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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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.

happy familyPathology: 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.

Looking to the future of the Jewish family, the following realities must be addressed by the Jewish organizational and institutional network. First, the extended family is largely inoperative for many Jews. Grandparents have scattered to the Sunbelt and siblings live all over the country. Anyone who has tried to arrange a Passoverseder for the entire family knows how challenging the geographic distance has become. The loss of extended family for many is profound. Jewish organizations and institutions must fill the breach, offering a communal substitute for the extended family. This requires human and financial resources, and a warmth and sensitivity that is often lacking in our communal structure.

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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.