The Divorced-Parent Family & the Synagogue Community

When the synagogue is welcoming, the newly divorced begin to overcome their inhibitions about reconnecting to the Jewish community.

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Reprinted with permission from Conservative Judaism magazine and the Rabbinical Assembly.

One of the most alarming aspects of adults experiencing divorce is their newly developed negative attitudes toward the rabbi and the synagogue. These feelings are generally characterized by two stages: hostility and self-exile. Open hostility, with escalating vindictiveness, is often aimed at the rabbi and is frequently followed by withdrawal from Judaism and experimentation with non-Judaist and even non-Jewish lifestyles [A Judaist is a Jew who practices Judaism. A Jew is a person who by birth or conversion identifies with the Jewish people but who is not necessarily a Judaist.].

divorce and the jewish communityAt first glance, this behavior appears to be irrational. As more or less observant Jews, we were taught that the synagogue is our source of strength, a place to turn to in times of personal crisis.

However, it becomes understandable when we remember that many single parents were raised with traditional attitudes toward the Jewish family. They feel that the collapse of their own marriage violates their Jewish adulthood. The Jewish mother--"The Woman of Valor"--is particularly embittered. Judaism implies that she is responsible for keeping the family together.

Jewish Focus on Family May Alienate Recently Divorced

For members of a family experiencing a divorce, Judaism may seem inconsistent with, even antithetical to, the realities of their own lives. The ceremonies of the home and the synagogue are visibly focused on the traditional family. The mother blesses the candles; the father chants the kiddush [blessing over the wine]. Couples are called to open the ark. Babies are named; anniversaries are celebrated. This pageantry of the Jewish lifecycle is painfully family centered.

Attempts by the single parent to adopt a non-Judaist lifestyle are often used to provide a healing distance from the pain created by this omnipresent coupledness.

Synagogues Need to Maintain Contact

Regardless of the real facts of the marital collapse and the following lifestyle, most divorced parents carry a heavy burden of religious guilt. Dealing with this guilt is the continuous task upon which the relationship of the single-parent family and the synagogue is rebuilt.

The major task of the congregation during these early stages of divorce should be to maintain contact with the adults--although their anger may be discouraging. How often the rabbi has heard: "The rabbi was absolutely useless during my divorce"; "Every time he sees me, he turns the other way"; "I feel like a second-class citizen."

The rabbi needs to step beyond these statements and understand that the congregant, who really is feeling guilt and shame, is unconsciously using the rabbi as a scapegoat. By being aware of the source of this verbal rejection, the rabbi and the congregation may be more willing to extend the initial invitation of reconciliation that can ease the single parent's return to the synagogue.

In a recent marketing study of a local Jewish community center, the polled group--composed of divorced parents--felt that Jewish institutions, especially the synagogues, should initiate contact with its members upon hearing of a marital separation. Synagogues should not remain aloof, afraid of interfering. Letting the parties know that the rabbi is available as a willing, nonjudgmental friend can result in the much-desired and needed nontherapeutic "someone to talk to." In this early period of separation, an invitation to a Shabbat [Sabbath] or holiday dinner might be appreciated.

The study's participants also stressed the financial panic that accompanies every divorce. Rare is the family that can continue to pay the same synagogue dues. Rarer yet is the person who can ask for a dues reduction without directing anger at the synagogue. A call from a thoughtful business manager or dues chairman suggesting a temporary reduction of dues can help maintain membership.

Rabbis have an essential role in educating psychotherapists, lawyers, and accountants about the importance of including provisions for the get [Jewish bill of divorce], Jewish education, Jewish summer camps, holiday observance, and lifecycle celebrations in civil divorce decrees. These inclusions help prevent such issues from becoming future arenas for prolonged warfare. Members going through divorce should be given a checklist of these items important to future Jewish living.

Special Single-Parent Programs Not Helpful

Special divorced-parent family activities within the synagogue are of dubious benefit. If their synagogue socializing is limited mainly to "singles," neither the parent nor the children learn to deal with their own feelings of being "different" from other synagogue families. Preferring to be "just like the other kids," children of divorced families particularly object to being placed in single-parent family programs. Most important, by isolating the divorced-parent families into a separate subgroup, the rest of the congregation does not learn to relate comfortably to them.

Instead of putting effort into single-parent family programs, a congregation might examine existing programs that would allow these families to be reintroduced rapidly into the total synagogue structure. Havurot [small groups that meet monthly or more often for socializing, celebration, and study] present an excellent opportunity to involve such families. Single adults should be invited repeatedly to work on the various synagogue committees. Study groups and other special interest groups are excellent means of recreating social circles without creating an isolated "singles" world.

Regardless of the sensitivity of the synagogue toward the single parent, the most important issue is the rebuilding of the adult's personal relationship with his or her own Judaism. In this area, a pragmatic shopping list of congregational "do's" cannot be presented: The resolution lies completely within the individual.

Judaism Can Also Be a Path to Return

Personally, there were two major turning points in my own return. The most dramatic event was the presentation of my long sought-after get. Not only was I now freed from my civilly dissolved marriage, but also I felt "cleansed" and ready to reenter synagogue life. This dramatic reaction, which was extremely pivotal to my own Judaist observance, underscores the importance of the get both for Jewish legal reasons and for psychological self-absolution.

The other turning point was the gradual realization that, although the marriage was gone, the family still remained. Within the context of Judaism, the protection and companionship of coupledness was gone, but the privilege and nachas [joy] of rearing Jewish children still remained. As I learned to accept and enjoy my aloneness, I was able to focus on the need to reestablish stability and order within the family.

If Judaism presents a problem to single-parent families, it also presents a much-needed structure. Through the observance of Shabbat and kashrut [following the dietary regulations], for example, families can reestablish the time and space needed to delineate the bounds of the present unit. Being together every Shabbat, regardless of external enticements, strengthens family bonding and, by example, increases the concept of the importance of primary familial obligations.

As a family unit, the duties and privileges of Jewish home rituals remain to be filled. The single parent must learn new religious skills once performed by the other adult in the former marriage. For this reason, both men and women should be familiar with all home rituals.

Another problem of single parenting is the lack of support from another adult who has similar values. The single parent is burdened with being the sole judge and model, but synagogue-focused Judaism can offer an alternative to this situation.

In many ways, the synagogue community can become the other parent. Through the pageantry of mitzvot [commandments] and holidays shared with the synagogue community, the single-parent family gains a greater insight into the essential similarities of all families' behavior--"singled" and "paired." As friends who share the same Judaic value structure, the rabbi and members of the congregation are available to "check things out" and provide much-needed reinforcement.

Despite the initiative of the rabbi and the synagogue and despite the soundness of the single-parent family's relationship to Judaism, one fact still remains: the single adult and the single-parent family exist outside the norms of Judaism. For the sake of Jewish survival, the traditional model of marriage and family life must continue to be stressed: Therefore, adults who are single either by choice or circumstance and members of single-parent families face the continual, guilt-producing conflict between their own lifestyle and traditional Judaism.

The congregation and the rabbi must recognize and understand this struggle. Only through sincere acknowledgment and sensitivity can synagogues hope to maintain and even increase the participation and affiliation of single Judaist adults and families.

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Barbara Karlin Bundt Bond lives in Israel.