Interfaith Divorce, a Life Passage That Is Possible To Do Well

For some interfaith families, divorce will be a trying passage through which they must pass. At this time of transition interfaith issues may or may not be especially relevant.

For Connie and James, there had always been tension about how to create a home that reflected her Jewish heritage and his Catholic background. Each of their families pressured them to do it their way. They didn’t have a lot of support for compromise or problem solving, and Connie and James themselves had never found a way to work their conflict through. Now, the divorce was taking place just as their six-year old daughter was ready to start religious education. Would she go to CCD classes or to Hebrew school?

By contrast, Ellen and Peter had decided before marriage that their children would be raised Jewish because Ellen cared strongly and Peter really didn’t. When they made their divorce decisions, their children were 10 and 12. Ellen and Peter agreed that each parent would have the opportunity to guide the children towards something that that parent cared strongly about. Ellen would be in charge of religious education while Peter would supervise their sports engagements, an area that he cared about. Each parent agreed to support the other in carrying out these commitments. Thus Peter sometimes drives carpool to religious school and Ellen can be seen collecting the soccer players.

In relationships in which interfaith conflict has already been a fault line, under stress, these issues may become full-blown fissures when a couple divorces. In relationships in which interfaith issues have either been unimportant or well resolved, there is no need for them to take on any more priority during the divorce process.

Sometimes, finding a way to talk about these issues is at least as important as the content of what is being said. When Marla came to see me for counseling, she had been divorced for three years. John, she told me, has custody on weekends of their 7-year-old son, Josh. “I want him to go to Hebrew school, but John would need to take him there and back. I just don’t know how to get John’s co-operation,” Marla said. With support and reflection, she decided to write John a letter, letting him into her process rather than presenting him with an ultimatum. She said in the letter that she was considering what would be best for Josh’s religious education and wondered if John had any ideas. She wrote that the possibility of Hebrew school had occurred to her, and she wanted his input.

Avoiding a power struggle is a key component of success in creating a workable interfaith divorce. Two people may not be compatible as mates, but it is in everyone’s interest for them to find a way to be compatible as parents. How can you maximize what each person wants? How can you work as a team on behalf of the children, even while separating emotionally from the ex-spouse? Even if you think the other partner isn’t able to function cooperatively, how can you be proud of your own impeccability, which is all you actually have the power to control? Are you acting in a respectful, cooperative way?

Taya and Lynne were locked in vicious struggle over every aspect of their two sons’ lives. The boys were 2 and 4 years old when their parents separated, and each mother had a team of lawyers and child psychologists representing her position. As I listened to Taya download the latest grief over her rage that Lynne had given her Jewish children Easter baskets, I asked Taya, “What are you hoping for?” She stopped, stunned. “What?” she asked. “What are you hoping for?” I asked again. She took a breath for the first time in many paragraphs and said, “That’s the best question anyone’s asked me.”

In truth, after the immediate crisis of divorce is over, it can be a nice thing to have another person in the world who cares as much, in their own way, about the children as you do. It can work well to have some parenting support and respite. And it can even be a positive thing to have diversity in the children’s lives—for instance for them to know that at Mommy Lynne’s they will get Easter baskets because that was a happy thing for Lynne in her childhood—and this will not rock their Jewish identity.

In interfaith divorce, the “faith” part of the term is crucial. Divorce is a life transition that can be the pits–it can be agonizing, depressing, enraging, shattering and life threatening—but having faith means that you know that life is a combination of pits and peaks. The journey through the ups and the downs and back again is the nature of being alive.

Given the alternative, isn’t it worth it to make that journey with grace and good will? And isn’t, perhaps, your commitment to the quality of your journeying more important than any particular decision along the way, even if the decision involves heart-felt core issues such as religious identity?

Interfaith divorce is a passage that not many people would lightly choose, but when it is necessary it is very possible to do it well.

Rabbi Julie Greenberg

Rabbi Julie Greenberg has served a Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia since 2001 and is also a licensed family therapist. Her book Just Parenting: Building the World One Family at a Time was published in 2014.