Supporting the Divorced Parent: What Every Community Can Do to Help

If the topic of divorce makes many people uneasy, one can only imagine the discomfort experienced by those who live it. While community advocates interviewed for this cover story were unable to pinpoint the exact number of Orthodox divorcees in their neighborhoods, one thing is certain: they are far more prevalent in our communities than we realize. The silver lining is that North American frum divorcees have a number of top-notch resources and support organizations at their disposal, offering everything from tzedakah and networking to assistance for yamim tovim and even shoulders to lean on.

When Ruben Bernshtein of Edison, New Jersey, got divorced two years ago, his family and rebbeim were very supportive. Yet Bernshtein longed to connect with a fellow divorced male in the same boat. “I just wanted to meet another divorced guy, and I couldn’t find one,” he recalls. “There was no WhatsApp group to join, or anyone to call. It’s a bit extreme, but I compare it to a soldier who has a hard time relaying his wartime experiences; you wouldn’t understand it unless you went through it. Similarly, I just needed somebody to share this experience with who would understand me on a deeper level.”

The dearth of support groups for Orthodox divorced men inspired Bernshtein to create Ish Chayil, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping men of all ages, with or without children, and at all stages of divorce, be they newly separated or on their own for decades.

“One of the reasons I chose the name Ish Chayil is because of the stigma that a divorced man is a nebbech,” explains Bernshtein. “I think many men start believing they lack value. I really want to change that image. Men need to realize that yes, they went through a challenge, but they are still soldiers and they are strong. And they will get through this to the next stage of life.”

Having seen the toll that divorce has taken on some of his peers, Bernshtein is sensitive to those who struggle with issues of faith. “I approached a potential donor who, baruch Hashem, has a great marriage. I shared the concept of Ish Chayil, and he felt it was similar to bikkur cholim. He didn’t understand. ‘Bikkur cholim?!’ I exclaimed. ‘This is pikuach nefesh! Some of these men just want to give up on life. Their finances are totally gone, they’re knee deep in debt, they can’t see their kids and they’ve become socially awkward because people are turning away from them. Their lives are upside down! You’re telling me this is bikkur cholim? These people are losing their emunah in Hashem. They are getting lost.’”

Ish Chayil held its first Shabbaton this past November at a hotel in Edison, New Jersey, where more than fifty men gained invaluable resources, new friends and renewed optimism. The event, which featured an impressive line-up of speakers, including Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, Rabbi Yitzchak Feldheim and Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein, hosted a Motzaei Shabbos singles event. Having received incredible feedback from participants, Bernshtein is already planning the next Shabbaton.

South of Edison, Lakewood is the home base of Sister to Sister, a North American support network for frum divorced women. Founded in 2005 by Anne (Chani) Neuberger, who currently serves as deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology in the Biden administration, Sister to Sister serves over 1,600 women in the US and Canada with extensive resources and advocacy. Members may join an active social forum, search reams of online referrals for assistance, and participate in events and teleconferences. Services include legal and career guidance, mentorship for divorced women and their children, Shabbos and holiday hospitality and inspirational phone calls, to name but a few. “We make women feel special by sending them gifts for the yamim tovim and for their birthdays,” says Shira Fass,* a Sister to Sister volunteer. “We also send birthday and Chanukah gifts to their kids.”

Sister to Sister hosts an annual Shabbaton at a hotel, attended by some 500 women. While participants pay a nominal fee, the catered weekend is largely subsidized by a charitable fund that assists divorced mothers. “The main purpose of the Shabbaton is to give overloaded single mothers a break, a chance to recharge,” says Rabbi Aharon Licht,* the fund’s administrator. “We want the custodial mothers to be able to go back and raise their children patiently. The program offers stellar guest speakers, and the women relax and are served beautiful meals; we even give them gifts. We really go out of our way to make it a glorious weekend for them.”

These women are often anonymous and invisible and do not get the attention they need and deserve.

The Shabbaton is also a retreat for divorced women with adult children. Of the 500 attendees, between forty and fifty women fit into this category. Organizers recognize that for these women the Shabbaton serves a different but equally important purpose: it facilitates their socialization with peers living with similar challenges.

“But what’s really key to the participants,” says Rabbi Licht, “is that about twenty professionals also come on the Shabbaton: principals, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, several doctors, dating coaches, and shadchanim; at the most recent Shabbaton, we invited an expert on parental alienation. They sit at cocktail tables, and the women are entitled to a fifteen-minute appointment with any one of them.”

While Sister to Sister is broader in scope, there are other communal initiatives aimed at assisting single mothers on the local level. Rabbi Ariel Miller* is the rav of a small New Jersey shul in a community that has launched a grassroots organization to help this population. He estimates that of the roughly 2,000 Orthodox families in his community, divorced women represent close to five percent of the households. The organization supports the mothers in a variety of ways. During Hurricane Ida in 2021, for example, when basements were flooded and carpets needed to be removed, volunteers went to homes of single moms to assist with the cleanup. A similar group was set up to help them dig out their cars and shovel their properties in the event of a snowstorm.

Rabbi Miller’s organization also assists mothers in navigating their children’s education. “If a woman is the custodial parent, choices about a mesivta [a boys high school] are really difficult to make,” he explains. “We found an incredible eighth grade rebbi, a master mechanech who is familiar with the system and knows all the different styles of mesivtas. He agreed to speak with any divorced or widowed mother of eighth grade boys and to talk to their children, to help them make an informed decision.”

But it’s the support his community provides for divorced mothers for the yamim tovim that Rabbi Miller sees as especially vital. “Kimcha d’Pischa [the custom of giving tzedakah before Pesach to enable the needy to buy holiday provisions] is an important mitzvah,” says Rabbi Miller. “It’s the responsibility of all of us to ensure that everybody has what they need to make Pesach. For the two years of Pesach during Covid, in addition to kimcha d’Pischa where the community ensured that divorced women would have everything they needed, from fish and meat to wine and matzah, we gave gift certificates as well. We discovered that these women often don’t have money to buy themselves or their kids a new outfit. We relayed the message, ‘This is for you. Please spend it on something for yourself for simchas yom tov.’” The extraordinary feedback the project received inspired the team to offer similar funding ahead of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos to about twenty women who had been identified by community networks as being most in need.

Two years ago, the shul also launched a new program to provide arba minim. “We thought to ourselves—in which areas of the yamim tovim do women feel discomfort, and how can we make it easier?” recalls Rabbi Miller. “Buying a lulav and esrog is essentially a man’s domain. Sales are held in shuls, in kollelim, in the rosh kollel’s basement—it’s a bit uncomfortable for women to access, plus many don’t know what they are looking for in terms of an appropriate price point.” The shul partnered with one of the local lulav and esrog retailers, who sold the sets at “an extraordinarily reduced price,” which they then offered to the single mothers in town free of charge. “We also arranged hours for kids where we showed them how to choose an esrog—here’s what makes it mehudar, here’s what makes it pasul,” says Rabbi Miller. “It was an incredible way to give dignity to these women. Baruch Hashem, this year we distributed about fifty sets.”

The gesture, says Rabbi Miller, was a simple one. It came at a relatively low cost but yielded tremendous “return on investment,” he notes. “A set costs between forty and sixty dollars. To distribute fifty sets costs about $2,500. For that $2,500, there are fifty women who feel, ‘I have daled minim. Somebody cares.’  It’s something that in most cases, they likely wouldn’t have gotten. If there’s a bar mitzvah boy in the family, we’ll give a second set. For fifty dollars, let him go to shul and feel like everyone else.”

Rabbi Miller encourages other communities to follow suit, even if they offer assistance in a different capacity. “It doesn’t have to be as ambitious as our program,” he maintains. “It could simply be offering women’s hours to purchase a lulav and esrog so they feel comfortable going into the store. In every Jewish community, people’s desire to give charity is astonishing. . . . We need to make it easy for divorced women to access existing resources, and we also need to look out throughout the year—but especially around the Jewish holidays—for particular stresses that we could help alleviate.”

This past Sukkos, Rabbi Miller’s organization took its support two steps further by helping women build their sukkahs as well as offering hospitality for meals. On Chanukah, the women were given pre-filled menorahs and $200 gift certificates to enhance the holiday with their children.

The objectives of his team’s assistance are threefold, says Rabbi Miller: “Number one is to provide practical help to make the lives of these women and children easier. Number two is to offer a sense of chizuk—you’re not alone; people think and care about you. Number three is to build awareness in the community.

“These women are often anonymous and invisible and do not get the attention they need and deserve. Hopefully we are raising the Jewish community’s consciousness so that people, including communal leadership, will be sensitized and will look around and say, ‘We need to take care of this.’ Ideally, neighbors will think—is the divorced woman taken care of for the Seder [or for a regular Shabbos meal]? Each and every community can and should be doing something to help these women. My personal hope is that this awareness can spread throughout the world.”

Fass of Sister to Sister agrees that communal support is imperative. “If everybody just tuned in to what a single mom’s day looks like and what her children’s day looks like, they would want to reach out and make a difference,” she says. “Take a kid to shul, learn with a young boy at Avos Ubanim, invite a family for a seudah, or take a family on a trip. The tagline we love to use at Sister to Sister is: ‘A woman who feels connected to her community will raise children connected to the community.’

“These women are valiant. Many of them are literally fighting for their children’s Yiddishkeit, fighting for their survival. If we could just underscore for them, ‘You’re not alone—we’re in this together,’ it’ll make a big difference in the next generation of Klal Yisrael.”

* Not the interviewee’s real name. Many of those interviewed for this article preferred to use a pseudonym.

To reach the rabbis mentioned in this article, contact the Jewish Action office at ja@ou.org.

Resources:
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.

Aviva Engel is an award-winning freelance journalist and a director of communications in Montreal, Canada.

 

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This article was featured in the Summer 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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