Support group for Orthodox divorcees aims to battle cultural stigmas

Support group for Orthodox divorcees aims to battle cultural stigmas.

haredi woman 63 (photo credit: )
haredi woman 63
(photo credit: )
Ariella (not her real name) does not mince her words when she talks about the stigmas and difficulties she has faced in her community since separating from her husband in 2006. "No one is happy about getting divorced," says the modern-Orthodox mother of three, who now lives in the center of the country. "But however hard it is to separate, it's really not worth a couple staying together if they are not suited." Ariella says the hardest part about being religious and divorced is dealing with the core Jewish concept of strong family unity. "I love celebrating the [Friday night] kiddush and that feeling of being together as a family," says Ariella, who left her husband when he became physically violent toward her. "It is very difficult being on my own. I feel as though a big part of my life is now missing." The gap in her life, however, has been filled somewhat with the help of a support group run by the national religious women's organization Emunah, aimed at helping observant women deal with the breakdown of the family unit and battle the cultural stigmas within the community. The organization runs several such support groups countrywide, including one in English in Ramat Beit Shemesh. "The third time he raised his hand to me, it was in front of the children, and I decided that enough was enough, I could not take it anymore," explains Ariella, describing how after great deliberation she moved out of their shared home and back in with her mother. A few months later, she says, she saw a report on TV about Emunah's group and did not hesitate to join. "Most of my good friends were still married," she says. "They were happy with their lives and did not understand what I was going through." However, with the women she met at the Emunah group, it was a different story. "It was amazing," she recalls. "People were open about what they were going through, and I was surprised to hear many of them talking about similar experiences to mine." For Emunah, the decision five years ago to create support groups dedicated to helping these women succeed after divorce was not an easy one, says Liora Minka, chairwoman of Emunah-Israel. "In the beginning, people did raise eyebrows," she admits. "There were those on our board who claimed that divorce did not exist in the Orthodox community, but even then we knew it was a growing phenomenon that had to be dealt with." Today, Minka estimates that the divorce rate in the modern-Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities combined is close to 30 percent, a little less than in Israel as a whole. "We try to make our support groups relevant to the people we are servicing," explains Minka of the organization, which was awarded the Israel Prize this year for its contributions to society. "If women come to us asking for this kind of help, then that is what we give them." In terms of the practical assistance provided by this particular support group, Miriam Ziederman, director of Emunah's Family Treatment Center in Petah Tikva, says that the goal is to "help women process their situation, learn to accept what they have lost and find the internal strength to deal with the issues and move on." While many of the problems faced by divorcing religious women are the same as their secular counterparts, Ziederman points out that some of the issues are exacerbated by the cultural norms of the observant community and Jewish law. "Take, for example, an eight- or nine-year-old boy. Who is going to take him to synagogue on Shabbat? He can't sit in the women's gallery, and his mother can't sit with him in the men's section, so who will guide him?" asks Ziederman, a trained social worker. "The custody issues are also intensified when it comes to religious holidays that last for a few days. While a secular couple is willing to travel between two locations on the festival, religious families have to accept that the children will be with one or other parent for the duration of the holiday." There are other issues, too, continues Ziederman, who has overseen five support groups since the program started. "There is still a stigma in religious circles surrounding single women," she says. "It is hard for them to join in with social gatherings when everyone else is a couple and she is alone." In addition to tackling these social and cultural issues in the support groups, the women provide each other guidance and support in dealing with the rabbinic court system, which can sometimes be extremely bureaucratic and daunting. "I remember one woman coming to the group and talking about how she was petrified of facing her husband in the rabbinic court hearing," recalls Ziederman. "On the day of her hearing, several of the other women in the group took time off work to go with her to the hearing. Afterwards she told me that their support had given her the strength to look her ex-husband in the eye."