As told to Aviva Engel
I was eleven and my sister was seven when our parents divorced. We’re in our thirties now. Although I’m an adult and married with my own children, I often still recall the pain I experienced as a young boy who came from a “broken home.”
Growing up, I was one of only two kids in my grade of about fifty students whose parents were divorced. I was always very self-conscious about it, even though my peers never treated me any differently. At the end of the school day and before Shabbos and yom tov, I was always cognizant and envious of the fact that my classmates were returning to their same bedrooms, beds and homes, where both parents lived, whereas my sister and I rotated houses every few days. It was very challenging for me. If I ever woke up in the middle of the night, it would be disorienting because I didn’t always sleep in the same location.
I remember the stress around school events like performances when everyone had to wear specific items of clothing and I discovered that a needed item, such as Shabbos shoes, was at the other parent’s house. It was always a scramble and chore to pick it up. I’m not sure why it never occurred to my parents to simply buy doubles and equip both homes with everything my sister and I needed; it would have saved us a lot of unnecessary hassle and shlepping back and forth.
As kids, my sister and I missed a number of school and community activities because we were at the other parent’s home—programs like Avos Ubanim and mother-daughter challah bakes. My best childhood friend would always invite me to join him and his father at Avos Ubanim, but I rarely accepted because when I did, I felt sad to be learning with someone other than my dad. I have a wonderful uncle who would take me to shul when I was with my mother, and I always felt comfortable sitting beside him. One memory that stands out is that for many years, he would accompany me during Hoshanos, and I was both happy and relieved to have him by my side; I had someone to walk with while the men circled the bimah. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to participate alone. To this day I’m forever grateful that he stepped in to fill the void during the times when my father wasn’t present.
“My sister and I rotated houses every few days. It was very challenging.”
I remember the day my parents told us they were getting divorced. I had returned from playing football at my cousin’s house. I was incredibly sad but not surprised, as they had never been mutually affectionate and were often impatient and dismissive of one another in our presence. They both assured us that the breakup was not our fault and underscored that we would always be their top priority and that they would always love us—something they not only reiterated countless times over many years but demonstrated through their actions, including when they united to escort me down the aisle to my chuppah. It meant so much to me.
My parents were, and still are, the most wonderful people. I know they did their very best under the circumstances to support my sister and me and to make sure we were always content and thriving. While I always knew I was deeply loved as a child and never wanted for anything material, a piece of me always wished that my family could have been kept whole, even though I knew my parents were never going to get back together.
Today, my wife and I are thrilled and feel so incredibly blessed to be able to provide our children with the security and consistency that I lacked as a kid—a home that we hope serves as a model to them of true shalom bayis.
The dissolution of a marriage and family naturally has a profound impact on a couple’s children, who often suffer serious collateral challenges.
“Many children are really struggling and have significant issues as a result of all the pain and difficulty they’re dealing with,” says Shira Fass, who assists children of divorce in her role as a volunteer for Sister to Sister, which currently supports about 2,500 children under age eighteen in navigating the repercussions of divorce. At a conference for Orthodox mental health professionals, community activist Rabbi Aharon Licht presented some of his observations about specific challenges faced by children of divorce:
– Children are often angry at their parents for getting divorced and making them “poor,” as well as different; boys living with their mothers may hurt more.
– Some children feel responsible for the breakup.
– Children often live between two residences, sometimes with differing levels of Jewish observance.
– Children may be victims of parental alienation by one parent toward the other.
– Many children in divorced homes feel neglected, which, in Rabbi Licht’s view, can be worse than abuse.
– A single mom may be unable to afford necessary therapy for her children, and bikkur cholim organizations are commonly maxed out with funding requests for counseling.
– Bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings are especially painful and difficult, financially and operationally.
– Children of divorce miss the positive role modeling of a healthy couple relationship and mother-father interaction, which is integral to raising their own healthy children.
– Children whose parents remarry may have a hard time adjusting.
How can we be of support communally and individually?
– Ensure that children of divorce have what other children have, such as afikoman and Chanukah presents and extracurricular activities.
– Provide them with “big brothers” and “big sisters.” “Big brothers” could review Gemara and other homework with boys from divorced homes and accompany them to shul.
– Help such families secure affordable therapy if needed.
– Encourage their own children to befriend children of divorce. Host them for Shabbos and include them in your family’s yom tov or chol hamoed plans, and even vacation plans, if possible.
– Offer babysitting, childcare services and tutoring.
* Not the interviewee’s real name. Many of those interviewed for this article preferred to use a pseudonym.
Aviva Engel is an award-winning freelance journalist and a director of communications in Montreal, Canada.
To reach the rabbis mentioned in this article, contact the Jewish Action office at email@example.com.
1. Ish Chayil, Reuben Bernshtein: 732-801-9898
2. My Extended Family, a project of Mayan Yisroel of Flatbush, offering services to children of divorce: myef.org.
3. Sister to Sister: sistertosisternetwork.org.
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The Divorced Family by Aviva Engel