(JTA) — I recently attended a bris in my community where the mohel announced to the new parents and the whole room, “Raising this child is the most important and impactful thing you will ever do.”
These words were offered to anchor the already exhausted and overwhelmed couple in the sanctity of the job they are embarking upon; the holiness of shaping a person into adulthood; the pride in doing something meaningful and lasting.
At the same time, these are the sentiments that form the foundation of parents’ guilt when they have to work or when they choose to be with friends and not their children. They create the basis of self-recrimination when a child struggles and the parent is made to feel they are to blame. They foment anxiety over not enjoying aspects of parenthood or feeling lonely or isolated in the endless exhaustion of rearing children.
These are also the words that shame those of us who have no children.
The year I turned 30, I was not on any identifiable path to parenthood. I was, however, in rabbinical school and deeply committed to the ways I could and would serve the Jewish people as a rabbi. Until rabbinical school, I experienced my own private grief about not having a partner or kids, but no one had ever imposed those feelings on me or pressured me on my timeline.
As part of a counseling course in rabbinical school, I was assigned a reading where I learned that 13.9% of married women ages 30-34 experience infertility (a percentage that only increases after 35). Thirty years later, the author who shared this data did so again at an all-school gathering, reminding us that women pursuing education were largely responsible for the decline in Jewish population, since the ideal age for a woman to get pregnant is 22. He added, in essence, “Don’t come crying to me when you finish your education and realize you missed your window.”
I was shocked by his callousness and also by the overt implication that delaying parenthood for the sake of education was damaging to the Jewish people — an assertion, overt and implied, reached by many Jewish social scientists, as others have pointed out. Apparently, nothing I could do as a rabbi would ever have the same impact on Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish future as producing babies above “replacement level.”
While the presentation surprised me, the idea that the ideal role of anyone with a uterus is to bear children is embedded in our scripture and liturgy. Even the way many of us have chosen to add women into the daily amidah prayer to make it more egalitarian attests to this role: Three times a day we chant, “magen Avraham u’foked Sarah,” that God is the one who shields Abraham and remembers Sarah. This line about remembering Sarah refers to the moment when God undid Sarah’s barrenness, giving her a child (Genesis 21:1). Every time we recite these prayers we are reifying the idea that a woman’s relationship with God is directly linked to her fertility.
According to the medieval sage Maimonides, “Whoever adds even one Jewish soul it is considered as creating an entire world.” How many times do I have to sit on a beit din, or rabbinical court, before the number of conversions I witness adds up to a child? How many weddings and b’nei mitzvah and tot Shabbats and hospital visits and adult education classes? This is math I should not have to do as a rabbi or as a woman. It is not math we should ask of anyone.
I know I am not alone among my peers in expressing frustration around such rhetoric. If we truly believe that a person’s value is derived from being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine, then we need to demonstrate this in the ways we speak and teach about parenthood and fertility, celebrating the role and value of an individual within a community with no correlation to the number of children they raise, how they parent, or how those children connect to Judaism.
While there are plenty of sources in Jewish literature and a range of sociological data that offer all kinds of reasons that Jews should “be fruitful and multiply” — often expressed with urgency after the devastation of the Holocaust — the Torah, our most ancient and sacred text, also presents a model for what it means to be a person without a child who makes a tremendous impact on the Jewish future.
According to the most straightforward reading of the Torah, Miriam, the daughter of Yocheved, sister of Aaron and Moses, does not marry and does not bear children. And yet, Miriam played a crucial role in ensuring the possibility of a Jewish future. She was the sister who watched over Moses as he floated in a basket, the girl who connected Moses’ adoptive mother with his birth mother, and the prophet who led the women in joyous dancing when the Israelites finally attained freedom.
In a recent conversation, Rabbi Rachel Zerin of Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Connecticut, pointed out that what is powerful about Miriam is that she appears content with her life. Unlike most of the women we encounter in the Hebrew Bible who do not have children, we never see Miriam praying for a child; she is never described as barren or unfulfilled and yet she is instrumental in securing the Israelites’ — our — freedom.
Through this lens, we can understand that the Torah offers us many models of a relationship to parenthood: Some of us may yearn for it and ultimately find joy in it, some of us may experience ambivalence around bringing children into the world, some of us may encounter endless obstacles to conceive or adopt, some of us may struggle with parenting the children we have, some of us many not want to be parents at all, and some of us may experience all of these at different times.
Like Miriam who fearlessly added her voice to the public conversation, we, too, can add more voices to the conversation about Jewish continuity that counteract the relentless messaging that raising children into Jewish adulthood is the most consequential thing we might do.
Yes, parenting can be miraculous and beautiful, something we should continue to celebrate. But we each have so many gifts to offer the Jewish people — our communities just need to create space for all of us to contribute in a broad variety of ways, by making fewer assumptions and speaking about parenthood with more nuance, expansiveness and compassion.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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