Dispatch from the Institute: Divorce and the Interfaith Couple

By Gail Quets


The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to “reach out and welcome in” the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI’s services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

D-I-V-O-R-C-E. It’s never what a couple envisions when they walk down the aisle, but sometimes it seems like the only course of action left to take after years of trying to make things work. It’s never easy, but sometimes staying together seems even harder. And although the happily married among us like to think of divorce as something that only happens to other people, almost every one of us has a sibling or friend or parent who’s been affected by one.

Jewish couples divorce less often than non-Jewish couples, but intermarried couples tend to divorce more than Jews married to Jews. Why? Our first guess might be that intermarried couples are not as happy as in-married couples. “Of course!” say the pundits. But reality is more complex. Social scientists report that intermarried couples who divorce aren’t any less happy (or unhappy) than in-married couples who stay married. When you stop to think about it, this makes perfect sense.

A couple that in-marries may be making a statement about their adult priorities, and one of their important priorities may explicitly be the preservation of Jewish tradition through in-marriage. The in-married couple’s feelings on this issue may even be important enough to consciously (or unconsciously) transcend other, more personal preferences when they choose a spouse. When the marital going gets rough, the in-married couple may not even consider getting divorced, no matter what their personal feelings, because they remain committed to the institutions of marriage and family, especially as a means of insuring Jewish continuity.

On the other hand, intermarried couples may already have decided that personal fulfillment is the primary goal of any marriage, and that its pursuit is important enough to “trump” existing group loyalties–to immediate or extended family, to co-religionists, or to the Jewish people. Couples like these are less likely to sacrifice individual happiness on the altar of any institution and therefore more likely to regard divorce as an option if their relationship sours. This doesn’t mean that they are not supporters of marriage, family values, or Jewish life. It’s just that they value marriage and family differently–as a means of achieving personal fulfillment, rather than an end in itself.

So . . . just like it’s not true that Jews who intermarry do so as a conscious rejection of their Jewish heritage, it’s also not true that intermarriage dooms couples to a lifetime of unhappiness. However, when unhappiness strikes, the intermarried are less likely to stay married than the in-married. As Jews committed to the concept of shalom bayit (“family harmony”) and as advocates for the intermarried, how can we help intermarried couples build strong, happy relationships?

First, we need to realize, once again, that intermarried couples are just like everyone else . . . only “more so.” The relationship challenges that trip up the intermarried are often the same ones that trouble the in-married: disagreements about money, sex, in-laws, childrearing . . . and, maybe, religion. Even in-married couples can disagree about whether to keep a kosher home, or send a child to Hebrew school instead of soccer practice.

Still, remaining sensitive to the unique challenges that intermarried couples may face in their relationships is always a good idea. This holds true on both a communal and a personal level. What can you do? Support the creation and funding of synagogue and JCC programs that give interfaith couples a safe space in which to explore their religious and cultural differences. Encourage your rabbi, whether he or she “approves” of intermarriage or not, to open his or her doors to intermarried and soon-to-be-intermarried couples in need of counseling. Make sure your community’s youth programs are inclusive, so intermarried couples don’t face the additional stressor of having their children shut out of the after-school or summer activities their friends enjoy.

In the event a divorce does occur, interfaith families need to be treated with no less compassion than in-married families. And additional sensitivity may be required, especially if issues related to religious and cultural differences emerge after the divorce, even when they were not apparent before. This might happen for a variety of reasons: children grow older (old enough for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or a Confirmation); ex-spouses change their minds about childrearing agreements made during the marriage; second marriages bring new partners with their own ideas about religious practice into the mix; the complexities of custodial and visitation arrangements can make Sabbath and holiday celebrations difficult.

Some intermarried couples will experience only the “normal” trauma associated with divorce. Others will suffer additional pain because of their religious and cultural differences. As a friend or family member, you won’t be able to make the divorcing couple’s problems disappear, but you can make a positive difference in their lives. At the very least, you can make sure that you do not add to their existing burden:

DON’T assume that the divorce was a result of differences related to religion or culture;

DON’T suggest that you “knew it wouldn’t work anyway,” or that a successful in-marriage will soon follow;

DON’T criticize the religious and cultural practices of the ex-spouse;

DON’T make any assumptions about the religious or cultural tradition in which children will be raised;

DO open your home, and the religious and cultural holidays you celebrate, to the divorcing couple and their children;

DO share whatever religious and cultural resources you have to offer in an appropriate manner (i.e. do not push, proselytize, or pressure);

If you are a partner in an intermarriage that is being dissolved, don’t make negative comments about your former spouse’s background or demand that your children choose one parent’s religion over the other’s. Be honest with him or her about the religious and cultural traditions you will follow in your new home, and the extent to which you will expect the children you share to participate in them. Let members of both extended families know what decisions have been made about religious instruction and practice and ask them to respect any boundaries that are set, but don’t deprive your children of the opportunity to learn about the religious and cultural heritage of either “side.”

Interfaith family life can make a divorce even more difficult than usual. But obstacles to resolution, acceptance, and a new beginning can be overcome, especially if you take advantage of the help available from friends, family, and your faith community. Your interfaith marriage may have ended, but your interfaith divorce can be a “success”–if you negotiate disagreements, respect differences, and remember Hillel’s formulation of that great teaching common to all religious traditions: “What is hateful unto you, don’t do unto your neighbor.”


About Gail Quets

Gail Quets, a sociologist and convert to Judaism, is director of research at the Jewish Outreach Institute.