Parents’ divorce set young Jew adrift at the Holidays


The High Holy Days can bring up some intense feelings for every Jew. One young man contacted me with a unique issue around the Holidays – his interfaith parents’ divorce and the subsequent lack of clarity about his status.

My dad is Jewish and my mom converted before they got married. Her conversion was Conservative, but after they divorced my father began to go to an Orthodox shul. I have always known that I’m not seen as really Jewish when I’m at my dad’s synagogue. If my mom had continued to raise me as a Conservative Jew, I think I would have been OK, but she stopped practicing Judaism. So I went back and forth between a secular Christian home and a quasi-Orthodox one. I’m back in the Bay Area now, post-college, and living with my mom. The High Holidays are the worst. My dad wants me to go with him and I want to be Jewish and at shul, but not at his shul. The members are nice to me, but I know how I am perceived. My mom doesn’t do anything Jewish anymore. I want to fit in as a Jew. What should I do?
— Torn Apart

Dear Torn: I am so sorry that you are feeling torn apart by circumstances beyond your control at this special time of year, when you should be able to focus on the meaning of the High Holy Days. Firstly, even though Orthodox Jews don’t accept you to form a minyan, you are always welcome in an Orthodox shul. Just know that and let it be a warm spot in your heart.

What you are dealing with is in large part the fallout from a divorce in which the children were not put first. Intentionally or not, your parents focused on themselves. They should have put aside their differences, determined whether they were going to continue raising you as a Conservative Jew and then, if yes, put their energy behind that.

Your mother needed ongoing support and affirmation of her status as a Jew. Your father needed to “do Orthodox” on his own if he chose that. But he could have davened Conservative when you were with him. You needed a consistent message that you are Jewish just as you are. Together, they should have gotten synagogue membership and assured that you received a standard Jewish childhood.

Growing up among one’s peers is powerful. Studies find that having Jewish friends is extremely important to the formation of a Jewish identity. You needed that and frankly, so did your mother, who also did not have a Jewish childhood.

You have every right to discuss this with your parents. They owe you an apology. Now is a good time of year to take up this critical element of your relationship. Now is the time for them to lean on their Jewish sides and see that a simple apology can heal a person, their child. I’ve seen apologies work wonders. Tell them to contact me if they are struggling with admitting wrongdoing. We all make mistakes — it is not the end of the world and should not clog up a relationship.

You say you want to fit in as a Jew. You are a Jew. What you need is a community that embraces you as such. It is time to find the right synagogue. Once you have, you need to jump in, make friends, participate and build your confidence. Consider taking adult education classes to increase your Jewish knowledge and poise. Meet with your new rabbi and tell him or her about your past. You can expect a sympathetic ear.

Tell your mother that you plan to join a synagogue. It is possible that she would like to practice Judaism but never felt ‘good enough’ after your father became Orthodox. If she is not interested, at least you’ve made the offer. In time she may decide to learn more about Judaism or simply to support your practice. It couldn’t hurt and I encourage you to take the long view. Maybe someday you will be able to share Jewish holidays with one or both of your parents.

You don’t say whether you have any other Jewish family members in the area. If you do, reach out to them and see if they will be having any holiday celebrations that they could share with you in the coming year.

(Originally appeared in the J weekly)