On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Nov. 8, 1999 /27 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Jerusalem Street Scene by Binyamin L. Jolkovsky
Do religious Jews
make lousy parents?

By Jonathan Rosenblum

FERVENTLY-ORTHODOX CHILDREN grow up knowing that their entry into the world was not subjected to any cost-benefit analysis. They were not weighed against parental leisure time or disposable income

This past summer two young children died in Israel after being left in locked cars. In both cases, the families involved were religious and large.

These tragedies were widely reported in the religious press. Readers reacted with horror at the loss, and with pity for the parents involved, who will live the rest of their lives with the knowledge that their carelessness resulted in the deaths of their children. The cases also served as a stark warning to other parents.

Surprisingly, those two incidents recently became the subject of a long article in Time magazine by Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. Hundreds of children around the world die each day in accidents involving some degree of parental negligence - fires, cars started by keys left in the ignition, poisoning, electrocution, burns from pans placed close to the edge of the stove, falls, bathtub drownings, and choking on objects within reach of toddlers. Such tragedies never make it beyond the local press.


Beyer, however, is after bigger game. Based solely on these two instances of children left in cars, she argues that haredi families are too large and haredi parents are incapable of properly raising their children. Yet she does not cite one statistic that the rate of accidents is higher in haredi households, or that a haredi child is less likely to survive until his late teens than a comparable non-haredi child.

Beyer's case rests solely on a "chorus" of voices that these deaths were not "flukes" but rather the consequence of religious family size. (Only one of the families, incidentally, was haredi.) To bolster her case, she cites the "surprising" criticism from within the haredi community itself.

Upon closer examination, however, that "chorus" and the critics from within turn out to be none other than Naomi Ragen and Tzvia Greenwald, two women who have carved out successful careers by always having something unflattering to say about the haredi community. Comments like these by Ragen and Greenfield are as "surprising" and "from within," as those of Beyer's husband, Ze'ev Chafets, the Jerusalem Report's resident haredi baiter.

Moreover, two voices, no matter how loud and how repetitive, do not a chorus make.

If a religious newspaper, written by those who never had the benefit of a university statistics course and who never read David Hume on causation, took such anecdotal evidence as proof, we would not be surprised, but how did one of the world's most respected news magazines print such intellectual claptrap?

Imagine "proving" that secular parents hate their children from two instances of fathers immolating their children, or that rich parents cannot raise decent kids from the murder of a taxi driver by two thrill-seeking teenagers from small, affluent families. Anyone who did so would be rightly pilloried.

And if some intrepid soul argued for limiting Arab family size on the basis of accidents involving children or a rash of drownings by teenagers, he would be accused of advocating genocide.

Yet make no mistake about it, Beyer is laying the ideological basis for social policies designed to coerce haredi families into having fewer children. The Israeli feminists she quotes as calling for smaller haredi families apparently see their role as telling other, less enlightened women how many children they should want.

Perhaps they have forgotten that others in this century have used images of Jews breeding like vermin as a prelude to some highly successful efforts at population reduction.

MEASURING the quality of parenting or how happy and well-balanced children are is a notoriously subjective matter. Yet the behavior of children would seem at least as good an indicator of parental success as accident rates.

Which community does Beyer think suffers from more self-destructive behavior - drug use, premature promiscuity, eating disorders, suicide - the secular or religious ? (Yes, I know, no community is free of these phenomena.) Could any haredi child begin to comprehend why 60% of secular pupils and teachers favor stationing policemen in their schools?

Parenting a large family obviously presents challenges that having a smaller family does not. But haredi children grow up with the knowledge that they are an incalculable blessing in their parents' eyes and that for their parents, raising healthy, happy, and, yes, G-d-fearing children is the most important task in life. Their entry into the world was not subjected to any cost-benefit analysis. They were not weighed against parental leisure time or disposable income.

Much of the animus towards large families derives from residual guilt of those who sense that they live far more selfish lives than their own parents, and that the interests of their children are not necessarily paramount. Read this way, Beyer's attempt to portray haredi children as parental status symbols and large families as a mere "fashion" are classic examples of what the French call false consciousness.

A considerable body of social science literature in recent years documents the devastating effects that divorce has on children, yet the divorce rates keep climbing, as parents place the need to follow their individual sprites over the good of their children. Not inherent incompatibility but the urge for mid-life flings explain many of those divorces.

Among the religious, however, the old ethic of sacrificing for one's children still holds sway. Haredi parents spend both more quality and quantity time with their children. Families are together on Shabbes and holidays. And during Hol Hamoed and summer vacation, everywhere one goes (besides the beach) is teeming with haredi families.

A myriad of common activities bind the family together, and the generations one to another. Peek into the shuls in a haredi neighborhood this Saturday night and you are likely to see hundreds of fathers and sons learning together.

Anyone who thinks haredi children lead miserable, unhappy lives should take a walk through a haredi neighborhood any day of the week with open, unjaundiced eyes. My wife and I did 20 years ago, and the shining faces we saw had much to do with the large family we are blessed with today.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


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©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum