In 1998, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute created its 26 word mission statement: “The mission of the HBI is to develop fresh ideas about Jews and gender worldwide by producing and promoting scholarly research, artistic projects, and public engagement.” They’ve yet to make any changes, “which means we’re either stuck in the mud, or we came up with a good one,” said Prof. Shulamit Reinharz (SOC), laughing as she addressed the crowded Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Sunday night.

The book “Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families: Paradoxes of a Social Revolution,” was contributed to by and edited by Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman (NEJS). The book itself is a collaboration of 15 authors, half of whom wrote from a North American perspective and half of whom wrote from an Israeli perspective. 

The book focuses on the changing structure of the Jewish family and how social changes in the world influence and affect Judaism, particularly within these family units. The book is part of the HBI’s series on Jewish women and features chapter contributions from many Brandeis-affiliated authors.

Reinharz gave a short introduction, and then Fishman introduced the book’s premise. “When we think about ourselves, our decisions about sex, love, marriage, kids and families — all of these things seem intensely personal. ... This new book that we are all so proud to have brought to life … shows the way that younger Jews in the United States and Israel think differently and act differently concerning personal choices,” she said.

The social changes Fishman speaks of range from LGBTQ issues to issues regarding divorce and the law. Compared to conventional Jewish homes from the 1950s (a time often glorified for its embodiment of the marriage ideal), modern Jewish families are very different. Perhaps one of the most noticeable changes comes from the changed social trend regarding  marriage. According to Fishman, “Today in the United States, almost three-quarters of American Jewish men and 43 percent of American Jewish women between the ages of 25 to 34 are not married.” There has also been a drastic decrease in the number of children in Jewish homes. In the 1950s, each family had an average of 2.8 children, while today that number is closer to 1.7.

These aren’t the only changes facing Jewish families today. The diversity within Jewish families is increasing, as the number of interfaith, LGBTQ and adoptive families has grown over the past several decades. In the book, various scholars address these issues through their research and through interviews with people of the Jewish faith.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, associate director of the HBI and author of the chapter “Negotiating Divorce at the Intersection of Jewish and Civil Law in North America,” spoke after Fishman about challenges faced in the context of Jewish divorce. 

Specifically, she discussed the challenges in communicating and coordinating the goals and processes of rabbinical court with those of civil court. In rabbinical court, for a couple to divorce, the process must be initiated and then agreed to by the husband. While in the past, this was a challenge for women whose husbands were either missing or didn’t have the mental faculties necessary to make such a decision, the issue today is much more complex. Many men will use this rule as a form of power to coerce their wives into granting them more allowances when the divorce is brought to civil court.

In terms of finding a balance between these two courts, Joffe explained, “There may be this imperfect understanding, but nevertheless, civil courts are willing to enforce prenups, postnups, divorce agreements and separation agreements. Rabbis, despite their objections or theoretical concerns, are willing to accept [these,] for the most part.”

Prof. Jonathan Krasner (AMST) also spoke about potential objections within Jewish communities, but instead in regards to LGBTQ Jews. 

“People would be surprised at how typical family life is regardless [of sexuality],” Krasner said, quoting a man he interviewed for his chapter, “We All Still Have to Potty Train: Same-Sex Couple Families and the American Jewish Community.”

Krasner gave several examples of LGBTQ Jewish families attempting to navigate their role within the religion and within religious communities. He ended his speech by stressing the importance of inclusion.

“Being welcoming really plays a role in whether or not these individuals — these families — feel like they’re going to make their future in the Jewish community or whether they’re going to be outside. ... A welcoming embrace from a synagogue or a school or a family member can make a real difference in their lives,” Krasner said.

Michelle Shain, a research assistant at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, also spoke on the changing ideas regarding family formation. In her research, Shain, who authored the chapter “Dreams and Realities: American Jewish Young Adults’ Decisions about Fertility,” interviewed young Jewish adults regarding their thoughts on family formation.

She noticed several contradictions in her respondents’ thoughts. Though most desired to have a traditional family and wanted to have children, almost none of those surveyed had concrete plans to start a family and many were scared of the emotional, financial and logistical strain of children.

Outside of these more internal contradictions, Shain discussed how many respondents noted their desire to exist within an egalitarian family where traditional gender roles are essentially non-existent, but that these young adults have a lack of role models and support in actualizing this goal.

Rachel Bernstein, a graduate research assistant at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, who co-authored the chapter “Judaism as the ‘Third Shift’: Jewish Families Negotiating Work, Family, and Religious Lives” with Fishman, also spoke on the increased desire for an egalitarian family structure.

She discussed what she refers to as the “Third Shift” within a family. She identified the first shift as paid work, while the second shift is unpaid work, like driving kids to soccer practice or going grocery shopping. While many families only delegate between these two shifts, Jewish families who wish to have an active religious life take on a third shift of work. 

This can make finding an egalitarian balance between spouses even more challenging.

Daniel Parmer, a research associate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the author of the chapter “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Marriage and Non-Marriage among Younger American Jews” was the last speaker. Despite all the challenges that come from family formation, many of the individuals he interviewed felt there was an important distinction between a couple living together unmarried and a married couple. They felt that marriage was preferable.

When Parmer asked them, “What does marriage mean?” there was an overwhelming response that marriage constituted a partnership. 

“The way that Jewish young adults understand and give meaning to marriage has a profound impact in the way that they are searching for a spouse,” Parmer said.

“Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families: Paradoxes of a Social Revolution” is being printed by the Brandeis University Press and is available as one of the 55 titles in the HBI’s series on Jewish women.

“If you want to be educated in Jewish Women’s Studies, or Jews and Gender, just read our books,” said Reinharz. “It’ll take you a little while, but go for it.”