Judith Wallerstein, pioneering expert on divorce, dies at 91

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Judith Wallerstein, an internationally known psychologist whose research on divorce shaped the way people think about marriage and family dynamics, died June 18 at her daughter’s home in Piedmont. The cause was an intestinal obstruction, according to her husband; she had undergone emergency surgery a few days earlier. She was 91.

Best known for her findings on the long-lasting effects of divorce on children, Wallerstein published five books and more than 60 articles in psychology and law journals, in addition to appearing multiple times on “Oprah.” The week before her death, she was contemplating signing a contract for her sixth book, according to her daughter, Amy Wallerstein Friedman.

The researcher’s impressive résumé leaves out one vital component, said Friedman: “She was a mother first and foremost. She was an incredible mom.”

Judith Wallerstein

Born in New York City on Dec. 27, 1921, Judith Hannah Saretsky grew up entrenched in the Jewish community — both parents worked in Jewish community centers. When she was 8, following her father’s death due to cancer, her mother moved her and brother, David, to Tel Aviv in pre-state Israel.

The family stayed for five years. As a young teen, Wallerstein ran messages for the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization. Living there is what made her “incredibly Zionistic” as an adult, Friedman said.

Wallerstein earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in 1943, followed by a master’s in social work from Columbia University in 1946. She married psychiatrist Robert Wallerstein the following year, and the two moved to Topeka, Kan., where he directed the Menninger Clinic, a preeminent center for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — then called “shell shock.”

Judith also trained there, though she took time off when her children were young. “It was important to her to just be a mom when we were little,” says Friedman.

Friedman recalled growing up in “a very Jewish home” in Topeka, with Shabbat every Friday night. In addition to teaching her children Hebrew, Wallerstein taught Hebrew at their synagogue, the only one in town. It was a close-knit Jewish community made up of “all the other psychiatrists and their kids,” said Friedman, the youngest of three kids, after her brother, Michael, and sister, Nina.

In 1966, the Wallersteins moved to Belvedere in Marin County. While her husband taught at UCSF —  becoming the chair of the psychiatry department — Wallerstein’s career took off, as well.

She began teaching at U.C. Berkeley in 1966; five years later, she started the research that would launch her into the national limelight, studying 131 children from 60 divorced families around Marin County. She found that psychological damage from parents splitting was much greater than previously thought and lasted, for many, into adulthood. It was a controversial stance to take in an era when divorce rates were skyrocketing.

Wallerstein taught at Berkeley until 1991. Along the way, she earned a doctorate in psychology from Lund University in Sweden in 1978, and taught at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Pahlavi University School of Medicine in Iran. In 2000 she was invited to speak at a gathering of chief justices from all 50 states, a lecture at which the only other speaker was Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She continued to publish her work and appear on morning news shows as she approached 90.

“Education was more important to her than anything in the world,” said Friedman, a licensed clinical social worker. Her sister, Nina, is an academic in the field of public health at the University of New Mexico; her brother, Michael, was a respected social science professor at Yale University prior to his death in 2006. It meant the world to Wallerstein that she lived to see her youngest grandchild finish college, said her daughter.

“My mother would meet a young woman, and she didn’t care if you were married; she would ask about your potential in the world: What are your goals, how are you getting there?” Friedman said. “She didn’t care if you made a million dollars. She was impressed by people who threw themselves into education and people who gave back.”

The family belonged to Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, and Wallerstein was active with Jewish Family and Children’s Services, serving on the  board of directors in the ’90s and into the early 2000s. In later years, Wallerstein attended High Holy Day services at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, where Friedman belongs. A funeral for Wallerstein was held there June 20.

Friedman said her mother greatly inspired her outlook on life. “This debate about whether or not you can have it all as a woman — the impressive career, the family — she did it. She staggered it, but she did it,” Friedman said. “When my son was born, I remember thinking that if I could be half as good a mother as she had been to us, I would exceed my own expectations.”

Judith Wallerstein is survived by her husband, Dr. Robert Wallerstein, 91 — who still lives in the first house the couple purchased in Belvedere 46 years ago — and daughters Nina Wallerstein and Amy Wallerstein Friedman, and five grandchildren. Her brother, David Sarett, died earlier this year.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.