Divorce is something we never think will actually happen to us.
I have a save-the-date magnet on my fridge for a former intern’s upcoming wedding. In the photo, the bride and groom are gazing at each other joyfully, her hair is rippling in the breeze, and the sun is shining.
In an ideal world, every marriage would stay like this—even through the ups and downs found in any relationship—and be fundamentally based on joy and love. In the real world, however, it doesn’t always work that way.
So what can we do to create a community where we value the holiness of marriage, but also support each other and smooth the road for those going through divorce?
Communities fail divorcing women for three main reasons: First, people don’t want to get involved, and second, they think divorce is contagious. Finally, people often wonder if by supporting a woman through the divorce process, they are implying that marriage is really not all that important.
In my work as the CEO of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), I’ve seen what happens when communities don’t do enough for those going through divorce, and the serious consequences that can result. I’ve also been privileged to see what happens when things go right, and communities step up to the plate.
Here’s what we can all do to make a difference on this painful issue:
#1 Cut the Judgment
My friend Holly posted this recently on Facebook: “This was quite a year…I lost a lot of time with my kids, my marriage, many friends, the support of my community.”
Divorce comes with compounded losses—of the hopes and dreams you had together as a couple, of time with your children, of your financial lifestyle, and, possibly, of your home as well. Now, add to that loss the sense of losing your community. Whether it’s the drop-in Shabbos invitations stopping just when you could use them most, your friends distancing themselves, or people avoiding you at events so that they don’t have to “get involved”, community reactions can be an aggravating factor amidst the pain of divorce, as Holly found. Unfortunately, Holly is not alone—in many cases, when women find themselves going through a divorce, they also experience the difficulty of losing friendships and community support.
Divorce is not like the flu—and while it may seem to come in waves in communal life, it’s not contagious!
Why does this happen? From what I’ve seen, communities fail divorcing women for three main reasons: First, people don’t want to get involved, and second, they think divorce is contagious. Finally, people often wonder if by supporting a woman through the divorce process, they are implying that marriage is really not all that important.
When it comes to the fear of getting involved, it’s vital to realize that you can provide support and encouragement to people without taking sides in a contentious divorce. Extending a Shabbos invitation, playdate offer, or meal drop-off doesn’t actually mean you’re on “Team Husband” or “Team Wife”. It’s a normal instinct to want to avoid conflict and stress, but, in this case, it’s a reaction we need to push against. After all, what’s the point of being a community if we turn away from those who need our love and care the most?
Secondly, divorce is not like the flu—and while it may seem to come in waves in communal life, it’s not contagious! Marriages are complicated, and only the two people involved really know what happened. While engaging with a divorced woman may present a difficult reminder that life doesn’t always proceed smoothly, we can learn to accept that reality and move forward as adults who care about offering support to one another.
Finally, one comment I’ve heard often at ORA is that by making it “easier” to get divorced, we are undermining the value of marriage itself. I could not disagree with this more strongly. From what I have seen at ORA, women typically choose divorce only when they feel like they have no other option and have exhausted all avenues of reconciliation. No young woman grows up dreaming of being divorced one day, and healthy couples avoid this result if at all possible. Supporting divorcing families does not diminish marriage, but rather encourages care and empathy—qualities which only enhance our lives and our communities.
Divorcing couples are going through enough. For the rest of us, our job is only to offer help and kindness, not to play judge and jury on whose fault it was and whether this divorce was really necessary. Unless there is a clear need for a community to take a strong stand—such as in cases of get refusal—our goal should be to support both people as much as we can.
#2 Protect Yourself (and the People Around You)
In my line of work, I deal with a particularly challenging dynamic in the divorce process: When someone refuses to give or receive a get (Jewish divorce). What you may not realize is that while get refusal might not affect all of us, there’s something we can all do to play a role in preventing this abuse from happening to anyone.
No young woman grows up dreaming of being divorced one day, and healthy couples avoid this result if at all possible. Supporting divorcing families does not diminish marriage, but rather encourages care and empathy—qualities which only enhance our lives and our communities.
What am I talking about? The Halachic Prenuptial Agreement (www.getora.org/prenup). In case you were wondering, this is not your typical Hollywood prenup, but a document couples can sign before they get married that prevents get refusal from happening later on. While no one getting married thinks they’re going to need this document, the real reason to sign one is to help make it standard in the frum community, so that the couples who need it will have it. Our motto at ORA is that friends don’t let friends get married without the prenup—so help spread the word and make the prenup standard in your community!
Even if you’re already married, sign a postnup—it helps spread the message that signing the prenup is a normal aspect of Jewish marriage. And ultimately, every prenup signed helps us create a community where we treat everyone with dignity and respect, no matter what…even if the worst happens.
#3 Set Some Standards
Many of us Jewish women have been fortunate enough to avoid personal experience with the difficulty of divorce, but that doesn’t mean we are off the hook in educating ourselves on these issues. One of Judaism’s core values is Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh, the principle that all Jewish people are responsible for one another. Divorce may not be part of all of our stories, but we all bear a responsibility to open our eyes to these issues and do what we can to make a difference.
One thing I’ve seen loud and clear in my work at ORA is that when communities take a unified stand on setting standards for behavior in divorce, that collective strength has a powerful impact in individual cases. We can all work to create communities where signing a halachic prenup is part of every marriage, where get refusal is never tolerated, and where we look out for our divorced friends the same way we would check in on our good friend who just had a baby. This problem belongs to all of us, and we all have to work together to deal with these issues better.
One of Judaism’s core values is Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh, the principle that all Jewish people are responsible for one another. Divorce may not be part of all of our stories, but we all bear a responsibility to open our eyes to these issues and do what we can to make a difference.
One Final Word
Ever since I became a ba’alas teshuvahin high school, one thing I have appreciated about Judaism is its willingness to look at all life experience, not just the happy moments. In a world where marriage is so often discussed with the same fairy tale mentality as an old Disney movie, our tradition recognizes that people are complicated, that not every relationship is a healthy one, and that life is full of unexpected challenges.
As a community, it’s easy to serve the people who follow the typical path—a year in Israel, college, marriage, babies, etc. But the real test of who we are as Klal Yisrael is not how we treat the mainstream, but how we treat the margins. Who doesn’t fit in? Who is struggling, and what can we do to help them? By making the challenges divorced people face all of our business, we bring ourselves one step closer to a community founded on true Torah values. Because, hey, what are friends for?