Any discussion of American Jewish family life as an institution must view it within the context of contemporary American social, economic, and political life. All contemporary American Jews are "Jews by choice" in that their relationship with the Jewish people, Judaism, and its institutions is voluntary. They have freedom and feel part of mainstream American life.
The experience of the Jewish family in the United States over the past century has been one of acculturation and accommodation to the norms and values of American society. The diversity within Jewish life precludes a description of an archetypal contemporary American Jewish family. In contrast, according to Glatzer the historic Jewish family – at least in theory (1959) – was (1) patriarchal, (2) three generational, (3) home oriented, (4) pious, and (5) devoted to study, particularly the Bible, Talmud and other Jewish texts. As in all other modern Jewish societies, the majority of Jewish families in the United States today, and perhaps the majority of Jewish families in the typology suggested bear scant resemblance to Glatzer's model of the premodern European Jewish family.
Many Jewish families still share certain distinctive socioeconomic characteristics, i.e., they are middle or upper middle class, are politically to the left of center, and socialize often with other Jews. But many, from day to day, are hardly distinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors. In a profound way, the religion most practiced by American Jewish families has been America itself, its freedoms, democracy, openness, and unprecedented opportunities.
The transition from tradition and self-segregation characterizes the development of the American Jewish family in the United States. These processes affected virtually every aspect of family life, from size and residential patterns to marriage and career choices. There are some who see this process as having weakened the Jewish family, leading it in the direction of ultimate extinction as a distinctive type; others see evidence of surprising strength and the maintenance of tradition in a world of dramatic change. Often citing the same evidence, they perceive the Jewish family as having successfully transformed itself in response to the conditions of its environment, requiring, perhaps, only some redefinition. The process of change which the Jewish family underwent in America may be divided into four eras: (1) the years defined by mass immigration or its consequences, beginning in 1881 and lasting until the late 1920s, (2) the mid-century era, lasting from about 1930 to the mid-1960s, (3) the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, and (4) the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.
PEW Research Center's 2014 Survey on American Religion, released in October 2015, provided a statistical glimpse into the life of the average American Jew. Out of the 35,000 individuals surveyed over the phone, 847 claimed Jewish heritage. Of those Jewish individuals surveyed, 35% said that religion is very important to them compared to 31% in 2007. The percentage of Jews who claimed to attend weekly religious services grew from 16% to 19% over that same time period, and the percentage of Jews who read “scripture” weekly rose from 14% to 17%. Eleven percent of U.S. Jews surveyed believed that the Torah is the literal word of God, 26% believed it to be the non-literal word of God, and 55% claimed that the Torah was written by men. Compared to other religious groups surveyed, Judaism had the lowest percentage of members who believe God wrote the bible. The percentage of Jews who believe in God fell from 72% in 2007 to 64% in 2014. Forty percent of Jews professed to believe in heaven, compared with 72% of respondents from other religions. Weekly services in the United States are attended by 19% of Jews according to the survey, although 53% claim to belong to a local synagogue or house of worship. A majority of Americans do not adhere to Kosher dietary restrictions, with 57% of those surveyed admitting to eating pork. The percentage of Jews who identify as Republicans increased by 2% between 2007 and 2014, from 24% to 26%. The vast majority (77%) of Jews support same sex marriage, compared with only 53% of Americans total.
The majority of Jews living in the United States today are third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation descendants of the families of some 2,650,000 immigrants who arrived in America between the last two decades of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century as part of the mass transplantation of peoples from Eastern and Southern Europe. Howe (1976) points out that for Jews, more than for any other European group, this historic migration was a movement of families, signified by the great proportion of females and children who took part in it. Mass migration, which is usually set in motion by an economic or political crisis, war, or natural disaster, disrupts the normal development of family life. "Yet, it was the ferocious loyalty of the Jews to the idea of the family as they knew it, the family both as locus of experience and as fulfillment of their obligation to perpetuate their line, that enabled them to survive (the immigration experience)" (p. 20). However, immigration put an enormous strain on the family. The older generation was often left behind, never to be seen again. Husbands came before their wives and children thus beginning the process of Americanization earlier. Family reunions were often joyous but seldom without problems as both husband and wife had changed in the intervening years; the husband had become more American, the wife had become used to handling family matters. There were also problems of abandonment, of husbands who had disappeared into the great abyss of America.
The majority of Eastern European Jewish families who came to the United States were nominally Orthodox; they were not, though, among the most learned or pious of that generation. Those who were well established in Europe stayed in Europe. "There is little recognition [today] of the fact that a significant group of the post-1905 immigrants had [already] moved away from Jewish culture …" (Sklare, 1971, p. 17). Nevertheless, they held on to a distinctive Jewish ethos and way of life brought from their towns and villages. Within their world, molded by centuries of Jewish tradition, arranged marriages were common, and large families were desirable, if not always achievable. With a high infant mortality rate and the death of young children by disease, for some children to survive, many more had to be born. The husband was the dominant spouse, the primary breadwinner, and the master of the house, at least in theory. Yet, quite often, the wife was forced to work or in business both husband and wife often worked together. The needs of the group, especially one's family, generally took precedence over any one of its members. Personal achievement of boys and men was encouraged, knowing that the rewards would benefit the entire family. The boundaries of family loyalty and commitment generally extended beyond the immediate household to include a wider circle of relatives.
During this period, economic survival was the immediate concern of each family. "Between 1900 and 1920, it can be argued, more American Jews were engaged in a really difficult struggle for existence than at any time before or since" (Glazer, 1965, p. 23). Despite this, when family members assisted one another the difficulties of resettlement were eased. Countless veteran families legally undertook responsibility for new immigrant relatives, helping them find housing and employment, and, when necessary, sharing food, shelter, and clothing, until the newest arrivals were securely settled.
The many hardships of starting life in a new society put great pressures on the functioning of the family. For example, in the lore of the old country the Jewish father was the natural and unchallenged head of the household, respected and feared by all family members. The Jewish mother was revered for her dedication to her husband and the responsibility she assumed for her young children. Upon reaching America these relationships often changed. The difficulty of adult immigrants in parting with the ways of the old country, in learning to read English and speak it without an accent, in finding gainful employment, and in general, mastering the new environment, in many cases led to the reversal of roles between parents and children. "'Green' parents turned to their Americanized children for succor. Parents became children, and children were unwillingly pressed into the role of parents" (Feingold, 1992, p. 38). Young children learned English more readily and it was not uncommon for them to serve as family spokesman when dealing with the school teacher, principal, policemen and other non-Jewish authorities. In addition, thousands of children were removed from school to work in sweatshops or to perform other menial labor in order to guarantee their family's subsistence income. Inevitably, many children, feeling more American than their parents, were embarrassed by the latter's foreignness and derided them for being "greenhorns" – and then often felt guilty for it. Many immigrant families, perhaps those who were initially less stable, experienced various levels of dysfunction in response to these pressures.
A primary source that reflects the struggles and vicissitudes of first generation Jewish families in America is the letters to the editor column of the then popular Yiddish daily,
the Forverts, a collection known as A Bintel Brief. The thousands of letters sent to this column by immigrants, beginning in 1906, bear testimony to the family arguments, difficulties with raising children, infidelity, divorce, and particularly, cases of paternal desertion experienced by many Jewish families. "The number of [Jewish] men who left their families became so great at one time that the Forverts, in cooperation with the National Desertion Bureau, established a special column to trace them" (Metzker, 1972, p. 10).
Another source on Jewish family life from this period, The Jewish Communal Register (1918), is a compendium of socio-economic and demographic data on approximately a million and a half New York Jews, one-half of all the Jews in the United States at that time. One table, covering the period from 1901 to 1916, compiled by the United Hebrew Charities, indicates a steady decrease, from 11,447 to 6,014, in the number of Jewish families receiving community assistance. As Morris Waldman, at the time the executive director of the Federated Jewish Charities of Boston, pointed out:
[T]he striking thing is, that in spite of the rapid increase of the Jewish population, due to immigration as well as to natural causes, the number of dependent families has steadily diminished year by year, not only proportionately, but actually… This is particularly gratifying in the light of the fact that the number of dependent families among other elements in the city, judging by the experience of other private relief agencies, has increased in proportion to the increase of their population. This proves that the Jews from eastern European countries are not willing dependents. On the contrary, they make every effort to care for themselves and thus remain self-respecting as well as self-supporting (pp. 991–92).
These words portend the successful social and economic integration of the American Jewish family into American society during the coming decades. America was expanding, jobs were available and workers were needed.
Although the challenges of resettlement seemed overwhelming at the time, the Jewish family, in retrospect, stood up to them rather well. The evidence for this is the remarkably rapid social mobility of second-generation American Jews whose parents, in spite of their struggles, saw to their education and general welfare. This second era encompasses approximately 40 years divisible, into two periods. The first began roughly around 1925 and lasted until 1945; the second commenced with the end of World War II and continued until the mid-1960s. During the first 20 years immigrant Jewish families underwent a remarkable social metamorphosis. After World War II they emerged thoroughly Americanized and ready to reap the benefits of the country's post-war economic upsurge.
Quota legislation adopted by Congress in 1921 and 1924, known as the Johnson Acts, effectively ended 40 years of continuous immigration to the United States. With the abatement of mass immigration, the problems of resettlement faded, and the tenor of Jewish community life changed. Those who came in the 1880s and 1890s had been here for decades; their children were American born and American educated. After the mid-1920s, integration into the American mainstream became the most important issue on the Jewish community's agenda.
With impressive speed, masses of Jewish families in cities throughout the United States found the means to relocate from the area of first settlement to a second, more desirable, community. As early as 1925, for example, Brownsville had become the largest center of Jewish population in all of New York City, more populous than the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which many of its inhabitants had left in search of cleaner, healthier, and more spacious living (Landesman, 1969). Geographic mobility, usually the move from a small apartment in an older, run down quarter, to a larger apartment or home in a newer, more prestigious section, was the by-product of social and economic success. The Menorah Journal of April 1928 points out:
In the United States the benefits of equality have now been attained for all practical purposes. Every number of every Jewish weekly in the land points with pride to some Jewish judge or governor, to Jewish bankers, real estate operators and merchants, to members of the faith who are actors and authors and editors, or who have been honored for some success dear to the hearts of their fellow Americans (ibid., p. 361).
Ironically, the process of becoming established took place against a backdrop of significant antisemitism and discrimination which only peaked towards the end of the 1930s. During these years, "gangs attacked Jews on the streets of Brooklyn and other eastern cities with little interference from the police, while organizations calling themselves the Christian Front of the Christian Mobilizers conducted 'Buy Christian' campaigns, cheered the Fuehrer and denounced prominent American Jews" (O'Brien, 1967, p. 271). If nothing else, the effect of antisemitic street violence was reason enough for Jewish families to leave the working class neighborhoods of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn where older Jewish enclaves bordered the neighborhoods of other immigrant groups. Both intergroup conflict and increasing prosperity stimulated geographic mobility.
By 1920, first-generation Jewish immigrants were outnumbered by their American-born Jewish children who began "asserting themselves in the Jewish community" (Hutchinson, 1956). "As members of the second generation began to strive for the values of the dominant society, they introduced the seeds of conflict into the … community" (Kramer and Leventman, 1961). By the beginning of the 1940s, it was clear that younger Jewish families, by then virtually all second generation Americans, bore the values and cultural patterns of their native land. One observer from that era writes: "Today in America, Jewry, like a chameleon, has taken on the color of its new surroundings. Its soul remains divided between the memory of its Eastern heritage – of traditions nursed through centuries of ghetto life – and the interests of the community, which has received it. Its thought has been cast increasingly in the American vernacular …" (ibid.). Typically, second-generation
families attenuated the Orthodox rituals, which were the only form of religious Judaism their parents and grandparents had known in Eastern Europe, even if these had not been consistently observed. Kramer and Leventman note that upon becoming adults, the children of immigrants "acquired a middle-class inclination to make distinctions between the sacred and the secular unknown in the ghetto … What the second generation required were religious institutions adapted to the norms of its new status" (ibid., p. 11). Sklare (1972) thus attributes the success of Conservative Judaism during the period 1920–1950 to "its appeal to young marrieds who were in the process of establishing independent households and developing a pattern of Jewish living that would be distinctive to their generation.…Younger Jews who wished to retain continuity with their past and at the same time integrate into American middle-class culture found Conservative Judaism to be the perfect solution to their dilemma" (Sklare, ibid.). Both Conservative and Reform Judaism represented a restructuring of European Orthodox religious patterns that appealed more to American Jewish sensibilities. In particular, they sanctioned shorter, mixed-pew Sabbath worship services with greater decorum. For families of both movements, the weekly synagogue service became the main, and for many the only, even if infrequent, family religious activity, with the exception of the Passover seder, Hanukkah candles, or celebrating a family life cycle event, such as a bar or bat mitzvah. The synagogue was used for life cycle events: birth and bar-mitzvah, marriage and death, times of crisis and illness as well as on the High Holidays. One observer spoke of it as a Judaism of "hatch em, match em, patch em and dispatch em."
To be sure, many family traditions brought from Europe endured and were passed on to the first American-born generation. "Certain deeply felt attitudes, well adapted to the conditions of the shtetl, were brought … by East European immigrants and transplanted in American soil. If this soil had been completely uncongenial to them, they would be dead and forgotten by now; but the soil was partly congenial, partly inimical" (Yaffe, p. 278). Jewish families saw in the pluralistic nature of American society a tolerance for non-native customs that did not exist in the more highly structured and traditional societies of Europe. This openness helped foster a kind of biculturalism – Jewish and American. Even while seeking to emulate the ways of their new surroundings, most immigrants could not divest themselves of their old country values and norms. As a result, many never felt fully at home in America. By contrast, their children, born in the United States, though only one generation removed from Eastern Europe, saw themselves as American in all respects.
Structural acculturation among second generation Jewish families began as early as the 1920s, says Feingold, and was expressed through:
A loosening of the ties of kinship, and ultimately the large extended family was replaced by a small nuclear one. Family clans that had settled in the same neighborhood dispersed. The nuclear family was compelled to bear alone the stress of rapid change or decline in fortune. Occasionally families cracked under the strain, but most often the changed Jewish family survived and continued to live as before – or as much as was possible (ibid., p. 37).
The dispersion to which Feingold refers was not universal. Second generation families, in fact, often continued to live in the same community, and sometimes even in the same apartment building or complex. This was also true in certain cities more than others. Pittsburgh for example, has had a stable Jewish upper-middle-class neighborhood since the 1930s and is still using the infrastructure created more than three quarters of a century ago. During this era, three generation households, consisting of grandparents, parents, and children, were not as uncommon as they were to become. Grandparents often maintained an active role in managing the family. No doubt this helped many young couples by reducing their child-rearing responsibilities, affording them additional time for work or schooling. In spite of discrimination, many children of immigrants succeeded in entering American colleges and universities. They trained for the "free" professions of law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and accounting (Glazer 1965, p. 33). It was during this period that large numbers of American Jewish families improved their socio-economic status, becoming solidly middle class.
According to Glazer, in the mid-1930s almost one-half of young Jewish adults came from homes where their fathers were blue-collar workers, and about one-third from homes where their fathers owned their own businesses or were managers and officials in other enterprises. In one-tenth of the homes the fathers were clerks, and in fewer than one-twentieth they were professionals. In contrast, some 60 percent of the younger generation was engaged in "clerical and kindred" work, and many headed for an independent business career or profession. In smaller cities during the 1930s, such as Detroit, Buffalo, and San Francisco, an even larger percentage of young Jews, including women, were becoming teachers, white-collar clerks, and salespeople (ibid., pp. 30–32). Their solid penetration of the middle class during this period set the stage for even greater socio-economic advancement during the next two decades.
Even before reaching the middle class economically, American Jewish families displayed many of the social patterns of this group. A prime example of this is the decline in the birth rate. "The process of family limitation among American Jews," says Sklare, "has its roots in the fertility behavior of the first generation. But it was not until the second generation that newer conceptions of family size made deep inroads" (ibid., 1971, p. 79). In 11 community-wide studies carried out between 1930 and 1940 Seligman (see Glazer, p. 34) reports on Jewish fertility ratios (the proportion of children under 5 per 1,000 persons aged 20–54) ranging from 81 to 122. Among non-Jewish Caucasians in 1940 from across the United States, the ratio is 154. Glazer comments that "in the late 'Thirties, it seem[s] fair to conclude that a modicum of relative prosperity had been accompanied by a very rapid drop in the size of
the Jewish family" (ibid., p. 35). "By 1938," notes Feingold, "50 percent of Jewish families produced two or fewer children. Jews were on their way to becoming America's most efficient contraceptors" (p. 48). Sociologists and others at that time who were sensitive to these trends predicted a decline in the size of the American Jewish community.
By 1940 American Jews had adopted the model of the middle-class American family more successfully than any other immigrant group. This status is portrayed in a number of popular wartime- and postwar-period novels, including A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith, 1943), A Walker in the City (Alfred Kazin, 1951), Marjorie Morningstar (Herman Wouk, 1955), and Good-bye Columbus (Philip Roth, 1959). Jewish families portrayed in earlier works, such as Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934), are, by comparison, preoccupied with the more fundamental issues of resettlement and becoming "real" Americans. After 1940, these themes are no longer relevant. Fictional Jewish families as portrayed by Jewish authors in the 1940s are unmistakably, middle-class American families who also happen to be Jewish.
Glazer asserts that "the fifteen years of prosperity from the end of the thirties to the mid-fifties … wrought great changes, and created the Jewish community we know today.… This community of businessmen and professional men is better educated and wealthier than most of the population – probably as well educated and as wealthy as some of the oldest and longest established elements in the United States" (ibid., p. 3). Glazer attributes this success to the fact that Jews, more than other immigrant groups, had for generations engaged in various urban, middle-class occupations, and in spirit had long belonged to the middle class.
Upon its rise to the middle class, the Jewish family began exhibiting additional signs of modernization. Strodbeck (1957) offers evidence which demonstrates that after World War II, Jews, as compared to Italians, place less stress on "familism," i.e., they are more willing to leave home and live independently. This suggests that certain values, which helped American Jews achieve higher social rank, might have had a negative impact on family solidarity. Balswick (1966) concludes on the basis of "writings and research material of the last twenty years," that "the American Jewish family is closely knit. It is more closely knit than non-Jewish families with which it has been compared" (p. 166). However, this conclusion is challenged by Westerman (1967), who cites various methodological problems with Balswick's analysis, particularly a failure to compare contemporary Jewish families with those of previous generations.
America's economic boom following World War II helped to usher in a golden age for the American Jewish family. The G.I. Bill of Rights helped American Jewish veterans get an education and universities expanded to meet growing needs. Veterans' benefits also enabled them to purchase homes. Social integration was advanced by the relocation of second- and third-generation Jewish families from urban areas of second settlement to the periphery of the city and its suburbs. This migration brought about a paradigm shift in American Jewish life whose effect on the family, in particular, was fundamental and far reaching.
Shapiro (1992) cites the reasons for the unprecedented growth of the suburbs after 1945 as follows, including:
the increased use of automobiles, postwar prosperity, the pent-up demand for housing created by the depression and the war, the desire of veterans to resume a normal family life after the dislocations of wartime, the baby boom of the late 1940s and 1950s, government programs that encouraged the building and purchase of houses by veterans … (p. 43)
Many Jewish families found the means to abandon the crowded and deteriorating conditions of the city for the newness and openness of the suburbs. Gordon (1959) specifically cites the shortage of urban living space as a key factor in their migration.
The depression years of the 1930s were followed closely by World War II. During that fifteen-year period, few, if any, new homes were built, and even fewer families could afford to purchase them, whatever their cost. Families "doubled up": sons or daughters who were recently married moved in with their parents until conditions improved.… The builders of mass-produced homes, such as those in Levittown, provided "low-cost housing." Prices were reasonable enough to satisfy young people who were determined to establish their own family life, independent of parents and in-laws.
But not all young, upwardly mobile Jewish families in the period were so determined, and pockets of urban Jewish life remained. Dawidowicz describes one postwar group that chose to stay in the city.
After years of housing starvation (during the Depression and the war years), many young families in New York found that the great Queens building boom of 1948–1951 offered them a wide choice of modest apartments at modest monthly rentals from $75 to $140. Besides wanting a place to live at rents they could afford, these young people were fleeing from the changes in their old neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. They were looking for an inexpensive facsimile of the suburbs a half hour from Times Square. (p. 68)
The experience of suburban living influenced the dynamics of Jewish family life. The new environment engendered a process of social change reminiscent of the experience of im-migrant families two generations earlier. This is described by Mary Antin in her autobiography The Promised Land (1912), in which she notes how:
In Polotzk we had been trained and watched, our days had been regulated, our conduct prescribed. In America, suddenly we were let loose on the street. Why? Because my father having renounced his faith, and my mother being uncertain of hers, they had no particular creed to hold us to… My parents knew only that they desired us to be like American children; and seeing how their neighbors gave their children boundless liberty, they turned us also loose, never doubting but that the American way was the best way (pp. 270–1).
Gordon (1959) observes that "the suburb is helping to produce marked changes in the basic structures of the Jewish family and its educational, political, religious, cultural and social life" (p. 19). Life in suburbia was so different from life in the city that changes in family life were inevitable.
One important consequence of these changes was the virtual full acceptance and social integration of the Jewish family into American society. This development was discussed in Will Herberg's classic book Protestant, Catholic, Jew: A Study in Religious Sociology (1955), one of the most influential works in the postwar sociology of American religion. Herberg posits that by the mid-twentieth century, Judaism was no longer considered marginal to American society. Affiliation with a major religious faith was important to Americans, and Judaism, as the seminal creed of America's Judeo-Christian tradition, duly qualified. Jews, as individuals, might still encounter discrimination, but the Jewish tradition, especially as manifest within the home and family, was seen as consonant with the highest of American values (Herberg, ibid., and Kramer and Levantman, p. 153). In Herberg's typology Jews, who were three percent of the American population, constituted one third of its religious experience. Of course, the Judaism of the suburbs was not the pseudo-Orthodoxy of the immigrant generation. Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism, at least until the 1970s, were the only streams of Judaism to successfully take root there. The modern and often lavish temples and synagogues erected in the 1950s and 1960s conveyed the message that the Jewish family felt self-assured and at home in America (Sklare and Greenblum, 1967). Some were designed by prominent architects, Jewish and non-Jewish – they manifested the sense that Jews had arrived and were taking root.
Synagogue affiliation was altogether a different experience in the suburbs. The distances characteristic of suburban living made regular synagogue participation, for those so inclined, more difficult. Whereas in the city, the synagogue was classically a neighborhood institution, in the suburbs it served a widely dispersed population often accessible only by car. Thus, synagogue attendance could no longer be an informal and spontaneous affair. The increased distance between home and synagogue was but one of the post-war changes in Jewish family life. The Conservative movement responded by permitting travel to and from synagogue by car on the Sabbath. Orthodoxy, which continued to prohibit travel felt more at home in the city or turned a blind eye to those who traveled to synagogue. Living within walking distance of the synagogue was later to be a boon to the sense of community among Orthodox and traditional Jews.
The transplanting of Jewish community life from the city to the suburbs contributed to (1) the long range decline of the Jewish neighborhood, (2) an increase in formal affiliation as a means of community attachment, (3) the child-centered family, (4) the transformation of gender roles, and (5) increased geographic mobility.
According to Shapiro:
The diffusion of Jewish population into the suburbs and exurbs diluted Jewish identity. In the compacted Jewish neighborhoods of the cities, Jewish identity was absorbed through osmosis. In suburbia, it had to be nurtured. Jewish suburbanites lived [mostly] in localities where, in contrast to the city, most of the people were not Jews, the local store did not sell Jewish [especially Yiddish language] newspapers, there were no kosher butchers, synagogues were not numerous, and corned beef sandwiches were not readily available. (p. 147)
In the old neighborhood, grandchildren often lived within proximity of their grandparents, which naturally facilitated more frequent contact. This intimacy made it more likely that family traditions were passed on. Suburban living distanced these generations. The Yiddish of immigrant grandparents, which was understood and spoken, albeit typically unused, by the second generation, seemed foreign and arcane to their suburban grandchildren. A Sunday visit to bubbie and zaidie in the city might take in shopping at the Jewish bakery, bookstore, or kosher butcher. Such casual activities were the most intensive Jewish cultural encounters some third- and fourth-generation children would experience.
While this scenario partly reflects an overall distancing from tradition, it also points to the diminuition of intense Jewish family activity in the suburbs. Such activity is a source of mimetic norms, i.e., knowledge that is "imbibed from parents and friends, and patterned on conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school" (Soloveitchik, 1994). This form of learning emerges naturally in the traditional Jewish neighborhood. The Jewish neighborhood, much like the shtetl of prewar Europe, is an example of gemeinschaft, an informal, corporate form of community life. In contrast, suburban Jewish life is likened to gesellschaft, a form of community organization wherein social interaction is more disparate and the transmission of culture more formalized. It has become more common for suburban Jewish families who do not live near one another to meet and interact only within the context of formal activities. These scheduled Jewish experiences, such as attendance at synagogue services, school meetings, youth group programs, adult learning courses, holiday celebrations and cultural events, compete for time with a miscellany of other activities. (See Sklare; Gans; Blau; Gordon; and Kramer and Leventman, op. cit.)
The suburban synagogue is the central, even if not the sole, focus of public Jewish life. Synagogue membership entitles a family, or any one of its members: to celebrate the Jewish holidays as part of the congregation; to the services of the rabbi and his assistant; to attend synagogue-run classes and lectures; to receive Jewish news and information through the in-house newsletter, and to use the synagogue's facilities for the celebration of family life-cycle events. For the newly suburbanized Jews, this reflected the dependency of the family on the Jewish skills and knowledge of community professionals. In many instances for that generation, even such classic family rites as lighting Hanukkah candles or participating in a
Passover seder no longer took place at home, but in the synagogue, under the direction of a rabbi, or teacher.
Observers note the extent to which the contemporary American Jewish family, particularly in suburbia, became child centered. While concern for the well-being and education of children is basic to Jewish tradition, the child-oriented behavior of American Jewish families is a more recent phenomenon. This generation of American Jews was often characterized by a Judaism that was for the young – children attending Hebrew school at least until bar and bat mitzvah – and the old – grandparents attending regularly as a routine part of their lives.
Having acquired the economic means to provide more than basic food, clothing and shelter, Jewish parents developed a tendency to indulge their children with a surfeit of material goods. This behavior is reflected, says Sklare (1971, p. 88), in the expression "'they gave their son everything.' 'Everything' means the best of everything from the necessities to the luxuries: it includes clothing, medical attention, entertainment, vacations, schools and myriad other items." In this same context, observed Gordon, "The financial burdens that Jewish parents in suburbia gladly bear for what they regard as the best interests of their children is often astonishing [and sometimes disturbing] to persons who are aware of the sacrifices these entail" (Gordon, ibid., p. 65). Many second- and third-generation American Jewish parents acknowledged that the very move to suburbia was "for the sake of the children."
Another example of child-focused family behavior was reflected in the attitude towards ritual observance and Jewish education. According to Sklare, any ritual that is centered on the child is more likely to be retained by the family (ibid., pp. 115, 116). This means that (1) the ritual activity must provide an opportunity to directly involve the child, and (2) it should convey "optimism, fun, and gratification." The Passover seder and the lighting of candles at Hanukkah are two often-cited examples. Toward the end of the 20th century, Sukkot experienced an increase in the percentage of observance as Jews had land and backyards where they could build a sukkah and it was a family centered, do-it-yourself activity, a perfect suburban project. This understanding of ritual correlates religious practice with the interests of children. Consequently, within the year of their youngest child's bar or bat mitzvah, many parents discontinued their child's formal Jewish education, choosing not to renew their synagogue membership, to curtail their other Jewish communal activities, and sometimes to reduce the family's observance of home rituals.
In their respective analyses of Jewish suburban life, Gans (ibid., p. 233) and Gordon (ibid., pp. 19, 59–60) discuss changes in the family that developed with respect to both males and females in the mid 20th Century. According to Gans:
In the suburb… the men's daytime absence shifts a much greater role in its affairs to the women, except in functions requiring business skills, and aspirations such as power…[Women's'] concern with Jewish education seems also to be stronger than that of the men…This is a major shift from the traditional Jewish family organization in which the father, as religious leader of the household, supervised the children's education for an adult community in which he himself was playing a role.
In response to their husbands' preoccupation with earning a living, claims Gordon, suburban Jewish women in the post-war era began to take responsibility for matters for which their husbands were once considered the sole authority in theory if not in practice. This mirrored the responsibility that other American women assumed for the transmission of culture.
My observation…, and particularly this intensive study of suburban Jewish family life, leads to the conclusion that.… "all major decisions are made by the husband while all the minor ones are made by the wife." The major decisions… deal with such matters as war and peace, sputnik and satellites. The minor issues include rearing the children and choosing their schools, the particular synagogue with which to affiliate, the neighborhood into which to move and the kind of home to buy.
The Jewish woman has acquired her new position of… leadership by default… So completely engrossed in business affairs… [the husband] generally gives little attention to spiritual and cultural matters that involve his home and family. The husband's failure has led inevitably to the wife's new status.
The geographic mobility among Jewish families in the post-war era primarily reflects their relocation to the local suburbs, not inter-state or cross country migration. It is true that from the 1950s it became increasingly common for the corporate breadwinner to be transferred great distances. However, since many Jews remained excluded from the corporate sector during these years, the voluntary move to the nearby suburbs was far more common. Jewish families moved not only from the city to the suburbs, but in time they also moved within and between suburbs. As its income rose, it was not uncommon for a family to sell its home in a less expensive section of one suburb and move to a higher status area within the same suburb. Naturally, families also moved from lower to higher status suburbs. Kramer and Levantman note that the "securely American status of the third generation and its increasing mobility have released it from old ties and community sentiments…."
The Mid-1960s to the 1980s
By the middle of the 1960s Jewish family life in America appeared to have reached the zenith of prosperity and security. From a historical perspective, few, if any other Jewish communities could claim to feel so well integrated into surrounding society. Sklare (1971) contends that this very success resulted in "[a] paucity of substantial research studies on the American-Jewish family…The Jewish family constellation has not created social problems in the general society. In fact it has done just the opposite: the Jewish family seems to have solved problems rather than caused them" (p. 73).
But all was not perfect. Acculturation and integration came with a price. "As upward mobility pushed immigrants' children to the suburbs, their parents were linked to memories of dark stairways, stale smells, cramped apartments, loud voices, and barbarous accents. In comparison, blending into a bland mainstream was a big step forward. With so much discarded,
little remained to give their distinctiveness purpose except sentimental leftovers fed by kitsch, Broadway shows, and self-righteousness…This mix of ethnic remnants and carbon-copy assimilation left such parents little to pass on" (Rubin, 1995, pp. 93–94). The poignancy of this transformation became more evident towards the end of the 1960s when traditional notions about family life were confronted by the popularization of values that were more liberal and individual oriented. Many of the assumptions regarding what constitutes a "sound and healthy" family were challenged. Questions were raised about the structure and purpose of the family, as well as the obligations of family members towards each other. "Since 1970, or thereabouts," says Cohen (1983, pp. 114–15) "the American family has undergone such dramatic changes as to spark a popular and scholarly debate about whether it is in fact disintegrating."
The mythic portrayal of the American family is prevalent in the way Jewish institutions are structured. The family is defined as two parents and children. A fixed division of labor is presumed and children are seen as the focus of the family. Membership costs are often defined by family. Synagogue membership is usually stated in family units. Meeting are scheduled as if the family defined above is the norm; so too, programming and fees. These institutions have been slow to change even as women have become officers, major donors and decision makers. It is as if the sisterhood continued to serve Friday evening tea at the Oneg Shabbat even though the rabbi, cantor, president and principal supporters may now be women.
Rela Mintz Geffen reports that according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey the most common household in the Jewish community comprises one adult Jew living alone; the next most common is two adults Jews; and only then two adult Jews with at least one child under the age of 18 living at home. Only 14% of Jewish households in the survey were comprised of two Jewish adults and with at least one child under 18 living at home. In contemporary parlance, the "conventional Jewish family" is two Jews, one male, one female – whether born Jewish or not – with one child under the age of 18 living at home.
Contemporary Jews live not only in the traditional family but also as singles of all ages; empty nest couples whose children have left home and will not again return; senior adults living alone or in communities and facilities, widowed or married; dual-career spouses; single parents, whether by death of one's spouse, loss or divorce; and non-traditional couples, gay men and lesbian women. These people, constituting a majority of all Jews, often feel unacknowledged by contemporary American Jewish institutions. Programming and normative language of the community often excludes them and many respond accordingly. There may be an asymmetry between the definition of family embodied in community institutions and the actual configuration of the way Jews in America live.
"For American Jews," says Fishman (1994), "as for other Americans today, there is no one model of 'the family.' Jewish families reflect, in somewhat less extreme profile, an America in which less than 15 percent of households conform to the model of father, mother-at-home, and children living together…[Thus t]he 'typical' American Jewish household today is more likely than not to be atypical in some way. Proportions of older, single, divorced, remarried, or dual-career households make up more of the Jewish population than intact young families with children" (pp. 5, 33). As a result of these changes, social scientists no longer study American families, per se; instead, surveys are conducted among "households," such as in the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (p. 33). The term "household" accommodates a more flexible and wider range of domestic living arrangements than those associated with the conventional western family.
Trends which first emerged some 25–30 years ago continue to have an impact upon Jewish family life. These include: a decrease in the rate of marriage; the postponement of first time marriage; an increase in the number of marriages that end in divorce; an increase in the rate of intermarriage, particularly non-conversionary marriages; a decrease in the birth rate to a level lower than replacement; an increase in geographic mobility; an increase in cohabitation, and single motherhood; and an increase in substance abuse. Some have argued that there is an increase in domestic violence and in homosexuality but they may be mistaken. It is certainly the case that there is an increase in acknowledgement of domestic violence and or homosexuality. It was commonplace to link these phenomena with a decrease in Jewish education and the practice of Jewish ritual, but the evidence is mixed. The number of children receiving a day school education is at all-time high and the measurement of Jewish ritual observance does not necessarily indicate a decline. There is no doubt that Jewish values must compete in the open marketplace of ideas in a multicultural United States, where exposure to other value systems is commonplace.
Fishman (ibid.) examines a number of these trends by comparing data from the 1970 National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) and the CJF 1990 National Jewish Population Study with data drawn throughout the 1980s from some two dozen Jewish communities. Regarding marriage, her analysis indicates that while in 1970 nearly four-fifths of all adult American Jews were married, by 1990 this figure had decreased to about two-thirds. A parallel decrease was recorded for all adults in the United States. Over the last 30 years being single in America has developed into a lifestyle. Whereas in 1970–1 17 percent of Jewish men were still single at ages 25–34, this figure increased to about 50 percent in 1990. An even greater increase applies to Jewish women ages 25–34; only 10 percent of this group was not married in 1970–1, in comparison to about half in 1990. By age 45, however, over 90 percent of all Jews are reported to have been married at least one time.
"The delay or avoidance of marriage is but one of many factors which may lower Jewish birthrates" (Cohen, 1983, p. 117). Still, another factor is higher education; the more
education a couple has completed, the less likely it is to produce more than one or two children. It is understandable then, that Jewish couples, who in comparison with the rest of the population complete more years of education and also marry late, often raise smaller families. This tendency was observed among Jewish families by Seligman and Antonovsky, even in the midst of America's baby boom. Orthodox Jews are the exception. Seligman and Antonovsku cautioned that "[t]he high proportion of two-person and three-person [Jewish] families may be indicative of a declining reproductive rate…" (in Sklare, 1958, p. 66). The impact of this trend was noted over a decade later. "[I]n the second generation," says Sklare, "the birth rate dropped so precipitously as to have serious implications for Jewish population size as well as for group continuity" (1971, p. 79).
A low birth rate has continued into the third and fourth generations. In 1990, 93 percent of Jewish women ages 18 to 24 and 55 percent of those ages 25 to 34 had not yet had children (Fishman, ibid., p. 31). As a result, with the exception of the Orthodox community, the Jewish birth rate in America presently stands at significant less than replacement level of 2.1. Averting the presumed consequences of what appears to be a looming demographic crisis currently occupies a high position on the organized Jewish community's national agenda. A significantly attenuated Jewish population would weaken the Jewish community's standing at large, including its ability to act on behalf of its own interests. It would jeopardize the existence of a range of local Jewish institutions, from family services to community centers and schools, as well as the Jewish community's fundraising efforts on behalf of Israel and distressed Jews in other countries. Finally, some have presumed that it would sap the vitality of American Jewish culture and creativity. Others who study American Judaism believe that the intensity of Jewish life and the freedom of Jews to create as Jews, to act publicly as Jews and feel free even in their seemingly secular pursuits to act as Jews will offset the loss of numbers. Many who point to the problem of intermarriage are slow to acknowledge the tremendous contribution, energy and vitality brought to all institutions and all denominations of Judaism by Jews by choice, those not born as Jews.
The significance of this low birth rate is compounded by the high outmarriage rate – the rate is subject to dispute ranging between 45–52%. Just as the intermarriage [rate] has increased dramatically among younger American Jews, rates of conversion have fallen, especially after the introduction by Reform Judaism's acceptance of patrilineal descent. Mixed marriage is five times higher among Jews 18 to 34 than it is among those over age 55" (Fishman in Bayme and Rosen, p. 26). Ironically, the rise in intermarriage is not unrelated to a decline in antisemitism. Jews are now regarded as acceptable partners for non-Jews and the opposition from the non-Jewish family has declined markedly. Intermarriage also has less to do with one's Jewish identity and allegiance to the Jewish people than it did a generation or two ago. During the mid-1950s, according to Rosenthal (1963), the overall community intermarriage rate for the Greater Washington, D.C., area, a mid-sized yet highly cosmopolitan Jewish community, was 13 percent. In larger Jewish communities, the rate was between 6–10 percent. By the 1970s, intermarriage rates in many American communities had risen to approximately 30 percent. Whereas, according to Medding, et al. (1992), Jewish identification tends to be passed on to the next generation in conversionary marriages, especially Orthodox and Conservative conversionary marriages, this is not true of mixed marriages. "Jewish identification in mixed marriages is accompanied by the presence of symbols of Christian identification, resulting in dual-identity households at all levels of Jewish identification" (p. 39). Daniel Elazar called this the permeability of contemporary boundaries. So long as mixed marriages constitute the great majority of out-marriages, intermarriage poses a major challenge to transmission of Judaism through Jewish family life in America.
Divorce, like outmarriage, was once relatively rare among American Jews. This is no longer the case. Divorce, especially that which results in long-term single parent households, has increased over the last three decades. Data from the CJF 1990 NJPS reveals "18 divorces for every 100 ever-married men and 19 for every 100 ever-married women [indicating that] divorce has become relatively common among American Jews." "Rising rates of divorce," says Fishman, "have created a situation in which one-third of Jewish children live in homes which have been touched by divorce: about ten percent of Jewish children live in single parent homes and twenty percent live in households in which at least one spouse has been divorced" (1994, p. 34). Clearly, the traditional notion of a two parent family with mother and father raising their own children together is not the only form that contemporary Jewish family life has taken.
Active extended kin relations continued to characterize American Jewish family life until the 1970s. Yet there too the picture may be a bit overdone. Children left for college and left for jobs; grandparents migrated to the South and also to the West. It was presumed that grandparents would be the major repository of Jewish values and yet in the contemporary family it is often the grandparents who are most removed from Jewish education. And because of immigration, because of the Holocaust, many grandparents grew up without grandparents and do not have an image of what grandparenting involved. And American culture, which does not revere the elderly, certainly offers few models to teach them.
On the other hand, the increase in geographic mobility during the last quarter century has enhanced extended family ties. Greater family resources, the ease of travel, the lowering of long distance phone rates, and ubiquity of the internet have increased the involvement of grandparents with their grandchildren. At the same time divorce and intermarriage pose unique challenges. Especially perplexing is the relationship of grandparents to their grandchildren when the custodial parent is not their child. According to the CJF 1990 NJPS, between the years 1985–1990, 25 percent of adults surveyed changed residence, at least once, between cities within
the same state. Another 24 percent changed residence, at least once, between states. Frequent mobility makes it more difficult to develop long-term social relationships within a community. Three generation relationships, as well as active ties between cousins, have become rarer but also more cherished in recent years. There is a tendency for extended family events to be limited to infrequent holiday gatherings or major life-cycle celebrations.
No doubt an added challenge to Jewish family life has been the development of the dual career family. According to the CJF 1990 NJPS about three-fourths of women aged 25–44 and two-thirds of women aged 45–64 are members of the labor force. "Today the labor force participation of Jewish women departs radically from patterns of the recent past. In most cities the majority of Jewish mothers continue to work even while their children are quite young. In Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Washington, three out of every five Jewish mothers with pre-school children are working" (Fishman, ibid., p. 17). Nearly 40 percent of working Jewish women under the age of 44 in 1990 are reported to work in some professional capacity, as compared to 24 percent in 1970. In 1957, says Goldstein, only about 30 percent of Jewish women aged 25–44 were employed at all (ibid., p. 113). Remaining at home to raise children was a more common practice. The increased availability of professional day care services, many under Jewish auspices, aided the growth of dual career families in recent decades. It also should be noted that contrary to many historical recollections women in the traditional Jewish home often worked outside of the home; their labor was necessary for the survival of the family. When the husband studied the wife was responsible for providing for the family and in the immigrant family, the working mother was also essential for survival. Stay at home mothers may have reflected the mid-century American middle class ideal rather than actual practice. In fact, the wife not having to work was a status symbol in mid-century America. The empowerment of women, the increasing professionalization of and opportunity for women pose challenges to the Jewish family but is not unprecedented in the Jewish experience. Substance abuse, domestic violence and incest, pathologies long considered to exist at strictly marginal levels among Jewish families, began to receive increased attention in the 1970s. It is not clear whether earlier instances of these problems were more common but went largely unreported, or whether more acculturated third- and fourth-generation Jewish families in fact have been more susceptible. The training of mikveh ladies to recognize signs of physical abuse by a husband is a clear indication that these problems are not confined to the secular family alone.
As late as the end of the 1960s, alcoholism was not seen as a problem that affected many Jewish families. Franzblau (1967) cited findings by the Yale Center of Alcoholic Studies indicating that first-time admissions to New York State Hospitals are fifty times as numerous among Irish as among Jews, fifteen times as numerous among Scandinavians, ten times as numerous among Italians, nine times as numerous among the English and eight times as numerous among the Germans. According to Franzblau, Jewish families of the period comparedfavorably to non-Jewish families "whether the factual material presented be on juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, prison populations, family desertion and non-support, separation and divorce rates, commitments to mental hospitals for the tertiary manifestations of syphilis…" (p. 59). He suggestedthen that "Jewish home and Jewish family life are…endowed with some mysterious extra safeguards against the disintegrative forces of the environment" (ibid.).
More recent estimates of alcoholism among Jewish adults range from five to fifteen percent. Since about 92 percent of all Jews marry by age 45, alcoholism among Jews is both a family and a personal problem. Increased recognition of alcoholism and drug addiction within the Jewish community has led to the establishment of Jewish support groups as alternatives to groups like Alcoholics Anonymous which have a Christian orientation.
Domestic violence, including the sexual abuse of children, was considered, for all intents and purposes, absent from the consciousness among American Jews during the middle part of the century, but certainly not during the immigrant experience. The winter 1991–2 Journal of Jewish Communal Service, poignantly entitled "Family Violence IS a Jewish Issue," offers five articles that examine both spousal and elderly abuse, as well as describe abuse treatment programs operated by various local Jewish communal agencies. The April 1990 issue of Moment features an article entitled "Confronting Sexual Abuse in Jewish Families" in which the author describes her own and others' victimization and offers other victims' advice. She rejects "[t]he myth that Jewish families and incestuous families are a contradiction in terms…" and confronts an issue formerly never associated with Jews.
Conventional family values have been decidedly challenged by the liberal atmosphere which prevails on most American university campuses. In the 1960s, questions about the typical western family, a topic generally relegated to sociology and anthropology lectures, spilled over from the lecture hall to the streets. The counterculture experience, in which so many young Jews participated, encouraged alternative family forms and lifestyles. This partially explains the disproportionate number of Jews who affiliated with communes and cults. Although the experiment with communal living more or less ended by the mid-1970s, Jewish involvement in cults has continued to this day but is now regarded as a much more marginal phenomenon, except to those whose children are within the cults. The Baal Teshuvah movement, in which children become more observant than their parents – and often unable to eat in their homes or to spend Shabbat and holidays with them – is also a challenge to the family structure. It is also present within Orthodoxy where Modern Orthodox parents have haredi children who find their parents' Orthodoxy not sufficiently devout. The attractiveness of cults to young Jews is explained by some observers as a reaction to low self-esteem among those who cannot meet the high expectations
of their parents or community. Others see it as a response to the spiritual emptiness found in so many contemporary Jewish families and synagogues. The ḥavurah and programs that educate the Jewish family, both of which initially gained wider popularity in the early 1970s, reflect the efforts of the Jewish community to combat these problems.
The community ḥavurah is modeled after the student organized Havurah that "originated in the late 1960s [in New York and Boston] with young Jews who were unhappy with the Conservative and Reform congregations in which they had been raised. Influenced by the counterculture, they were dissatisfied with contemporary Jewish institutions, both religious and communal, which they regarded as "sterile, impersonal, hierarchical, and divorced from Jewish tradition" (Weissler, p. 200). Both the independent ḥavurah, which is unaffiliated with any community institution, and the synagogue or community center ḥavurah, whose participants are generally affiliated with these institutions, typically consists of a small number (10–20) of singles, couples, or sometimes both. The typical ḥavurah holds Sabbath and holiday services, celebrates life-cycle events, organizes study groups, and undertakes one or more social action causes. The particular activities of each ḥavurah reflect the interests of its membership. It is an attempt to establish community and to retain a personal dimension to institutional Jewish life.
The small and intimate setting of the ḥavurah comparesfavorably to the vast and formal surroundings of many American synagogues to those seeking fellowship and spirituality in their worship. The ḥavurah experience is an "opportunity to have a continuing intimate association – to feel a sense of belonging, to be linked with people they know personally and who care about them, and to have people with whom to share happiness and sorrow – bar mitzvahs, Passover seders, sickness, death, etc." (Reisman, p. 207). The ḥavurah experience is used by many singles, couples, and families, as a substitute for the natural family and community network that was once much more prevalent within American Jewish life.
Economic considerations also play a role in Jewish affiliation. The higher one's economic status, the more likely one is to affiliate with the Jewish community and the less likely one is to intermarry. Rates of intermarriage are consistently higher among those of lesser socioeconomic achievement as measured by education, occupation and income, especially for those under 45. In 1990 one in two of those Jews with an income of more than $100,000 were Jewishly affiliated; the rate of affiliation was one in three for those earning less than $60,000. Lower income Jews also feel disaffiliated from Jewish life.
Jewish education programs for families have existed in the United States for decades, but it is only since the 1970s that this approach has been developed as a sub-specialty (Schiff, p. 262). Jewish family education is based on the premise that, although "the attitudes and behavior patterns [of most American Jewish families presently]…resemble those of the non-Jewish, white middle-class (Rosenman, p. 153)," a percentage of these families are willing, or can be induced, tobe tutored in basic Jewish knowledge, skills and values and helped to integrate these into their lives." Programs in Jewish family education exist at the local level where they are sponsored by community centers, synagogues, day schools, [and] family service agencies. At the national level, the William Petschek National Jewish Family Center established in 1981 by the American Jewish Committee, the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, Yeshiva University in New York, and other universities, are among those institutions that offer research opportunities, professional and lay seminars, personnel training, and produce and disseminate educational materials. Although the proliferation of these institutions reflects the growing importance of this field in the eyes of community educators and leaders, it is also indicative of the sense of urgency which surrounds the present condition of the American Jewish family.
Two important studies in the 1970s (Himmelfarb, 1974 and Bock, 1976) found that the most salient influence on adult Jewish identification was the family. Yet, most synagogues, schools and community centers focused their programming exclusively on children, leaving the family to its own devices. Wolfson (1983) called the family's reliance on the institution to provide opportunities for Jewish celebration a "dependency cycle." He called on synagogues and schools to empower families with the skills and resources to create a home filled with Jewish celebration, content and values. In 1989, Wolfson gathered a group of pioneering Jewish family educators to establish the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life to further the field of practice in Jewish family education. Hundreds of Jewish professionals and laity attended Whizin seminars to learn the latest strategies for "reaching and teaching" the Jewish family. By the end of the century, virtually every synagogue, school and JCC had a full range of Jewish family education programming (Wolfson and Bank, 1998).
End of the 20th Century
At the end of the 20th century, the American Jewish family more strongly resembled its non-Jewish neighbor than its own forebear of a hundred years ago. Goldstein and other "survivalists" insist that Jewish families continue to maintain sufficient distinctive collectivist socio-economic and socio-cultural characteristics to guarantee continuity, at least for the foreseeable future. Cohen (1994) argues that current intermarriage and birth rates will result in a smaller, but qualitatively stronger American Jewish community "[O]n the family level, rather than the group level, for the vast majority of families, intermarriage eventually severs the link of future generations with the Jewish people." While Cohen remains optimistic about the overall long range survival of the American Jewish community, he foresees the disappearance of many presently existing Jewish family lines.
The only variance to the observations above lies within the Orthodox sector. Orthodox families, who constitute some
ten percent of the American Jewish population, do not reflect the trends of the wider Jewish community. Although domestic problems of all stripes do occur within Orthodox circles, their incidence appears limited because it is less reported and certainly less acknowledged. Characteristically, the more religiously observant the family and the more segregated it is from the general society, the less likely it is to experience intermarriage, a low birth rate, and other elements accompanying assimilation.
Among the main purposes and functions of the family, says Bayme (1989), is the transmission of culture and heritage, the basis of group identity. In the middle decades of the past century, this task, he contends, has been transferred to the Jewish school. "We today ask of Jewish schools not only to transmit knowledge and cultural literacy of Judaism but also to transmit Jewish identity and consciousness. Conversely, research has demonstrated that without the cooperation and involvement of families Jewish schools can achieve very little." Recent trends in education emphasize family participation and recent life cycle and calendar ritual behavior also demonstrate an increase in activities that are family centered, albeit with abroadened definition of family.
Can Jewish families continue to fulfill their historical function? Can the definition of Jewish family accommodate all alternative household forms, including cohabiting couples and groups, singles, lesbians and gays, and still guarantee long range Jewish survival? These serious questions are currently being asked by individuals, such as Bayme, as well as other concerned academicians and social scientists, community lay leaders and professionals. The Jewish family is not about to disappear from the American scene; however, it clearly will have undergone significant transformations.
Social policy planners and senior educators who wish to strengthen the Jewish family are presently busy at both the national and community level. Among their objectives is to guarantee the affordability of quality Jewish family education, for children as well as adults, and affordable rates for community center, synagogue, and summer camp participation. For those who chose maximal Jewish life, day school education, Jewish summer camps and synagogue membership along with their ancillary activities pose a heavy financial burden. (One important commentator has joked that day school tuition is "Jewish birth control.") They stress that programming for the Jewish family should be appealing, of high quality, marketed vigorously, and supported by community funds. Maximum and efficient use of communal resources, they contend, would help provide affordable day care and other vital services to assist dual income and financially distressed families. A cogent community strategy can help minimize the additional costs of Jewish living, making affiliation and participation affordable to many more families.
The family is the nexus between the individual and society. The welfare of both is dependent upon the success of the family as an institution in fulfilling its primary goals of socializing and educating its members. Similarly, individual Jewish identity and the viability of Jewish communal life in the United States are tied to the cultural integrity of the American Jewish family. The historic Jewish family, in various countries and in various periods, has demonstrated great resilience in the face of physical, spiritual and economic pressures. Ironically, it is the relative absence of these pressures in America, which presents a challenge to Jewish survival. External antisemitism is not forcing Jews to remain together. They are comfortably accepted and acceptable within American culture. A low birth rate, high intermarriage, and the diverse forms of family life present new and different challenges to the American Jewish family. "Given the inexorably integrative forces of American society and the resultant parallel trends among Jews," note Lipset and Rabb (1995) "it is reasonable to predict that the Jewish community as a whole will be severely reduced in numbers by the middle of the next century." In an attempt to forestall this outcome, the organized Jewish community is developing policies and programs aimed at supporting and strengthening the family. The next few decades are sure to reveal the results of these efforts.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Heilman, Uriel. “Pew survey: 57% of US Jews eat pork, Torah study grows,” JTA (November 3, 2015)
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