JERUSALEM (JTA) — When Alexandra Benjamin was pregnant recently with her son, she went shopping for appliances for her new apartment in Jerusalem.
At the store, the religious salesman asked about her husband. Benjamin explained that she was having the baby on her own.
“That’s so great!” she recalled him saying.
“That was the typical reaction I got,” said Benjamin, 39, whose son is now 6 months old. “Not negative, not neutral, but really warm and positive, even from religious people.”
Of course, it wasn’t always this way — not too long ago, single motherhood was frowned upon in certain segments of Jewish Israeli society.
Yael Ukeles, who like Benjamin is an observant Jewish woman living in Israel, recalled that when she decided to have a child on her own about six years ago, the topic was still somewhat taboo.
“I felt like I should whisper, ‘I’m thinking about having a baby,’” she said.
Over the past few years, however, Ukeles said she’s seen more religious Jewish women in Israel choosing to become single mothers.
“The degrees of separation have gotten smaller,” she said, noting that there are more Orthodox people directly connected to someone in their community who have made this decision.
Dvora Ross, a pioneer in Israel among observant single mothers by choice, agreed. Now 54, she had her first child more than 18 years ago and twins a few years later. At the time it was very uncommon for observant women to have children on their own. When she looked to enroll her first child at school, one would not accept him — she said the principal implied it was because of the boy’s unconventional family.
Now, “almost every religious school in Jerusalem has a few children with single mothers,” Ross said.
As two of the founders of Kayama Moms, an organization that supports observant single mothers by choice in Israel, Ukeles and Ross are well-positioned to observe these trends. Since its founding about five years ago, the organization has helped over 50 single women become mothers. Ukeles will be talking about her experiences as a single mother in a lecture on Sunday at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference in New York.
Although it’s hard to find precise statistics about rates of single motherhood by choice in Israel — particularly among observant women — the available data suggest the practice is becoming more common in developed countries.
In the United States between 2002 and 2012, for example, while unwed pregnancy rates dropped for teenagers and women in their early 20s, they rose for women over 30. In Israel, the Central Bureau of Statistics found that 4,900 children were born to unmarried women in 2010, almost double the number from 10 years earlier. In 2014, conservative estimates put the number at about 8,000. These figures include women cohabiting with partners, as well as single women.
Those who note a growing acceptance of single motherhood among observant women often cite Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Petach Tikvah, who issued a ruling saying it was the appropriate choice in particular cases. An adviser to Kayama Moms, Cherlow said that as more observant women have chosen to become single mothers, attitudes toward the practice in religious communities have changed.
When women first started discussing the idea with him about a decade ago, he said, they were often concerned about their parents kicking them out of the house or employers firing them.
“I can’t remember the last time someone asked me that,” Cherlow said. Now, women’s questions — which he hears “at least twice a week” — typically revolve around more specific issues, such as whether to have a second child on their own.
Perspectives among Orthodox rabbis are also shifting, Cherlow said. While the rabbis agree that “the best way to bring children into the world is in a traditional Jewish family, with a father and a mother,” he said, there is a significant minority who say unmarried women who have reached their late 30s should not be denied the opportunity to have children.
“I think this minority is getting bigger,” he said, observing that there used to be more public condemnations issued by rabbis against observant single mothers in Israel. For example, at a conference of rabbis in Israel in 2008, Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich referred to an unmarried woman having a child as an “unthinkable act, adding “there is no greater evil and cruelty.”
Ukeles attributed this growing acceptance to the fact that more unmarried religious women are making the choice to become mothers.
“The more you hear about it, the less taboo it becomes,” she said.
Some rabbis and other critics in the Orthodox community fear that as the decision becomes normalized, more women will choose single motherhood as their first option, bypassing marriage entirely.
“All the efforts we are making for treatments and insemination are aimed at starting a family, and here the framework of the family is damaged,” said Rabbi Menachem Burstein, the head of a Brooklyn-based organization that offers fertility advice to Orthodox families, refuting Cherlow at a conference in 2009.
Ukeles said she still hears critics express the concern that single motherhood will weaken the social strictures against having children out of wedlock or the institution of marriage. A recent program on Israel’s Channel 10 news about observant single mothers by choice referred to this as a “slippery slope” argument common in very observant circles.
Hana Godinger (Dreyfuss), head of the Midreshet Lindenbaum women’s Torah study center and rabbi at the modern Orthodox Pelech girls’ high school in Jerusalem, said concerns about the unintended consequences of single motherhood by choice are valid. But, she added, “A world that is always motivated by the fear of a slippery slope is a small, limited and problematic world.” She sees the increasing openness of rabbis to single motherhood among observant women as a positive step, providing hope and a sense of greater possibility for these women.
Ukeles called the “slippery slope” objection “completely ridiculous.” Nearly all the women she knows who chose to become a single mother first made a great effort to get married, she said, and as their biological clocks started to tick down, they “had to make a very hard choice between never being a mother and being a mother on their own.”
Benjamin agreed; she bristles at the term “single mother by choice” for that reason.
“Had I had a choice, I wouldn’t have chosen to do this alone,” she said.
Ukeles also points out that most of the single mothers she knows are open to marriage someday, and that a few women she’s met through Kayama Moms subsequently did marry.
Despite the progress in attitudes toward single observant women who choose to have children, there is still much work to be done, Ukeles said. Some women who make this decision are still treated unfairly, she said, pointing to the example of the unmarried teacher at a religious high school in Israel who was fired after she became pregnant. (The woman sued the school in 2013 and won.)
One reason she started Kayama Moms, Ukeles said, is to help combat this discrimination.
“I feel an existential imperative to educate the Jewish community about this option,” she said.
Even in the context of growing societal acceptance, Ukeles added that it’s important that religious women who are contemplating single motherhood integrate into a community first.
“Become part of the community and be a giver,” she said.
Women who do this, Ukeles said, will reap the rewards when they have a child and need extra support — someone to pick up the child from day care when they are tied up, for example. They’ll also feel less lonely and isolated, common complaints among single women in religious communities.
Benjamin said she definitely benefited from being deeply involved in her synagogue community before she had her son.
“He’s like the mascot of the shul,” she said, noting that when the pair arrives for services, he is whisked away immediately by doting friends.
“There’s a sense in which everyone is involved [in his upbringing], which is beautiful,” Benjamin said.
In addition to greater acceptance, Ukeles would like to see legislative changes that would benefit single mothers by choice, including increased regulation of sperm banks. Although the state comptroller has called for updated regulations since 2007, the Health Ministry has yet to issue them, resulting in inconsistent criteria across banks.
A recent article in the Hebrew-language edition of Haaretz reported that 14 sperm banks in Israel were operating without regulation, raising the risk of incest — children born from sperm donation may later unknowingly marry someone to whom they are related. Next week, the Knesset will host a roundtable discussion about what the updated regulations should look like. Ross will be attending, as will rabbis, fertility specialists, mothers who used sperm banks and their children.
Ukeles said that Kayama Moms is also considering partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters to increase available childcare support to single mothers.
Underlying her efforts on all these fronts, said Ukeles, is concern for her son’s well-being.
“I had a kid because I wanted to be a mom,” she said. “Now that I’ve had a kid this way, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the world is as accepting of him as possible.”