Changing Demographics in Jewish Families Today

Jewish families today tend not to conform to the image of two married parents living with their kids.

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Consequences for the Community  

In the rhetoric of everyday Jewish communal life the consequences of delayed marriage and fertility for the life journeys of adult Jews have largely been ignored in favor of communal breast-beating over the absence of their unconceived children. Among the consequences of deferred and lowered fertility are that most Jewish adults are not living in "Dick and Jane" households. However, many communal institutions--including most synagogues--have not reprogrammed to accommodate the particular needs of a changing Jewish community. In the traditional Eastern European Jewish communities from which most North American Jews emigrated, only upon marrying did the person enter into full adulthood (and in some cases a person was not even counted as an adult until becoming a parent). The persistent echoes of this definition have led some of the best and brightest of our 21-35 year-olds out of Jewish communal life.

Finally, our sometimes too amorphous and sometimes too exacting definitions of family exclude grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This nuclear family bias derives from an American societal emphasis on upward mobility, which was understood to be accomplished, in part, through streamlining family obligations. While initial barriers of immigration and the ravages of the Shoah [Holocaust] limited the presence of extended family in the daily life of American Jews, internal migration in the search for the brass ring continued that trend.

Today the era of isolated nuclear families is at an end. We are blessed with many three- and four-generation Jewish families in the U.S. and some even live within a geographic proximity. Incorporating extended family into the everyday definition of mishpachah [Hebrew for "family"], whether or not they live in the same household or city, is essential to weaving a new and stronger fabric of Jewish family life. 

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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).