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Religion at the crux of another high-profile child custody dispute

Shared parenting brings up a lot of issues. Even happily married parents don't always disagree on how to raise their children, and it can get even harder after a divorce. Among the many decisions that parent with joint custody need to make together is what religion to raise their children in, and that issue can be contentious, as a recent child custody dispute shows.

When Nelson D. and Elina M. met in 1995, Elina was an exotic dancer and he was the manager of the gentleman's club where she worked. They married, changed careers, had a son and divorced in 2007. Since that time, Elina has married and become a devout Hasidic Jew.

In their 2007 shared parenting agreement, the pair agreed to raise their son Jewish, but Nelson claims he never agreed to follow all the tenets of Hasidic Judaism in his own home -- keeping kosher and ensuring their son wears a yarmulke to school -- especially since they never followed those traditions when they were married.

Elina claims not only that Nelson refuses to keep kosher and encourage the yarmulke but also that he makes a point of feeding their son pork and mocks him when he wears the traditional skull cap.

In April 2010, Elina took Nelson to court, asking a judge to order him to refrain from interfering with their son's Judaism and to comply with her requests about kosher food and the yarmulke. She won a temporary order, and the trial about whether that order should become permanent began this week.

When parents are in a child custody battle, what's in the best interest of the child?

For his part, Nelson is suing for sole custody because he believes his wife's insistence on raising the boy as a strict Hasidic Jew is alienating their son from Nelson. He denies actively interfering with the Hasidic traditions, and says he merely wants to spend his time with their son without undue emphasis on his ex-wife's new religion.

"Religion is being used as a sword to slice away his parental rights," Nelson's attorney said in April. "And the concern here is that, if this keeps going, the boy is going to come to him and say, 'Dad, I can't come visit you because you're not Jewish.'"

Elina's lawyer called in the child psychiatrist who helped the divorcing couple with their initial child custody agreement to weigh in on how to resolve the dispute. Although neither parent is unfit, the psychiatrist believes that the parents' stalemate is causing their son anxiety and creating behavior problems.

To end the conflict, the child psychiatrist has recommended that Elina be given sole custody. Nelson plans to call another doctor during what is expected to be a week-long trial, and that doctor is expected to recommend sole custody for Nelson.

Just as in any child custody dispute, the family court judge will have to decide what is in the best interest of their son. Is granting sole custody to one parent or the other -- just to end the harmful conflict -- the right thing to do? Or should the parents be forced to find a solution that includes both of them in their son's life?


  • Chicago Sun-Times, "Religion focus of custody fight involving former exotic dancer turned devout Jew," Lisa Donovan, January 27, 2011
  • Chicago Sun-Times via, "Another High-profile Case, a Mother Demands ex-husband Help Raise Child in Jewish Tradition," April 18, 2010

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