The Divorced Family

The saying “TGIF” resonates strongly with Orthodox Jews, who anticipate Shabbos and its accompanying joys and comforts: the tantalizing smell of baked goods and freshly cooked food, the warm glow of the candles, the melodious davening in shul, the return home to a majestically set table, the priceless family time and the precious opportunities to socialize. For divorcees, however, and particularly for divorcees with children, Shabbos often represents a painful reminder of the lives they have lost. For this segment of the population, Shabbos highlights the dissolution of their marriages and families and the new responsibilities and mitzvos they must now assume that were previously performed by their spouses.

“I think the loneliness is tremendous,” says Shira Fass,* a volunteer at Sister to Sister, a North American support network for Jewish divorced women that largely focuses on assisting single mothers raising kids under eighteen, as well as young divorced women without children. “Even with all of their friends and support, there’s a loneliness that’s hard to fill without a spouse. The nights are long and hard. Our lives in general are family centered, and Shabbos and yom tov in particular are family-centered times.”

Isolation is just one of the social challenges that affect frum divorcees. While many divorced men suffer severe hardships, community advocates maintain that the challenges facing single mothers are incomparable. Consequently, in the New York tristate area, for example, a number of communal programs exist to support divorced women, while divorced men have largely been left to fend for themselves.

“There are many more divorced single women than men,” says Rabbi Ariel Miller,* the rav of a small New Jersey shul. “Divorced men remarry much sooner. That is my anecdotal observation. In most cases, wonderful divorced women are not able to remarry easily because they have the responsibility of their children; even if fathers are meeting their financial obligations, the women by default are raising the kids day to day. I’m not minimizing the challenges many divorced men face. I speak to them, and I’d like to think I’m attuned to their challenges as well. However, it’s very different when it comes to single mothers. It’s worlds apart.”

Rabbi Miller, who assists couples with mediation once they have decided to divorce, fortuitously became involved in supporting divorced mothers. At the start of the pandemic, his congregation established a grassroots fund to help members who were struggling financially. Among those who sought financial and food assistance were divorced women—women from the local community who were not shul members. “It became clear during Covid that these women were hit with a one-two punch,” he says. “Many lost their jobs. Divorced women who otherwise might have been able to go to their parents for yom tov could not go due to the pandemic, so they were making Pesach themselves. It was an expensive proposition to have to suddenly provision themselves and their families.”

In order to benefit from the support, people seeking help completed a questionnaire that asked, among other information, for the name of their rav. “I was getting many calls from women saying they don’t have a rav,” says Rabbi Miller. “I told them to put my name down. That led those of us providing Covid relief to realize that this underserved population is almost invisible and has real needs. What makes it so difficult is that the women are anonymous. Take a divorced woman with three kids below the age of seven—she can’t get to shul. The rabbis typically have a relationship with the men, who are in shul; the women, not necessarily.”

A person who doesn’t have sensitivity to those who are divorced is simply someone who hasn’t been through the parashah. It’s very easy to sit back [and pass judgment] if you haven’t experienced it. 

Rabbi Aharon Licht* administers a charitable fund that primarily addresses the financial needs of families in an established New York neighborhood. Two decades ago, he became aware of the growing population of divorced mothers and their serious challenges—something he was unaware of until he spoke with school principals, rabbis and pediatricians and discovered “there were many, many more than I thought.” He estimates that there are easily between 4,000 and 5,000 Orthodox divorced women today in the US Northeast. “I live in a community with probably close to 10,000 people, and we have around 300 divorced women in my neighborhood,” he says. “Every twenty-four-year-old girl in our neighborhood seems to have two or three friends who are divorced.” The result, he says, is that there is a new, rapidly growing family model in our communities that is under great financial and emotional strain. This population is putting pressure on our community institutions, including schools as well as programs such as Tomchei Shabbos, and is producing a new generation growing up without the benefit of a two-parent home.

At a recent conference for Orthodox mental health professionals, Rabbi Licht presented a workshop on the frum single parent, in which he noted that the financial challenges in many divorced homes run deep. While pointing out that his observations do not apply to every divorced family, many single moms, he says, find the financial struggles to be a constant.

Single moms are short a spouse’s income and often lack the career education, skill set and time to make up for it. Childcare expenses may also limit earning ability, and child support allocations from ex-spouses are often insufficient. All of these factors compound the difficulties of paying for tuition, extracurricular activities and the costs associated with yamim tovim. In addition, without the maintenance typically performed by a husband, notes Rabbi Licht, the home can fall into disrepair. Women may feel guilty or ashamed of constantly having to turn to relatives for money, and family members who may be a source of financial support may be unable or unwilling to continue their help beyond a certain point.

Discussing the allocation of community resources, Rabbi Licht notes that “it’s always a delicate balance trying to triage the people who genuinely need it.”

“While my estimate is very, very unscientific, in about 75 percent of the cases there’s a real financial need. Some of the emails we get in response to our assistance are truly heartbreaking.”

Equally as heartbreaking are the emotional and social challenges of divorced mothers—issues they might be able to address in therapy if only they were able to afford it. Constant negotiations with their ex-husbands can be emotionally overwhelming, says Rabbi Licht, and the challenge of remarrying is formidable. Besides being unable to go to shul, single moms of young children may be unable to go out [to social events], making it all the more difficult to foster and maintain social connections.

In cases of absent fathers, single moms may also experience guilt and sadness about the lack of a male role model for their kids. “The children are the biggest challenge,” says Fass. “Specifically the boys—mothers need someone to take their sons to shul and to be a liaison with the yeshivos.”

Rabbi Licht adds that divorced mothers may also feel they are perceived negatively for not doing more to make their marriages work. “There is often a bias against them,” he asserts. “People might say, ‘Who told them to get divorced? Why did she marry him in the first place? Why isn’t the ex supporting her? Why doesn’t her family support her? Why doesn’t she get a job herself?’”

But those who pass judgment, says Rabbi Licht, have never been tested. “There’s a colloquial saying that ‘a liberal is a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet.’ A person who doesn’t have sensitivity to those who are divorced is simply someone who hasn’t been through the parashah. It’s very easy to sit back [and pass judgment] if you haven’t experienced it.” 

* 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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