Modern Orthodoxy: A model for the great American Jewish dream?
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Interview

Modern Orthodoxy: A model for the great American Jewish dream?

Observant Jews can ‘have it all’ and still remain within the fold, argues Brandeis University Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman says as a feminist she wants women to understand how they can 'have it all' -- even if it is not politically correct to say. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman says as a feminist she wants women to understand how they can 'have it all' -- even if it is not politically correct to say. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

JERUSALEM — Interestingly, one of the least egalitarian denominations of American Judaism fosters the most matched pairing of spouses. In terms of education level, careers and salary, Modern Orthodox spouses are the most equal — and successful professionally.

Modern Orthodoxy, says Brandeis University Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman, is the new model of the American Jewish dream.

We sit in the lobby of the Jerusalem hotel she’s been calling home during a Van Leer Institute conference “Converts, Returnees, and Adherents: New Ways of Joining the Jewish People” in early November.

Surrounded by her laptop and several stacks of drafts of academic papers, we discuss a wide range of topics, including how feminism has changed the American Jewish landscape, and how Modern Orthodox Jews have found balance in today’s holy trinity — family, career and religion.

“The story of American Modern Orthodox Jews is an incredible success story,” says Fishman, the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and also co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Noting that the headlines surrounding last year’s Pew Research Center Survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” were mostly a cry of Oy gevalt about the upswing of intermarriage and secular Jews who self-identified as having “no religion,” Fishman says the survey also showed there is a “very clear demographic indication that Modern Orthodoxy is thriving.”

‘It is a very clear demographic reality that Modern Orthodoxy is thriving’

No one was surprised last year when the Pew survey found 98 percent of Orthodox marriages are between two Jews — whether from birth or through conversion. Other findings showed that statistically some 83% of Orthodox Jews starting families today were raised Orthodox themselves and go on to raise Orthodox children, with an average of 4.1 children per family. Additionally, although Orthodox Jews are only 10% of the total US Jewish population, they form some 22% of all synagogue-going American Jews.

Modern Orthodoxy is a subset of Orthodoxy in which its adherents interact fluently both in normative secular society and in Jewish spaces. Unlike ultra-Orthodoxy, which tends to congregate in densely populated self-selected Jewish ghettos, Modern Orthodox are at home living among non-Jews.

Fishman, who has authored seven books and countless papers on contemporary Judaism, says she is “a cheerleader for all wings of American Judaism.” Today, however, American Modern Orthodox are statistically the country’s highest educated, most financially successful Jewish population, with the greatest occurrence of homogamous relationships — those that pair individuals who share certain criteria like socioeconomic status. Definitely a worthy research subject.

The boys’ club may not be such a bad thing for Judaism

Counterintuitively, in Modern Orthodoxy these equally matched marriages live in parallel to the relatively non-egalitarianism of their religious lives.

There is much discussion in academia of the “feminization” of religion in America today. In her 2008 paper, “Matrilineal Ascent, Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” written with Daniel Parmer, Fishman explores the pushback of the feminist movement on American Jewish life.

She writes, “When it comes to gender equality or gender balance, contemporary American Jewish life is caught between a rock and a hard place.” She explains that while Orthodox Jewry continues to be male-dominated, “contemporary liberal American Judaism, although supposedly egalitarian, is visibly and substantially feminized.”

‘When it comes to gender equality or gender balance, contemporary American Jewish life is caught between a rock and a hard place’

In the 70-page paper, she cites examples of men who abandon the synagogue as a way of fleeing the “maternal vibes” of the archetypical Jewish mother.

She finds that men are leaving the egalitarian prayer of Reform and Conservative synagogues — but not Orthodoxy. Unfortunately for Jewish feminists, the reason why not may gall. She writes, “in Orthodox congregations, the fact that someone — girls and women — are excluded gives male religious responsibilities sociological piquancy and power.”

In Orthodoxy, by the time boys reach their bar mitzvas, they are equal prayer partners and “poised to take the male responsibilities of daily group prayer,” writes Fishman.

As Jewish male adults, “they — and they alone — can help create a prayer quorum, minyan. They develop the loyalties of men in battle to their buddies—they feel responsible to overcome considerable inconvenience to make sure there will be a minyan.”

An Orthodox Jewish man helping a Jewish youth put on tefillin (phylacteries). (photo creit: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker/CCBY-SA)
An Orthodox Jewish man helping a Jewish youth put on tefillin (phylacteries). (photo creit: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker/CCBY-SA)

In the prayer group, Jewish men can still feel like providers, necessary. Because of this obligation, Orthodox men attend weekly services twice as much as their spouses, whose own rates of attendance are significantly higher than non-Orthodox Jewish men or women.

In her paper, Fishman writes that this “alienation” of male Jews in the egalitarian streams of Judaism is at a critical point. She calls it a “systemic problem” in American Jewry because, at its worst, it leads to less dedicated Jews, more intermarriage, less Jewish children and less support for Israel.

Orthodox Jewish men, however, “despite their more emphatic gender role definitions,” are consistently in sync with their wives about Jewish values, with mutual goals for a strong religiously observant family life and Jewish education for the children.

Why Modern Orthodox women have ‘it all’

Like their husbands, Modern Orthodox women tend to work in high-status professions outside of the home, even while raising multiple children. This phenomenon, says Fishman, is in its third generation and is self-perpetuating: Today’s young Modern Orthodox mothers saw their own mothers and grandmothers as role models in balancing rich professional and personal lives and feel confident to do the same.

Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman (courtesy)
Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman (courtesy)

“People whose mothers did this already assume that’s the way you live,” says Fishman.

These women statistically have four children — double the US average of 2.2, and more than double the US Jewish average of 1.9 — which points to a very not politically correct reality: To have multiple children, women need to start giving birth earlier.

This stark biological fact is an unspoken boogeyman that needs to come out of the closet for women to achieve all their life goals, not only professional.

“As a feminist I want women to have what they want in their lives,” she says.

In a society obsessed with career, women are concerned that taking time out for families will hamper their professional lives. Fishman says, however, young women need to be better informed as they plan their lives.

She refers to research and popular “triumphalist stories” in mainstream periodicals with headlines proclaiming “I waited until 40 and had two children.” In these articles, she says, the cited statistics are that 80% of women over 40 who try to conceive, succeed.

“But that means that 20% don’t! If you think about statistics surrounding diseases, saying 1:9 will be afflicted makes people rightfully concerned. One in five is a huge amount of grief, much of which could be avoided,” Fishman says.

Fishman says the Jewish community needs to address this problem, perhaps through small focus groups of men and women in their early 20s, and explore how to get the now culturally forbidden idea of starting families earlier into the mainstream.

With the perspective of a scholar who conquered gender bias to make it to the top of her field while raising a family, she says, “Women who say they can’t have it all may need to redefine what ‘it all’ is.”

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