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Behind the Headlines: Synagogues Have Trouble Addressing Special Needs of Divorced Congregants

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Ruth Cohen and her husband had been moderately active members of their suburban New Jersey Reform temple for more than a decade when they divorced.

Their two daughters attended Hebrew school, and both had Bat Mitzvah ceremonies there.

When Cohen and her husband split up, her husband moved out of the area, and her temple moved out of her life.

At a time when she needed the support of her congregation, Cohen felt deserted by her temple friends, acquaintances and even the rabbi.

After a decade of car-pooling, bridge games and friendships with couples from the temple, Cohen found her new status as a divorcee left her suddenly excluded from their lives.

When the end of the year came, she let her temple membership lapse.

Though her congregation has a retention committee to follow up on people who drop out of the temple, no one called her. Nor did anyone from the congregation call when her brother was killed in an accident six months later.

“It was as if I had vanished, as if I’d ceased to exist,” she says.

“It’s ironic,” she adds bitterly. “The Reform movement is so big on outreach, and when I needed them, they didn’t reach out to me.”

Cohen’s alienation from her temple community after her divorce is not uncommon.

“There is an almost universal absence of outreach efforts” to divorced congregants, according to Dr. Nathalie Friedman, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, who spoke at a recent symposium on Jewish feminism sponsored by the Commission on Synagogue Relations of New York’s UJA-Federation.

‘PEOPLE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY’

Just at the time when a congregant needs his or her friends the most, they often turn away, embarrassed or threatened by the divorce.

“People don’t know what to say, what to do,” says Rabbi Sanford Seltzer, director of the Committee on the Jewish Family for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the association of Reform congregations.

“When somebody dies,” he says, “there are rituals and everyone pitches in Divorce is threatening, especially if things are stressful in your own relationship.”

While divorce is increasingly a fact of modern American Jewish life, attitudes toward the dissolution of marriage remain rooted in the traditional mores of an earlier era.

Synagogue life is designed to suit the needs of families. But families are no longer structured the way they were just a generation ago.

“The so-called conventional Jewish family is now in the distinct minority,” says Seltzer.

Demographers estimate that about 18 percent of Jews who get married eventually divorce. About half of them marry again.

One recent poll, sponsored by the Graduate School of the City University of New York, indicates that 9 percent of adult Jews are currently divorced and I percent are separated.

“Our synagogues have been very much family oriented and young-person oriented,” acknowledges Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue of America, the congregational arm of Conservative Judaism.

Lillian Sherman has been chairman of United Synagogue’s Singles Commission for the last decade. As she puts it, “the synagogue has always been a Noah’s Ark, a two-by-two society.”

“Singles are the same as they were when they were married: vital, productive people,” Sherman says. “Synagogues must recognize this and make them feel comfortable.”

‘ELEMENT OF DENIAL AND FEAR’

Many feel the synagogue should serve as a critical source of help and support. But rabbis get little training in the theoretical and practical aspects of ministering to divorced congregants.

They “still take the intact family for granted,” according to Friedman of Columbia University. They don’t bring up divorce in their sermons for fear of making it acceptable or somehow tacitly encouraging it.

“We don’t know how to deal with it,” admits Seltzer of the UAHC. “There is a certain element of denial and fear. Pulpit discussions about it are not happening. Attitudes have not caught up with reality.”

Some feel the synagogue should serve as a clearinghouse of information for the newly separated and divorced.

The synagogue should also help provide couples with alternate methods of conflict resolution, like divorce mediation, and “ought to take a stand on Jewish men who do not pay their child support or alimony,” says Seltzer.

Women are the custodial parent in 8 out of 10 divorces involving children, researchers say.

In her 1989 study of divorced Reform and Conservative Jewish women in the Detroit area, Dr. Lynda Giles discovered that all of the women she interviewed wanted to get more involved in their congregations, but they “found themselves feeling alienated by their synagogues.”

There is “absolutely discrimination” against divorced women within the synagogue community, Giles says, “some of it very open, some of it more subtle.”

Divorced women “want institutions and agencies to help them, but with a sense of dignity, because these women often have to go and ask for financial assistance,” she explains.

RABBI’S PERMISSION NEEDED

Giles suggests “an organized intake process, so women don’t have to go from (Jewish family services) agency to agency. Give them a ticket for a dinner rather than expect them to buy a bond. Offer free membership for a year and High Holy Day service tickets.

“Do it, so they don’t have the feeling that they’re lost,” she urges.

The denominational movements are beginning to address the needs of this growing population.

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis has included a ceremony for divorce in its newly revised rabbi’s manual.

A ritual of this type acknowledges the reality of divorce in American Jewish society, brings together the congregant and rabbi to mark an important life cycle event, and helps the congregant move through a painful time.

Another needed step, according to the UAHC’s Seltzer, is for “both the pulpit and the pew” to make it “acceptable” for congregants to be divorced. People need to be “given permission to come talk to their rabbis about it,” he says.

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