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Why The Modern Orthodox Family Model Works, And What We Can Learn From It

To Modern Orthodox parents frantically juggling children’s baths, last minute work crises, and Shabbat preparations before lighting candles at 3:58 p.m — life may seem pretty stressful, even chaotic.

For some, the responsibilities and restrictions of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, as well as expectations of high participation in synagogue and Jewish communal life create a “trapped feeling,” as Tova Mirvis poignantly evokes in her recent memoir, A Book of Separation.

But while Orthodoxy has often been faulted for gender inequity, and observers might assume that differing synagogue roles for men and women indicate inequality on the home front — our survey numbers tell a different story about what happens at home.

According to our study, Modern Orthodox families today have more spousal equity than ever before, in terms of both education and income.

The Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans (2013) reveals that Modern Orthodox Jews have somewhat higher rates than other Jewish denominations of college graduates.

And Modern Orthodox men and women — perhaps surprisingly — are overwhelmingly likely to be matched marital sets regarding levels of secular and professional education and the status of their jobs. In sociological language, couples who identify as Modern Orthodox show rates of spousal homogamy —husbands and wives with similar educational and occupational achievement — not lower than couples who identify as Conservative, Reform, or unaffiliated in the same age group, as documented by Harriet and Moshe Hartman in their 2009 analysis, Gender and American Jews.

Few will be surprised to learn that Modern Orthodox Jews are significantly more likely to marry and have children than non-Orthodox Jews -— 63% of Modern Orthodox Jews ages 25-54 are married, compared to just over half of Conservative (52%) and or Reform (54%) Jews in that age group, as Steven M. Cohen and I detail in a recent Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI, 2017) report. While completed Orthodox families average over four children, Conservative and Reform couples average fewer than two — and are not replacing themselves.

Paradoxically, that traditional lifestyle is also connected with high secular achievements – a rare combination, unique to this denomination.

Reversing trends in earlier decades, today younger Modern Orthodox families have the highest household incomes — likely motivated by the bills for yeshiva day school tuition. Nine out of ten Modern Orthodox Jews reported, according to the recently released 2017 Nishma Survey of the Modern Orthodox Jewish Community in the United States, that the high “cost of Jewish Schooling” was the most serious problem facing the American Jewish community today.

And on top of all of this – Modern Orthodox Jews manage what Rachel S. Bernstein calls the “third shift” of creating Jewish life (Fishman, Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families, 2015). Bernstein explains that in addition to a parent’s “first shift” of paid—and often demanding—employment, and the “second shift” of child-rearing and housework, there is the just as necessary “third shift”, which is focused mostly on Shabbat and holiday observance, as well as creating a spiritual environment at home.

For the majority of Modern Orthodox women and men, the Jewish calendar creates opportunities for “family life” and “time together,” Nishma study participants reported that it is precisely the Jewish “community” and “Shabbat” that are the primary sources of satisfaction and pleasure in most Modern Orthodox Jews’ Judaic lives.

It may very well be that third shift which keeps lives – and marriages – balanced. Shabbat traditions encourage intimate time for couples after a candle-lit dinner with wine—Friday night is the rabbinic version of “date night.” The long hours of Shabbat afternoons lend themselves to cellphone-free long walks and talks with children. In a session at the 2017 World Congress of Jewish Studies, social economist Carmel Chiswick suggested that weekly Shabbat observance guarantees time for children, family, and friends – humanizing opportunities often missing in contemporary lives.

This depiction of this three-shift juggling act is fascinating, and critically important today, when younger American Jews are undergoing a marriage crisis, in which only half of Jews ages 25 to 54 are married or coupled, as the Fishman and Cohen JPPI report shows. Some marry later than they intended, and some who had hoped to marry do not. Many women report that they had less children than they had hoped to, because of delayed marriage and childbearing.

The Modern Orthodox family model of high education, high occupational status, high income—and high fertility—may have implications for all of us diverse American Jews across the denominational spectrum. The statistics of recent studies offer us an important lesson: Graduate and professional degrees and impressive jobs need not make marriage during more fertile years and larger families impossible.

Perhaps it is possible to have it “all” —- education, career, family, and tradition? It’s stressful, but attainable for many of those who want it, as our findings show — and certainly worth a shot.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is a Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life at Brandeis University, and Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the author of eight books, most recently, ‘Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families: Paradoxes of a Social Revolution’.

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