Catholic Father and Jewish Mother Battle Over Toddler's Religion

An American divorce spat poses some fundamental questions about parental influence over a child's religion.

Ela Reyes-Shapiro was born to Jewish parents, but at the age of three, she was baptized in a Catholic church without the knowledge or consent of her mother, Rebecca. Her religious identity became the subject of long and painful legal wrangling.

At this point, some readers might guess that Ela is now in her seventies, and was one of the thousands of children who survived the Holocaust hidden in a convent, where the nuns tried to wipe out her Jewish provenance and recreate her as a child of the blessed virgin. After the war, surviving relatives and Jewish organizations often had to wage protracted battles against the Church, which in many cases, allegedly on direct orders from Pope Pius XII, refused to relinquish custody of Jewish orphans who had been baptized.

But if you have been following recent reports in the American media, you will already know that Ela is still three, was born and lives in Chicago, and is the subject of a bizarre divorce dispute.

The basic facts are these: Rebecca Shapiro married Joseph Reyes in 2004. He converted to Judaism, and they agreed that their future children would be brought up as Jews. In 2008, they split up. Rebecca won primary custody of Ela, but Joseph had regular visitation rights. Joseph then rediscovered his Catholic roots, and Rebecca was shocked to discover last November that he had Ela baptized.

Next stop was court, where Rebecca obtained a restraining order forbidding Joseph from exposing Ela to any religion save Judaism. But Joseph decided he was on to a good thing, and he invited television crews to see him take Ela to Mass. Now Rebecca's lawyers are trying to get him sent to prison for contempt of court, while Joseph's legal team has managed to get the judge who originally issued the restraining order replaced, because he is Jewish himself. As is Joseph's lawyer, of course.

Rebecca claims that shuttling their daughter from synagogue to church will cause her emotional distress, while Joseph takes the enlightened view that Ela "should be exposed to the religions of both my wife and myself and appreciate them for what they are." Not that either estranged spouse seems to be particularly devout.

Rebecca's partisans contend that Joseph can hardly claim to be a good Catholic if he found it so easy to convert to Judaism. He is simply trying to spite his wife, they say: He even emailed her photographs of the baptism. Joseph counters that he only converted to curry favor with his in-laws, but he wasn't serious about being Jewish - and neither, he adds, is Rebecca: According to him, she never kept kosher or observed Shabbat. Thus her objection has nothing to do with religion, she is simply trying to minimize his contact with their daughter.

Much of the American media's coverage of the case has focused on the question of whether the original judge was right to order that Ela be exposed only to Judaism. In a nation that still nominally believes in separation of religion and state, can courts tell people that they may or may not attend church or temple? For obvious reasons, American Jewish leaders have refrained from making any statements on this case, but I am sure the Orthodox are saying to themselves that all this goes to prove that nothing good can ever come from mixed marriages, and that allowing all and sundry to convert to Judaism will only cause trouble.

The crux of the case ought to be the question of what is best for the child. But how can anyone even begin to argue their position with any degree of objectivity? As it is, poor Ela will probably need years of therapy to make some sense of the depth of her parents' enmity toward each other, and of how she was transformed into their religious football.

But for me, the interesting question is what influence this will have on Ela's religious decisions. As she progresses from childhood through the teenage years and into adulthood, will her mother's predominant influence cause her to see herself as one of the children of Israel, and even to take some interest in her roots? Alternatively, will the fact that Rebecca seemed intimidated by the specter of the cross - so much that she sought the court's protection against it - intrigue Ela and attract her to the forbidden church once she is old enough to make her own choices? Or will she just turn against both religions and reach the conclusion that the only real alternative is atheism?

The real issue here transcends the powers of the divorce courts, or even the debate over which parent should be allowed to determine a child's religious affiliation. The fundamental question is, what right do we have as parents to determine our children's beliefs?

Desiring one's child to walk in the footsteps of his or her ancestors is a basic parental instinct, but at no time in history has such adherence been less guaranteed. Children are swamped today with such a bewildering array of role models, lifestyle options and conflicting information that the influence wielded by parents, through the example they set at home and their choice of schooling, is greatly diminished. And this is not only a problem for children of divorced parents: The entire Jewish community worldwide is struggling with the question of how to keep another generation connected to its roots.

Last week, I wrote in this column about the ultra-Orthodox community's failure to keep its young from the influence of the Internet. Even the most closed and controlled societies are losing their power to determine the future of their younger members.

Parents have not only a legal right, but a moral obligation to point their children toward what they believe is the correct path. But they must also be pragmatists and equip their offspring with the tools to make their own choices - because in the end, they will anyway. Rebecca and Joseph have certainly failed their daughter in this.