Kids of intermarriage get caught in crossfire of divorce

WASHINGTON — Jeffrey Kendall wanted his children to believe their Jewish mother was destined to burn in hell.

The children, attending their father's fundamentalist Christian church, were told that their mother's observance of Judaism had sealed her fate and that they, too, would be doomed if they did not accept Jesus as their lord and savior.

It was not always this way for the Kendall family.

Kendall and Barbara Zeitler were married in a Jewish ceremony in 1988. Kendall was nominally a Catholic and Zeitler was a mildly observant Reform Jew. They agreed to raise their children, now ages 4, 6 and 9, as Jews.

But Jeffrey Kendall's decision to join a fundamentalist Christian sect in 1991 and his wife's adoption of Orthodox Judaism in 1994 eventually led them to divorce. Their children became caught in the crossfire of their wildly divergent religious practices.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court put a stop to that last week.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that divorced parents of different faiths can be prohibited from teaching their religious beliefs to their children if it creates substantial harm.

The court barred Jeffrey Kendall from bringing his children to his church because it said doing so would stir emotional conflict within the children and wrongly force them to choose between their parents.

While it may not have been a precedent-setting decision — several courts throughout the country have issued similar rulings — it nonetheless has focused new attention on one of the more problematic consequences of intermarriage.

The issue also provides a different twist to the holiday season, when intermarried couples often struggle with how to celebrate Chanukah or Christmas.

How to approach the December quandary when the couple is divorced is that much more difficult.

The question of how divorce affects the religious identification of children of intermarriage has become an increasingly vexing dilemma.

By some estimates, one out of three American Jews now lives in an interfaith household. About a third of interfaith marriages result in divorce, compared with about 20 percent of Jewish marriages, according to experts in the field.

During the past two decades, a growing number of children have been placed in situations in which one of the parents has sought to change the religious identification of the child over the objections of the other.

"In too many of these cases, this has caused significant harm to the child," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Washington.

There have been cases "in which a child, a year before bar mitzvah, was told by the custodial parent that they would no longer be Jewish and henceforth would be a member of another religion," said Saperstein, who teaches Jewish law and church-state law at Georgetown University.

In other instances, parents like Kendall have actively sought to discredit their children's religious upbringing and convert them to another religion.

"All the variants of these situations place the children in untenable situations in relation to their parents, arguably violate the religious rights of the child and too often leave lasting psychological scars," Saperstein said.

Egon Mayer, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, said the cases are characterized by a complicated clash of rights — "namely, the right of any parent to enjoy their religious freedom and the right of the other parent to raise their children in a way that respects their custodial rights.

"When you have a clash of rights, you have the makings of real tragedy," said Mayer, an expert on Jewish intermarriage. "It's one thing when you have a clash of right and wrong. It's another thing when you have a clash of right and right."

Despite the ambiguities, the legal answer has been, for the most part, straightforward.

The custodial parent is almost always allowed to determine a child's religious upbringing. When there is joint custody, a child's prior religious upbringing or identification is generally the determining factor.

In settling disputes, the courts have followed the judicial equivalent of the physician's Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm." Even constitutional concerns are secondary, according to legal experts.

"In cases where you can actually make a show of harm to children, the courts will stop the other parent from actively tearing [at] the children religiously," said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal department.

The other parent may be permitted to discuss religious matters with the children or expose them to his or her religion by taking them to church or synagogue, but only if these actions do not cause substantial harm.

Regardless of the marital status of interfaith parents, organized American Jewry generally views consistency and stability in a child's religious upbringing as paramount.