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After Divorce: Will the Children Still be Raised Jewish?

Reprinted with permission of the Cleveland Jewish News.

January 25, 2007

"Benjamin" considers himself a committed Jew, raised with strong traditions and faith at Park Synagogue.

He was dating a Catholic, and since her religion was an obstacle to his taking the next step in their relationship, she offered to convert.

After their engagement, Benjamin, (not his real name) and his fiancée took a one year Introduction to Judaism class with Rabbi Eddie Sukol, co-sponsored by the Cleveland Board of Rabbis and Siegal College in Cleveland. She studied on her own and met with Rabbi Joshua Skoff at Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Her conversion, supervised by Skoff, was completed before their November 2003 wedding. When their daughter was born a year later, the new family held a baby naming at Park Synagogue.

"We had a completely Jewish home," explains Benjamin, a Beachwood business owner. But by January of last year, the marriage had soured for reasons other than religious differences. Counseling didn't help. The couple separated over the summer, agreeing to an amicable split.

It was too good to be true.

Initially planning to terminate their marriage by dissolution, the couple talked things out openly. They went so far as to draft settlement papers stating both parents will cooperate in raising the child together, and the youngster will split her time evenly between the two households. The unsigned agreement specified the child will be raised as a Jew, and when the time comes, she will embark on a formal Jewish education.

Before the dissolution agreement was signed, however, Benjamin's estranged wife had a change of heart. She hired an attorney and filed for divorce, a more complex process.

When the toddler told her father recently, "I love Santa Claus," he learned his wife had started celebrating Christmas in her home. Later, she admitted she's not going to stay Jewish.

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?

"All the intentions were to raise a Jewish child," says Benjamin. "How can I give up on that fight? My faith is strong, and this is the job of a parent." Benjamin estimates the fight also could cost him $20,000-$30,000 in legal fees.

Here's a part of interfaith marriage that couples don't consider: interfaith divorce.

Interfaith couples or couples where one partner is Jewish-by-choice may agree to raise the children Jewish. But what happens to these informal agreements when the marriage ends?

Andrew Zashin, an attorney and certified family law specialist, is representing Benjamin in his acrimonious custody battle for parental rights and for his daughter's right to be brought up as a Jew.

Benjamin's situation is the exception. "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 Skoff. Rabbi Sukol of Congregation Bethaynu (Conservative) in Cleveland likewise knows of very few Jews-by-choice who leave Judaism when they divorce. When Skoff talks to young couples about getting married, he says, "They're looking to find common ground, and for young people from different faiths, the idea of compromising about religion seems to them like a great idea. For people in their 20s, religion doesn't appear important enough to get in the way of other things they have in common like their plans for the future.

"They don't often know that years later the idea of compromise will be less satisfying."

A commonly cited statistic predicts that half of all marriages will end in divorce, and research by the Jewish Outreach Institute suggests that intermarried couples tend to divorce more often--perhaps as much as 50% more often--as compared with inmarried Jews.

There are no known statistics about what happens to the Jewish identity of children after an interfaith divorce. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01 found that 47% of Jews married since 1996 have chosen non-Jewish spouses. According to the survey, 96% of children with two Jewish parents will be raised Jewish, compared with 33% of children in homes with one Jewish parent.

Imperfect Agreements

Any decisions about a child's religious upbringing verbally agreed upon before or during the marriage will carry very little weight in a contentious divorce, says Zashin. Each situation is considered independently, based on that case's unique circumstances.

"The court will do what it deems is in the best interest of the child," he says. "No court is going to stuff religion down someone's throat."

It's up to both partners to agree about the child's religion. That's what Zashin calls the unwritten rule of parental judgment. "The courts assume the parents' judgment is in the best interest of the child as long as it's 'reasonable.' If this mother says she's going back to Catholicism, a court will be loathe to override the religious decision a parent presents," he explains. By all accounts, the best outcome for divorcing parents requires them to hammer out a mutually acceptable position on religious education for the children. The plan agreed upon should then be written into any separation agreement or shared custody plan.

"If you feel strongly about something such as religion, don't take it for granted that you will both continue to feel the same way," says Elana Turoff Lurie, an attorney and family law mediator. "Even if both parents are Jewish, something you agree on now should be in that agreement, because times change." She often sees plans both parents "took for granted" get dropped when one partner's new spouse wants to take the children to church or put up a Christmas tree.

"When you're in the state of 'I hate my spouse,' it's easy to lose track of what's important," says attorney Alice Rickel. "I always try to get people to talk to each other," because a magistrate's decision could be something neither party will like.

Courts may allow children to be brought up in two different religions rather than decide in favor of one parent over the other, according to the website InterfaithFamily.com.

"Jared" married a woman who was raised Catholic. Religion wasn't much of a factor for him then, but his mother convinced him to ask his fiancée to convert. She agreed, and together the couple raised their children "as Jewishly as any of our friends, who were all Reform Jews," he said, satisfied that his wife embraced Judaism. When their marriage of over a decade unraveled, the Cleveland Heights resident, who asked we not print his name, learned otherwise. "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--something she didn't see as contradictory to her agreeing to raise them as Jews.

"I don't know that (a commitment to raise a child in a particular religion) is legally enforceable," says Jared, "but it sets the tone."

"If both sides work it out and agree to raise the children Jewish, a court can uphold that provision," says family law attorney and mediator Sharon Comet-Epstein. "It's easier to enforce something that's been agreed to. Then it's like any other contract: You promised to do X, and you're not doing it." Jared's children did attend church at times, "which was awkward but not terrible," he recalls. "It's probably what we should have done to begin with." He wonders what would have happened if he had been more tolerant of his ex-wife's religion. "It might have diminished the children's Jewishness, but would their parents have stayed together?" His children, now young adults, do have a Jewish identity, but they see themselves as the product of two people with different religions, Jared says.

Parents take action

"Whatever the court order says, that's not going to build Jewish identity," says Sukol. Children may start to celebrate Christmas with one parent after a divorce. "The response is not to throw up one's hands and say, 'Oy vey,' but to have a Jewish home when you are with that child. "Create a home that's rich with Jewish rituals and celebration of Jewish holidays. Expose them to the beauty and the joy of our traditions and the wonder at the world.

"This is the issue every Jewish family faces, whether it's headed by two Jewish parents, divorced parents, or parents of different religions. There are plenty of children of interfaith couples who have strong Jewish identities."

When a parent changes his or her religious practices, for example attending church again, it can be incredibly confusing, especially to children already reeling from divorce, says Suzanne Schneps, a psychologist whose practice specializes in children and families. "I think there has to be an explanation; it can't be the elephant in the room that no one is talking about. It's not like they're not going to notice," she says. "A parent might say, 'As I changed, this became more comfortable to me, and it is the choice I've made as an adult.'"

Parents shouldn't try to change a child's religious identity, especially one they've helped create during the marriage, she stresses. It's best to "reassure the child that you will maintain a respect for that child's current religion and values, support the child's participation, and attend the child's milestone events.

"If the child had been raised Catholic (until the divorce), the same thing would be true," she stresses. "You've given the child an identity. This is who they are and what they're comfortable with."

When the parties can't agree or cooperate, the child's religion will be determined by the legal custodian and residential parent. That's what happened to Michael Fine of Beachwood, Ohio.

His divorce eight years ago from his non-Jewish wife had nothing to do with religion, he says. In the interest of a genial split, he represented himself, granting his ex-wife a generous financial settlement and full custody of their four children. He thought the process went pretty smoothly. He intended to teach his children about Jewish history and culture; his wife, a non-observant Southern Baptist, never expressed any problems with that idea during the marriage.

After the divorce, however, she "found religion" and became involved with an unconventional Christian sect called Adidam; Fine classifies it as a cult. "I could see that as she became more involved with this religion, she wasn't being a very good mother," he explains. She would go to California for religious retreats, once for a six-week trip, leaving the four children, then ages 6 to 11, in the care of "friends from her church." She began talking about relocating to California.

Fine knew he didn't want his children raised as Christians or in a cult, and he didn't want them to move out of state. "We were able to come to an agreement because, ultimately, the mother wanted what was best for the children and herself, and clearly, that was for the kids to stay here in Beachwood," says Fine's attorney, Comet-Epstein.

"Our custody agreement stated that the mother had to limit the children's exposure to Adidam. We were very specific and included that the children cannot attend any Adidam events, activities, programs or retreats." Comet-Epstein notes that these specific provisions were possible only because the mother agreed to them. Otherwise, a court may not restrict a non-custodial parent's right to expose his or her child to religious beliefs, unless the conflict between the parents' religious beliefs is affecting the child's general welfare (mental or physical health). Courts could not compel a non-Jewish custodial parent to raise children in a faith contrary to her religious beliefs.

With their father as the custodial parent, the children, now ages 10-14, are being raised in a Jewish home where they celebrate holidays like Passover and Chanukah with extended family. They keep busy with music lessons and sports, but they speak to their mother nearly every day and enjoy their visits with her, says Fine.

Having spent years seeing marriages break up, Zashin offers this observation: "People need to be more discerning consumers of spouses."

"Considering that more than 50% of marriages end in divorce, it seems self-evident that the likelihood of divorce is greater if partners don't come from the same religious tradition," says Zashin, an Orthodox Jew. "A mixed marriage is almost always going to be more difficult, especially when kids are added to the picture."

He recommends that all families, whether Jewish or not, use their religion as a framework to establish family values going forward. Rather than a subject of division, religion can become a strong common ground for the family, and it may save your marriage, he says.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Ellen Schur Brown

Ellen Schur Brown is editor of the family section of the Cleveland Jewish News. She can be reached at ebrown@cjn.org.

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