Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Childlessness in the Jewish Community – www.yerusha.com

Imagine if anyone who could achieve 100 on an IQ exam was given a special hat to wear, and you couldn’t top 90.

Imagine if people who possessed at least three friends were admitted to a communal lounge, and you only possessed two friends.

Imagine if everyone could ride the bus regardless of their ability to pay, but those who couldn’t pay were forced to wear a special badge, and you couldn’t pay.

Certainly, it would be cruel to publicly penalize human beings who were disadvantaged in any of the above ways – but we do it, unintentionally, to a specific group in the Jewish community. People who are unable to bear children are often placed on the fringe, made to feel different as well as inferior.

I don’t mean to make childless people sound pathetic, as though they were moping about in a cloud. They are people with lives and families and careers and hobbies. But like everyone dealing with a problem, they still need the community’s awareness and sensitivity.

The communal snub is not intended. No thinking person would ever stigmatize someone for having blocked ducts or a low sperm count, for having been unable to find the right mate until after the biological clock ran out, or for any of the other reasons people are unable to produce children. Nonetheless, I know from personal conversation and observation that the feeling of being on the outside persists and is fed by numerous communal practices, and particularly in the shul environment.

• We loudly admire people’s children, and we highlight their success in our bulletins.

• We talk incessantly about wanting to attract young families, with children, to inject vitality into our shuls.

• We center our communities around schools and youth programs.

• We parade our children around shul, on the bimah, when the Torah is removed and returned, at Adon Olam, and so on.

• We create support systems for singles, for divorcees, for the handicapped and abused and bereaved, but rarely for the childless.

And the unintended offense is in the Torah we teach, as well:

• The rabbi will pontificate on Rosh haShanah about Gd answering Sarah and Chanah and Rachel, and he will praise the prayers of Chanah as though promising that if you, too, would pray as Chanah did, you would be blessed with a child.

• One of our Shabbat songs, צמאה נפשי, includes the exultant line לא כי בנך המת ובני החי, "No; your child is the deceased one, and mine is the live one." In context, of course, the line is not meant to come off this way - but I have been unable to sing that line for a dozen years, since a friend's pregnancy was cut off mid-way.

• We teach classes on raising children, we use child-centered anecdotes and metaphors in our speeches, we deliver derashah after derashah with lessons for educating our youth, repeating incessantly, “our sons and daughters,” “our children,” and so on.

• The rabbi notes that the first mitzvah in the Torah is to procreate, and that one of the six questions we are asked posthumously is, “Did you involve yourself in procreation?”

Each speech and shiur can be a hammer-blow. None of this is ill-intended, and none of it is inherently wrong. We must teach authentic Torah. But we could do better, with sensitivity.

I’m definitely not suggesting that rabbis deliver speeches about childlessness. Every year, when I was in the pulpit, I would think about doing that on Parshat Vayyetze, regarding the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, and every year I scrapped the idea; the topic would be painful and embarrassing for every childless couple in the shul. No, that’s not the right way.

There are right ways, though. I was careful to say “our children, our nieces and nephews, the children of our friends,” when talking about issues relating to kids. I added caveats and disclaimers when discussing the prayers and salvations of Sarah, Chanah and Rachel. I downplayed my kids when talking to people who were not blessed with their own. I reminded myself that had I lived in a less blessed time, I might well have been childless, too, and their pain would have been mine. I encouraged adoption, when I felt it was appropriate. I avoided “Im yirtzeh HaShem by you” as well as kvater opportunities when I thought they would not have been appreciated. And I davened, of course, for those who were trying to have children.

But I know it was not enough; how could it be enough, when people who had done nothing to warrant their childless state came to shul and were inevitably immersed in a child-centered culture?

We need to develop greater sensitivity, and to create institutions that will reflect this; this is why I was glad to receive an email advertising Anna Olswanger's www.yerusha.com, a site advertised as serving “Older Childless Jews” with resources and support. The site’s structure is currently a skeleton, but much more flesh could be added. הגיע זמן, it’s about time.

Of course, www.yerusha.com is a drop in the bucket, and it’s only getting started – but with enough such drops, developed sufficiently, we might yet get somewhere.


  1. I have to comment, because i have been diagnosed with infertility. It is painful to think that my body has somehow betrayed me. That something that is supposed to be so natural isnt happening.

    To top it off, i can't go to shul any more, for the reasons you state. I've stopped going to classes because it inevitably ends up in discussion on parenting.

    Even Facebook is an enemy because i can't go a day without pictures of someones pregnant belly or another birth announcement.

    i know we can't be so politically correct that we can't say anything, but i think when you know someone who doesn't have children, dont make the assumption its by choice, because there's actually a pretty good chance it isn't.

  2. I disagree vehemently.

  3. I davened at a place where I was told "Our chavurah is for married people and our dinners are for families" but when there was a woman's service they would ask me to layn and daven because "you have more time then we do". People still ask my mother "when is your daughter going to give you grandchildren?"

    There is a HUGE amount of insensitivity in the Jewish community about this issue, not just amongst frum people. Most rebemmin don't even want to acknowledge this exists because they play to their larger audience.

    Thank you so much for dealing with this topic in such an insightful and appropriate way.

  4. Shorty and Anonymous, thank you for posting about your own experiences. I hope that yerusha.com and similar initiatives will help make some sort of dent.

    With what do you disagree?

  5. I am glad that I read this because now I will know to try to be sensitive about this issue. It made me think about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. My first reaction to the post was "well, he was childless and that didn't stop him from constantly pushing good Jewish parenting." And the truth is that he did give out many brachos to childless couples who were later able to conceive, which means that he transcended any personal pain there may have been.
    But when I think back to his talks that I have read and listened to I can't remember him ever saying "our children" or "parents must do x." Rather, he would say things like "Every Jewish child must know/do/feel..." Maybe that unique formulation was because of sensitivity to this issue. (I also think that it is more empowering for the children since it addresses them as well.)

  6. Rabbi Torczyner,
    Why do you think that discussing the topic would be "too painful and too embarrassing for every childless couple in the shul?"
    One of the many feelings childless couples feel is isolation, of being alone and different from other members of the community due to no fault of their own and certainly not for a lack of trying. Often individuals with children don't even recognize or think about the pain that childless couples feel. Addressing it in a public forum such as a drasha might inspire sympathy, thoughtfulness and increased sensitivity to the pain that our family members, neighbors and friends are going through though we might never have stopped to realize it.
    Isn't one of the rabbi's responsibilities to sensitize people to the challenges members of their community are facing? Poverty, loss of a relative and illness seem no different yet rabbis mention those often.

  7. I sort of agree with Childless myself. As someone who battled with primary infertility for almost 7 years, and now with secondary infertility, I don't see anything wrong at all with publicly addressing the need for sensitivity - depending on the situation of course. If there is only one childless couple in a given shul, for instance, it might make that couple feel singled out. But by and large, I think public recognition is a good thing. *Most* of the hurtful words we hear come strictly out of ignorance.

    ATIME (www.atime.org) is another organization helping both directly with couples as well as indirectly with the communities surrounding the infertile couples. They run educational events for the general public, for rabbonim, and for the couples, as well as all sorts of support services for the couples. They literally saved my sanity in those long years!

  8. Anonymous 11:53 PM-
    Very interesting insight; I also wonder about the motivation behind his choice of words.

    Childless myself, Anonymous 11:27 AM-
    I hear what you are saying, but I am torn. My sense is that a derashah is an awkward tool for this purpose; I wrote about this here. The format is too limited, it doesn't allow for real discussion - and it can be embarrassing for the "only couple" in that situation, or for people who feel like they are the only couple in that situation. Perhaps a special program would be better - but would people come out?

  9. I agree that if there is one family that is known to be struggling, it might make them feel uncomfortable. But there might be other couples whose struggles are not widely known who might find solace in your remarks. And even if there is only one family struggling, it might be a good idea to approach them and seek their permission so that they aren't the continued recipients of unintended hurtful comments.

    As imperfect a medium a drasha is, for many it's the only time they hear from their rabbi all week, that's just the reality. It's not a good idea to consistently use the pulpit as a soapbox but wouldn't it be appropriate to use it to raise awareness, increase people's sensitivity and make people think about it (if they haven't experienced it themselves, they've probably never thought about what it means, how it affects a person/a couple, their sense of self-worth, their sense of identity, not to mention their relationship with their family and friends).

    It's a sensitive issue, but a shiur won't attract an audience and someone's gotta take the plunge. There are so many people who are simply unaware, who think that couples are trying to fit parenting into their professional schedules or who simply don't think about the possibility that a couple is struggling before making a hurtful comment.

  10. I'm not married. No one thinks to think of me as childless, but I am, and it hurts.

  11. Childless myself-
    I hear you. To argue your side of the coin - I've used derashos to talk about issues like depression and child abuse. So I do hear.

    Anonymous 4:00 PM-
    Thanks for commenting. I definitely hear that as well. I have nothing intelligent to say in response, unfortunately, but I know.

  12. I too suffered primary infertility and then was one of the lucky ones who did manage to have 2 children - but secondary infertility has mean that our family never grew further.

    While much of the pain is dulled, the constant questions about 'Nuh, so when's the next one?' are no less dreaded. You'd think that most people would realize there is something wrong if 8 or 10 years later there is no other baby???? Common sense is truly lacking sometimes. (Topped only by the idiots who do this right in front of my children who also get asked "Don't you want a baby brother or sister?")

    There are no easy answers but its good that you are sensitive to the situation - the more people who are, the less inadvertent slights will be delivered.

  13. Anonymous 5:33 PM-
    Thanks - and I know those comments very well.

  14. Thank you so much for addressing this issue. I married later in life and wanted very much to build a family. My husband has children from his previous marriage and, although I am glad he was able to fulfill the mitzvah, it causes further isolation in a certain way. When one of his daughters got married in her hometown (where his former wife still resides), I made sure to bring along a friend, as I wathced the parents of the kallah revel in this joyous day. I saw it as an opportunity to be "big." I knew that's what Hashem wanted of me. I'm ashamed to say, I don't know how to face it when his daughter IY"H becomes pregnant;my husband will be the zeidy and his former wife the bubby and I haven't had a child. owch. I also avoid attending any public gatherings and simchas. The talk at the table inevitably is about children (nonstop). I live on a VERY fertile block in Brooklyn (average of 10 children per home, including my neighbors just below me). I have to avert my eyes as I pass the hoards of children and mommies on each corner as they wait for the school buses. I so need to speak with women in my situation about the pain, isolation, and feeling of spiritual inferiority. We each have unique strengths to give to the world. Hovos HaLevovos teaches (correct me if I have the wrong source please) that we are here to do mitzvos and pass nisyonos; he does not say "to have children." Here is an article I wrote in an effort to give myself and others in this situation chizuk. I used a pseudonym. http://www.aish.com/f/hotm/48956846.html
    Wishing you all the clarity you need to feel a strong sense of self worth. Every Yid is a gem. Thank you for sharing and allowing me the forum to do the same. It helped. :)

  15. Hello bayshay,

    Thank you very much for writing - both your comment here, and your article on aish.com. I was especially struck by the line in your article, "t's not as if I'm pining for a Lexus or a mansion; these are noble yearnings" - it's very true. While personal desire is never far from any ratzon, it's not a product of selfishness, or an attempt to outshine others, or a yearning for a luxury.
    May HaShem provide you with chizuk, as well as the fulfillment of your every wish, l'tovah.

  16. I am in my mid 30s, I have conceived once, I battled infertility for 15 years. (two divorces later) I finally meet a lovely man, who is Jewish too, a first for me. He is older than me. We have decided that given my age and history we are not going to have children of our own. (He has an adult daughter from his previous marriage.) However this decision instead of driving us away from temple has pulled us in to the community. Both he and I were formally educated as teachers, He studied French, I double majored in secondary science and early childhood education. I decided that I may not have been gifted with biological children but I can be a steward for others.

    1. That's wonderful, Dragonfly; I am very glad to hear it. May you have a long, fulfilling, joy-filled life together.