In the not-so-distant past, divorce in the ultra-Orthodox community, both in Canada and abroad, was almost unheard of.
The possibility that ultra-Orthodox couples, who generally live among each other in insular communities, would seek professional help beyond their rabbinical leaders was even more rare.
According to a 2014 study called From wallflowers to lonely trees: Divorced ultra-Orthodox women in Israel, religion plays a significant role in the divorce process.
“Whereas nonreligious collective cultures stress the importance of family unity as a cultural building block, religious collective cultures give it a religious meaning… Divorce is a legally legitimate phenomenon according to the Jewish religion, but is considered socially undesired and inadequate in the ultra-Orthodox community,” the study said.
“The ultra-Orthodox community views the sacredness and wholeness of the family as a basic value of society, and hence sees divorce as a threat. Due to this social atmosphere, divorce used to be rare and occurred only under extreme circumstances of physical domestic abuse, severe mental problems, or illness.”
The study said that researchers have noted changes in divorce patterns in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community and that there is now more social support and awareness for divorced families.
Nati Becker, a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in social work and a member of the haredi community in a city near Jerusalem, has conducted research in areas including behaviour problems in children of divorced families and the amount of influence haredi women have in their marriages.
Becker is also co-founder of an “Ultra-Orthodox Therapist Association” (www.imc.org.il), which serves as an online information centre for people seeking treatment within the haredi community.
He said there are no official statistics about divorce in the ultra-Orthodox community, but the rates are increasing and there are more resources to cater to their unique needs.
Em Habanim – an Israeli organization helping divorced families in the haredi community – was established 15 years ago to empower divorced women.
“Three years ago, another organization was founded – Ba’asher Telchi. These organizations empower the divorced women and increase the awareness of the haredi community of the challenges [faced by] these families,” Becker said.
There are a number of factors that make divorce more difficult for the ultra-Orthodox, Becker said.
“In a lot of divorce cases, the male has no occupational training and can’t pay child support, especially because the families are usually large. Besides poverty, there may be a lack of emotional availability of the parents. For boys, Torah studies usually decline when their father moves out of the home. This has a big negative influence on the whole family,” Becker said, adding that families also have to contend with social exclusion and the stigma of divorce.
Rachel, a member of the Orthodox community in the GTA, split from her husband last year after learning about his infidelity.
“I did have friends who were more religious than I was, and members of the more religious community were like, ‘No, you can make this work. You have a marriage, you have a child. God brought you together for a reason, and who are you to tear this apart?’” she said.
“I have quite a few friends who aren’t necessarily happy in their marriages, but I don’t think they’ll go and get divorced.”
On the other hand, she recalled the time she was contacted by a rabbi who sat on the beit din to oversee her divorce.
“He said, ‘Divorce is very difficult, but it’s like surgery. Sometimes you have to go through that pain because it makes you healthier. It’s better for you.’”
She said she was surprised by his words, because even though he was aware of the circumstances that led to the breakdown of her marriage, she expected that an Orthodox rabbi would be more resistant to the idea.
Miriam, a Toronto mother of four who divorced her abusive husband in 2013, said until people realized what her marriage was actually like, she was encouraged to stay in the marriage at all costs.
She said her ex was financially, emotionally, and eventually physically abusive.
“When we started going to a therapist, when I went to [Jewish Family & Child], everyone was telling me, ‘You need to leave.’ Even my really Orthodox therapist told me, ‘You need to leave’… I remember that I called my rabbi once, and he said, ‘I can’t help you anymore, you have to call the police. There is nothing I can do for you.’”
Adina, an Orthodox single mother of four, said in her experience, Orthodox Jewish leaders who offer guidance and counselling, although well-intentioned, may be unqualified.
She said when she sought counselling from rabbis in her community about her abusive marriage, she felt it was damaging to hear simplistic advice such as, “Stand up to him, put him in his place.”
“They’re not understanding the full scope of what is going on,” she said, adding that the advice given is based on somewhat healthy, non-abusive relationships.
“You have to combine Torah values with professional support. You can’t use one without the other. You can’t just have Torah support without getting professional help,” she said.
Becker believes it would be helpful if members of the ultra-Orthodox community received more instruction and preparation before marriage, “especially because they tend to marry very young and have little or no relationship experience.”
In order to address the challenges that are unique to haredi families who are coping with divorce, Becker said there needs to be an increased awareness about the issue in general, more government and social support, as well as efforts to empower women and children from divorced families.