Ask A Rabbi: Our Son and Daughter-in-Law Are Divorcing, and She’s Returning to Catholicism; What Will Happen to the Kids?

“Our daughter-in-law spent a year studying with a rabbi and converted to Conservative Judaism prior to marrying our son. Their daughter had a religious naming, as did their son, who also had a bris. They are now divorcing and our daughter-in-law says she is going back to Catholicism. We are so concerned about the kids. Any advice would be appreciated.”

There are many sensitive and difficult issues in divorce, the custody arrangements for the children being at the top of the list. Since your daughter-in-law is now rejecting her conversion to Judaism and going back to Catholicism, will the children still be considered Jewish? Will your daughter-in-law continue to support the Jewish upbringing of the children, or will she want to connect them to her Catholic faith?

First, let me assure you that your grandchildren’s status as Jews remains unchanged despite their mother’s rejection of Judaism. As a Conservative rabbi who has performed hundreds of conversions, I am careful to let candidates know that conversion to Judaism is irrevocable. While some may question the validity of this conversion, we must assume that at the time of her conversion she was sincere, especially as she had a religious naming for her daughter and a bris for her son. Since your grandchildren were born from a Jewish mother, they are Jewish.

The more difficult question is will your daughter-in-law continue to support the Jewish upbringing of the children? Hopefully she will understand the importance of maintaining the Jewish identity of the children, even if she is now practicing a different religion. A divorce lawyer I consulted on this point said it is critical that the divorce agreement state that they will raise the children Jewish. “Raising the kids Jewish” can include such things as enrollment in a program of Jewish education and Jewish summer camp. If the agreement is silent on this point, then, “Mom raises the kids her way, and Dad raises the kids his way.” Even with such an agreement in place, the courts do not force one parent to exercise the religion of the other parent, even for the sake of the children. It is important that your son speak to an attorney versed in this very difficult issue.

I can only imagine the frustration and powerlessness you feel as grandparents, as you have no control over these arrangements or what will happen when your grandchildren are with your daughter-in-law. But I want to assure you that you do have power as grandparents. Model for your grandchildren a joyful and warm Jewish home. Instill in them a love of Jewish learning. And most important of all, show them that religion can be a source of joy, comfort and family connection.