Divorce is disruptive for children on all fronts, especially when time once shared with the family, such as secular and religious holidays, must be negotiated in the custody agreement between divorcing spouses. Divorce mediators are aware of the importance of dividing secular holidays when children are out of school and parents are, for the most part, off work. In our mediation practices, we should also be aware of the Jewish holidays and how to include them in the custody arrangement. The purpose of this article is to explain some of the major Jewish holidays and when they occur during the year and to discuss some strategies in scheduling custody agreements so that time-honored religious traditions can continue to be a part of children’s lives.
Major Jewish Holidays
The Jewish New Year begins in mid-late September. Observant Jews worship for two days in synagogue and share festive meals at home. Yom Kippur, or The Day of Atonement, follows a week later. It is observed through a day of fasting and worship. Succoth, the Festival of Booths, follows shortly after Yom Kippur in mid-late October. It is celebrated by two days of worship and festive meals in makeshift huts to symbolize the Jews’ passage through the desert during their exodus from Egypt. Simchat Torah, or Rejoicing of the Torah is a one-day celebration of the Torah that includes a day of worship and dancing in synagogue. Channukah, The Festival of Lights, often coincides with Christmas, although the two holidays are unrelated. This holiday is observed through recounting the Story of Channukah and lighting one candle for each of the eight nights of the holiday. Passover is celebrated in April by hosting two “seders” or dinners on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday. Observant Jews usually go to synagogue to worship on the first two days and last two days of the holiday. Finally, Shavuoth, held towards the end of May commemorates the Israelites reception of the Torah from Mount Sinai. This holiday consists of two days of worship in synagogue.
Where does the Time Go? Holiday Schedules
Here, it will serve the mediator well to know that Jewish holidays which occur with the Jewish (lunar) Calendar rarely fall on the same day annually on the secular calendar in the way Christmas falls on December 25th every year. It is to be noted, too, that such holidays may not be as conveniently scheduled as secular holidays when they fall on a weekend. They cannot be postponed to Monday or Friday as be it the case to extend the weekend. Jewish holidays, like the Sabbath, begin at sundown the evening before the holiday and end at sundown the day after.
The approximate total of days which Jews observe during the traditional year is twelve, not including 52 Sabbaths. Allocating the time between the custodial and non-custodial parent so that their children continue the observance of major Jewish holidays can pose a challenge to the divorce mediator.
Keeping the Candle Burning: Preserving Tradition
It is important that the mediator assess how the divorcing spouses value preserving the holidays which they had once celebrated as a family unit. There are some questions that the mediator should ask parents before scheduling a custody arrangement centered around the Jewish holidays:
Which holidays did they observe as a family?
Were they very observant?
Which holidays were most enjoyed by the children?
Whose Time is it Anyway?
Divorce tends to polarize spouses in terms of their religious beliefs and practices. Such beliefs and traditions may even have had a hand in their decision to divorce. Often, one spouse begins to distance himself or herself from the normal religious practices of the family during a prolonged period of separation before one of the spouses asks for the divorce or to enter into mediation.
Also, general ambivalence regarding religion and continued observance is very common among divorcing spouses, who have often lost touch with their normal temple or church affiliation through shame or guilt. It is crucial that the mediator gauge which parent feels strongly about continuing their children’s observance of Jewish holidays and Sabbaths. Some pertinent questions to ask parents are:
Who will take the children to synagogue?
Who will be able to get off work during the Jewish holidays?
Is their children’s continued observance of the holidays a priority for both parents?
Time Out: Strategies for Custody Arrangements
After a careful analysis of the parents’ needs and attitudes towards continuing their children’s observance of the Jewish holidays, the mediator may present the divorcing spouses with the following options:
Divide the Jewish holidays evenly as they occur during the year: Since Passover is celebrated over two nights, it is very common for one parent to host a seder at his or her house on the first night while the second can host the seder on the second night. This way, children may celebrate the holiday with both of their parents on different nights.
Separate the holidays along religious lines: This option allows the non-observant ex-spouse time with the children during secular holidays, while the observant spouse can be with the children on Jewish holidays.
Alternate holidays: Pool all of the religious and secular holidays and then allot time to be spent with the children in a reasonable and equitable fashion, taking into account the work schedules and school days that may conflict. (Some private Jewish schools remain open during normally secular holidays when adults don’t have to report for work)
* Alternate years: Much like option #3, all holidays, both Jewish and secular, may be divided equally to be celebrated on alternate years.
Putting it All Together: The Custody Agreement
Organizing a custody agreement that will appeal to both parents is a particular challenge. Discussing the importance of the Jewish holidays to the children with their parents is crucial in scheduling a custody agreement that will meet the family’s needs. Divorce doesn’t necessarily mean that family traditions and religious practices must end. Through mediation, the parents can make informed decisions about their custody agreement so that their children can thrive in a religious lifestyle to which they had belonged before their parents decided to divorce.
Richard Bellman holds a Master of Arts degree in Behavioral Sciences from California State University Dominguez Hills. His major is Negotiation and Conflict Management.