JFCS launches mediation center to aid families in flux

To help families navigate these differences, Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco has opened the Family Mediation Center.

"We are offering family mediation that will address marital disputes while people are still married, [as well as] mediation for nontraditional families and nonbiological parents," said Moses, who is director of the Adult Services Department at Jewish Family and Children's Services.

"It's always an option to use mediation to get back together." If this is not possible, she added, mediation can help couples sort out the practical and emotional issues involved in separating.

The practical goal of mediation is to create a "memorandum of understanding." This document can be used later by the couples' attorneys to draft a marital settlement agreement.

Moses says divorce can be especially difficult for Jewish families because of the strong emphasis on family.

"Within Jewish tradition [when there's a divorce] there is really a sense of not just disappointing oneself but disappointing one's family. People talk about it as if it's a failure."

For many Jews, family is deeply connected to other issues, Moses said. "In Jewish tradition and culture, home, family and education are all intertwined."

Mediation helps families work out issues such as which parent is going to be responsible for the child's Jewish education.

"Often one parent has taken more responsibility for that," Moses said.

With interfaith couples who have decided to raise their children as Jews, religion can suddenly become an issue after a divorce. "When a family divorces, they try to capitalize on what makes them different. The non-Jewish parent might go back to their roots. Suddenly there's exposure to religion that wasn't there before."

Moses describes the mediator's role as one of educating, so the couple can make sound decisions. She gave as an example the couple with an adolescent and a 7-year-old; in such a case, the mediator can help the parents work out a custody schedule that works for each child.

In such a case, "we don't need identical schedules. The older child might need a little more time with his dad, the younger child might need more stability and consistency."

For the adolescent, parental dating might be a key issue.

"When the parents become sexual beings, that can be very embarrassing at the simplest level."

For the 7-year-old, basic stability might be the major concern. When a divorcing couple told their 7-year-old that they loved him very much but didn't feel they could stay together, she said, the child then asked, "Are we still going to have dinner together tonight at 6 o'clock?"

Financial arrangements covering both the present and the future are also tackled during mediation.

Having a single mediator is both cheaper and less adversarial than hiring separate lawyers, Moses said.

And even though one member of a divorcing couple may feel as if he or she is arguing for a round world while the other partner insists that it's flat, Moses pointed out that mediators help them find common ground.

"It's really important when people separate to find those things which they agree on."