The Changing Modern Jewish Family

by Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

The ABC television series Modern Family is continuing to win recognition and accolades, most recently a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. The family structures portrayed on Modern Family are a far cry from Leave it To Beaver. Yet, the organized Jewish community continues to cling to that 1950s-era model of what a family should be. The time is overdue for the Jewish community to redefine our understanding of family and make space for everyone.

Secular culture has made significant strides in accepting new models of what constitutes a family. Single moms, non-married adults who co-parent, gay couples, and childless married couples are only some of the examples of the expanded definition of a “modern” family.

The Torah portrays an ideal family as having a mother, father and at least two children, stemming from the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply.” In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud go to great debate determining the minimum number of children a couple should have in order to fully perform the mitzvah. But this singular image is no longer mirrored in today’s Jewish community.

There are many reasons why Jewish families are changing. The economy is acting as a form of birth control and trumping the ability to fulfill the first mitzvah. In New York and other major cities, the cost of raising engaged and educated Jewish families has become unattainable for the middle class. Like many Jews of my generation, I spent many years obtaining many degrees. As a result, my student loan payments, which are similar to someone else’s rent or mortgage payments are limiting my ability to grow my family. Each time I pay another bill I am left with the question, how can one feed, educate and clothe children when there are no extra dollars around? But then I think about how grateful I am to have a husband, my partner with whom I share a Jewish life. I just wish the organized Jewish community would stop feeling sorry for us, and stop waiting for us to transform into one of those highly cherished “young families.”

Next weekend I will be officiating at a marriage between two Jewish men. These men are looking forward to first becoming spouses and then, within a few months, becoming fathers, as the woman they hired as a surrogate is currently pregnant. The State of New York permits them to wed and they will raise their child with Jewish values. And, they have no problem with their lives. The question is why do others?

A number of years ago, I participated in a Keshet National Training Institute for Jewish Educators and Youth, which enhanced my capacity to create LGBT inclusive cultures. My synagogue openly welcomes same-sex families and I affirm and celebrate LGBT members, their identities, experience and relationships. But we still have a long way to go in the organized Jewish world. When a child of a non-typical family structure is ready to begin Hebrew school, we need to ensure that the first form a parent completes reflects their reality, and doesn’t simply provide spaces to write “mother” or “father.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are approximately 13.6 million single parents in the United States today. And that large group is responsible for raising 21.2 million children, which relates to approximately 26% of American children under the age of 21 today. Single parents are raising children, sending them to school, celebrating their triumphs, and wiping away their tears. However they became single parents is nobody’s business but theirs. We should not shun them. In fact, we should provide them with more love and opportunities. We should be part of their village.

There is an inclination to ask childless couples if they are planning on expanding their families, or to ask a gay couple who are parenting if it is difficult without the mother figure or father figure around. Single parents get bombarded with similar comments. Chances are that these sorts of questions come from love and a desire for others to be happy. But we don’t have the right to define other people’s happiness nor should we confine it to traditional modes.

It is time for the Jewish community to embrace new forms of the “modern family.” If we fail to do so, we will only diminish our ranks and undermine the relevance of our faith.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin serves as rabbi at the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY.