They knew the practical challenges, but some divorcées are surprised by the negative treatment they receive in the community
It may come as no surprise to many that divorce rates in the Jewish community are on the rise, but it seems the attitudes of some have yet to catch up to the reality, and the social stigma related to divorced couples is alive and well.
According to the Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA’s 2011 National Household Survey analysis, the incidence of Jewish divorce is increasing due to a number of factors, including “shifting social mores, different expectations of marriage, and revamped divorce laws.”
The study suggested that marriage “has traditionally been perceived as something that binds people permanently, regardless of whether they remain happily or unhappily wed. Today, people disenchanted with their marriages are much more inclined to consider divorce.”
Statistics from 2001 show that 7.5 per cent of Jews 15 years old and older were divorced or separated, compared to 8.6 per cent in 2011. In 2001, 22,440 people were divorced or separated, compared to 27,395 in 2011 – representing a 22 per cent increase in divorced or separated Jews in 10 years.
Overall, the survey found that 43 per cent of all Jews are married, while seven per cent are divorced or separated. Among those aged 45 to 64, almost 75 per cent of Jews are either married or in common-law unions, while 14.6 per cent are divorced or separated.
Although divorce has become more common, according to some members of the Jewish community, the social stigma related to divorce is still deeply felt by those who have gone through the process.
When Adina (not her real name), a mother of four, separated from her husband earlier this year, she felt as if she was publicly admitting defeat.
While she may have been prepared for some of the more obvious challenges associated with divorce, she was surprised by how she was treated by people she once considered friends.
“It was so disillusioning,” she said, adding that her social life has been affected “tremendously.”
“Everyone is telling me that people just don’t know what to say, so they stay away,” said Adina, who identifies as Orthodox.
“No one invites us out, ever. We never get invited out. For Shabbat, we are always at my parents… [or] my cousins… It is a tight community, and the Sephardi community is even tighter, and I know there are people who don’t talk to me because they’re friends with my ex.”
She said when it comes to friends they shared as a couple, or friends that were her husband’s and with whom she became friendly when they married, “they don’t talk to me at all.
“I’ve always said it would have been so much easier to be a widow than a divorcée. A widow, people automatically give sympathy, empathy, people feel for you. But divorce, people think it’s contagious, like, ‘Don’t come near me.’
“I’m still a person, I’m still raising four kids. We deserve to be treated normally. How about just saying, ‘Hi?’”
She said despite her new social reality, she isn’t hiding from the community.
“When there are community events, I still go. I haven’t hidden, because I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Looking on the bright side, Adina said the divorce was an opportunity for her to filter out the people in her life who didn’t have her best interests at heart and like to gossip.
“I’ve become very reclusive and really stick to my core group of friends who I know I can trust. That’s not really ideal, but the community hasn’t proven itself otherwise,” she said.
Rachel, 32, who works as a teacher in the Jewish day school system and separated from her husband last year, despite efforts to work through his infidelity, had a similar experience when it came to the social changes in her life.
“In some ways, I learned who to trust. There are a lot of people who like to gossip, and I don’t think that’s beneficial to anyone, so you have to know who your friends are and who to talk to and who to trust and that whatever information you give them is going to stay confidential. Especially within the Jewish community,” Rachel said with a laugh.
“I feel there are certain people who handle me with kid gloves, or they want to ask questions. You see those questions in their eyes, or maybe even a little pity or something of that nature. You’re not just a normal person anymore.”
Lisa Gelman, a family lawyer based in Toronto, said she has witnessed her Jewish clients’ struggles with the stigma of divorce.
“I still think the Jewish community, based on what we see, there is still a higher stigma and maybe it would be the same in different cultures… but I definitely still think that the stigma is still there,” Gelman said.
“There will be people who still feel the shame, feel like failures, and not wanting to be gossiped about within the community, being the next piece of gossip running through. I don’t know if it’s fair to say just about the Jewish community, but because I’m Jewish, I do [see] that.”
Rachel said she identified with feeling like a failure.
“My parents had a wonderful happy marriage and I wanted that for myself. For me, divorce is a sense of failure,” she said.
Adina said that although she does feel guilt related to the breakdown of her marriage, she refuses to see herself as a failure.
“I just got off the phone with a friend who views the end of his marriage as a failure, and I got so upset. I said, ‘You’re not a failure. You tried your hardest.’ If your child tried their hardest on a test and wasn’t able to make it, you wouldn’t berate them for it because you saw them study, you saw them working tirelessly,” Adina said.
“Nobody wants to get divorced. It reminds me when you have a baby and everyone keeps saying, ‘breast is best,’ and everyone knows it’s the best thing for their child, so if I’m not doing it, there must be a reason why.”
Rachel, who identifies as modern Orthodox, said she noticed that the attitudes about divorce varied depending on how observantly Jewish her friends are.
“I live within two worlds, because a lot of my friends and family members are actually not observant, so it is interesting to me that their opinions, after hearing the details of my situation, was very much that we should get divorced. There was no hesitation,” Rachel said.
For Miriam, who is Orthodox and has four kids between the ages of five and 10, as soon as people in her circle learned of her divorce, they pushed for her to get remarried.
“I think in the secular world, it’s the opposite. Everyone tells you to take your time and enjoy, but there is pressure to be married. It makes a little bit of sense because every Shabbos, every yontif – I have family, so I can stay with my family –but it is hard to think about Pesach on your own, a single mother with a lot of kids with no money living in an apartment… it’s terrible,” said Miriam, who has remarried since her divorce in 2013.
Caroline Johnson, co-ordinator of Jewish Family & Child’s Changing Family Program, said it’s to be expected that members of a tight-knit community that puts such a high value on family would experience social stigma related to divorce.
However, she added, in many cases, the community can “close around those who are perceived to be more vulnerable and try to be supportive in that way.
“I think the Jewish community takes this very seriously, so there is probably some guilt and shame and things like that when marriages fail, and then there is the responsiveness of community to uphold and support, especially the most vulnerable, which tend to be the kids.”
On the other side of the spectrum is Paul Shulman, 46, who separated from his wife of 13 years in 2012.
Shulman said he didn’t think a divorce could go better than theirs did, which may have something to do with the fact that neither of them seemed to suffer socially.
“The only thing [talked about] in the community was how much better we got along divorced than together. That’s the kind of divorce we have,” he said.
Shulman, who describes himself as secular, said that sometimes, the secret to a good divorce is choosing not to battle a spouse about money.
He thinks he avoided any animosity from his ex-wife or her family and friends by providing her with everything she needed financially.
“Everyone starts fighting about money. She’s going to get half regardless. Why pay a lawyer $100,000 and fight? You know she needs this much money a month just to live. It’s your kids, it’s the woman you were with for 15 years,” he said.
“Last night I was at a dance recital, sitting with her and her mother. Why not? Everyone always says it’s good for the kids. Of course it is. I was talking to my ex-mother-in-law last night.”
He said that as a result of his good relationship with his ex-wife, his kids didn’t seem to suffer from the divorce at all.
“For my kids, it didn’t faze them for a second. We go for dinner, she’s in my house,” he said.
When asked about a stigma in the Jewish community regarding divorce, he said, “I don’t think it’s a stigma, I think it’s a plague.
“There are only 15 species on this planet that mate for life, and like, 10 of them are birds. So I don’t know if it’s so natural for us.
Next week, The CJN looks at the impact divorce has on children, the challenges of single parenthood, and the community resources available to help families adjust to the changes.