“You’re next” is a phrase that is often murmured furtively at brises and baby namings. The sentiment – while often well intentioned, though sometimes patronizing – may well be familiar to many Jewish adults who don’t have children, especially those in more traditional subsets of the community.
The operating assumption in our community seems to be that every person not only wants a baby, but should have one, and that this is the only way to lead a full and happy Jewish life.
Of course, many Jewish adults don’t have kids for a whole host of reasons. There are individuals and couples that desperately want children, but can’t have them. There are those – whether in a relationship or not – who are still trying to decide if having kids is right for them. And there are those who know definitively that childrearing isn’t for them, but face pressure from relatives, friends and community members, nonetheless.
The issues around childbearing and childlessness are complex and deeply personal. Like many sensitive topics, the subject is at once avoided and obsessed over. By some accounts, Jews have a particular fixation on procreation – some would say we have a vested interest in it. And while this may make the pressure understandable, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier for those who cannot, or do not wish to, have kids.
For these reasons, it’s worth raising the question of whether the Jewish community – its leaders and institutions – does a good enough job of relating to, and including, those who don’t have children.
Isaac Singer, who preferred not to use his real name, is 42. He grew up in a modern Orthodox household in north Toronto, where he went to Jewish day school. Singer is divorced from a woman with whom he spent eight years trying to conceive. After discovering that he had a medical condition that made it very difficult to have children, he had surgery to correct it. The couple subsequently underwent numerous unsuccessful rounds of a particularly invasive form of in vitro fertilization (IVF).
“Meanwhile, my sister is having kids; everyone we know is having kids. Everything is brises, birthday parties,” Singer recalled.
People in their social network knew, or assumed, they were struggling to have children, but many didn’t know how to broach the subject. Singer and his then wife would go to parties and discover that a friend of theirs was six or seven months pregnant.
“I wondered if they were afraid to tell us,” he said.
He had mixed feelings about this phenomenon: on the one hand, it felt horribly petty to be upset at someone else’s good fortune; on the other, it was legitimately hard to hear about other people conceiving with apparent ease.
“We’d go home and it would be days and days of deep depression,” he said.
After nearly a decade of trying, the emotional, physical and financial toll of IVF weighed too heavily on Singer and his partner. They separated.
“None of this made either of us pleasant to be around. We would have made excellent parents together, but without that glue, we had nothing to hold us together. We were too focused on our failure,” said Singer, who is no longer ensconced in the modern Orthodox world, partly because it was too painful to go to synagogue and “constantly see new little people running around.”
The community’s preoccupation with procreation is by no means unsubstantiated – the emphasis on having kids has deep roots in Jewish texts and traditions.
Rabbi Yael Splansky, the senior rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, a Reform synagogue, said there is definitely pressure in the Jewish community to have children.
“ ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is the first mitzvah in the Torah,” she said. “The entire book of Genesis is about the trials and tribulations of establishing a viable family line in the Land of Israel.… Millennia after Sarah and Abraham struggle to conceive, we still feel the weight of that primary mitzvah today.”
In addition, Jews are a small group of people and the devastation of the Shoah seems to have added an extra layer of urgency to producing children, she said. “More than 70 years after the Holocaust, we still have not recovered our numbers. This usually goes unspoken, but it is absolutely felt.”
She pointed out that, in Israel, this fact is more overtly expressed: the Israeli government grants a childbirth stipend and child allowance for every new Jewish baby.
Rabbi Splansky believes the expectation to procreate is firmly established across the spectrum of Jewish life. She noted, however, that many more women than men have come to her office to express anguish over childlessness.
“Perhaps women are simply more likely to speak of it, but I sense women are also more likely to feel it,” she said.
It’s often said that synagogues play a critical role in creating social and educational programs that draw people of all ages and life circumstances into Judaism. What’s not always talked about is whether synagogues do enough to create social opportunities that include adults who don’t have kids.
Rabbi Julia Appel is the senior Jewish educator and campus rabbi for Hillel at the University of Toronto. She is also the mother to two small children.
Rabbi Appel believes that when synagogues assume that the bulk of their adult programming should be centred around the experience of raising children, a disservice is done to all adults, regardless of whether they have kids.
“I’ve worked at a number of synagogues and I know the conversation is often around parents of young children, as though they’re a unified group because they happen to have children,” Rabbi Appel said.
She feels that adult programming that focuses on kids to the exclusion of other topics leaves out a number of crucial groups: people in their 20s and 30s who don’t have children, but may in future; and people in their 30s and 40s who the community assumes should have kids, but don’t.
“If programming only centres on children, you end up having a pediatric Judaism,” she noted. “If a synagogue wants to reach young parents, they could offer programs on parenting, or they could simply make sure there’s babysitting available during an event.”
Her entire life, Leanne Jacobs, who also chose not to use her real name, has known that she doesn’t want kids. The 32-year-old was raised in a traditional, but not religious, Jewish home outside of Toronto and attended day school and Jewish summer camps.
Her personal goals have always been about education, career and self-improvement, not raising a family. While her parents never pressure her to change her mind, she knows it’s hard for them to accept.
“All their friends are becoming grandparents and I know it bothers them,” she said.
She is also constantly bombarded with meddlesome and presumptuous questions and comments from her extended family.
“People are always asking when I’m getting married to my partner – I get that more than the baby thing. I think they’re asking one question, but really they’re asking about both things … marriage and kids,” said Jacobs, who doesn’t intend to marry her long-term partner. “There’s also this presumption of, ‘Of course you’re going to have a baby.’ If I tell them I’m not, it’s not taken seriously. They laugh it off. They go, ‘You’ll change your mind.’ ”
Ultimately, she wants people in the community to understand that, “Just because it’s a norm to turn 30 or whatever and think about having a family, you don’t have to. Not having kids is not going to make you unfulfilled.”
Another blind spot with what Rabbi Appel referred to as an “older style of synagogue offerings,” is the assumption that young people can be “let go” for awhile, after they’ve left their parents’ house, because they’ll return after they’ve had their own kids.
Not only has this period between leaving home and having children increased by 10 to 15 years for many Jews, but the logic falsely assumes that everyone will eventually have kids.
“Synagogues and the Jewish community as a whole ignore this time period to their peril. You can’t expect an entire generation to come back after 15 years – that’s how you lose an entire generation of Jews,” Rabbi Appel said.
The Canadian Jewish community seems to be a bit slower to explore opportunities to reach out to those in that demographic gap than communities in some other countries.
“There’s a robust field of young adult outreach in the Jewish community in the United States, and Canada is now building that, too. The work I and others are doing at Hillel is part of pioneering this field in Canada,” Rabbi Appel said.
Alexandra Sipos-Kocsis is a Toronto life coach who specializes in fertility issues (she is also married to CJN editor-in-chief Yoni Goldstein). A number of her clients are women who are trying – and, by and large, struggling – to conceive. About 25 per cent of her clients are Jewish and a small number are Orthodox.
Compared to other cultural groups, Sipos-Kocsis doesn’t see greater pressure to procreate in the secular Jewish world. But in Orthodox Judaism, she said, a married woman without kids may feel conspicuous.
“The women (in the Orthodox community) are having more kids, so there’s pressure to start earlier … and everything is so family and kid-centred, like the holidays,” she said. “It’s not necessarily that everyone is looking at you – though sometimes they are – but for the person going through (infertility), it probably feels like they stick out like a sore thumb.”
For less religious Jews, she said, she thinks the pressure is on par with the general population. But, especially for people whose social networks are quite family oriented, it is by no means insubstantial.
“There’s this idea that that’s what happens when you grow up,” said Sipos-Kocsis. “I never asked myself, ‘do I want to have kids?’ It was always assumed.… Being child-free isn’t really talked about as an option.”
Singer said his community was generally sensitive to his and his wife’s situation. Very occasionally, someone would offer unsolicited advice that was “pretty offensive,” or “ask a boneheaded question,” but that was not common.
Singer doesn’t think the pressure to have children is necessarily greater than in other communities that are family oriented. But he wondered if “childless couples are seen to be more conspicuous in the Jewish community than in the general community.”
Especially in the modern Orthodox world he grew up in, he said, “If a couple’s been married a while and doesn’t have kids, they stick out.… Is the Jewish community crueler in excluding people who don’t have kids? I don’t think so, it’s just that you’re missing an important ingredient.”
Rabbi Splansky believes Canadian synagogues and Jewish communal organizations have a long way to go to make adults without children feel fully integrated and appreciated.
She said that Holy Blossom is establishing many new havurot – small groups of congregants who share a common interest, or are at a similar stage of life. There are certainly havurot for newlyweds and young families, but there are also havurot that are targeted toward people without kids.
One consists of single women who go to museums and concerts together. Another includes people who gather for a potluck Shabbat dinner after Friday night services.
Rabbi Splansky shared one participant’s feedback on what the group has done for her: “I always imagined a Shabbat dinner table full of children and grandchildren, but it wasn’t to be. Shabbat can be the loneliest time of the week for me, but now I have a Shabbat circle to make it the most meaningful time of my week.”
For many people with kids – and young kids, especially – social and educational programming focused on children and family life is a compelling entry point into Jewish communal life. But according to Rabbi Splansky, “With a little planning and forethought, we can provide a real home for people” without kids, as well.
Rabbi Appel stressed that the issue is as important as other types of inclusivity, which synagogues are increasingly taking into account.
She concluded that, “We need to make sure there’s a range of entry points for those with children and those without, for a wide age range, for those with accessibility needs, with different lifestyles, for Jews of colour, for Jews who are queer. These things should all come into play when we think about the range of people in our community and how we can ensure our offerings to reflect that diversity.”