Imagine opening an e-mail from your estranged husband only to discover he has, without your permission or even advance notification, had your 3-year-old Jewish daughter baptized.
That’s what happened in November to Rebecca Shapiro Reyes, a Chicago woman who has found herself at the center of a particularly ugly divorce battle. In a conflict widely reported in the Chicago and national media (including “20/20” appearances), Shapiro Reyes, an attorney, and Joseph Reyes, an Afghanistan war veteran and law student, are feuding over the religious upbringing of their daughter Ela.
Joseph, who claims to have become newly committed to Catholicism, now wants to expose Ela to both faiths. Not surprisingly, Rebecca, who has said being Jewish is a “humongous part of who I am,” is unhappy with this turn of events.
What’s particularly disturbing about this case is that, unlike in many interfaith marriages where no one broaches the topic of religion until after the children are born, Rebecca and Joseph appeared to have agreed on Judaism early on.
The two married in a Jewish ceremony and had a Jewish naming ceremony shortly after Ela’s birth. Later, Joseph converted to Judaism; he now says it was “under duress,” a charge Rebecca has denied.
The Reyes separated in 2008 and are still in the process of legally divorcing. For now, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Rebecca has sole custody of Ela and Joseph takes her every other weekend. It was on one of those weekends this fall that Joseph had Ela baptized, e-mailing the photos to Rebecca. Shocked and hurt, Rebecca responded with a court order temporarily barring Joseph from exposing Ela to any religion other than Judaism. But in January Joseph called TV news crews and invited them to accompany him as he defied the order by bringing his daughter to Mass at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral. Rebecca’s lawyers pressed criminal charges for violating the order, and if convicted, Joseph faces up to six months in jail. The criminal charges may have been an overreaction. Indeed, they spurred Joseph and his PR team to shoot out a press release (repeated verbatim in the headlines of many news articles) saying “father faces jail time for taking daughter to church.”
Alarmingly, in depicting himself as a victim and in lashing out at his Jewish ex, Joseph seems hell-bent on fueling a religious war.
His Web site (www.christianfatherdefensefund.com taps into familiar stereotypes, noting that Rebecca’s father is an executive vice president and general counsel for Playboy: “That’s right, the man who doesn’t want his granddaughter exposed to Christianity makes his money from pornography!! (Does the word hypocrite come to mind?)”
And in appealing for financial help, the site notes that Joseph and his family do not “have the means to take on the Shapiro’s [sic] and their millions.”
Not surprisingly, I’m siding with Rebecca, as ridiculous as it is to take sides in a conflict in which no one can really win. I’ve actually become a bit obsessed with the case, no doubt because it’s easy for me to identify with an intermarried, 30-something Jewish woman with a 3-year-old daughter.
My sympathy for Rebecca comes not just because I think it’s better for a child to be raised in one religion. It’s because Joseph seems not only anti-Semitic, but also immature and disingenuous.
Considering that he did not become Jewish until years after the wedding, his conversion-by-the-sword story is hard to believe. As is his claim that he never agreed to raise Ela Jewish. Whether they explicitly discussed this or not, it’s not hard to see why Rebecca would assume, especially after he converted, that this was the plan.
Indeed, in taking conversion classes, he surely learned that no mainstream Jewish leaders think you can be raised in both religions, nor do they believe, as Joseph argued on “20/20” that “Catholicism falls right under the umbrella of Judaism.”
Not to mention that exposing a child to Christianity is one thing, but having her baptized is quite another.
Anyone with a rudimentary awareness of Jewish history knows that for much of history Christians forced Jews to convert. Today, many Jews are rightly horrified when Mormons posthumously baptize Holocaust victims. The image of a Jewish child baptized without her mother’s permission is inflammatory and viscerally upsetting, even to the most liberal of Jews.
In some ways, the Reyes case represents the ultimate nightmare of many intermarried Jews. Some might see the case as a cautionary tale against intermarriage, particularly for people who want to raise Jewish children. Marry a gentile, they might say, and look what can happen!
It’s certainly true that, when couples divorce, the partners’ differences, whatever they are, come into sharp relief and often provoke tensions. All other things being equal, interfaith divorce, like interfaith marriage, is probably harder, and the Reyes case points to the need for open, serious communication early in a relationship to make sure expectations about religion are not just assumed, but that both partners understand exactly what they are agreeing to.
However, I’ve seen enough ugly divorces to know that, even without religious differences, there is plenty to fight about. Whether the conflict is money, custody or myriad other issues, the real problem is that when marriages dissolve, parents often become so angry that hurting their exes becomes the paramount goal.
Let’s hope the Reyes war subsides soon and that, however she is raised, little Ela finds peace and happiness. n
“In The Mix” appears once a month. In a few weeks The Jewish Week will launch an “In The Mix” blog. For past columns, go to http://intermarried.wordpress.com. E-mail Julie.firstname.lastname@example.org.