Single Motherhood and Community

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June 1, 2003
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By Judith Kahn

I am a single mother by choice, a Jewish woman who in her late thirties decided that motherhood was a necessity, with or without a partner. In 1997, I gave birth to a daughter, with great rejoicing by my friends, family, and synagogue community. Three months later, before the entire congregation, we had a joyously tearful baby naming, just like a traditional family. Motherhood has been life-altering, rewarding, and challenging. Much of what has sustained me has been the ongoing support of my Jewish community.

For six years before my daughter’s birth I had been an active member of my synagogue. Sharing the yearly cycles of observance, simchas and sadnesses with the congregation were an integral part of my life. Seeing the well-organized committees like bikur cholim and chevra kadisha – groups that support others in their times of need – was a great comfort to me. When I chose to start my family, it felt like just another step on the ladder of lifecycle events that are ritualized in our tradition. Through birth or adoption there were already several single moms in the congregation. Currently a sizeable number, we are not a “group”, just Jews, congregants and moms.

Becoming a mother was a shock, but not so much more so than for any first-time parent. After birth, when traditional families often cocoon, I reached out by necessity. Congregants brought food for Shabbat, offered babysitting, made late night runs for supplies, and held my daughter at services. We were closely watched as my daughter grew and I grew into being a mother. Single women in the congregation took careful note of my happiness as well as my exhaustion, wondering if going it alone was a possibility for them. My rabbis would refer women to me who were considering this route. One of the last people I informed was our gabbai, a kind man, whose family is much more conservative in its observance than much of the congregation. After what I perceived to be some shock, he and his family became some of my staunchest supporters.

Knowing that I needed and wanted many partners in raising my child forced me to expand my connection with other streams of the Jewish community. I ended up sending my daughter to a Chabad preschool, an option I would have never dreamed of previous to parenthood. The director, ten years younger than I and already a mother of nine, received our non-traditional family with great lovingkindness. My daughter’s very young teachers, who probably had no context in their community for a single mom by choice, never judged us. At a tender age, they instilled in my daughter an unshakable commitment to mitzvot and tzedakah. Now my daughter is at an unaffiliated Jewish day school and I am just another parent, trying my best to juggle a busy urban lifestyle.

Jewish friends who are single moms by choice and unaffiliated with any Jewish institution also appear to be doing well; like the Torah’s instruction, they will teach their children how to earn a living and to swim. In my daughter’s life, I pray that internalized Torah values will serve as an anchor. She will know where she can turn if she feels lost or lonely. I do not believe that her path will be harder because she does not have a father. When she becomes a woman, she will choose her own relationship to Judaism. I hope the envelope of acceptance and caring provided by our community in her early life will help her feel secure and emotionally healthy, able to contribute to tikkun olam in a world much less stable than our family.

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Judith and Emma Kahn live on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Judith is a development consultant. She is happy to correspond with women considering single motherhood and can be reached at jkahn1@erols.com.

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