Family Matters: Single Orthodox Mothers…
Buttressed by family and even rabbinical support, a number of religious women are choosing to have and raise children without being married.
The yearning for a child is a recurrent theme in the Bible, which vividly depicts the despair of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Hannah, who were all barren for a long period of time.
Concerned about demography and Jewish survival, Israelis have taken the pain of their forebears to heart, and being childless has become both a terrible fate and a stigma. So imagine the predicament of the Israeli woman who wants to bear children, but has not found the right mate. She’s nearing 40; her biological clock is running out. Does she have to give up on motherhood?
In the last few decades, many unmarried women in Israel have chosen to have children. Some adopt. Others become pregnant while in a relationship and independently parent the child. Many opt for artificial, or donor, insemination.
“They have chosen motherhood in contrast to most of us who just fall into it,” says Gittit Persky, who directed a film on the subject called Three Mothers.
Perhaps the most surprising group among those who use AI is the small but growing number of single Orthodox women.
“It’s precisely because religious women are steeped in family values that they want children and seek ways to have them,” explains Dvori Ross, mother of a 6-year-old son and 2-year-old twins. Ross, who has a doctorate in mathematics and works in computers, researched the halakhic approach to artificial insemination before undertaking motherhood.
She published her findings in “Artificial Insemination in Single Women,” collected in Jewish Legal Writings by Women (Urim Publications), edited by Micah Halperin and Chana Safrai. According to many rabbis, Ross discovered, the prohibitions against illicit sexual relationships do not extend to transmission of seed if there is no physical intimacy between a man and woman. Ross also opted for sperm from a non-Jew because it obviates any possibility of incest.
“By 35, I realized I had dragged out relationships that were not appropriate because of my desire to have children,” she says. “So I decided to start the artificial-insemination process. I shared this with friends, singles in Jerusalem, who were supportive.” She also had a great deal of family support.
Ross communicated with other single mothers through the Internet. “I asked a correspondent for pictures of her children,” she says. “That helped. I saw healthy, cheerful children and realized that children of single mothers could be happy.” She also spoke with a psychologist who reassured her there is no evidence that children in such families fare worse than in conventional families.
Ross then approached an American sperm bank where information about the donor is open to children when they grow up. “I felt it was important that they can find out about their biological father if they ever want to,” Ross explains. “In Israel such information is closed.”
She even spoke to the donor by phone after she became pregnant. “I felt he was a person I could respect. It was important to me to be able to pass this on to the children,” she says.
Ross still had to struggle with Israeli bureaucracy to bring the biological material into the country, but her quiet persistence prevailed.
Eventually, she helped develop a network of around 20 to 30 religious single mothers throughout the country who meet several times a year.
Like most Israelis, single mothers send their children to day care and nursery schools from a young age. However, they may have to rely even more than other parents on grandparents or other relatives to step in for day-to-day problems—when they need babysitting or religious support.
“I know American women who went back to the U.S. because they needed the support of the extended family,” Ross adds.
“We observe mitzvot like Shabbat and the holidays, Kiddush, primarily through the family,” says Idit (a pseudonym), a nurse who grew up in a conventional Orthodox home. She used AI to become pregnant with her two sons, now both under 2 years old.
Idit’s parents are very involved with their grandchildren. When she works night shifts, her parents stay with the kids. At first they were opposed to the idea, she says, but when the first baby was born, “they realized that I had given them a wonderful gift.
“I wasn’t willing to give up on having a family,” Idit adds. “I would prefer to be married. I don’t think a single-mother family is ideal. But that is the reality I had to deal with, and I don’t regret my decision for a minute.”
Chana Malul, an educator, is of Moroccan background; she grew up in the development town of Sderot but moved away. She had a son, now 4, through AI; her brother was the sandek at his brit, where, with the permission of the attending rabbi, Malul recited the brakhot.
However, when she learned she was expecting twins, she returned to Sderot to be near her sister. “While many religious women rush to get married, I lived an independent life, doing things that girls from my background didn’t do,” Malul explains. “I lived in Scotland for two years, studied educational administration and was the director of a school. I went out with men but I wasn’t willing to compromise. Finally, I decided to become a mother. I agonized. How would I, who had educated generations of young religious girls, be perceived in the community? But children are seen as a blessing among Jews….”
On Shabbat, Malul often takes her children for a walk near her shul; she cannot go in to pray with her son in the Orthodox synagogue. He’s a lovable child, she says, and men often come out to take him in.
“I wish my parents were alive,” she adds. “I’d love my children to have grandparents. I’ve even advertised for surrogate grandparents to give my children that loving experience.”
Malul did not use a sperm bank outside the country—her gut feeling was that she wanted sperm from a Jew (Ross says that most religious women choose Jewish donors). And she had no desire to know about the donor.
Idit agrees with this view. “If it’s not a husband, someone involved with raising the children,” she says, “then the person doesn’t exist for my children and myself. It’s like someone who gave blood. The children will grow with other male models: grandfathers, uncles, teachers.”
Groundbreaking as these single mothers are, a few older religious women chose this path before them. Rivka Horovitz, now in her late sixties, a Holocaust survivor of French origin, used AI to become pregnant when she was in her forties. “My whole family was destroyed in the Holocaust and…I felt there must be continuity for our family,” she says. “I wanted to be very sure artificial insemination was within halakhic parameters and went to ask ashaila [question] of the leading halakhic authority in Jerusalem at the time. And he approved. I had a doctor at Hadassah that supported me all the way, and God was good to me. I gave birth to a wonderful boy. Today, he’s married and teaches in a yeshiva. His origins haven’t hurt him. But a woman who does this must always have the child’s welfare in front of her eyes. She must know that it’s not easy alone…. A child’s not a decoration. One must know how to give love.”
Despite the precedence, few Orthodox rabbis today would give blanket sanction to unmarried women having children through AI. In fact, the rabbis who gave their approval insisted that it was only for the individual, not for the general public.
“I understand the terrible need of a woman for offspring,” says Rafi Feuerstein, a young liberal Orthodox rabbi in Tzohar, a rabbinical organization dedicated to bridging the gap between religious and secular. “Judaism is committed to the family framework. The nuclear family is the most concrete security for a child. There’s no possibility of extended families today when families are scattered.
“I think that one must go to the source of the problem,” he says. “It begins in the courting period in religious…circles. There’s what I would call ‘exaggerated selectivity.’ Young people must be realistic, learn how to compromise, see things over a life span. If it becomes acceptable to have children by bypassing marriage, it’ll lower the urgency for a relationship. First, only women in their late thirties will become single mothers, but then women who don’t have confidence they’ll marry will have children in their early thirties, and then in their twenties. It can create an entirely new family structure. On the other hand,” he adds, “once a woman has a child, the community must welcome the child and mother.”
However, some feel the women are not thinking about the effects of not having a father. While these women give a lot to their children, says psychologist Rina Rosenberg, they must realize their children are starting out with a disadvantage.
Nevertheless, in Israel, where the nuclear family has lost its dominance due to a high divorce rate and widowhood from war, there is less of a stigma to being a single mother. And today, women can offer support and financial security to their children. In a society that has more fertility clinics per capita than any other country and where the national health care system pays for AI (though not for the sperm itself) for single or married women, having offspring seems to be the ultimate value.
Assisted conception is a way of assuming a place within the Israeli mainstream, points out Susan Martha Kahn, author of Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel (Duke University Press). And, unlike the many single-mother groups in America, these women do not see themselves as creating alternative lifestyles.
A few have turned to adoption. Alysa (a pseudonym), who has a 5-year-old daughter, is an American ola who lives in Tel Aviv. She had been in many long-term relationships, but they never resulted in marriage. “At one point I consulted a Hasidic rebbe,” she says. “I told him I was seeking someone who would love me. He said, ‘Establish a family.’ He didn’t say how, what form of family. ‘Do what you need to do,’ he said. And I went with my conscience. I started the process toward adoption.”
Since single mothers cannot adopt young children in Israel, Alysa went through an agency that organizes adoptions in Eastern Europe.
It has changed my life,” she says. “I have learned what love is all about. I want to do things for her, give of myself. Friends warned me, ‘It’ll change your lifestyle.’ But motherhood kicked in, and I’ve been able to raise her. Everyone in our shul has gone out of their way to welcome her.”
Still, most of these women have not given up the hope of finding someone to marry. But they are now calmer, less desperate about it.
“Single motherhood is certainly not for everyone,” says Idit. “And yet it’s slowly becoming a solution for some. In 10 years, people won’t say ‘wow’ when they hear about it.”