Focus on Issues: Jewish Community Failing to Recognize Change in Nature of Family, Experts Say

Here’s the plan: Take all the parents juggling two careers and raising a family, put them on the boards of synagogues, federations and community centers, and tell them the future of Jewish life is in their hands.

If it sounds crazy, it is.

But that is exactly what is happening, delegates to the recent General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations were told.

Despite two decades of change in the structure of the American family, the Jewish community sticks to organizational patterns of a generation ago, Rela Geffen, coordinator for programs in Jewish communal studies at Gratz College in Philadelphia, and Barry Kosmin, CJF’s research director, said in two separate sessions at the CJF gathering.

The theme of the gathering, which brought thousands of Jews from North America to Montreal for several days in mid-November, was “Jewish Community Through Diversity.” And one of the messages of Geffen and Kosmin was that the Jewish community has failed to understand the demographic diversity of its members.

The Jewish community is continuing to pile burdens on the increasingly overworked, and decreasingly common, so-called traditional family, even as it neglects groups with time and energy to spare, such as unmarried and childless adults and couples with grown children.

Only a minority of Jewish households have children at home, said Geffen. The most common household type is one person living alone, followed by two adults without children.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Study found only 14 percent of the households surveyed consisted of two married Jews with children.

“We have the largest proportion of any ethnic group who live on their own,” said Kosmin. But the Jewish organizations, he said, remain “traditional and very family-oriented” in outlook.

“Most things are done in couples. The Jewish community considers it very hard to sell an individual ticket to anything,” he said.

“The cadre of adult single Jews under 35 is particularly important for Jewish institutional life,” said Geffen, and yet it is “abandoned.”

LOOKING FOR A CONNECTION

But it is precisely the adults, straight out of college, who are looking for connection, frequently seeking to meet other young Jews, and to be taken seriously by the community for the skills and time they can contribute.

This group has the fewest proportion of their closest friends who are Jewish, said Kosmin.

And this is the age when people marry. The median age of Jewish women getting married today is 26; that for Jewish men is 28.

“These people are not in Jewish social networks as much as in other points of their lives,” said Kosmin.

In large measure, he said, the Jewish community’s attitude is to blame, because it does not try to reach out to them, even though they’re at a crucial stage, when they have money to spend and are defining who they are by how they spend it. They can be skiers, travelers, artists, Jews –or all of them.

That decision, Kosmin said, “is affected by their peer group, and they will then find a mate who is compatible with that lifestyle. If you’re a skier, you’ll marry a skier.”

“There’s a tremendous need for Jewish –what we might call artificial — ties,” he said.

The Jewish community “everybody thinks about don’t exist anymore. The family ties don’t exist, the old Jewish neighborhoods are gone.

“If they want to be social animals, they’ve got to make decisions,” he said. “But we have to provide answers.”

Some answers are being offered by a Montreal program, ProMontreal.

Launched two years ago with a three-year allocation of $1 million, the initiative aims to keep the Jewish youth in the community.

“Young people are not only staying, but many who have left are returning.” said Stanley Plotnick, co-chair of the program. (The threat in Montreal is less assimilation than the exodus of English-speakers from Quebec province.)

The ProMontreal programs include a free placement agency, which last year found jobs for 150 young graduates and counseled 350 others; a language and cultural committee to help people feel comfortable in English and French; and a social committee, made up of a consortium of 10 Jewish youth groups, which brought together 1,500 people to its last event.

SHOULD SUPPORT DUAL-CAREER FAMILIES

But the ProMontreal program went beyond setting up a program for the youth, to getting them involved in the broader community.

“Virtually every agency in the community, every committee in the community, involves representation of 18-to-24- and 24-to-40-year-olds,” said Plotnick. “We want our young people in the community.”

Said Geffen: “Employed single women, and men, of all ages need to think the Jewish community thinks of them as adults. Everyone has to find a way to be part of the mishpacha (family), whether in a household, or across households, or in a synagogue.”

At the same time that the community needs to do more for the majority of households without children living at home, it should be doing more for those who are raising children, said Geffen.

“Agency, organization and synagogue leadership cannot be based on parents of young and school-aged children. They should not feel guilty for not going to meetings.

“Singles, empty-nesters and young seniors would be better” candidates for leadership, she said.

“The rhetoric of community should be supportive of dual-career people, particularly women. They should be told how excellent they’re doing.”

Rather than making them feel guilty when they do not make gefilte fish by hand like their grandmother did, she said, “we also have to tell them that takeout is OK for a Shabbat meal. You and your spouse don’t have to personally bake the challah, or even be the one to buy it.

“The community should encourage and support Jewish fathers, but expect, rather than be surprised, when they decline to come to events and meetings in evenings.”

Geffen acknowledged that “these kinds of social changes require enormous investments in time and resources.”

But, she said, “nothing less than a revolutionary response based on a great vision will be adequate.”

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