didn’t see as contradictory to her agreeing to raise them as Jews.

For me, both of these anecdotes attest to the pitfalls of cosmetic conversion. At InterfaithFamily.com, we support people who make the choice to convert, but we don’t push it; when partners convert solely for the sake of their partner, the simmering resentment can lead to more stress, not less, as appears to be the case with Jared and his wife. Or it can provide an illusion of joint religious commitment that’s not really there, as in the case of Benjamin and his wife.

Better for two interfaith partners to be honest with themselves and their partners about their religious attachments, and then make the difficult, but clear-eyed, decision on how they’ll raise the children. In both cases, if the non-Jewish partner had never converted, the couples would have had to have been proactive and come to an agreement how the children would be raised. It’s possible the couples would have never gotten married if both partners were honest about their needs, and it’s possible both couples would have stayed married if they were more honest going into the marriage. Even if they still had gotten married and divorced, there would be fewer questions after divorce about how the child would be raised. Benjamin wouldn’t worry about what impact celebrating Christmas would have on his child because their pre-divorce family would have probably celebrated Christmas in some way.

At the same time, the writer, Ellen Schur Brown, acknowledges that most divorced Jews-by-choice stay Jewish:

“In the clear majority of cases after divorce, the Jewish-by-choice spouse remains involved in synagogue life or Hebrew school and wouldn’t consider anything different,” insists Rabbi [Joshua] Skoff. Rabbi [Eddie] Sukol of Congregation Bethaynu (Conservative) likewise knows of very few Jews-by-choice who leave Judaism when they divorce.

It is a fact that interfaith marriages end in divorce more frequently than inmarriages, but in the same way that religious issues can be tackled and overcome in interfaith marriages, religious issues can be tackled and overcome in interfaith divorces.

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