Let’s not beat around the bush: divorce sucks. There’s the legal frustrations, the emotional hardships, and if kids are in the mix, a lot of figuring out to do. One thing to consider is how Judaism fits into your child’s future, and making sure that both parents are on the same page. The following advice is from Jennifer Mittelman, a coach and attorney who helps folks navigate through these major life transitions. Visit her coaching website at www.yourbrickroad.com.
Parents getting a divorce have a lot of things to work out. And it may be easy to overlook how Judaism fits in. Here are a few benchmarks to help focus you on determining what is best for your child’s Jewish development:
1. Set forth a clear understanding in any custody/parenting agreement of how your child’s Jewish observance and learning shall be fostered.
Don’t rely on a general agreement to make decisions jointly, particularly if you and your spouse had differing levels of observance (or different religions!) before and/or during the marriage. If possible, specify which synagogue your children will be members of (or, at least commit to having your children attend a synagogue that is affiliated with an agreed-upon branch of Judaism) and that both parents will work to ensure a high percentage of attendance at Hebrew School until your child reaches whatever milestone you feel appropriate. Don’t assume that just because you’ve been doing one thing during the marriage that post-divorce things will continue. Get it in writing. A little planning goes a long way.
2. Set forth a clear understanding of how your child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah will be celebrated and paid for.
When your son or daughter is practicing a Torah portion while trying to make time for soccer, the school play and homework simultaneously, the last thing he or she needs to be concerned about is a disagreement between the two of you over how to celebrate the upcoming special day. Negotiate a solution that the two of you would be able to live with in the event you could not agree otherwise. You always have the option of working together in the future to make an alternate plan if it’s something your child wants and you both agree. Make sure to specify how an Oneg Shabbat (a gathering with food and drinks after services), party, or trip to Israel, will be financed.
3. Hammer out any other details that can be agreed upon during negotiation and get them in your agreement, even if you think they seem obvious.
If you agree on a level of kashrut for your child, Israel trips in high school, Jewish day school, and/or Jewish youth group, spell it all out! You are most likely to be on the same page about your child’s Jewish observance while memories of the marriage are still fresh. Putting off these decisions until later because you both believe you’ll be able to make decisions together can be dangerous.
I once counseled a formerly orthodox Jew-by-choice who, by agreement, was given sole custody of the children. One month after the divorce agreement had been signed, she had no interest in continuing to practice Judaism. The parties’ parenting agreement only provided that the children would not be fed non-kosher meat. Nothing else was spelled out in terms of their Jewish education or observance, and the parents were unable to communicate.
4. Do not request having the children for Shavuot every other year if you have absolutely no plan to ever celebrate Shavuot!
This is an example of putting your child’s needs and interests ahead of your own. Your lawyer may tell you that you are entitled to an equal split of holidays. But does that mean it’s a good idea? What if, by insisting on Shavuot in even years, you are depriving your child of celebrating a holiday s/he truly enjoys, every other year? Get over “giving up” time and get on board with prioritizing your child’s interests, particularly if you are committed to fostering Judaism in your child’s life.