Jewish tradition is most impactful when it serves to connect us with the past, ourselves and each other. For almost every stage in a Jew’s life, there are customs and public rituals to guide these connections and remind us that we are not alone. At birth, the community comes together to witness and welcome a newborn with a bris or a naming ceremony. For marriage, a community must bear witness, or the ceremony is invalid. A death brings on shiva minyans, shiva meals and opportunities to say Kaddish. In short, Jewish rituals give the context to share joy, sadness, awe and fear throughout one’s life with the community at large. These life-cycle moments are communal opportunities to show up for each other at important times.
However, there is no Jewish context to call for support or to share the complexity of feelings that accompany divorce. This is what Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, in his book In God’s Name, called a “rite-less passage”: moments of significance that simply happen without notice. When life feels chaotic and disorienting, as it can in the midst of a divorce, it is precisely the time when community is needed most. In this respect, the lack of response from the Jewish community at this moment of life sends a highly un-Jewish message: You’re on your own.
The good news is that there is evidence of a shift. In the past 20 years, both the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements have recognized the absence of Jewish divorce support and have pioneered innovation around the get ceremony and other rituals of release. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi pioneered several powerful divorce rituals, including one that uses a tallit where a couple untie themselves from each other. Just this past year, Rabbi Deborah Newbrun of Northern California created a “Divorce and Discovery” retreat at Camp Towanga for adults who have gone through divorce. One of the goals of this retreat was to pilot some new divorce rituals specifically around the power of Havdalah/separation. Divorce innovation like this is good news. The bad news is that for an overwhelming majority within the Jewish community, there is a severe lack of resources and support at this moment of life. Most of us are on our own.
In general, rabbis, too, are on their own when supporting those going through divorce. There is no best practices guide for how a community should help a couple make this transition. There are no organizing principles or methodologies. Divorce and self-help books are ubiquitous in the secular world, but there is a glaring absence in the Jewish world. A guide for rabbis to offer different models of support to their community does not yet exist. This article is a first attempt to start such a guide.
As second-generation divorcees, both of us have experienced the trauma, loneliness and isolation of divorce, both as adults and as children. And this is common. As active Jews who sought out and benefited from community at all moments of life, naturally we turned to our synagogues, but they were not prepared for us. For a variety of reasons, it felt awkward to go back to our shuls — a place we learned was simply not well socialized to hold us in this difficult life transition. As we learned, many people don’t really know how to act around divorcees, including clergy.
The lack of structure and ritual for divorce stands in stark contrast to the abundance of traditions surrounding the death of a loved one. During shiva and shloshim, the community has ritual words of comfort and actions they can take to support and console the mourner. Meals are brought, visits are made, minyans are arranged. The mourner is given a space to express feelings associated with loss without judgment. We learn from the bimah and in community emails when someone has died, and who is mourning that death. When the period of mourning ends, more public recognition opportunities are offered. Some include sponsored kiddushes, divrei Torah and even fundraising opportunities in the memory of loves ones. When was the last time you attended a kiddush marking the anniversary of someone’s divorce?
Conversely, unlike the other life-cycle events, there is no public recognition of divorce. At the social level, we have experienced that congregants are unsure what to do or say around people in the midst of a divorce. At worst, divorce is treated as gossip or a topic of conversation to be avoided, at least within earshot of the divorcee, because people feel that there is something sad or wrong about it. Mostly, people are ambivalent. As one good-intentioned acquaintance once said to me, “I am not sure whether to say sorry or congratulations.” (Ariel). It is our firm belief that the poor handling of divorce is not done out of malice. Rather, we seem to be stuck in a pattern of deep avoidance.
The absence of a practical “rabbinic divorce guide” is bizarre given how common divorce is. Yet it is not part of rabbinic training, and it is not part of the apprenticeship process, such as when an associate rabbi tags along with the senior rabbi for hospital visits. Because of this lack of training, rabbis are ill-equipped to deal with divorce, especially high-conflict divorces. It was Ariel’s experience that the rabbis at his synagogue didn’t know what to say. One rabbi tried to defend the sanctity of marriage and counseled avoiding divorce at all costs, while another rabbi tried awkwardly to be sympathetic and nonjudgmental. The first thing they said was, “I don’t take sides.” This had an unintended consequence of shutting down the entire conversation. This awkwardness from both the community and the rabbinate led me, and several people I have spoken to, to keep my distance from the synagogue. (Ariel)
If children are involved, the problems can be compounded. If one parent stops practicing Judaism or decreases their synagogue attendance, their kids have no choice but to follow suit. The children’s experience of religion can become haphazard and inconsistent, changing from one parent to the other. This is shaky ground to build a religious foundation for a child. For all of these reasons, both parents and children can become less observant or become disconnected from Judaism altogether because of divorce.
What can be done about it?
First, it must somehow be publicly acknowledged that divorce is a part of life. In fact, as long as there has been Jewish marriage, there has been Jewish divorce. It is not something to be avoided or ignored; it is widespread. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not experienced divorce or does not have a close relative or friend who has been divorced. Like death, divorce can be an opportunity for the Jewish community to show up for people in their hour of need.
So often there is a huge amount of shame and embarrassment related to a sense of failure leading divorcees to hole up and be silent about their experiences. This contagious silence can lend an air of taboo to the topic of divorce, killing off conversations before they start.
Rather than avoidance, we advocate exposing the topic of divorce in Jewish communal settings. Not the details of anyone’s specific situation, but simply calling attention to the phenomenon in the Jewish community to let people know they are not alone in this moment of life. Creating awareness will require some important conversations about what aspects of divorce are strictly private and which aspects are actually public.
What might it look like if we spoke about divorce as a sacred and holy act?
Following the way Judaism handles death, we think it would be good to explore what might it look like if synagogues could be more public about divorce happening within their community. Imagine, with the couple’s permission, a rabbi announcing a divorce in front of the synagogue. The announcement could be followed by support mobilization efforts. Imagine synagogues prioritizing the training of “divorce first responders.” Meal trains can be organized, and families can take turns inviting members of the household to Shabbat and holiday meals. Support mobilization could materialize to meet the needs of each particular family. That could include helping set up new living arrangements, playdates with children and beyond. Within the turmoil of divorce, support mobilization could be a difference-maker.
If there are enough congregants or community members that have experienced divorce, the synagogue can organize a support group to meet and share their experiences and coping strategies. We have heard of impromptu Jewish women’s support groups that have been a great success. We were told there was a “palpable hunger” in these groups to share stories with people who had gone through the same thing.
The synagogue can also help to mark the various stages of the divorce. One of the divorcees can bench gomel (the blessing for recovering from or escaping danger) after a get (divorce document) has been written. After life has settled down somewhat and the initial intense feelings have subsided, the rabbi can offer a berakhah (blessing) to one or both members of the couple for the next phase of their lives. All of these actions, while offering support, also take the stigma away from the process of divorce.
We need to better support clergy and Jewish leadership to connect to their divorced populations. As with the process of grieving for a loved one, calls, visits and regular “check-ins” can make a big difference. Our leaders need to both learn and teach words of comfort that are emotionally intelligent and appropriate in the particular situation. If we assume, as we often do, that divorce is too messy and private for us to get involved, then we reinforce the sense that synagogue is only equipped for intact families. This mindset and common experience leads to isolation. Imagine what it could look like if our communal instincts were to reach out and actively try to reconnect the divorcees to their community.
When it comes to cases of divorce where young children are involved, even more is at stake. Much of the support needed is managing the conflict between the parents so that it does not spill over onto the children. Yet a lot of the support needed is simply logistical. Getting children to Hebrew school can be much more challenging when they are with alternating parents on weekends. Supportive community ready with conversation guides to help parents set out their intentions and aspirations with regard to all aspects of their children’s Jewish life could make a big difference. For example, as part of this process, a couple can set a goal to take the children to High Holy Day services together or to have Shabbat dinner together occasionally. This document can also help the parents to coordinate and make their religious practices more consistent, such as agreeing to take children to the same synagogue on alternating Shabbats. At the very least, if parents share how they plan to practice religion with their kids, neither of the parents will be blindsided later.
Judaism is meant to be a full-service religion with wisdom and community built in, especially during the most defining moments of our lives. Divorce is one of those life-altering moments. The time has come to treat it as such. It starts by asking the question publicly: What might it look like for the Jewish community to do divorce well?