Author Archives: Gary A. Tobin

Gary A. Tobin

About Gary A. Tobin

Gary A. Tobin, Ph.D. (1949-2009) was President of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. He was also Director of the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Program in Jewish Policy Research at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

The New Jewish Family

The family has always been central to Jewish life and culture. Recent demographic changes in the Jewish community and changing social realities and norms have challenged traditional ideas of what a family is, and in the following opinion piece, the author argues that the Jewish community needs to address the new realities of the Jewish family frankly. Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma magazine.

Our understanding of the Jewish family is furthered more by the text of the Torah than by the myths of the 1950s. We are far closer to our biblical roots in terms of family structure than we are to “Leave It to Beaver” or “The Cosby Show.” Thinking about the Jewish family and adjusting our organizational and institutional network will require letting go of a romanticized view of the Jewish family that never existed.

When most people close their eyes and conjure up an image of a Jewish family, they are most likely to see a man and a woman married to each other for the first time with biological children that belong to both of them, where both spouses are Jewish and at least somewhat involved, if not actively involved, in Jewish life. They tend not to see divorce and remarriage, gay or lesbian families, singles, non-Jewish spouses, or partners living together without marriage. That is just for starters. They certainly do not imagine all of the pathologies and dysfunction that plague American families in general, and have troubled families since the institution of “family” was created biological eons ago.

Pathology: A Part of Life

And yet, pathology has always been a part of family life in general, and Jewish family life in particular. The stories of Genesis are filled with fraternal murder, jealousy, incest, polygamy, and child abuse. Jewish families can be filled with nurturing and love, cohesiveness and trust, and stability and joy. They can also be filled with fear, sorrow, disappointment, hatred, and violence. The Jewish family is a reflection of the human condition–no more, no less.

Conversion Requires Identity Transformation

The need for a new language to discuss the process and act of becoming a Jew is compelling. We shall discuss conversion as transformation. An individual does not convert from one state to another; identity transforms through both experience and understanding. The transformed identity leads to inclusion, a sense of belonging. Ruth did not convert; she became a Jew. The concept of becoming is vital, especially since the process begins prior to formal declarations and continues afterward. 

Identity transformation and becoming must take place in two realms. The first is promoting religious conversion. This is the process where individuals become part of Judaism as a religion by understanding its laws, its forms of worship, its ritual observance, and so on.

Communal conversion takes place through the adoptions and values and norms of the Jewish people, their customs in terms of language, history, mythology, self-views, and institutional participation.

Sometimes a Jew helps create another Jew. The process also works in reverse. A Jew with a marginal Jewish identity, but one that he or she is unwilling to abandon completely, may marry someone who has deep religious and spiritual convictions and who is willing to transfer those convictions to Judaism. If given venues for expression and encouragement, the non-Jewish spouse’s interest in Judaism may become more involved and more passionate than that of the Jewish spouse. The “new Jew” can bring the Jewish partner and the children along, facilitating the process of identity transformation for born-Jews as well as for himself or herself.

One of the most powerful paths to identity transformation is through a passionate and committed Jewish spouse. Jews who believe deeply and understand their religious beliefs and practices can teach their non-Jewish spouses through their own practice.

The act of becoming a Jew is really a process with final actions that include ritual ceremonies declaring that an individual has become part of the Jewish people. The process of actually becoming a Jew involves a wide range of activities leading to identity transformation. Identity transformation is adoption of one identity and abandonment of another.