The New Jewish Family

Adjusting communal structures to match the new realities of the Jewish family will require letting go of a romanticized version of familial reality.

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Second, Judaism is not the primary identity for most American Jews. It is part of who they are; it is important to be a Jew, but it does not drive their lives. They are also doctors, golfers, environmentalists, and a host of other identities. As much as many Jewish communal leaders would like Judaism to be the prime identity, it is not likely to be so for most American Jews in the immediate or even distant future. This means that Jewish organizations and institutions have to meet Jewish families where they are, rather than bemoaning who they are not.

Redefining Family

Third, Jewish families are no longer defined by blood. Indeed, neither are individuals. A growing number of Jews formally convert, and many individuals live as Jews without formal conversion. Growing numbers of Jews are adopted, and significant numbers of non-Jews are "fellow travelers" connected to the Jewish family through mixed marriage. Jewish bloodlines will matter less and less, and clinging to matrilineal (or even patrilineal) descent--that is, being the birth child of a Jewish mother (or father) who herself was the birth child of another Jewish mother--will have less and less applicability and relevance as the Jewish community moves forward. The whole controversy about patrilineal or matrilineal descent will have less currency as the Jewish family becomes increasingly defined by those who choose to be part of the Jewish people rather than those who were born into this identity.

Fourth, families are diverse: by race, religion, sexual preference, and a myriad of other factors. Jews are increasingly Black, Asian, Latino, and multiracial; they come from Protestant, Catholic, and other religious backgrounds; they are married, divorced, single, and partnered; significant numbers are gay and lesbian. Many individuals may now be single longer than they are married during their lifetime. The American image of Jews as either central or eastern European, largely Ashkenazic descendants from Fiddler on the Roof does not reflect the complexity of the American Jewish family.

Those who are subject to nostalgia often long for some particular time and place, and associate it with some particular mythology of "how life used to be." Moreover, the Jewish community as a whole continues to cling to an ideal that may not even be desirable. Maybe bringing non-Jews to be part of the Jewish people, for example, so that we grow and prosper rather than diminish is desirable rather than horrifying. Perhaps we should embrace the growing diversity rather than fear it.

If the Jewish organizational and institutional structures--our synagogues, community centers, federations, and the vast array of human service and educational institutions--are going to help the Jewish community be vital and strong, they should embrace who we are, rather than lament who they think we used to be or think we should be. For, indeed, we live neither in the 1950s nor in the time of Abraham. We live in the 21st century, and we should deal with the reality of who we are--now.

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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.