What's an Ultra-Orthodox Divorcée To Do?

By Yair Ettinger (Haaretz)

Published June 01, 2009.
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She left an encouraging meeting with the matchmaker and waited patiently for her daughters, aged 7 and 6, to finish their art therapy workshop. Aliza (not her real name) is a 27, ultra-Orthodox, and she is sharp, self-confident, with a ready smile. She received her get, or Jewish bill of divorce, a year ago, but she separated years before from the man she had married young and is raising their daughters alone. Like all the women interviewed for this article, she brings her children to the Em Habanim center several times a week, mostly in the afternoon. She recently participated in a series of psychodrama sessions “to increase consciousness in preparation for remarriage,” and will soon complete real estate agent training, in preparation for a second, more lucrative career.

On one recent morning her daughter cried all the way to preschool. Aliza overheard the teachers telling each other that there is nothing to be done, that’s how it is with girls whose parents are divorced. “Sometimes I feel as fragile as an egg, and yet I must soldier on, be strong, be the mom and the dad,” says Aliza. “Shabbat is the hardest. Even though I have a warm family and friends and today there is much more openness toward divorce in Haredi society, nothing can make you get used to the feeling of loneliness on Shabbat.”

For Aliza and more than 300 other Haredi women who belong to Em Habanim, the nonprofit organization is more than a recreational center. Some of the families here spend Shabbatot and holidays together under its auspices, and the women operate a social group that continues long past the center’s hours and includes Internet forums for divorced Haredi women.

“Coming here is a joy. It doesn’t solve my problems, and doesn’t increase my child support payments. The main thing here is dealing with things together, and the fact that the staff put their hearts and souls into it. It’s a heavy load; it grows much lighter together,” Aliza says. During a hallway chat, one of the staffers unthinkingly uttered the phrase “broken home,” and it was clear he was referring to family, any family, post-divorce. In Haredi society, and also outside it, this term is still part of learned explanations as to why a boy from a “broken home” will not be admitted to a sought-after educational institution, or why another boy is not excelling in school, and why both are likely, in a few years, to marry women who likewise came from “broken homes.”

But the remark in the corridor actually underscored the care that is taken in this Haredi organization to use, in conversation and in its written materials, a term that comes straight out of the politically correct glossary. There are no broken homes here, only “single-parent families” that are to be nurtured and rehabilitated. Executive director Aharon Malach, says this is part of “the change we are spearheading in Haredi society with regard to divorce.” Haredi cities figured prominently in data the Rabbinic Courts Administration published early this year on divorce in Israel in 2008. Their numbers indicated a sharp increase from the previous year, sharper by far than the nationwide average of 4.7 percent. Last year there were 45 divorces in Elad, up from 25 in 2007; 17 in Betar Ilit, compared to 10 in 2007; 151 in Bnei Brak, compared to 134 in 2007.

It is difficult to parse the data on Jerusalem, which has a non-Haredi majority population, but Aharon Malach estimates that about 60 families a year join his organization, which operates in the city’s Har Nof neighborhood. That is quite a lot considering that Em Habanim does not boast endorsements from rabbis and has never received coverage in the Haredi press nor been allowed even to place a paid advertisement.

“Sometimes we are treated as though we were the organization of eczema sufferers in the Haredi world ” Malach says. “We’re told that as soon as we recognize that a problem exists, we also encourage it. Maybe that’s true, but the problem still exists.”

The group was founded in 1995 by Malka Yarom, a Har Nof resident who opened her home to several religious divorcees who had nowhere to take their children on the Sabbath. Over time the group expanded and became increasingly Haredi. Today two of the membership requirements are wearing a head covering (according to most rabbinic rulings, divorcees must cover their heads like married women), and not having a television at home.

Eight years ago the improvised club was registered as a nonprofit organization. It is supported by several American donors, by the National Insurance Institute and by the Jerusalem municipality, and recently it received a grant from the New Israel Fund for vocational training. Branches are set to open soon in in Betar Ilit and in Beit Shemesh.

The organization places special emphasis on the sons of divorced parents, who “need a male role model,” Malach says. The boys are assigned mentors who accompany them to synagogue and study Talmud with them. (For most of the mentors, it is part of their national civil service).

When Aliza told her married friends about the array of activities for mothers - from individual counseling, exercise classes and monthly field trips to the graves of tzadikim to vocational training and a workshop called “Mom Teaches Gemara” aimed at women with sons - one said, “It’s worth getting divorced just to get all of that.”

Most of the women hope to leave Em Habanim someday to prepare for remarriage. This also goes for mothers in their 40s who are raising 10 or 12 kids on their own. Yarom, who is also a matchmaker, says there have been successes, but notes sadly that the women’s loneliness sometimes leads them to settle for an unsuitable husband. “The thing I find hardest to see here are the women who leave the organization ahead of the wedding, and after half a year or a year come back, completely broken.”

Aliza is positive that will not happen to her. She is engrossed in the meeting she had with the matchmaker: After all, it’s not every day she gets offered a match that looks this good on paper: a bachelor from a Hassidic family who studies at one of the most prestigious yeshivas in the country. On the other hand, she says, dry facts are not enough. “After I got divorced, evidently because I had not checked matters out sufficiently, I will take a much deeper look at who I am being offered before I consent to a first date,” Aliza says.

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