2017-02-01 / Mideast

Religious single moms gaining acceptance


Yael Ukeles, a founder of Kayama Moms, and her son in January. JTA photo courtesy of Ukeles. Yael Ukeles, a founder of Kayama Moms, and her son in January. JTA photo courtesy of Ukeles. JERUSALEM—When Alexandra Benjamin was pregnant recently with her son, she went shopping for appliances for her new apartment in Jerusalem.

At the store, the religious salesman asked about her husband. Benjamin explained that she was having the baby on her own.

“That’s so great!” she recalled him saying.

“That was the typical reaction I got,” said Benjamin, 39, whose son is now six months old. “Not negative, not neutral, but really warm and positive, even from religious people.”

Of course, it wasn’t always this way— not too long ago, single motherhood was frowned upon in certain segments of Jewish Israeli society.

Yael Ukeles, who like Benjamin is an observant Jewish woman living in Israel, recalled that when she decided to have a child on her own about six years ago, the topic was still somewhat taboo.

“I felt like I should whisper, ‘I’m thinking about having a baby,’” she said.

Over the past few years, however, Ukeles said she’s seen more religious Jewish women in Israel choosing to become single mothers.

“The degrees of separation have gotten smaller,” she said, noting that there are more Orthodox people directly connected to someone in their community who have made this decision.

Dvora Ross, a pioneer in Israel among observant single mothers by choice, agreed. Now 54, she had her first child more than 18 years ago and twins a few years later. At the time it was very uncommon for observant women to have children on their own. When she looked to enroll her first child at school, one would not accept him—she said the principal implied it was because of the boy’s unconventional family.

Now, “almost every religious school in Jerusalem has a few children with single mothers,” Ross said.

As two of the founders of Kayama Moms, an organization that supports observant single mothers by choice in Israel, Ukeles and Ross are well-positioned to observe these trends. Since its founding about five years ago, the organization has helped over 50 single women become mothers.

Although it’s hard to find precise statistics about rates of single motherhood by choice in Israel—particularly among observant women—the available data suggest the practice is becoming more common in developed countries.

In the United States between 2002 and 2012, for example, while unwed pregnancy rates dropped for teenagers and women in their early 20s, they rose for women over 30. In Israel, the Central Bureau of Statistics found that 4,900 children were born to unmarried women in 2010, almost double the number from 10 years earlier. In 2014, conservative estimates put the number at about 8,000. These figures include women cohabiting with partners, as well as single women.

Those who note a growing acceptance of single motherhood among observant women often cite Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Petach Tikvah, who issued a ruling saying it was the appropriate choice in particular cases. An adviser to Kayama Moms, Cherlow said that as more observant women have chosen to become single mothers, attitudes toward the practice in religious communities have changed.

When women first started discussing the idea with him about a decade ago, he said, they were often concerned about their parents kicking them out of the house or employers firing them.

“I can’t remember the last time someone asked me that,” Cherlow said. Now, women’s questions—which he hears “at least twice a week”—typically revolve around more specific issues, such as whether to have a second child on their own.

Perspectives among Orthodox rabbis are also shifting, Cherlow said. While the rabbis agree that “the best way to bring children into the world is in a traditional Jewish family, with a father and a mother,” he said, there is a significant minority who say unmarried women who have reached their late 30s should not be denied the opportunity to have children.

“I think this minority is getting bigger,” he said, observing that there used to be more public condemnations issued by rabbis against observant single mothers in Israel. For example, at a conference of rabbis in Israel in 2008, Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich referred to an unmarried woman having a child as an “unthinkable act,” adding “there is no greater evil and cruelty.”

Ukeles attributed this growing acceptance to the fact that more unmarried religious women are making the choice to become mothers.

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