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The Implications of Being Jewish and Childless by Choice

Somehow, I am not surprised that just as I find myself at what has for me been the hardest stage of parenting (working mom with three boys, ages 9, 14 and 16), studies are showing that fewer women are choosing to be mothers.

A recently released Pew Research Center study shows that a quarter of American women in my age and demographic group (40-44 , with an advanced academic degree) are childless. While that percentage is down from 31% in 1994, there is evidence that choice, and not just infertility, is involved.

The recent report cited a 2007 poll, showing that 41% of respondents felt that children were essential to a successful marriage, down from 65% in 1990. A recent, much-talked-about article in New York magazine titled, “All Joy and No Fun,” covered the supposed revelation that parenting is hard and captured the zeitgeist of today’s young parents hating to be parents.

While I view this change in numbers — and more importantly attitudes — as a shift for women, I also see it as one for Jews. Half a generation after I married and began having children, more young women think that the economic expense and drag on personal fulfillment that come with having kids are legitimate reasons for having fewer, if any, babies. While I don’t think that this is a primary consideration for most young Jewish women, I do think that they are unburdened by a religious and national procreative responsibility that my cohort shouldered.

Growing up in Jewish day schools and spending time in Israel learning about the Holocaust, and even being taught by Holocaust survivors, we perceived a clear directive on doing our part to carry the Jewish people forward. Pru u’rvu (Be fruitful and multiply), Am yisrael chai (The People of Israel Lives), and “Never Again!” combined with one another to create a potent message.

Then, not too many years later, I arrived as a newlywed at the Jewish Theological Seminary for graduate studies in the immediate wake of the release of the National Jewish Population Survey in 1990. That was the study that sounded major alarms in the Jewish community and seared the notion of “Jewish continuity” and all its attendant desperation into our consciousnesses.

This double-whammy, together with my innate desire to be a parent, resulted in my husband’s and my welcoming our first child just one week after my 28th birthday. From recent conversations I have had with several of my former students from my days of teaching in New York day schools, it sounds like things are different for them. They are not taking any calculations other than the personal kind into consideration.

“[Having children] is important because I love children and want a family, and having children is a big part of life,” said one of these young women — now the same age I was when I was rushing home from her 5th grade classroom to be with my newborn.

“I don’t really think my Jewish identity factors into this,” she continued, noting that community and raising children in the Jewish faith are important to her, but being Jewish is not the reason why she would like two or three children.

“While my mother has always said that all Jewish women should have three children in order to deal with Jewish continuity and numbers, I think the numbers have more to do with simple family math and affordability,” explained another of my former students.

Caught in the middle, between the generation of these young women and that of their mothers, I identify with both. I admire my former students for being more level-headed than I was about the costs of parenting. But at the same time, I cannot but be concerned about what this will mean for future generations of the Jewish people.

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