Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Though the divorce rate among chassidim is extremely low, it nevertheless represents a growing number of people. Every divorce is one too many. Presently, in the chassidish communities of Williamsburg, Kiryas Yoel, Boro Park, and Monsey, a population exists of almost 300 divorced young men. Most sadly, that number is growing, however slowly. This has motivated several chassidish divorced young men to form an organization titled Achim B’Derech–Brothers in Passage to help one another productively move to the next stages of their lives. Achim B’Derech seeks to give its members practical support and to change the general community perception of one who is divorced.
Having fulfilled the painful mitzvah of divorce (Devarim 24:1), divorced young men have found strength in Achim B’Derech. Of the thousands of families in chassidish communities that thrive, a number of them must try to start all over and to rebuild. Sometimes that recommencement may take longer than wished. Chassidish communities have prescribed roles for boys in yeshivas, youths not yet married, young married men, and men with families. However, no societal station has been formulated for divorced men. They have left the nurturing homes of their parents. The home that was to be theirs dissolved. They are in uncertain territory.
Community activists who see the pain of these young men have taken the initiative to affirmatively gather these young men and propel them forward to their next stage in life, offering practical, moral, and emotional guidance.
The founders of this effort are Yoel Brach, Rabbi Shlomo Ehrlich, Rabbi Yoel Asher Labin, Yosef Ostreicher, and Yitzchok Altman, who have joined to assist these young men in moving ahead. Yoel Brach has remarried and established a new family. After his divorce, he found himself alone. Meeting other young men in his same circumstance, discussions always focused on maintaining morale. Divorced women have organizations that provide support groups, but young men of the community did not have that. Having been in that situation, Yoel Brach met with and talked to the other activists mentioned above and resolved to establish Achim B’Derech to meet the needs of young men in between having had their own families and seeking to start a new one.
Rabbi Shlomo Ehrlich, a professional therapist, affirms that these young men who have gone through divorce have the same needs as other young men who are just beginning, but they need guidance in how to move forward. Working with Yoel Brach, Rabbi Ehrlich agreed that the need for Achim B’Derech was real and readily joined to help form the organization.
Rabbi Yoel Asher Labin, a well-known community activist, writer, and orator, was recruited by Yoel Brach, who responded to a published article that he wrote. Yoel Brach was thus motivated to start Achim B’Derech and sought Rabbi Labin’s insights, experience, and assistance. Moved by Brach’s sincere inspiration, Rabbi Labin jumped at the opportunity to make an impact.
All of the organization’s founders agreed that the status quo for divorced young men was unacceptable and helping them was needed, and they seek to change the dynamics of their circumstances.
One might ask: What was so very difficult for such young men? In yeshiva, all students are socially equal. After marrying, each has his own home. The divorced young man no longer has the security of a home. He lost his home. The shidduch did not work out. If children were brought into the world, they now have two loving parents that are separated. This creates difficulties and hardships. The children get love from both parents, but problems are inherent in such disrupted family structures.
In addition, some people look askance at someone who is divorced. Though increasingly accepted in outside secular society, divorce remains a deviation from the norm. Hopefully, divorce in our religious communities will disappear. However, differing human nature dictates that not every marriage will be successful. Divorce, though not a happy alternative, is included in our Taryag Mitzvos. Sadly, divorce occurs in all segments of our community, whether in the homes of professionals, rabbis, leading roshei yeshiva, etc. Unfortunately, sometimes the parents of those that had to resort to divorce disapprove.
With these social dynamic in place, divorced chassidish young men realized that organizing would benefit them. These young men are serious, devout, industrious, loving, and determined to continue to meet the needs of their children while they search to find their true life partner and to establish a family. The organization endeavors to meet their needs in as many ways as possible.
One of the many facets of Achim B’Derech is its outreach to shadchanim, to assist and enable them to make proper matches. Achim B’Derech has built, and continues to build, a database containing all pertinent information, such as personal history, livelihood, desires, etc. Though it is kept strictly private, cooperating shadchanim are granted access. Some of the young men, fresh through a divorce, are not yet clear in what they seek. Achim B’Derech will guide them through the selection process and help them clarify what they find favorable. Once they know what they are looking for, arriving at their desired destination is a much easier task.
Achim B’Derech is establishing working relationships with similar longer-established young ladies’ organizations. In addition, outreach is being made to widow/widower organizations as well as to representatives of older (30+) unmarried girls.
Achim B’Derech organizes group meetings with experienced counselors, attorneys, rabbis, educators, and inspirational speakers. Topics discussed are how to deal with former spouses and their financial support, and how to improve relationships with children and with stepchildren, all according to halachah and legal norms. Rabbi Labin asserts that support groups are not only popular, but represent a source of great emotional sustenance. Having friends who understand one’s special circumstances is a primal social need.
Positive reinforcement translates to positive attitudes. Achim B’Derech strives to instill positive predispositions in its members. Helping the men develop loving, nurturing relationships with their children is a high priority of the organization. Absolutely no depreciation is allowed to be made about one’s former spouse. Every member is assigned a mentor to reinforce proper attitudes.
One of Achim B’Derech’s programs is the Yeladim B’Derech, “children in transition.” Focus is aimed at children. Rabbi Ehrlich, who reaches out as a professional therapist to “children at risk,” declares that children whose parents are divorced are not necessarily in this category. If a child knows and feels that he or she is loved by both parents, though they live in separate homes, that child is secure in his or her family stability. If the parents’ relationship is peaceful, that child will be peaceful. If parents are always fighting with each other, whether or not they live together, their child may become problematic. Two parents living together in turmoil cannot compare to two serene parents living apart. Some of our leading rabbis and some of our stellar community members were raised in one-parent homes.
Rabbi Ehrlich shares that a single father might give his children more love and quality time than a married father in domestic tumult. Children that are showered with derision by one parent regarding the other parent will be severely affected.
Rabbi Labin gives advice to parents of a divorced spouse. Such parents must be sensitive to their adult offspring. They must accept that their child has become an independent person and does not revert to being a bar mitzvah boy. Privacy must be respected. Some divorced sons wish to have their own apartment, while others are willing to move back in with their parents.
Achim B’Derech seeks to alter the community’s general perception of someone who is divorced. Labeling a person as a garush (divorcé) does not describe the entirety of a person. He may be a teacher, rebbe, rabbi, businessman, professional, activist, etc. No one deliberately gets married in order to divorce. Only upon the advice and direction of one’s rabbi, parents, and mentors is the decision to divorce made, in spite of what others might say. Many young men who have gone through a divorce chose not to fight ferociously and not to besmirch their former spouses. The determination to take the proverbial high road was made, among other reasons, to protect their children. Preserving the children’s healthy nature is paramount.
Labeling a child as coming from a “broken home” does damage, especially when that child is protected from negativity by both parents. When both parents are loving, though they may live apart, that child remains whole. Labeling such children does them damage, as well as damaging the entire community by devaluing one of its components.
Perception is key. Perceiving a young man as a contributing member of society, whether as an activist, ben Torah, rabbi, businessman, etc., regardless of his having been divorced, is an accomplishment that Achim B’Derech aims to fully achieve. Hoping that every glass that is broken under a chuppah guarantees a successful marriage, the work of Achim B’Derech will move us closer to that desired reality. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.