There’s 22-year-old Emma saying the blessing over the Shabbat candles with her mother, delighted by the light, humming a synagogue tune and then covering her mother’s face with wet kisses. Together, Emma and Judith remember out loud all the people to whom they want to wish Shabbat Shalom. The pair could be an advertisement for Jewish living, and at first glance they hardly look unconventional or revolutionary. In fact, they’re pioneers in the — Jewish community, for there’s no daddy — at least, not yet — on their list of Sabbath greetings. Judith is one of an increasing number of Jewish women who are growing families as single women: They’re not waiting for husbands to build Jewish homes alive with the voices of children.
They call themselves Single Mothers by Choice, which is also the name of an international organization founded in 1981, with 3,000 members in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, Europe and Israel. No statistics are available delineating how many Jewish single women have either adopted children or given birth, but a majority of the women involved in the New York SMC chapter are Jews, from Orthodox to unaffiliated. And at monthly adoption workshops conducted by the Jewish Child Care Association at UJA-Federation, half of the attendees are single women.
Although the label Single Mothers by Choice is descriptive, it’s not precise. “Some say it should be Single Mothers by Second Choice,” says Judith Kahn, 42, mother of Emma. For all of the single mothers interviewed for this article, this wasn’t Plan A. They envisioned traditional families, but as they found themselves getting older and no closer to marriage, they made what several refer to as a “life affirming” decision — which they say they’re thrilled about. Many still hope to find husbands, fathers for their children, the elusive Mr. Right; they’ve just changed the sequence of events.
Conversations with community leaders, rabbis and others point to several factors influencing this phenomenon, which may impact the Jewish continuity debate. Because of demographic trends, intermarriage and delayed marriages, many Jewish women find a dearth of potential husbands. “Women today are more independent, not willing to compromise on a marital partner and yet they feel a powerful nurturing instinct. The value of procreation, being a link in the chain, is heightened for Jewish women,” writer and Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg explains.
“Women shouldn’t be punished twice — once for not being able to fulfill themselves in marriage and again by going through life without children,” Greenberg says. “Even though this breaks all traditions and conventions we’ve built up for thousands of years and it’s harder to raise a child as a single parent — it’s hard with two parents — there are some beautiful stories.” Acknowledging that this is a complex issue, she calls for an examination of the halachic and social tensions, to “deal in sensitive and compassionate ways with new realities. I think that when religious leaders encounter such families, they’ll have a different response than when dealing in the abstract.”
“I’ve been working with babies since I was 20,” says Debbie (some mothers requested that their last names be omitted), 45, a midwife, “and it became harder to face not having one of my own.” Two and a half years ago, she gave birth to Joshua, a jolly child who sang the Shema during an interview in an Upper West Side playground. When Debbie, who grew up in a traditional Jewish home, told her mother about her decision to try to give birth, her mother kept saying, “Wait, you’ll meet someone.” She pauses. “If I had waited one day longer, I might not have been able to have him.” Her parents are now very supportive.
Debbie was featured in a recent documentary film, “And Baby Makes Two,” produced and directed by Judith Katz and Oren Rudavsky, which followed a group of mostly Jewish single mothers by choice. Reflecting why she agreed to open up her life on film, Debbie says, “I wanted Joshua to understand, when he gets older, why I did this. I want him to know that he is very much wanted.”
For Isabel Berkowitz, 52, doing volunteer work in Israel jolted her to move ahead in the quest to adopt a child, something she’d been thinking about from her mid-30s on. At the age of 48, Berkowitz adopted her daughter Chana, born in Paraguay. Now a bubbly 6-year-old, Chana attends first grade at a public school and Hebrew School at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. Berkowitz, who teaches English as a second language, gets teary when she remarks that she and Chana have changed each other’s lives immeasurably.
Berkowitz’s comment that this “is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and also the most meaningful” is a refrain of the other women too. These mothers face the same issues as two-parent families: high costs of Jewish education and New York real estate, hectic schedules, stress, discipline challenges. But the single mothers of young children rarely have a moment to themselves. Although all of them have networks of family members and friends who help out, most of the time, there’s no one else around to comfort a crying baby or clean up a mess.
“It’s hard, but it’s all I know,” says Marcy, the 42-year-old mother of 18-month-old Adam, who sleeps peacefully through most of the interview. “It would be much harder if we were divorced.” An occupational therapist, she remarks, “We went in knowing what we were in for.”
In a 1996 study of 25 single biological mothers, child and family therapist Dr. Ann Wimpfheimer reports that she found no behavioral differences in functioning between their children, ages 2 to 6, and the same age children from two-parent homes. She speculates that more complications might arise when these children reach adolescence and deal with issues of identity and relationships, but there are no studies yet. Jane Mattes, a New York psychotherapist who founded and directs SMC, explains that this is a population willing to be studied, but the majority of the kids are still young.
All of the mothers interviewed speak of encountering openness in the Jewish community. Linda Kessler, 45, a photographer who also works as a legal assistant and is the mother of the artistic Ian, now 4, says that she had a “wonderful experience” sending him to an Orthodox pre-school in her Brooklyn neighborhood. They all speak about Jewish education for their children, bar and bat mitzvahs.
Kahn, whose sister is also a single mother by choice, describes a “period of mourning” that was part of her process in deciding to have a child. “You have to grieve, giving up your picture of the way you thought you would do this, the big wedding and all.” At Emma’s naming ceremony during Shabbat services at B’nai Jeshurun, Kahn told the congregation about a consultation with Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein. “He said, if the choice is whether to bring more love into the world, haven’t you already made up your mind?”
When asked about being supportive of single women’s choice of motherhood, Rabbi Bronstein says, “When we see a person who’s responsible and caring, thorough in the thinking process, with a lot of sanctity and love in the decision, we support it.” He has counseled some people that they should think more before moving ahead.
Rabbi Adam Mintz of Lincoln Square Synagogue says that this isn’t an issue he expected to encounter. Several women in the Orthodox community have sought his advice. “There’s a difference between whether one condones it halachically, and whether one can be accepting of women’s life situations.” He’s very proud that congregation members have been “extremely receptive and welcoming” toward a single mother by choice in the community. “[The communal response] is a sanctification of God’s name.”
Not all rabbis are so supportive. Rabbi David Bleich, professor of Talmud and rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, says there are indeed halachic issues. “First of all, Jewish public policy doesn’t promote raising kids in any but a family context. You don’t plan to raise children with one parent. It’s not fair to the children.”
Rabbi Bleich explains that there’s less of a problem with adoption — although he says that Judaism doesn’t encourage adopting non-Jewish children — than with women giving birth. “The real issue is artificial insemination.” He says that there are serious problems both in the case when one doesn’t know the identity of the donor and when the identity is known.
Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary, takes a different tack. “I don’t think the tradition would look favorably upon a pregnancy as a result of sexual union” if the partners are not married. If the pregnancy is through artificial insemination, he doesn’t see “what halachic objection there is, though some caution is necessary in determining who the donor is.”
In terms of adoption, he has no halachic objection to single women adopting. “While the tradition has always advocated marriage as the preferred normative state for grown-ups, there have always been single people raising children.”
Dr. Dina Rosenfeld, a consultant and community educator at JCCA, says that the communal response to single women adopting children has “never been anything but positive,” adding that most of the adoptive mothers have not been in the traditional community.
How will these mothers explain the absence of a father to their children? “It’s an evolving question,” Marcy explains. SMC runs a workshop on “the Daddy issue.” Kessler tells Ian that “there are all kinds of families. We come from a family with a mommy, grandma, grandpa.” She then names other families who are “mommies and children.” The issue is different for Chana, who asks questions about her father in Paraguay, and her mother is very open with her. Some of the mothers are dating, without the time-ticking pressures they felt before having children; some are too tired to think about it.
Kahn, like the other mothers, overflows with love for her child. “This isn’t for everyone,” she says. “I’m so grateful that I live in an age where it’s an option.”