Mediators offer alternative to contentious divorce
For a couple no longer wanting to be a couple, living Jewishly adds its own set of tough questions. Who pays for summer camp? Who gets to keep synagogue membership? Who has the children for which High Holy Days?
Those are just the kind of topics Randi Albert and Michelle Weinberg are trained to tackle.
The two Westfield residents — both married and with children of their own — opened a practice together, Westfield Mediation, LLC, in January, working out of an office in Scotch Plains.
Albert, an attorney and mother of two, and Weinberg, a family therapist and mother of four, spoke with NJ Jewish News in the cafe at the JCC of Central New Jersey, where both bring their children to classes and come to exercise. The two met there, became friends, and decided to pool their skills.
Though confidentiality prevents them from identifying any of their clients — who come from a variety of backgrounds — the women said Jewish values and the emphasis on family life play a big part in their work.
Weinberg, whose family belongs to Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, said, “I think we Jews particularly value the importance of talking things through. Jewish law says it is a mitzva to have disputing parties pursue a compromise settlement over application of strict law, making mediation the right path if divorce will occur.”
And being Jewish themselves, she added, means that “we’re able to identify with the disputants’ Jewish life, thoughts, and themes. We can relate to the Jewish value system.”
While holidays and education costs factor into divorces for non-Jewish couples too, issues surrounding Passover and Rosh Hashana and planning b’nei mitzva can be particularly heated for Jewish parents.
“And then for some, there’s the question of keeping kosher or not,” said Weinberg.
For interfaith couples, Albert said, things can be even more complicated, “ensuring that everyone’s holidays are covered and nobody feels disparaged.”
Albert, whose family belongs to Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, noted that while neither of them has been through an actual divorce, they certainly understand the emotional pain involved, and the importance of making children’s well-being the central priority.
The pair started their venture during a difficult economic climate, but said they recognized another related fact — that people need a less costly and less stressful way to handle divorce.
Mediators, they explained, don’t provide therapy; they are result-oriented and geared to help the two people bypass their anger or resentment to arrive at a mutually acceptable outcome within a limited time frame.
That approach, they said, can radically reduce the cost of getting a divorce. They cite $7,500 as the general cost of a mediated divorce — a fraction of what others can cost. The saving comes from meeting together with one person for a set number of meetings, as opposed to dealing in an open-ended process with separate lawyers, who then communicate with one another, incurring further billable hours. A memorandum of understanding is established, which each party then checks out with a reviewing attorney. If it passes scrutiny, they can go before a judge and complete the process.
“Less than half of one percent of couples end up unable to settle out of court, but they spend all that time and money preparing for trial,” Albert said.
Carol Billett-Fesler, the associate director of Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, noted the appeal of mediation. “Clearly different approaches work for different couples, but this can be a valuable alternative for divorcing couples who want to try to work out their issues with a trained neutral mediator.”
Though most of their work is with couples seeking a divorce, they said they can also be called on to help settle conflicts that arise after a divorce. They also help frame prenuptial agreements.
It was her work with feuding post-divorce couples that first sparked Weinberg’s interest in doing mediation.
She graduated from Cornell University with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. She worked as a family therapist for a variety of nonprofits in Connecticut and New Jersey, including five years as a clinician at Jewish Family Services in West Hartford, Conn. While at JFS, she ran the program for high-conflict post-divorce couples — and saw just how bad things could get.
Albert has also worked extensively with families in various high-stress situations. She graduated with honors from Columbia College, and has a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School, where she was the chair of the Family Law Working Group of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. For the past 15 years, she has worked as a public interest attorney for government agencies and nonprofit organizations, including the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center. She has taught there, at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University, and at Union County College.
In addition to her practice with Weinberg, she currently serves as legal liaison to the Daniel J. O’Hern Legal Assistance and Medical Partnership, which she helped create. The partnership provides free legal services to low-income patients of the Parker Family Health Center, a free medical clinic in Red Bank.
Both women are members of NJ Association of Professional Mediators. They completed its 40-hour family mediation training, a process that includes studying tax law — and plenty of role playing — to hone their abilities to help others get past the hurt and anger of a break-up.
“We’re not there to advocate for one person and not the other,” Weinberg said. “Mediation offers the benefit of a less adversarial process, and that can make the impact on the kids far less harmful.”