Can US Law Force a Spouse to Stand by a Jewish Conversion?

November 15, 2012 11:58 pm 24 comments

Wedding rings. Photo: Jeff Belmonte.

A friend of mine called me the other day sounding very distressed.  His 29-year old son is engaged to his non-Jewish girlfriend of several years.  The couple had broken up a year ago because she would not convert to Judaism.  He loves her dearly and felt like  he did not want to live without her when they were not together for the year.  Her parents tried to fix her up with a young man of her own religion during the year they were apart.  This didn’t work simply because she loves my friend’s Jewish son.  So, now the couple is back together and the dad (my friend) and son are trying to have the young lady sign a written agreement to raise any children of the marriage as Jews.  She apparently verbally promised to do this.  They asked me to consider drafting such a civil agreement.

This sounds like a practical solution to the problem, but unfortunately it is not a great resolution.  This written agreement would not be enforceable during marriage and it may not be enforceable in the event of a divorce either, depending on the language, the judge and the jurisdiction.

If you’re married and your spouse does not want to follow the terms of your initial agreement about how to handle the children after they are birth, what are you going to do about it?  There is no civil forum (court) which would enforce this marital problem.  You can’t sue your husband or wife on this contract while married.  The civil courts wouldn’t rule on a premarital contract regarding religion without a termination of marriage proceeding, i.e. divorce or separation.  So, if your spouse changes his or her mind after the birth of the child, which happens, you have a problem on your hands.  Do you work out the religion issue yourselves in the marriage or get divorced and have some strange judge do it for you?

Some courts in New York have upheld these “agreements” to raise children with a specific religion to a certain extent, again, only in a termination of marriage proceeding.  The results vary as well depending on the situation and the judge. Sometimes a judge wants to acknowledge the agreement and enforce it or a part of it, no matter who has primary custody.  In other situations, the courts first look at custody and then consider whether the agreement is viable.  For example, if mom, a non-Jew, promised to raise the children Jewish during the marriage, and she gets custody in a divorce proceeding, she may not want to continue the Judaism after the divorce.  Will the civil court force her to follow Jewish tradition?  Each case is fact sensitive.

In the State of New Jersey, a civil premarital agreement should not address any custody, parenting, and support issues for future children.  Obviously this includes religion.  If the parties divorce, the courts will always look at the best interest of the children first in terms of custody and parenting, using the state law guidelines, which are secular.  Religion is generally determined by the parent of primary residence.  Obviously the issue often leads to bitter custody disputes with regard to religious upbringing.

Family Court judges have wide discretion in all jurisdictions in New Jersey and New York, so the issue of religion for a child or children, even if there is an agreement, can result in any number of arrangements if you leave it up to a judge in a divorce proceeding.

My personal opinion, after practicing family law for over 20 years, is as follows:

If your religion (Judaism) is really important to you and a large part of your life, it is not a great idea to get involved with someone of another faith unless the other person is clear at the very beginning that he/she will convert and has no tremendous pride in or love for his/her own religion.  When people have children, they often revert to and have a renewed sense of pride in the religion they grew up with.  They often want to give their children the guidelines, traditions, and values that they grew up with themselves.  The promise before marriage to raise them with specific religious beliefs might feel very different and wrong after children are born.  Obviously this does not apply to everyone.  You have the right to be able to trust your future spouse’s representations, but things happen.  It is something to think about.

Also, obviously when people have long-term relationships with other people, they become attached.  It’s hard to break up over religion if there is love.  Again, this is one of those practical things that should be discussed and resolved before the relationship deepens, if it’s possible.  Of course, this is often easier said than done.

In my friend’s case, the dad is totally opposed to the marriage and is angry with the young lady because she won’t convert.  Her parents unfortunately feel the same way about the young man.  It’s like Romeo and Juliet.  It is sad to begin a life together without the support of the respective families, but it happens.  The young couple are happy and healthy together now.  They both, as I understand it, are hard workers and seem to enjoy each other’s company.  If they do marry, I hope that they can find the strength in their relationship to come to a satisfactory resolution themselves to this very difficult and emotional problem.  If they do, I also hope that their parents can soften their positions and provide support to the couple. In this country with a 50% divorce rate, a happy, healthy couple is a wonderful blessing.

Tanya N. Helfand has been practicing family law for over 20 years.  She litigates, mediates, and provides collaborative matrimonial services.  She also drafts various nuptial and related agreements for parties.  If you have any interesting questions or topics to discuss in The Algemeiner relating to Judaism and family issues, please email tanyah@tanyahelfand.com.  We of course will keep your identity issues private.  If you have any comments as to the above, please feel free to submit them as well.

24 Comments

  • When I married my Jewish husband I had been a nonpracticing, disillusioned Catholic for many years. I promised him I would raise any children Jewish, which was what I wanted as well. We had a beautiful daughter the following year. One month later my husband shockingly died from undetected hear disease (31 years old). I raised our daughter as a Jew complete with a Bat Mitvah. One year later I formally converted to Judaism after 15 years living as one. Now our 32 year old just married daughter is a Jewish educator. I honored my promise and found my own path to being a Jew.

  • How about not trying to brainwash your children into believing the ridiculous BS that you were brainwashed into believing and just allowing them to make up their own mind?

  • Marriage across cultural divides is a courageous step in the direction of recognising, through love, the underlying reality of humanity – that divided as we are, we are really one people, children if you would express it so, of the one G-d

    I live in Australia as a migrant, married to an Australian and with an Australian born son. My ancestors were Dutch, English , and Irish. I was born in post war London. My spouse has ancestors who were Scottish, English, Irish and Jewish. My brother is married to an American of Italian background, so I have American nephews and nieces.

    Truly it is one world. Love is its greatest gift. Be proud of these two young people. They have their priorities right and should be honoured for so doing. Theirs is the future. To find love is ultimately to find peace, and isn’t it that which in difficult times we most yearn for?

  • I , a Jew by birth, married a nice Episcopalian boy. We married with a Bishop ( His Uncle) and a reform Rabbi ( who didn’t know he would be co-officiating) performing the “wedding”. At the bris of our first son, the mohel asked my husband “do you promise to raise this kid Jewish.” He paused and said yes. He took this vow very seriously. We helped Daddy celebrate his religion, but we were Jewish. Even though I was drawn towards Judaism more and more. My husband would attend synagogue with us on Saturday and go to church on Sunday, I felt that since i married him as a non Jew I couldn’t demand of him to change. But change he did. Fast forward 15 years. He converted and then converted again Orthodox. We are living an observant Jewish life and so are our kids and grand kids. My advise to everyone on this post is..1. don’t commit adultery by mixing religions. Your kids will respect you if you are true to religious principals, whether, Jewish or not. Your kids will strive to emulate you. Be true to yourself. 2. If you practice your religion then go ( excuse the expression) whole hog and pay the postage. If you practice Judaism shmorgesbord style, your compromises will be seen as hypocrisy. That was one thing I felt towards my parents that i didn’t want my kids to think about me..ever. If I had to give advise to this couple. I would say don’t do it. G–d trumps love. If you want to live a fulfilled life, live it within religious parameters. Love ebbs and flows, but G-d is Truth. And G-d’s love for us is a constant.

  • The children even if brought up Jewish might well choose not to remain Jewish. Bring them up with an experience of Judaism as well as an experience of the mother’s religion if it that is her wish. There is no harm in understanding several beliefs, Judaism and Christianity in their modern versions are not that different.

    The children in any case will make their own choices, they may develop their own individual faith which takes from both or even become atheists. It is in any case their choice, regardless of their parents wishes.

  • One cannot have it both ways. If the girl does not convert,she will not have any reason to encourage her children to be Jewish. SHE WILL, OF COURSE, BRING HER CHILDREN to her family to celebrate their holiday..if it is Christian, how can they not be taken by all the hooplah and festivities.LIVING IN THE USA, as a JEW IS NOT SO EASY….This is the age old problem.

    • Dr. Sheila Frank

      The bottomline is: is she willing to raise the children Jewish? With all the while teaching them about the Christian faith which IMHO is a fine religion and educating them as to the historical connections of Judaism and Christianity. She may also be willing and I hope your son is to teach them about the Rabbi Jesus , how he was a peasant from Canaan and how he tried to help the poor of Palestine. That he was a great prophet but was not a God and not conceived by God.

      • Paul Besterman

        While there are many beautiful tenets in Christianity, I do not know of any historical recordings of the “Rabbi Jesus” or even to him as a Prophet other than in the Koran. The majorrnity of Christianity is built solely on the divinity of Him.Let me add that as having had experience of a “Mixed Marriage”, everything was fine until she became Born-Again (well maybe not, but certainly not after) thankfully there were no children and I am suitably chastened.

  • Come on, this marriage is doomed. They are not married but are already fighting about how the children will be raised and speaking with lawyers etc etc etc. Do you people here what is coming out of your mouths.
    Both parents do not see eye to eye already not on what color car to drive but religion and raising children.
    I am opening this up for bets with odds of 1000 000 to 1. Ill send my paypal account later. This marriage is doomed.

    BTW marriage is all about sharing and compromise

  • Raise the childran either way , Christian is Jewish you fools . Make love don’t sweat the small stuff . Just make sure the kids obey the 10 commandments perfectly . If they don’t . ps { nobody has so far }, So maybe you will have to prey 5 times a day or stone them .

  • elliot j. stamler

    To me the deal breaker would be if the children were not to be raised Jewish. As for the Halachic rule about matrilineal dominance in Jewish identify, that rule is no longer mandatory for Reform Jews, the largest American denomination. And that is a good thing-yes, HALACHA HAS TO CHANGE TOO when it is counter-productive to Jewry. Sorry, all you Orthodox, but that’s the way things really are. To insist otherwise is to make us like Moslems who hold that nothing written in the Koran can ever be changed in the slightest degree no future developments after it was written are of any account. Far better to have the children raised as Jews even if their mother is gentile. And also far better if recalcitrant grandparents wise up and start showing love to their offspring.

  • I encourage you to read this link and the book from which it originates:
    http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/465152/jewish/Romantic-Love-and-the-Jewish-Concept-of-Love.htm

    “Jacob could not have acted on his romantic desire if he had not assured himself that he was in the proper milieu, one in which he could be sure that the fundamental bases of ethics and religion were part of the family tradition. He had seen, in his own youth, how his father suffered when his brother, Esau, married women from Canaan, and he understood the necessity of seeking his bride from within his family, just as Abraham before him had sent Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac. He knew that if he would choose a girl from his own extended family, she would be heir to the value system of his grandfather Abraham, and could understand the uniqueness, mission, and obligations of the Jew. In this way, he was able to choose a spouse and allow himself to seek romance at the same time.

    Jewish tradition consistently stresses that the wise person should examine the nature not only of the chosen mate, but also of the prospective family. Generations of solid family life lend security to a marriage. Of course, there are no guarantees—but romantic love that is combined with this sort of reasonable selection assures us as fully as possible of a successful and stable marriage.”

    From my experience in dealing with many couples; A marriage based on “love” that begins with as many fundamental difficulties as yours would, can only end in tragedy for all involved, especially the children.

    Blessing and Success,
    -Gavriel

  • The agreement would be based on fraud because one cannot bring children up as Jewish if one is not Jewish and in mainstream Judaism, children born of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father are NOT considered Jewish.

    Why raise children in a Jewish world where they will only have problems later in life because they will simply be non-Jews.

    The parents would be better off showing a copy of their Wills to their son wherein there is a condition to inheriting, to wit: “if our son _______ marries a non-Jew, he cannot inherit….”

    Then see whether he will marry his shiksa. If his parents are of means, he won’t.

    Why continue Hitler’s work.

    • SAIDI,
      During the early 20th century, Madison Grant and other eugenecists lobbied politicians in my country (particularly in the former Confederate states) to pass, among other things, a law that classified anyone with the slightest traceable African ancestry as non-white.
      This is the same Madison Grant whose writings Hitler read in prison; Hitler described Grant’s “Passing of the Great Race” as his “Bible.”
      In other words, there is overwhelming evidence that the National Socialist regime was violently opposed to any marriages between Jews and Gentiles (particularly White Christians). So what exactly do you mean when you say that inter-ethnic marriages “continue Hitler’s work”?
      I ask because, if this is about religion and not blood purity, what if the child is raised Jewish, and then rejects that tradition when they grow up, as Karl Marx and Ayn Rand did? Does an individual thinking for themselves, and following a path that may be different from what the parents want, also count as “continuing Hitler’s work”?

      My objection to these discussions of how people have to raise children is that the Middle Eastern tribal collectivism treats them as if they are the property of Abraham or Muhammad, instead of individuals that will one day make their own decisions.

    • SAIDI,
      During the early 20th century, Madison Grant and other eugenecists lobbied politicians in my country (particularly in the former Confederate states) to pass, among other things, a law that classified anyone with the slightest traceable African ancestry as non-white.
      This is the same Madison Grant whose writings Hitler read in prison; Hitler described Grant’s “Passing of the Great Race” as his “Bible.”
      In other words, there is overwhelming evidence that the National Socialist regime was violently opposed to any marriages between Jews and Gentiles (particularly White Christians). So what exactly do you mean when you say that inter-ethnic marriages “continue Hitler’s work”?
      I ask because, if this is about religion and not blood purity, what if the child is raised Jewish, and then rejects that tradition when they grow up, as Karl Marx did? Does an individual thinking for themselves, and following a path that may be different from what the parents want, also count as “continuing Hitler’s work”?

      My objection to these discussions of how people have to raise children is that the Middle Eastern tribal collectivism treats them as if they are the property of Abraham or Muhammad, instead of individuals that will one day make their own decisions.

    • In the same breath as calling this woman a cockroach (shiksa), Saidi summons up the ghost of Hitler. Hitler has clearly won. Saidi would have supported anti-miscegenation laws. Would Saidi be upset if I called him a zhid (leech)?

  • The kids won’t be considered Jewish anyway unless hey formally convert so what’s the point of this agreement?

    Instead the formal Jewish communities need to be more welcoming of half-Jews and have a marrying-in approach. If they have technically half-Jewish sons and they go on to marry Jewish women it won’t matter religiously anyway so really it’s all about welcoming the children to Jewish communities.

    • Shlomo Shwartz

      Shteve: Vhat if dey have technically half-Jewish shiksas vhat go on to marry Jewish mensches it vill matter religiously zo really it’s all about loosing choosen.

    • There’s NO SUCH A THING as a “half-Jew”.
      Either you are Jewish, that is born of a Jewish MOTHER or converted by a KOSHER Beth Din, that is according to Jewish Law, or you are a gentile.
      I leave it to the RACIST and ANTISEMITES who consider us no more than animals with a quarter like this, a half like that, etc., like the Nuremberg Laws to say ANYTHING else.
      A PROOF of this in the Bible: the Book of Ezra, chapter 10, where it is CLEAR that the offspring of an Israelite with ANY foreigner is NOT considered his but ONLY HER OFFSPRING.
      The rest is Refo-baloney.

      • HaDaR,
        according to your comment, people who have no Jewish ancestry, such as someone who is Zulu or Han Chinese, who are “converted by a KOSHER Beth Din” count as Jewish.
        Do people who don’t have the matrilineal blood ancestry but grow up Jewish count as Jewish, or is it only people who convert as ADULTS that count?
        Is it really fair to insist that someone’s 23 Jewish chromosomes have come from the egg cell, and not the sperm cell, for them to count as having heritage, and be accepted in the community?

        • paul Besterman

          Anderson one cannot grow up Jewish without following Halachic Laws and if the law states that the Mother has to be Jewish then That is the rule. However if one has been educated in the Jewish way (including Bris) it would be a fairly straight forward ceremonial conversion rite. Which if done by the mother before birth would make it all unnecessary.The Torah stresses that the proselyte is NOT to be prejudiced in any way.As to whether Halacha should change i ask :
          All of a sudden it’s no good for you ? for over 2000 years it has been the common bond for all Jews and now in America you want we should compromise for Cheese-Burgers and English ? Oy veyzmir! that your Bubbeh and Zaydeh should hear!

        • Paul Besterman

          Anderson, are you merely using Socratic ignorance to further your education or are (as I suspect)you merely an agent provacateur.when Jews sat Marrying out is continuing Hilers work they mean his avowed aim to end the Jewish People,fairness has nothing to do with it not that anything iniquitous is raised by the question of Being or not being Jewish it is the code that has kept our identity intact throughout History, if you don’t like it don’t practise it, and if you don’t practise it or like it why are you even here ?

        • If one wants to be accepted in all denominations as Jewish, then one who was not born of a Jewish mother should convert. You can “feel” Jewish and “do” jewish things but that doesn’t make one Jewish. What is missing in your formulation is the actual spiritual change that occurs when one commits to following Jewish law. Why be Jewish when one opts not to follow mitzvos because they DON’T “feel” like it. Either you want to be Jewish and all that that implies or you don’t. No one is forcing you or anyone to convert.

  • As my Mother (may She rest in peace, fighting with my argumentative father every day!), used to say: :”Do whatever you want to do, but MARRY A JEWISH GIRL!!”

    I said the same to my children…and it worked then, as well”!

    My parents were non-observant Reform Jews from many generations back (they were in the USA in the early 1800′s, ) but Reform or not, they knew who they were and taught us children the same. Both sons today live Jewish lives gladly, proudly. Our children went to school at Solomon Schechter Day School and Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, where I was the music teacher for years. I am grateful to this day for kind and quality of education the received at those schools.

    RMM

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