Changing Personal and Family Choices in Contemporary Orthodox Lives


Modern Orthodoxy can be thought of as a broad continuum that runs from “centrist” near-yeshivish Orthodox on the right to “Open” Orthodox on the left. Across that continuum, Modern Orthodox Jews observe—and some experience—the changing gender roles and gender fluidity, non-marital sexuality, late marriage, non-marriage, intermarriage, and related transformations occurring throughout American society, as recent Pew Research Center studies show.[1]


American Modern Orthodox Jews today live in a different America than the one they remember from their childhoods. It is helpful to look back at how much—and why—things have changed. In the 1950s and early 1960s, American Jews, like their non-Jewish counterparts, were influenced by societal celebration of earlier marriage and larger families. Half of American Jewish women married by the time they were 21, and they gave birth to an average of about three children. Middle-class American Jews also shared American bourgeois gender role construction and sexual expectations circa 1955. As Herman Wouk mused in his 1955 novel, Marjorie Morningstar, “Twentieth century or not, good Jewish girls were supposed to be virgins when they got married. … For that matter, good Christian girls were supposed to be virgins too; that was why brides wore white.” [2] Embedded in a widespread middle-class social-sexual norm,[3] even Modern Orthodox Jews, for the most part, paid scant attention to rabbinical discouragement of premarital physical contact; indeed, some Modern Orthodox synagogues famously sponsored social events with ballroom dancing.


Attitudes toward sexuality, love, and marriage were palpably transformed in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, when social and political upheavals were precipitated by the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement. Critiques of conventional marriage and family life were in the air.[4] Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963)[5] and feminist commentary on women’s lives and choices raised the consciousness of middle-class women. Significantly, Jewish women were prominent among the leaders and active laity of American second-wave feminism.


Not least, male and female “liberation” movements drew strength from the increasingly easy availability of birth control, especially the “pill.” The de facto biological separation between sexual activity and reproduction in 1970s America had a profound impact on the life choices of individual men and women.[6] As many have noted, the relationship between love, heterosexual marriage, and parenthood ceased to be inextricably “united socially, morally, and legally,” challenging the “sense of order and predictability” that used to be associated with conventional “organized domestic life.”[7]


Economic factors also profoundly affected attitudes and behaviors toward sexuality and courtship in the 1960s and 1970s. As the gender gap between men’s and women’s educational levels and earning potential decreased for well-educated middle- and upper-middle-class Americans (the socioeconomic groups among whom American Jews were increasingly found), women had more control over their personal lives and could make reliable commitments to careers. Economic pressure made those careers desirable for their families.


Contemporary Modern Orthodox Jews and Their Personal Choices

American Jewish men and women today have different life expectations than they did 50 years ago. Today, almost three-quarters (74 percent) of American Jewish men and 43 percent of American Jewish women ages 25 to 34 are not married, according to the recent Pew  research study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans.[8] Today, Jewish men achieve a 90 percent ever-married rate (persons who have been married at some time, even if they are currently widowed or divorced) only at age 45, and Jewish women when they are over age 50,[9] whereas in the 1950s and early1960s American Jews achieved near “universal marriage” (a term to indicate that 95 percent of the population is married) around age 30. Even men and women who eventually marry often significantly delay the five social characteristics of adulthood: completion of schooling or training, financial independence, marriage, parenthood, and independent living arrangements.


Although many—but not all—Orthodox Jews marry earlier than non-Orthodox Jews, outside of the hareidi world, marriage and childbearing typically take place later today among Modern Orthodox Jews than they did decades ago. Pew showed three-quarters of hareidi Jews and nearly half (48 percent) of Modern Orthodox Jews married by age 24, and almost all hareidim and 70 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews married by age 29. But for the one-third of Modern Orthodox Jews who do not marry in their twenties, singlehood can extend through the thirties and into the forties.


Most unmarried American Jewish adults in their twenties and beyond are sexually active, and many cohabit for at least some period in their lives. Some Modern Orthodox singles have continued to maintain the earlier common American middle-class pattern of expressing some physical affection but stopping short of sexual intercourse in premarital dating situations. Some Modern Orthodox Jews abide by the principles of being shomer negiah (avoiding all physical contact before marriage). Many observers of American Jews believe that the emphasis on and observance of shomer negiah is far higher now than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s. Other Modern Orthodox singles are sexually active; Pew data indicate Orthodox singles’ cohabitation rates are similar to those of non-Orthodox Jewish singles when they reach their thirties and forties. (Of course, there are many fewer Orthodox Jews, and many fewer Orthodox singles than non-Orthodox Jews and singles, so absolute numbers of cohabiting Orthodox Jews are much lower than those of non-Orthodox Jews.)


Modern Orthodox Families and Fertility

Interestingly, the fertility rate of Modern Orthodox Jews today is similar to what it was decades ago—although the gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews has widened dramatically since the 1950s and 1960s, when 2.8 children was the national American Jewish average. The Pew Orthodox Portrait shows that Orthodox Jews overall have more children than non-Orthodox Jews: “Orthodox Jewish respondents ages 40–59 have had an average of 4.1 children in their lifetime, compared with an average of 1.7 born to all other U.S. Jews in that group (a measure known as ‘completed fertility’)” (p. 9). However, fertility rates among American Orthodox Jews span a broad continuum of behaviors. Modern Orthodox Jews are significantly influenced by American economic, political, and social attitudes and conditions. For example, the Jewish Community Study of New York, 2011 showed that hasidic families averaged 5.8 children, “yeshivish” Orthodox 5 children, and Modern Orthodox Jews 2.5 children.[10]


The lifestyle that has become normative in American Modern Orthodoxy features marriage in the twenties, high levels of education, prestigious careers, and raising Jewishly educated children above a demographic replacement level. Many believe that Modern Orthodox birth rates are affected not only by the high cost of Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp tuitions—a norm among many Modern Orthodox communities—but also arguably by American aspirations to give each child access to prestigious college and post-college training. In comparison, partly because of Israel’s pronounced pro-natalist societal environment and lack of emphasis on expensive post-high school education, even hiloni (secular) families in Israel average 2.7 children[11]—more than New York’s Modern Orthodox families.


Gender Gap Declines in Modern Orthodox Educational and Occupational Patterns

While the marriage and fertility gaps between Modern Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews have widened, the secular educational gap has virtually disappeared.

Some readers may be surprised that Modern Orthodox Jews have higher levels of post-high school education than any other wing of American Judaism. Thus, the Pew Orthodox Portrait tables reveal that 36 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews, 32 percent of Conservative Jews, 31 percent of Reform Jews, and 31 percent with no denomination have B.A. degrees. About equal percentages (29–30 percent) of each have post-B.A. degrees. American Modern Orthodox lifestyles have responded to economic trends, resulting in escalating Jewish and secular education for women and high levels of female labor force participation, even among married women with children under age six at home, as Harriet and Moshe Hartman and others have shown.[12] Modern Orthodox couples experience the most spousal homogamy—educational and occupational equality—the Hartmans found, working with NJPS 2000–01 data.[13] The Pew Profile (2013) similarly revealed that Modern Orthodox Jews had the highest levels of secular education and occupational achievement and the highest household income level, startling facts taken together with their relatively high fertility rates.[14] Even though it may feel like a daily struggle, numerous Modern Orthodox American two-career families with children successfully manage the work–children–Jewish life juggling act.


Gender Nonconformity in the Modern Orthodox World

The increasing prominence of LGBTQ Jewish families is a striking characteristic of contemporary American Jewish communities, including Modern Orthodox communities. Today, about 7 percent of American Jews identify as LGBTQ. Almost a third of self-reported LGBTQ Jews are married or partnered, and another 9 percent are raising their own children.[15] Only 38 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews agreed with the statement that “homosexuality should be discouraged.”


But the increased prominence of observant homosexual Jews poses a challenge to Orthodox institutions and authorities, many of whom officially posit that open LGBTQ behavior is contrary to biblical and Jewish law. Some Orthodox rabbis have articulated the idea that homosexuality is a “choice,” and thus can be avoided through willpower, motivation, and medication—despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. LGBTQ Orthodox Jews often report feeling rebuffed by Orthodox institutions and sometimes by Orthodox rabbis. However, other Orthodox voices have urged a more realistic and compassionate approach. In recent years, a number of programs and events under Modern Orthodox auspices have made it clear that laypersons among Orthodox practitioners often feel more connected to their LGBTQ co-religionists than might be apparent from official platforms,[16] and some Orthodox day schools are also beginning to accommodate LGBTQ families.


Intermarriage in Modern Orthodox Life

Even though intermarriage rates are much lower among Modern Orthodox Jews than among non-Orthodox Jews,[17]many Modern Orthodox families experience intermarriage somewhere within their extended family. In Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox homes, social environment and Jewish educational experiences affect the likelihood of intermarriage. For example, having two Jewish parents, having two Orthodox parents, and having parents who have not divorced are all highly correlated with children growing up to marry other Jews. The adult children least likely to intermarry have grown up living in a “Jewish” neighborhood (population density), have attended Jewish schools through their teen years, have had mostly Jewish friends in high school, and have had Jewish experiences during college, such as attending Jewish studies classes, working in a Jewish summer camp, and visiting Israel. A research report by Steven M. Cohen and me, recently published by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI),[18] shows that the experiences most predictive of higher in-marriage are day school attendance through the teen years (for seven years or more), attending Hebrew school for seven years or more, and/or attending an overnight camp with Jewish content. The same three factors are highly associated with raising Jewish-by-religion children.[19]


For Orthodox, as for non-Orthodox, families with an intermarrying child, sociologically the most effective Jewish option is to encourage the non-Jewish person to convert into Judaism. Conversionary households function almost identically to in-married households on most Jewish measures. Conversion is usually an ongoing process, a kind of lifelong learning curve.

Even if conversion does not take place before marriage, an exclusively Jewish household—regarding religious practice—should be encouraged, because alternative religious narratives in the household can decrease the likelihood of children identifying Jewishly.

Moreover, in many families conversions do take place at some point after marriage, and the family becomes much more Jewishly involved.



Modern Orthodoxy has embraced many aspects of Western culture, while adhering to halakhic guidelines and traditional Judaic values. One central American value deeply cherished by most American Jews—including Orthodox Jews—that is often in tension with historical Jewish culture is the American emphasis on personal freedom. The sociological facts cited in this article indicate that contemporary Modern Orthodox Jews have internalized the American expectation that individuals can shape their own lives in ways that are true to what they perceive as their inner selves.


Examining the potential for halakhic flexibility and responsiveness to new understandings of gender role construction and sexuality is a complex but critical project. This issue of the JOFA Journal helps us all to listen to the voices of Modern Orthodox Jews whose lives reflect and are profoundly affected by changing ideas about personal choice. In so doing, this JOFA Journal facilitates a critical conversation and process.




[2] Herman Wouk, Marjorie Morningstar (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955), pp. 228–30.

[3] Michael Broyde, “Hair Covering and Jewish Law: Biblical and Objective or Rabbinical and Subjective,” Tradition 42:3 (Fall 2009).

[4] Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984).

[5] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963).

[6] Lionel Tiger, The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), p. 162.

[7] Steven L. Nock, “The Divorce of Marriage and Parenthood,” Journal of Family Therapy 22: 245–63 (2000).

[8] Lugo, Cooperman, Smith, et al., A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews (October 1, 2013). Cited in Parmer, Table 2, Marital Status of American Jewish Adults by Age and Gender, Pew results re-percentaged.

[9] Harriet Hartman and Moshe Hartman, Gender and American Jews: Patterns in Work, Education, and Family in Contemporary Jewish Life (Waltham, MA: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2009), p. 29.

[10] Steven M. Cohen, Jacob Ukeles, and Ron Miller, Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, Comprehensive Report (UJA Federation of New York, September 2012).

[11] Sergio DellaPergola, “View from a Different Planet: Fertility Attitudes, Performances, and Policies among Jewish Israelis,” in Sylvia Barack Fishman, ed., Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families: Paradoxes of a Social Revolution(Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015), pp. 123–50.

[12] Hartman and Hartman, Gender and American Jews.

[13] Ibid., pp. 88–89.

[14] Pew, 2013, p. 43.

[15] Steven M. Cohen, Carol Aviv, and Ari Kelman, “Gay, Jewish, or Both? Sexual Orientation and Jewish Engagement,” Journal of Jewish Communal Service 84: 154–66.

[16] On December 22, 2009, YU Tolerance Club and Wurzweiler School of Social Work hosted an event titled “Being Gay in the Orthodox World: A Conversation with Members of the YU Community,” moderated by Rabbi Yosef Blau.

[17] Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews: A Further Analysis of the 2013 Survey of US Jews,” American Jewish Year Book 2016, eds. Arnold Dashefsky and Ira Sheskin (Springer International Publishing, 2017), pp. 9–30, 15.

[18] Sylvia Barack Fishman and Steven M. Cohen, Family, Engagement, and Jewish Continuity among American Jews (Jerusalem: JPPI Occasional Papers #1, 2017).

[19] Documentation is available from the authors upon request.


Sylvia Barack Fishman is the Joseph and Esther Foster
Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life in the Near
Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis
University, and co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis
Institute. She is the author of eight books, including, most
recently, Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families: Paradoxes
of a Social Revolution.

Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.

If you’re interested in writing for JOFA’s blog contact For more about JOFA like us on Facebook or visit our website.