October 5, 2006
When a couple divorces, the custody battle goes beyond dishes and children
Who gets the shul?
In fact, divorce issues can affect nearly every aspect of a family's relationship with the synagogue, and with Judaism: Hebrew school, havurahs, Passover seders, Shabbat dinners and Chanukah celebrations are all impacted when a couple splits up.
Even trips to Israel.
Susan Chait and her husband, Michael, wanted to take Michael's son from a previous marriage to Israel following his bar mitzvah. But the boy's mother refused to give permission, even at a time when security was not an issue.
"Initially, we had the rabbi talk to her, but she wouldn't change her mind," Chait said. "Ultimately, we had to go to court. The judge was angry about the fact that she would stand in the way of her child taking advantage of a great opportunity. He said, 'I am Jewish, and I understand the importance of a trip like this' and gave us permission to take him on the trip."
Chait said she believes the conflict between her husband and his ex-wife blinded her to her children's welfare.
"And the really sad part of it is that the children know this," she said. "My advice for parents in this situation is to put the love for your children over the animosity that you have for each other."
Rabbi David Wolpe of Westwood's Conservative Sinai Temple is a frequent witness to the battles that affect the synagogue when there is a divorce.
"High Holiday tickets are a very contentious issue," he said. "They represent not only a monetary investment, but also a community, and it is very difficult for the parties and the synagogue to negotiate over who gets the community. Congregants often feel like there is a judgment of who is right and who is wrong. What tends to happen is the person who has the most friends or connections in the community ends up getting the shul."
So what is the rabbi's role in the drama?
"People often try to put the rabbi in the middle to make the difficult decisions, but one of the most important things is not to allow people to triangulate," Wolpe said. "The rabbi needs to return [the parties] to each other so that they can work the issue out between themselves. The rabbi that doesn't learn that is in a lot of trouble."
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom has also witnessed the impact of divorce on the synagogue.
"Families sometimes use the bar/bat mitzvah as the place to continue the unresolved battles for control, financial redress, custody, etc," he said. "They can be unusually nasty, petty and mean. They put the rabbi in the uncomfortable position of reminding adults to stop fighting like children and to focus on the child and his or her memories of this special day. Weddings can likewise be difficult. Who stands beneath the chuppah?"
Steve Garren, an active member of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, has witnessed the impact that his two-year separation has had on his family's synagogue life. "Even though we went to the rabbi before we split up, this is not something that clergy can tell you exactly how to handle," he said. "When it comes to divorce, the rabbi doesn't have the answer for how each family is going to do it and what it is going to look like. The reality is that when you first separate, the temple mail keeps going to just one address.
"When you split up you suddenly become a conversation piece among temple friends, which of course is something that you never wanted to be," Garren added. "Our separation also meant that we were not in our havurah anymore. "Passover this year was the first time that the four of us weren't together," he said. "The kids went with me one night, and the next night they went with my wife to her parent's house. We both try to do a good job of minimizing the impact, but there is definitely an impact."
Hebrew school, frequently a battleground between children and their parents, also finds its way into internal parental battles. Wolpe noted that divorce frequently impacts Hebrew school attendance.
"Now Hebrew school becomes an additional weapon," he said. "'How come you didn't take him to Hebrew school?' Some parents work it out well, but many of them only care about Hebrew school to the extent that it is a weapon, and of course it is the kids that suffer."
Susan Chait saw firsthand how Hebrew school became just another weapon in the divorce arsenal.
"Because my husband and his ex-wife had joint custody at the time his second son was attending Hebrew school, my husband's ex would use skipping Hebrew school as a way to win her son over."
So who does get the shul? It depends on the dynamic that the family ultimately chooses for itself. Feinstein noted that although the battles between divorcing Jewish couples can be nasty and mean, other times "divorce can liberate people to enjoy new relationships and a new life," he said. "They can become better parents, better Jews and better people as they emerge from a marriage that was stifling and abusive. I've seen this, too. There are no easy generalizations."
Today's wedding chuppah is called upon to accommodate not just the bride's and groom's parents, but stepfathers and stepmothers as well.
Wendy Jaffe is the author of "The Divorce Lawyers' Guide To Staying Married" (Volt Press, 2006). She can be reached at www.divorcelawyersguide.com.