Author Archives: Rela M. Geffen

About Rela M. Geffen

Rela M. Geffen is the President of Baltimore Hebrew University and former Dean of Gratz College. A founding Fellow of the Center for Jewish Community Studies, the forerunner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, her books include The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas & Opportunities (2000); Freedom and Responsibility: Exploring the Challenges of Jewish Continuity (1998); and Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism (1993).

Changing Demographics in Jewish Families Today

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Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma magazine.

In our ever-changing world the very bedrock of human society is shifting beneath our feet. At least it feels that way as we survey the contemporary Jewish family in America. We no longer take for granted the existence of a typical Jewish family/household, one of whose main tasks is to create and nurture future citizens of the Jewish community.

First there are the structural changes. The most common Jewish American household according to the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990 was one adult Jew living alone. Two adult Jews living together followed, and only then did we find the assumed normative household: two adult Jews, married to each other and with at least one child under the age of 18.

jewish familyThis last configuration accounted for about 15 percent of Jewish households; nearly one-third of mixed married nuclear families were included in the tally. Single parent households through divorce or by choice, interracial families, as well as gay couples with children have become more common and more visible in the Jewish and general American communities.

Internal Changes

Second, within the households that appear structurally intact we find 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. What sociologists call “families of orientation,” that is, the nuclear family into which a person is born, have become increasingly heterogeneous and fragmented. As well, the revolution in gender roles has also significantly influenced the internal functioning of families popularly known as “married with children.”

Third, “families of procreation” have been delayed, with the age at first marriage becoming progressively older for Jewish women and men. Though by mid-century Jews were hailed in the general demographic literature as the most effective users of birth control in American society, it wasn’t until the late-1960s that analysts of contemporary Jewish life noted the aggregate results of this skill combined with other economic and social factors. By the mid-1960s, the Jewish birthrate was below 2.1, the zero population growth (ZPG) level. By the time of the 1970 NJPS, the Jewish birthrate for the previous decade was projected at well below ZPG, a trend maintained through 1990.

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Jewish Tradition and the Lifecycle

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This article is excerpted from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism  (Jewish Publication Society), and is reprinted with permission.

The terms “celebration”and “renewal” reflect Judaism’s positive perspective on the unending circle of life from conception through death and back again to life through the continuity of the generations. Even at the close of a period of mourning, one Jew says to another, “Af simchas“–let us come together again at times of joy. Just after a baby boy undergoes the pain of circumcision, the tension in the room is often released in laughter as the person who names the baby, most often the mohel (ritual circumciser), wishes his parents the joy of bring­ing their son to the wedding canopy.

What might easily be construed as a ludicrous blessing for an eight-day-old infant actually reflects a communal orientation filled with hope. The ritual belongs not only to the life story of those in the child’s immediate family; it also reminds those present of similar ceremonies held at far-off times and places as well as of other birth ceremonies that they themselves have attended. Thus this moment links them to other Jews across space and time, tying their personal history with that of the Jewish people.

The great French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote about the importance of public ritual life for maintaining and strengthening group norms. He noted, for instance, that many people feel cheated when a bride and groom elope. Look around at a wedding ceremony and you will see couples reliving their own special moments. They may even mouth the words of the wedding formula or of

the seven benedictions. It is the ritual familiarity of the ceremony that enhances its power. The very routineness of the passage infuses it with communal and historical meaning for the celebrants, while at the same time reinforcing memories of similar moments in the lives of the congre­gation. Understanding this aspect of human nature–the need to affirm family continuity within a public context–the rabbis ordained that life’s passages be marked in the presence of a quorum, the minimum definition of community. For this reason, circumcision, marriage, and kaddish [recited by mourners] require the presence of a minyan.

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