Archive for August, 2012

The Modern Jewish American Family

What is the Modern American Jewish Family?
Rabbi Min Kantrowitz

What’s a Jewish Family today?  What makes a family Jewish?  We’ve come a long way from the norm of a Jewish mom and a Jewish dad living together, married, raising Jewish children.  That family constellation, of Morris and Sadie, with their children Abe, Marvin, Ethel and Frieda gathering around the Shabbos table for a kosher chicken dinner every Friday night, with occasional visits from Bubbie and Zayde who lived not too far away, is a rarity now.  Economic times were rough then, as they are now, but a stay-at-home mom was the norm then, as were children, who, whatever their ages, felt a responsibility to contribute to the economic well being of the family.  Things could hardly be more different just three or four generations later.
By 1990 the most common Jewish American household consisted of one adult Jew living alone!  These single person household consist of people who have never married, those who are divorced and those who survive the death of their spouses.  The second most common configuration was two adult Jews living together, without any children.  What is often assumed to be the ‘normative’ Jewish family — two adult Jews, married to each other and with at least one child under the age of 18 living in the house comprised only about 15% of the Jewish household measured in that year.  I suspect that by now that percentage has decreased even more.  Even within the households that appear structurally intact there are profound internal changes. One or both spouses might be in their second marriage and one or both might be converts to Judaism. As a consequence, among the children one could find those who were “yours,” “mine,” and “ours”; those who were Jewish, half-Jewish, or Christian; those who had the same grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; and those who had some but not all in common.  A frequent Jewish family constellation today is a single adult raising children or sharing child custody.  With many congregational programs focusing on the minority “two-Jewish-parent-married-to-each-other” families, these people sometimes feel that they are not accepted by the larger Jewish community.  In San Diego Jewish Family Service sponsors a “Supporting Jewish Single Parents” program.  JFS in New Mexico is planning an educational session about alternative approaches to mediation and collaborative divorce.
The most descriptive adjective for the American Jewish family today is diverse.  Over the past few generations, Jews got more education and better jobs.  Our parents and grandparents moved out of traditional neighborhoods to suburbs, and then, to different cities as employment opportunities opened up.  My family is an example: my Russian immigrant grandparents brought up their children in Jewish neighborhoods in New York City.  My parents brought up their children there and then after retirement they moved–first to Florida and then to New Mexico.  My sisters and I lived in many places and now live in New Mexico, California and  Canada.  Our children lived in a variety of places and now reside in New Mexico, California, Canada and Spain!  Cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents are scattered across the globe.  Geographic diversity.
The Jewish family is now religiously diverse.  Not only has the trend from Orthodox to Conservative, Conservative to Reform followed these generations, but the gradual move away from organized, institutional Jewish life also now characterizes the American Jewish family.  “Playlist Judaism” is how Rabbi Kerry Olitzky describes engagement in Jewish life for the seemingly ever-increasing group showing up as “other” or “just Jewish” on recent American Jewish identity surveys.  “I no longer have to buy the entire package in order to have the [Jewish] service I want,” says Olitzy, the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute’s executive director, referring to how iTunes and Napster broke the stranglehold on a music industry that once forced consumers to buy entire albums to hear one preferred song on demand.  According to surveys in New York, 15% of Jews described themselves as “Just Jewish” in 1991.  By 2002 that number had increased to 25% and recent surveys put that percentage at 37%!  In Albuquerque, estimates are that more than 75% of the Jews do not belong to synagogues.
There are more and more ethnically diverse Jews.  A June 20, 2012 article in the Huffington Post states that according to the the study reveals that according to the newest New York Jewish Federation population study, 12 percent of New York Jewish households are “non-white” (Black, Asian, Hispanic or bi-or multi-racial) and 13 percent are Sephardic (origins to North Africa, Spain or the Middle East) for a total of — with some overlap — an impressive 25 percent of the Jewish population of America’s most Jewish city. Over 400,000 Jews are living in diverse Jewish households, approximating or exceeding the total Jewish population of any one country in the world, excepting the United States and Israel.  At least three different organizations support and celebrate the ethnic diversity of Jewish people and communities around the world: Be’Chol Lashon, Kulanu and the Jewish Multiracial Network.
The increasing recognition and acceptance of the continuum of sexual orientation and gender identity is another huge shift in the perception of the modern American Jewish family.  Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Jews have joined established congregations and created their own.  GLBTQ Jews are openly accepted into Rabbinical training in the liberal communities. The Orthodox community has a website “” and passionate spokespeople.  Members of the GLBTQI community have websites, a published Torah commentary and prayerbook.  Families headed by two adults of the same gender are visible among across the spectrum of religious affiliation and practice.  Some of the special issues revolving around Transgender Jews are being addressed: for example the sensitive issues around the gender makeup of a Chevre Kaddisha team working with a transgender Jew who has passed away.
The variation in Jewish families is reflected in the relatively high rate of adoption in the Jewish community.  About 5% of American Jewish families have adopted children, according to the National Jewish Population Survey, collected by the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Federation system. That’s higher than the national average of 3.7% for all Americans.

There are grandparents raising grandchildren.  There are families with ‘boomerang’ children–young adult children who have completed their education but have moved back into their childhood homes.  These alternative types of families also need a home within the Jewish community.  There are families who bring aging relatives from across the country here to be close to them, but discover the elders to feel isolated and lonely, culturally adrift so far from the local deli and the sound of Yiddish.
Religious diversity within families is another challenging trend.  Although the general trend is toward fewer young people engaging in Jewish ritual and affiliation, there are some families where the opposite is occurring: the younger generations becoming more Jewishly observant, causing tension in the family.  Intermarried families result in children being raised as Jewish, Christian, both or neither.  Will the child raised as ‘both’ have a Bar Mitzvah? Will the Christian grandparent attend?
In New Mexico, there are a number of Hispanics who are claiming or rediscovering their Jewish heritage.  Although the legacy may be hundreds of years old, families where some individuals openly declare their Jewishness, convert and/or practice, other relatives in the family may feel confused or angry.
The Jewish family today still needs to feel connected — to other Jews, to Jewish community, and to other people with whom they share experiences and challenges.  The need for mutual support for all these relatively new kinds of Jewish families is apparent.  The question for the whole Jewish community is this: how do we help provide those opportunities so that the Jewish families of today will contribute creatively and enthusiastically to the Jewish family of tomorrow?

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