When an OTD parent seeks custody // Children caught in the crosshairs of divorce

Martin Friedlander

It is almost always traumatic for children to witness the dissolution of their parents’ marriage and the breakup of the family. Still, when one parent also abandons Yiddishkeit, a child may feel even more shocked and vulnerable. Martin Friedlander, a New York-based matrimonial lawyer, is dedicated to helping divorcing couples reach a resolution that’s best for their children.

You reached out to us last week after a negative film was aired about the Orthodox community, asserting that no one is taking into consideration the children who are caught in the crossfire. What did you mean by that?
When these negative portrayals spread on social media and are highlighted, I think we as a community have to focus on helping the children. These children were raised in a frum environment, and now they’re being thrown into this tug of war and are being exposed to things they’ve never heard about or were prepared for, which affects them deeply.

Before we get into that, tell me about your practice.
I’m a matrimonial lawyer; I do family law and matrimonial law, and I’ve done it for over 28 years. I also have smichah from Rav Pam. I’ve appeared a lot in courts and in beis din. I started with Judge Sunshine, who is now the administrative judge for all matrimonial law in New York State. Obviously, my practice has a large frum element, because people prefer lawyers who understand what the issues are.

Particularly in divorce it’s important to wear both hats—rabbi and lawyer—because they’re going to need a get and a legal divorce.

Right, and you need to know how to get a kosher get, especially if you’re dealing with agunah issues. People have strong gut reactions when it comes to recalcitrant husbands, but even when they propose laws, ultimately if the resultant get isn’t kosher, they aren’t helping anyone. I had a case a few years ago when a woman came to me because she needed a get, and he was a kollel yungerman, so obviously there wasn’t any money there. However, he refused to give her a get because of child support related issues. Eventually the judge looked at me and asked what I’m here for. I said, “Do you think I’m here for the $25 for child support?” She said, “No. So why are you here?” I said, “Because if you don’t write the decision properly, this woman will never be able to get remarried.” A 120-page decision was issued on this case, and they had nothing—a few pieces of furniture and a few children.

Meaning that she would never get married because the batei din could look at it like the get was forced.

Yes. She was a frum woman who wasn’t going to do anything unless she had a proper kosher get. But the way we put the award of money for child support based on his testimony helped her receive a kosher get within six months.

As an aside, which divorces are more complicated—when there is money or when there isn’t?
It’s a good question. The problem is that when it involves children it’s beyond money. In the frum community people will go around to friends and family to help fund the case and do whatever it takes. If there’s money that has to be divided that’s a separate issue, but I’ve had cases where the money issue was settled immediately, and it was the custody of the children that made the case lengthy.

I spoke to a few dayanim last week, and they told me that most of their matrimonial cases are done through mediation rather than through judgment.
Absolutely. Very few go l’din and sit down to issue a full psak. Once you have to have a yeshivas beis din everyone is going to take out their calendars and so on, and then it becomes a year or two years, which no one wants. Unfortunately, some dinei Torah take longer than the marriage. They all try to mediate. But when it gets there, the way they write it also important. In New York dayanim are only mediators in regard to custody. In New Jersey they have the power to arbitrate custody too, if they do it properly. So a New Jersey beis din for a New Jersey case can decide the entire case. In New York, however, if they don’t do the forensics properly, the court will look at it and possibly force them to start from the very beginning, because they’re nothing more than mediators.

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