Jews are not immune to America’s divorce endemic.
With one in two marriages ending long before the expiration date contemplated by the ketubah, rabbis frequently find themselves in the difficult position of having to officiate at bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings with families who continue to be hurt and angry about a divorce. Today’s wedding chuppah is called upon to accommodate not just the bride’s and groom’s parents, but stepfathers and stepmothers as well.
In fact, divorce issues can affect nearly every aspect of a family’s relationship with the synagogue, and with Judaism: Hebrew school, havurahs, Passover seders, Shabbat dinners and Chanukah celebrations are all impacted when a couple splits up.
Even trips to Israel.
Susan Chait and her husband, Michael, wanted to take Michael’s son from a previous marriage to Israel following his bar mitzvah. But the boy’s mother refused to give permission, even at a time when security was not an issue.
“Initially, we had the rabbi talk to her, but she wouldn’t change her mind,” Chait said. “Ultimately, we had to go to court. The judge was angry about the fact that she would stand in the way of her child taking advantage of a great opportunity. He said, ‘I am Jewish, and I understand the importance of a trip like this’ and gave us permission to take him on the trip.”
Chait said she believes the conflict between her husband and his ex-wife blinded her to her children’s welfare.
“And the really sad part of it is that the children know this,” she said. “My advice for parents in this situation is to put the love for your children over the animosity that you have for each other.”
Rabbi David Wolpe of Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple is a frequent witness to the battles that affect the synagogue when there is a divorce.
“High Holiday tickets are a very contentious issue,” he said. “They represent not only a monetary investment, but also a community, and it is very difficult for the parties and the synagogue to negotiate over who gets the community. Congregants often feel like there is a judgment of who is right and who is wrong. What tends to happen is the person who has the most friends or connections in the community ends up getting the shul.”
So what is the rabbi’s role in the drama?
“People often try to put the rabbi in the middle to make the difficult decisions, but one of the most important things is not to allow people to triangulate,” Wolpe said. “The rabbi needs to return [the parties] to each other so that they can work the issue out between themselves. The rabbi that doesn’t learn that is in a lot of trouble.”
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom has also witnessed the impact of divorce on the synagogue.
“Families sometimes use the bar/bat mitzvah as the place to continue the unresolved battles for control, financial redress, custody, etc,” he said. “They can be unusually nasty, petty and mean. They put the rabbi in the uncomfortable position of reminding adults to stop fighting like children and to focus on the child and his or her memories of this special day. Weddings can likewise be difficult. Who stands beneath the chuppah?”
Steve Garren, an active member of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, has witnessed the impact that his two-year separation has had on his family’s synagogue life.
“Even though we went to the rabbi before we split up, this is not something that clergy can tell you exactly how to handle,” he said. “When it comes to divorce, the rabbi doesn’t have the answer for how each family is going to do it and what it is going to look like. The reality is that when you first separate, the temple mail keeps going to just one address.
“When you split up you suddenly become a conversation piece among temple friends, which of course is something that you never wanted to be,” Garren added. “Our separation also meant that we were not in our havurah anymore.
“Passover this year was the first time that the four of us weren’t together,” he said. “The kids went with me one night, and the next night they went with my wife to her parent’s house. We both try to do a good job of minimizing the impact, but there is definitely an impact.”
Hebrew school, frequently a battleground between children and their parents, also finds its way into internal parental battles. Wolpe noted that divorce frequently impacts Hebrew school attendance.
“Now Hebrew school becomes an additional weapon,” he said. “‘How come you didn’t take him to Hebrew school?’ Some parents work it out well, but many of them only care about Hebrew school to the extent that it is a weapon, and of course it is the kids that suffer.”
Susan Chait saw firsthand how Hebrew school became just another weapon in the divorce arsenal.
“Because my husband and his ex-wife had joint custody at the time his second son was attending Hebrew school, my husband’s ex would use skipping Hebrew school as a way to win her son over.”
So who does get the shul? It depends on the dynamic that the family ultimately chooses for itself. Feinstein noted that although the battles between divorcing Jewish couples can be nasty and mean, other times “divorce can liberate people to enjoy new relationships and a new life,” he said. “They can become better parents, better Jews and better people as they emerge from a marriage that was stifling and abusive. I’ve seen this, too. There are no easy generalizations.”
Today’s wedding chuppah is called upon to accommodate not just the bride’s and groom’s parents, but stepfathers and stepmothers as well.
Wendy Jaffe is the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide To Staying Married” (Volt Press, 2006). She can be reached at
Davening for Dollars
Talmud teaches that a righteous act is its own reward. But if that’s not inducement enough, a rabbi in Woodland Hills is offering $10 cash plus a Krispy Kreme doughnut to teens who attend his 7 a.m. minyan.
It started like this: In 1998 Rabbi Netanel Louie founded the Hebrew Discovery Center to promote Judaism in the West Valley. His center, next to a sushi restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, began by offering after-school Hebrew courses that fulfill the public schools’ foreign language requirement.
Eighty Jewish teens, some of whom didn’t know an alef from a bet, soon signed up to study modern Hebrew (in addition to the classes, the center schedules teen events, including kosher pizza parties and snow trips).
The first weekday teen minyan began in December 2005. How to get sleepy kids out of bed at dawn? Louie, ever pragmatic, had an idea: “Why don’t we offer them something they can’t refuse?”
Thus the $10 payments — which continue for the first two months of each teen’s attendance. Currently 110 teens are registered for the short Orthodox service, with about 35 showing up each day. Eleventh-grader Joni Fakheri, who had fallen away from observance, says the minyan has changed his life. After three years of not putting on tefillin and straying from kashrut, “it all came back.”
Tenth-grader Elizabeth Benam, who sports a trendy diamond nose-stud and nails painted metallic turquoise, admits that “I used to never hang out with Jews.” But now she’s sold on the minyan, because “it gives you a good feeling inside.”
Her cousin, Mor Pinto, agrees: “We don’t do it for the money anymore.”
Hebrew Discovery Center is located at 19819 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills. For more information, call(818) 348-4432 or e-mail email@example.com. HDC also offers after school Hebrew classes at 11540 Santa Monica Blvd., No. 201, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 696-4432.
A Super ‘Schmooze’ Move
Class Notes – A Model School
Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative synagogue in Santa Monica, thinks it has a winning formula for the eternal challenge of Hebrew school.
First, it did away with Sunday school, which was constantly competing with sports, music, tutoring and family activities. The Tuesday program was lengthened to three hours, but rather than relying on one teacher to cover all subjects, students go to specialized classes in Hebrew language, prayer and holidays, Bible and ethics — much as they move from math to science in school.
It cuts down on boredom, said Cantor Keith Miller, who did the revamp with Rabbi Michael Gottleib.
“The kids realize there is a finite amount of time in class, so they are excited to maximize that time and they come into class ready to start,” said Miller, who is also the education director at the 300-member synagogue. The school has about 60 students in its second- through seventh-grade classes.
Kehillat Ma’arav also developed Club Shabbat, a junior congregation for Hebrew school children, which integrates the Hebrew school families with those families who come for services every week.
This congregation has long sought ways to make its school more innovative. Two years ago, Kehillat Ma’arav revamped its high school program by teaming up with Shaarei Am, a Reform congregation in the neighborhood. Teens from both congregations study together every week.
For more information, call (310) 829-0566 or go to www.kmwebsite.com.
After School Academics
B’nai David-Judea Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, is opening a new religious school for fourth- through sixth-graders with minor learning problems who attend public or private secular schools rather than Jewish day schools.
“For a lot of kids, day school is just too fast-paced, with too much homework and too many subjects to master,” said Janet Fuchs, a mother who helped establish Torah Club with B’nai David’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky.
Eight kids and a teacher are already signed up for September classes, which will meet twice a week for two hours. Fuchs hopes the program will not only educate the kids but, more importantly, give them a sense of community. The vast majority of traditionally observant kids go to day school, leaving those who don’t out of the social loop.
Students at Torah Club will study the holidays, the prayerbook and the weekly Torah portion, but not Hebrew language, which eliminates the need for homework.
For more information, contact B’nai David-Judea at (310) 276-9269 or BDJ@bnaidavid.com.
Calling All Authors
If, like most Angelenos, you have a manuscript in your desk it’s time to pull it out. If it’s geared toward 8- to 11-year-olds, that is. The Association of Jewish Libraries is accepting submissions for the 21st annual Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition for aspiring authors of children’s books. The best fiction manuscript written by an unpublished author that serves to deepen an understanding of Judaism will receive a $1,000 award.
For entry forms and rules, go to www.jewishlibraries.org, then click on Awards, then click on Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award. Deadline for submission of manuscripts is Dec. 31, 2005.
Around the Fringe The Gift of Summer
Nine Southern California children were able to attend camp this summer thanks to the Foundation for Jewish Education. The Beverly Hills-based nonprofit gives scholarships to unaffiliated, financially strapped families so their children can enjoy a summer experience of Jewish education and identity building. All nine attended Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, which also contributed to the scholarships.
For more information on the Foundation for Jewish Education, visit www.tfjeinc.org or call (310) 273-8612.
The Winners Are…
Downey B’nai B’rith Lodge 1112 presented five students Al Perlus Awards for scholastic and community achievement. The recipients of the $25 or $50 scholarships are: Vanessa Vasquez of South Gate High School; Byron D. Zacarias of Bell High School; Mercedes Perez of Huntington Park High School; Lauren Duran of Downey High School, and Mathew Vasquez of Warren High School.
Emek Hebrew Academy graduate Adam Deutsch won third place in the Jossi-Berger Holocaust Study Center Essay and Poetry Contest, a national contest sponsored by Emunah of America. His poem, “Will There Be Another Day?” dedicated to the 6 million Jews murdered during the Shoah, is posted at www.Emunah.org.
Please send Class Notes submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at email@example.com or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.
Gaza Settler Pullout Protest Draws 500
Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step
University of Judaism
It might just be a demographic blip, but it certainly is an interesting one. This year’s graduating class of rabbis at the Conservative University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles is made up of four women and two men. And at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, there are 10 women to the seven men.
Are female rabbis taking over the Conservative movement — which only began ordaining women in 1985?
Probably not, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at UJ, on a hilltop campus where Mulholland Drive and Sepulveda Boulevard meet.
The gender breakdown is about 50-50 among the 75 rabbinic students at the school, Artson said. That ratio, he said, reflects the school’s commitment to gender-blind admissions, and to the work the school does to make sure UJ is open to women in all ways.
“Opening a school to women but not talking about the ways in which gender shapes a certain reality is not really admitting women,” Artson said. “We have been conscious about making gender something we talk about here.”
That means classes and mentorships bring the societal sexual divide to the foreground. And, Artson said, women are occupying an increasingly prominent role in the administration.
Founded in 1947 as a satellite of JTS, UJ began ordaining rabbis six years ago, and the fruit of that shift to independence will be apparent next year, as about 20 rabbis will be up for ordination, compared to the seven or eight of years past.
“For 100 years, the Conservative movement had one rabbinical school,” Artson said. “It’s taken a while to grow into and embrace this new expanded reality.”
Academy for Jewish Religion
Just six years after it was founded, the Academy for Jewish Religion(AJR) has a graduating class that is almost as large as the classes at the more established ordaining institutions in Los Angeles.
AJR, which is unaffiliated with any denomination, is graduating five rabbis, not far behind the UJ’s six and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s eight. In addition, AJR is the only show in town ordaining cantors, with two graduating this year.
The niche audience of mostly second-career students interested in a pluralistic education has proven to be a large and dependable one, with 60 students enrolled for professional training as rabbis, cantors and chaplains.
AJR graduates fill roles that don’t fall neatly within the organized Jewish world, such as presiding at life-cycle events for the unaffiliated, leading independent prayer groups and serving in chaplaincy positions, said AJR founding chairman Rabbi Stan Levy.
“We go to wherever Jews are finding themselves, and we try to get them into a more intensive Jewish spiritual life,” Levy said.
AJR has outgrown its quarters at Temple Beth Torah on Venice Boulevard, and is negotiating the final details to move into the Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA.
Levy looks forward to planning joint programming with both Hillel and the university.
“It’s a far more prominent location for us to be in, right in the center of a vibrant university with a vibrant Hillel,” Levy said.