We're still looking for love - and we are always optimistic

Sadly, divorce is on the increase — but people remain hopeful


By Jessica Elgot, March 29, 2012
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A traditional ketubah, written in Israel for Prince William and fiancée Kate Middleton’s royal wedding last April

A traditional ketubah, written in Israel for Prince William and fiancée Kate Middleton’s royal wedding last April

After the confetti settles, the ink on the ketubah has dried and the 19-piece klezmer band has packed up its fiddles, pressures of modern life are driving even the happiest Jewish couples apart, rabbis and lawyers have warned.

But when things go wrong, even the most secular Jewish couples are seeking spiritual guidance, both before and during their marriages, and still have faith that their problems can be solved by a rabbi, according to Rabbi Aaron Goldstein.

The Northwood and Pinner Liberal rabbi said: "It's very surprising how many couples come to me when they are having relationship difficulties. They are not coming for halachic knowledge or direction. They want guidance from someone where they know it is confidential. Rabbis nurture relationships, we are non-judgmental."

The United Synagogue authorised 385 marriages in 2011, lower than previous years, and 118 religious divorces (gittin), while the Reform Beth Din registered 14 gittin. Vanessa Lloyd-Platt, a high-profile Jewish divorce lawyer, said that the numbers of Jewish couples divorcing were skyrocketing.

Those who don't care about age, don't care fullstop

"I can only describe it as mayhem out there," she said. "At the 40-plus end of the scale, it's an epidemic. There is huge dissatisfaction among women of that age. Quite a high proportion of Jewish clients are from the more religious end of the spectrum - but not the strictly Orthodox. It's the nouveau riche, traditional Jews, whose divorces are on the increase."

Jo Barnett, a dating coach with Connect, part of the Jewish Marriage Council, believes "pre-marriage coaching is absolutely vital. I know marriages which have been saved from going ahead by putting the couple in a room and bringing up issues like money and religious observance - and finding out that their values don't match at all. It's best to walk away then, not after the expensive wedding."

Alyth Synagogue's Rabbi Mark Goldsmith is a great champion of courses for engaged couples. "It enables couples to meet each other, we look at marriage in Jewish texts , the marriage service and choices to be made. Couples are very assertive about re-writing the ketubah, and they often want to explain their wedding to non-Jewish friends."

But Rabbi Goldstein believes many couples find the formal courses "patronising", especially those who have lived together for a number of years. "You don't need a formal course. People I know have found it demeaning, when they have been on either church courses, or an Orthodox Jewish course. A rabbi should be able to provide a personal service. You can pick up a feel of ease in the relationship. They know each other; they don't need to be preached to."

Two very definitive trends in divorcing couples have emerged, according to Rabbi Goldstein. "Most of those we see are people whose kids have flown the nest, and whose relationships haven't been good for a number of years. We also see younger couples with youngish children, where they have had pressures of both partners having jobs, juggling kids and financial issues."

The recession has played a key part in driving Jewish couples apart, said Ms Lloyd-Platt. "In north-west London, there's a lot of 'keeping up with the Cohens', and resentment when lifestyles have to be reined in. The level of fighting has been very acrimonious indeed."

But she said Jewish couples "don't tend to get pre-nuptial agreements. They don't like the notion of it, while in the wider community, there has been a huge increase."

The JMC's clinical director Deborah Weinstein said that more couples were seeking professional help, before and after marriage, to avoid divorce. "We have seen an increase in numbers over the past month or so. While our clients come from both the religious and non-religious communities, we are seeing a recent increase in Charedi families using our services here."

Cheadle-based relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist, Edna Miller, has been counselling Manchester couples for 20 years, but in the past six years has started seeing a substantial number of strictly Orthodox couples from Broughton Park, on the other side of the city. "For the more Orthodox couples, some do want to come to a Jewish counsellor, but not one in their own community. They don't have to explain everything to me, but I am outside that particular world."

The strictly Orthodox community have very specific issues that might lead to divorce, said Mrs Miller. "Religious observance can be an issue. I have had a few cases where a wife or husband wants to be less religious than the other, they want to be freer to wear different clothes, for example, but are worried what people might think of them, and what their husband or wife would think.

"Sex can also be a major issue in the strictly Orthodox world where there is no sex education, and so many restrictions. But the solution for religious couples is as universal as for secular couples – communication. If you don't talk to each other about how you are feeling, about any issue, it won't get better."

But the relationships are less likely to end in divorce than they were in better economic times, Mrs Miller said. "They don't have the money for a divorce. It used to be easier, and now they are forced to make a go of it."

When couples do divorce, it is important that they do not let the trauma of the split cloud their judgment, especially it comes to negotiating a get, advises solicitor Deanna Levine, author of an e-book, Getting Your Get.

She said solicitors sometimes did not face up to their responsibility to make sure their Jewish clients had a get arranged as part of their civil divorce.

"The solicitors say it is not their concern. That is simply not the case. While the numbers are smaller than they used to be, for each individual who has the problem, it's massive."

Danielle Benson, who divorced her husband a year ago, said the idea of obtaining a get did not enter her head until the civil divorce was finalised.

"We did a quick divorce on the internet. It was all done and dusted before I realised I didn't have my get. He was difficult, he didn't see the point and it was me who had to pay for it. It dragged on for a year and a half; it was an extremely emotional time. He did not turn up to the first meeting with the dayan. I had to go and pick him up from his house for the second meeting; I didn't trust him to come. So we went together."

But Ms Benson said she found the Beth Din to be a helpful, welcoming place when she did arrive at the religious court, having expected it to be very intimidating. She now works as a female volunteer, helping women going into the court. "It is intimidating going into the room full of men – but women are offered a volunteer to accompany them. It's a very emotional experience, because they read out those familiar Hebrew lines, the names of your parents and grandparents, and the atmosphere is intense. It is archaic, but at the end the man leaves and the dayan talks to you, which is really comforting, it is nowhere near as horrific as people make it out to be. I think it's because no-one talks about what goes on behind those doors, but actually, it's absolutely fine."

David Frei, legal services director at the London Beth Din, said there were "urban myths" about how traumatic a get ceremony has to be. "No-one ever says it was an awful experience coming to the Beth Din. Divorce can be traumatic for many, and we try to give as much support as possible.

"The less religious you are, you might go for years and years, [without a get] which can bring halachic problems. It might be 20 years later, when a person wants to remarry. A get can be done in those circumstances, but it might be difficult even to track down the previous spouse. Without a get you should not have a relationship with anyone else, it counts as adultery, and you cannot get married again [in an Orthodox synagogue]".

Steps are taken to try to guard against spouses refusing a get. "A pre-nuptial agreement was put together by the Office of the Chief Rabbi around 10 years ago. But the bottom line is you cannot force someone to give a get, so it does not necessarily work. There are sanctions in the US by-laws to prevent people having honours at synagogue, or even suspending membership if they refuse a get. Unfortunately, although these by-laws are wonderful, and show how strongly we feel on the issue, [often] people refusing to give a get with no good reason are the sort of people who don't really care about coming to shul."

A Reform Beth Din will issue a get to either party, if they have a civil divorce, said Rabbi Goldsmith. "A Reform get can be issued by a man or a woman; no-one can be trapped in a Reform marriage. We deem them both to have given their consent [to a religious divorce] if they are civilly divorced."

Orthodox agunot [chained women] do occasionally approach a Progressive Beth Din for a get and a second marriage.

"If you wish to be married in a Reform synagogue and you are refused an Orthodox get, we will use the Reform procedure to ensure you have a get, and we will perform the wedding. We don't necessarily recommend it, but we will not allow a man to keep a woman trapped."

But Rabbi Goldstein said Liberal Judaism had dispensed with the idea of a get altogether. "It is demeaning to women. Anyone who has had a civil divorce can get married in our synagogues. We have people who come and get married in our synagogue who have been denied a get by their Orthodox partners. We even have Cohanim who have second marriages here. We see it as our role to facilitate those marriages. Judaism should not be a block to relationships."

The majority of couples Rabbi Goldsmith comes across now, have met through internet dating. "Actually people usually already know each other through family or friends. They might have done youth movement activities together. It's quite a phenomenon."

But for those who aren't keen on the idea of JDate, meeting a Jewish partner, especially for a divorcé or divorcée, has become a minefield in recent years, says Connect's Jo Barnett, who matches Jewish couples through her dating agency. The agency has around 200 members, mostly from London but also from Leeds and Manchester.

"Some people just don't want to chat to strangers online. They want the reassurance we've met the person they are going to date. Around 20 per cent of our members have been married before. They are usually aged 30 to 45 - it's impossible to match people older, especially women. We have so few men with whom to match them. And single men are generally not interested in women with children.

"Years ago people would meet at a dance, connect and get married. Now they have much higher expectations, they are taught they should not settle, all girls should be gorgeous, all guys should be rich. People have forgotten we are human."

    Last updated: 3:41pm, July 2 2012