Jewish Family Service of Connecticut (JFS) recently added alternative divorce mediation to its programming. As social-service providers, other JFS branches in the state also offer divorce counseling. What’s unusual in this case is that the JFS in Bridgeport has hired Rabbi Andrew Hechtman, the only practicing clergy-member in Connecticut currently qualified as a practitioner-member of the Connecticut Council for Divorce Mediation and Collaborative Practice.
JFS leadership decided to develop the program as a way to allow divorcing couples to maintain control of their life decisions, says JFS president Harvey Paris. “Divorce is more than just a legal matter; it involves basic spiritual and emotional challenges such as facing promises not kept, failed commitments, and the need for healing,” he says.
Rabbi Hechtman is spiritual leader of Kol Ami in Cheshire. He spoke with the Ledger about combining Jewish wisdom with divorce counseling.
What is the alternative divorce resolution (ADR) program?
A: The ADR program is intended to facilitate people taking ownership of their decisions. Every one of us knows people who have gone through divorce and yet very few of us know people who have gone through divorce and reflect it to have been a positive life experience for them or their children.
ADR is all about helping people process the experience, and by allowing them to take ownership of the experience, to promote healing in the process. We have all heard of people who, despite all the years that have passed since their divorce, can’t walk their grown child to the chuppah together because they’re still so angry at one another. The nature of divorce is about broken promises, disillusionment; the feeling of “this person hasn’t turned out to be the person I thought they were.”
Our legal system is intrinsically adversarial. You take two people who are already in pain and put them into such a process and of course, you’re adding fuel to the fire. It’s not unreasonable that, if you take two people who are already disillusioned and upset and the life they expected isn’t the one they’re getting, and put them into an adversarial situation, there are no winners and losers – there are only losers. And if there are children involved, as we say in Hebrew, “Al achat kama v’chama” – all the more so.
As adults, we make the decision to marry; as adults, we make the decision to get divorced. We have to do this in a way that’s in our legal best interest, by having the help of attorneys as review counsel to ensure that the agreement makes sense and is also in the parties’ legal best interests. But, given that the vast majority of divorces don’t go to court, then it becomes a matter of who will negotiate and make decisions. ADR is about helping empower people to own the process themselves – instead relying on third parties – whether attorneys of judges to control the process.
It’s so expensive to get divorced. In 2005, Money Magazine reported average divorce costs to be about $10,000 for divorce mediation, $16,000 for collaborative, $35,000 for traditional attorney-to-attorney negotiation, and a minimum of $20,000 to $50,000 for trial. So many people empty their savings accounts and 401k fighting. Those resources could often be much better utilized if people can own their decisions.
How did you develop an interest in ADR training, and what did it entail?
A: The immediate past president of my shul is a clinical psychologist who does this work and had been urging me to do the training. The man who had trained him, Dr. Carl Schneider from Bethesda, Md., is a master trainer. I called him and explained, “I’m a rabbi” and he laughed and said that he had started his professional career as a minister.
The work is incredibly pastoral – walking with people in their journey, salving their wounds, pursuing peace, encouraging them that they can own their decisions and helping them get through the situation they’re in with their neshama intact. He urged me to pursue the training, which I did a year ago. After the ADR training, I was so fascinated by the whole thing that I then did Collaborative Divorce training with attorney Woody Mosten from California. Then I did High-Conflict Parent Coordination training at the University of Baltimore School of Law Center for Families and Children. The training included participation by members of the American Psychological Association (APA) ethics committee. In some states, you function on behalf of the court to work with people who have gone through the divorce process and are so antagonistic that they can’t co-parent their children. In Connecticut, this is a very new practice area but, I believe, tremendously important. A “PC” works with both parents on learning to raise their children together. There’s specialized software you can use to help people screen their emails and share access to the family calendar online because there’s so much distrust between the divorced parents that you have to find ways of rebuilding trust. The APA just issued guidelines for this hybrid role. Rabbis are interestingly positioned to wear all these hats and help in all aspects of this process with training.
This past spring, I took part in the state judicial system’s Family Matters Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) training program. The GAL is a court-appointed child advocate who works with divorcing or divorced parents and their attorneys and acts as the eyes and ears of the court, to help the court in those situations where people are really going down an adversarial road. The GAL can often help in reaching agreements during the process. In Connecticut, beginning this fall, you can’t do GAL work unless you’ve had the specialized training. I also do volunteer work in these areas at the Children’s Law Center of Connecticut in Hartford.
In other states, there are statutes specific to these hybrid roles. In Connecticut, though these roles are not guided by statute, we are blessed with judges in the family court who are really focused on children, and on how we can help divorced couples understand that, while they’re no longer husband and wife, they’re still a family and always will be. In a job situation, you don’t always like the people you work with, but you still have to work with them. In this case, how much the more so when you’re dealing with children.
How is ADR related to rabbinic work?
A: When I did the training, I was absolutely astonished at how pastoral it really is. There’s a wonderful book, “Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies,” by Perry Netter, who is now involved as a rabbi doing this kind of work in California. There are rabbis here and there who do so – New York, Chicago, California – but very few. There was a time in our society when people had these kinds of problems, they would go to their rabbi, and in some traditional communities, they still do. But in general, we’ve yielded to “experts,” and it’s not to say that there aren’t times when the circumstances require that. ADR is not for everybody.
For most people, working this through with somebody who approaches divorce from a pastoral perspective, and who has the potential to get you through it so as to minimize long-term emotional injury, can help bring some healing, particularly when kids are involved.
In “mediation,” it’s the trained neutral and the two parties and each one hires a lawyer to review specific questions and the final agreement. In “collaborative divorce”, each party comes to the table with an attorney and the trained neutral and everybody agrees to work together, put everything on the table and have full disclosure. Five people are working as a team to help the couple get through the process. You’ll get a very different result that way.
How does Judaism deal with divorce?
A: Our tradition recognizes that divorce is a part of life. Deuteronomy  talks about when a man chooses to divorce his wife. The Mishnah talks about breaking an engagement and getting divorced. The Talmud has very specific requirements. Our Jewish tradition recognizes that divorce is a part of life. Our tradition has to be a safe place for people to go, just as we talk about synagogues as being safe places to express our spirituality, and for the same reasons we rely on spirituality and spiritual guidance in times of onus.
Divorce is a significant lifecycle reality of our generation, and while there are some faith traditions that deny divorce, like so many other difficult moments, Judaism takes it head on. Our tradition teaches that when people get divorced, even God cries. It’s often sad and painful, and it’s a decision that people should make only with a great deal of thought, but we can help remove some of the guilt and the animus and help people.
Giving a woman a Get is very controversial in our world, but if we understand it, it’s intended as a means of protection for the woman.
Like any other part of modern life, we have to find ways of integrating the traditional so that we’re being true to our heritage and yet making it work for people’s lives. That’s the wisdom of rabbinic Judaism: looking at our traditions and laws, and asking, how do we implement these in ways that will work for people’s lives, because Judaism has such an important place in modern life.
When I work with Jewish couples, I incorporate the Get process into the mediation process so that it’s not an afterthought. I’m currently working with an attorney in Hartford on taking the wisdom of the Get ceremony and creating a secular ceremony to ritualize the moment of divorce for non-Jewish couples we work with. The book, “The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only,” by Lawrence Hoffman, discusses the human need for spirituality, and liturgy is the framework by which the expression of spirituality happens.
Genesis 13:8-9 states [in an interpretive translation]: “Let there be no quarrel between us, for we were once family; let us separate gently; if one goes north, may the other go south; if one goes east, may the other go west. May your house be your house, and may my house be my house, and may strife and contentions not rule our hearts.”
How does your work tie in with the upcoming season of Teshuvah?
A: The month of Elul just began, and during this month, we’re taught to be engaged in a process of heshbon nefesh, an accounting of ourselves. I can’t think of a process that touches that essence more than the process a couple goes through to decide to divorce. A big part of Teshuvah involves finding ways of becoming our best selves. I genuinely believe that the ability to sit facing someone with whom you share such intense feelings and, through the process, learn to speak a language that allows you to communicate again – that holds the potential for tremendous growth and healing. We can take divorce, a tremendously difficult situation, and see that it has the potential to become an opportunity where growth and healing can ensue.
How do people find qualified divorce mediators?
A: The Connecticut Council for Divorce Mediation and Collaborative Practice (CCDM) requires that practitioner-members meet specific criteria. People looking for an ADR professional should go to the CCDM website (ctmediators.org) where they will find lots of trained and highly competent psychologists, marriage and family therapists and lawyers throughout the state. They are all committed to helping people survive the trauma of divorce with dignity and the potential for healing.