This column is from my Mixed and Matched feature in the J weekly and was first published in November 2015.
My ex-husband and I have three children (boys, 12 and 7, and a girl, 10) and were raising them Jewish before the divorce. Now my ex takes them to church when they are with him every other weekend. He refuses to take them to Hebrew school, so they go only half the time. He says they’re Christian too. Generally they identify as Jewish, but when my daughter gets mad at me she says she wants to be Christian. I’m considering going to an attorney. What do you think? — Angry Mom
Dear Angry Mom: I am so sorry for your very difficult situation. I do not recommend that you up the ante by going to a lawyer. In fact, I urge you to make things as calm for your kids as possible, because they are in the middle of a tug-of-war right now.
Since you began by raising the kids Jewish, they already have a foundation of Jewish practice. Sit your children down one at a time and talk in an age-appropriate manner about what’s going on. Be open and nonjudgmental. Ask them what happens at church and what they think of it.
You could discuss that even though their father is not Jewish, he gave them half of their heritage. You might point out ways in which they are similar to their father — for example, a love of reading or fishing, hair color, a way of laughing or a funny pose. Choose things that are a compliment. Remind them that no matter what religion they choose as adults, both of their parents will always love them.
If it unfolds that their father is using emotional pressure to get them to go to church or identify as Christian, I suggest you frame it as, “Your dad loves you and wants you to be like him. We decided to raise you as Jewish and I’m still going to do that. But Dad may make some other choices. We should try to be flexible.” Stick to being the mature adult; don’t get down in the mud for a fight.
I suspect that your daughter is just using the best weapon she has against you when she is angry. Don’t take the bait. Tell her that for now she is Jewish, and once she is old enough to be on her own — that is, out from under your roof — she can pick a religion or philosophy that reflects her own temperament and views. Don’t just say in a burst of anger, “You can be whatever you want.” Be calm and spell out that she will have this choice when she is old enough and that you anticipate she will make a considered decision, not just choose a religion to irritate one parent or the other. Show that you believe in her intelligence and you know that she will apply it to making important decisions like this.
The bottom line is that your children will determine their own religious identities when they become adults. You need to be ready for whatever choice each one makes. You will still be their mother, and your ex-husband will still be their father, so it is important to be explicit about your love and acceptance.
Is it possible that your ex simply is trying to punish you with his actions? If so, do your best to make your side of the relationship as non-provocative as possible. If you see each other to trade the kids, consider making the exchange at a neutral place. If he says things to pick a fight, get off the phone. You both need time to get past the animosity and anguish of a broken marriage.
Don’t isolate yourself and the kids. Be sure to see friends, theirs and yours. You could make Shabbat a company night — even if it’s potluck or pizza, it will be good to be with loved ones.
Don’t hesitate to talk to your rabbi, who has seen this before and can share successful approaches others have tried. He or she may introduce you to other divorced congregants who want to support and uplift each other.
If you’re on speaking terms with your ex, the two of you may be able to meet with a mediator to discuss what’s going on. Also, JFCS in San Francisco and the East Bay offers family mediation. Give the agency a call and see if that might work for you.