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The 2019 Sklare Address: How Gender and Family Still Matter for Contemporary Jewry


Family has resurfaced in many ways as its contemporary face has changed, often challenging the transmission of Jewry in traditional ways. Gender fluidity and equality had nearly camouflaged the contribution of gender to the transmission of Jewry for a majority of the American Jewish population, at least. But revelations of persisting and underlying gendered patterns beyond the family have alerted us to its particular dynamic, which itself has multiple implications for family as well as institutional life. In this address, we will discuss the changes that are occurring and their implications, as well as research implications, drawing on previous research and approaches that the Sklare awardee has taken and is taking.

It is humbling to stand before you as the Marshall Sklare Award honoree. It comes during a year that the first such honoree to receive the award in 1992 passed away. Sidney Goldstein’s contributions to Jewish demography are legend, and formed the background to many of my approaches to the study of contemporary Jews, and we will honor him later tonight at a Memorial session at 9 pm. And I stand on the shoulders of other honorees, whose work has been fundamental to my own development. To name but a few: Calvin Goldscheider, the 2001 honoree, was my dissertation advisor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who guided me through my first foray into the sociology of contemporary Jews, the comparative study of women’s roles as they changed upon immigration to Israel from Middle Eastern countries and Anglo-Saxon and Western European countries. Samuel Heilman, the 2003 honoree, preceded me as editor of Contemporary Jewry, and served both as role model and mentor for the role I still play. The works of Riv-Ellen Prell, the 2011 honoree, and of Sylvia Barack Fishman, the 2014 honoree, contributed—and contribute—immensely to my understanding of gender, family and intermarriage among American Jews. Insights from the demography and analysis of Sergio Della Pergola, the 1999 honoree, Charles Liebman, the 2000 honoree, his work with Stephen Cohen, the 2010 honoree, and the work of Bruce Phillips, the 2016 honoree, developed my thinking not only about American Jews but the global picture of Jews, and in particular, comparisons to Israeli Jews. Judit Liwerant, the 2017 honoree, has brought the language of Professor Shmuel Eisenstadt to Jewish studies—I worked with Prof. Eisenstadt while I was a graduate student at Hebrew U and he later became my postdoc mentor. Judit has inspired me to incorporate transnationalism and a more nuanced global comparison into my own frameworks of analysis, which you’ll hear more about today. Leonard Saxe, the 2012 honoree, has provided a role model in terms of leadership both of the Cohen Center at Brandeis University and as the current president of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ). To stand on the shoulders of these giants is most humbling.

I also want to thank my sister Sharon and her husband Raulf Polichar, who not only provided my home away from home in Ann Arbor, where I first met my husband-to-be Moshe, but are also my home away from home here in San Diego, the physical representatives of my family. And my closest and longest friend Ruth Isaacs, who traveled from the snowy corridors of Boston, and Robbie Turner, whom I’ve known since elementary school, who have also come to share with me today.

But more than anything, I would not be standing before you today were it not for the mentorship and collaboration that I shared with my husband, Moshe Hartman, who passed away this summer shortly after we had returned to Israel. He was a driving force from my first days at graduate school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was a fellow student, through the very earliest stages of my career, enticing me to live in Israel and confront the differences of gender roles in Israel and the United States on both a personal and a professional level. He introduced me to the frameworks of demographic analysis, to the worthiness of mining survey data for meticulous and in-depth insights, to the necessity of marrying theoretical framing with methodological expertise, and the possibilities of stretching one’s own capacities for work and achievement. More than half of my published work was in collaboration with Moshe, starting from my use of his survey on Israeli women and family for my dissertation (Hartman 1983), our year-long collaborative and belabored translation of my dissertation from English to Hebrew, to later analyses of women’s roles in Israel, to our in-depth analyses of the National Jewish Population Surveys of 1990 (M. Hartman and H. Hartman 1996a) and 2000–2001 (H. Hartman and M. Hartman 2009) and the New York Population Survey of 2001 (H. Hartman and M. Hartman 1996b). We combined our dedication to living a Jewish life and raising our four children Jewishly, with the critical analytical topics of Jewish identity, how “doing Jewish” and its widely varying expressions of Jewish identity distinguished American Jews from the broader educated population in the United States in terms of family and gender differences, particularly with respect to education, labor force participation, and occupational achievements. I cannot help but thank and acknowledge him for being an integral part of the work and orientation that has brought me to this day and your recognition.

Interestingly, when Moshe and I started working on our first book using the 1990 NJPS, one of my colleagues heard of our focus and asked, skeptically, “Gender? Does gender matter anymore?” After my personal experience navigating gender roles between Israel and the US, I was sure it did—at least in Israel. But trying to be politically correct, I politely answered something like, “We’ll find out.” And indeed, we found out: our research showed that gender mattered in family responsibilities, in the effect family roles had on labor force participation, occupation and income, and that Jewish women trailed Jewish men in all of their secular achievements despite being among the highest achieving among American women. That colleague would be surprised today at how much gender matters, though not necessarily in the ways that might have been expected in the 1990s. To be sure, some of the gap in secular achievements is narrowing, though not gone, and that gender gap varies across the Jewish part of the globe.

But the #MeToo movement (and the #GamAni movement in Israel) have revived the focus on gender in ways that had been dormant in the public conscience (with rare exceptions) for many years, though not for the women (and sometimes men) who have been affected. As many of you know, it touched ASSJ as well, and as it involved colleagues I know pretty well and whose work I use often, it touched me personally. The public consciousness found expression in a tumult of virtual and published exchanges, reaching beyond personal stories to challenges regarding the power dynamics of the Jewish academy, volunteer and philanthropic organizations, and probing the very epistemology which guides how we produce and reproduce knowledge in our respective disciplines, as well as how we conduct research and analysis and recommend practical policies for implementation. The very terms with which we communicate about our research have been called into question: what is gender—a binary construct or fluid, straight and/or gay, an essential part of nature or completely socially constructed—and echoes some of the challenges facing the study of contemporary Jewry: who is a “Jew”? Whose social construction is the dominant concept of Jewishness or Jewish engagement? Is Jewish studies ethnic studies or religious studies or minority studies or all of the above? Is there a “Jewish” family and what is that and whose criteria should we use to answer that question? And the two sets of challenges, how to construct gender and Jewishness, come together in questions like: Is the concept or focus on “Jewish continuity” sexist? If Jewish continuity entails women’s fertility and socially constructed motherhood, is it patriarchal?

In response to the public dialogue which surfaced more than a year ago, as editor of Contemporary Jewry I organized a special forum to reflect on the social scientific study of Jewry, a time and space for reflection as our colleagues’ work was called into question, but it is clear those reflections have a wider reach than any one particular field of study. This special forum, by the way, is being published in the joint issues of Contemporary Jewry 39 (3–4) as I stand here, if it hasn’t already seen print—all of the articles are online in Springer first if the published issue hasn’t reached you yet—and will most certainly give you much to think about and hopefully propel you to work with others to create appropriate policies and strategies of response. In this special forum, many of the virtual exchange and especially published pieces are referenced, and you will see how deep and far-reaching into the epistemology and the methodology of our field the exchange took us (see also Final Reflections: Epilogue 2019; Fishman and Shain 2019; Thompson 2019; Waxman 2019). We also discuss many of the initiatives that are taking place, are under construction, or have yet to be fashioned. And I’d like to give credit to ASSJ for its progress on adopting ethics principles guiding the organization and to the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) for creating a Task Force on Sexual Misconduct which established a website ( that launched in the Fall of 2019, developed training for committee members, as well as sexual misconduct procedures which are now fully operational and a model for all other professional organizations.

As you will see from the theoretical framework I present a little later, these organizational developments are important for current and future occurrences. I’m going to introduce that theoretical framework with reference to understanding the Jewish family, but I hope you will keep it in mind to analyze many parts of our study of contemporary Jewry. (See the Appendix for an application of the theoretical framework I present in this paper, to the gendered power dynamics of interaction that often result in sexual transgressions.)

In the following, I will briefly review some of the work Moshe and I did together, particularly as it informs our understandings of Jewish family and gender roles. I’ll then introduce a theoretical model that I think can move the understanding of Jewish families forward.

One of the themes that recurs in my work, and especially in my work together with Moshe, is what is distinctive about the patterns of gender, family, education and labor force that occur among American Jews and what is “Jewish” about these patterns, if anything. We approached this in three ways: first, we sought relationships between secular education and occupational attainment and multiple dimensions of Jewish identity (H. Hartman and M. Hartman 2010). A major conclusion from our work with the national Jewish population surveys was that gendered family roles, reinforced by multidimensional expressions of Jewish engagement, mitigated Jewish women’s work in the labor force but enhanced men’s labor force achievements, resulting in gender differences between American Jewish men and women in secular achievement. Despite beginning their family life later and having fewer children than other American women, most of whom were not as educated as their nonJewish counterparts, a majority of American Jewish women cut down their employment hours when their children were young and as a result earned less than American Jewish men, and this pattern was stronger among respondents with stronger Jewish engagement and identification. We concluded that the distinctive centrality of the family in Jewish life was evident in the priorities of both men (who used their employment to support the family) and women (many of whom curtailed their careers to perform their domestic roles) (H. Hartman and M. Hartman 2009; M. Hartman and H. Hartman 1996a, b). While it is true that the gender gap between American Jewish men and women in education and in the labor force continues to narrow, according to both Pew data and community studies data, it has not disappeared entirely.

There is of course variation among American Jews, and one of the ways in which they vary is by denomination, with the most familistic among American Jews being the Orthodox, and those with fewer familistic traits more likely to be unaffiliated and/or intermarried, as other studies have made abundantly clear. We see this in whether and when they marry, whether or not they have any children, the number of children that they have, and whether their children are raised as Jews (H. Hartman and M. Hartman 2009, Chs. 7, 10; see also Sheskin and Hartman 2015). However, it should be noted that the proportion who are raising their children as Jews among intermarried in the younger Millennial generation has risen to nearly two-thirds, according to Saxe and colleagues’ analysis of the Pew 2013 survey, nearly three times the proportion in 1990, which means that this dynamic is still evolving. Among adult Millenial children of intermarriage, many more have had some Jewish education and had Bar Mitzvahs, than adult children of intermarriage had in the past (Saxe 2019).

A second way we investigated the distinctiveness of American Jewish family, education and work patterns was by comparing the Jewish population to the broader American population, where possible controlling for race and educational attainment. Again, there were indications of distinctive Jewish familism, with a higher proportion of American Jews raising their children in two-parent married families, with fewer single parents or cohabiting couples raising children than in the broader American population, and lower divorce rates (H. Hartman and M. Hartman 2009, Ch. 3). But American Jewish men and women are waiting longer to get married and have children than in the past. So overall, the number of children per family is lower than in the broader American population, even controlling for education. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly every other mainstream religious group in the population has more children per family than American Jews. Completed fertility rates for women with undergraduate college degrees are 1.65 for American Jews compared to 1.81 for the broader American population, and for women with graduate or professional degrees, American Jews’ fertility rate continues to be smaller than that for the broader American population (H. Hartman 2017).

In any case, overall, Jews show distinction from the broader American population in how their families are central, affecting career and labor force choices, and the predominance and stability of their two-parent families. Newer developments indicate the willingness to use fertility treatments when natural fertility is challenged, and it is disproportionately challenged among American Jewish women; and the disproportionate inclusion of Jews among single parents by choice (Blumenthal 2015; Lieber 2012), both related to the importance of having children among many American Jews.

A third way Moshe and I explored the distinctiveness of American Jews was to compare American Jews to Israeli Jews, to see what they had in common in terms of family and secular achievement and whether these commonalities could be explained by some shared kernel of “Jewishness” (M. Hartman and H. Hartman 1996a, b, Ch.7). I followed this up 20 years later in a presentation among the fellows at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew U, comparing the Pew Survey of Israeli Jews conducted in 2015 to the Pew Survey of American Jews conducted in 2013 (Hartman 2018). In fact, comparing Israeli and American Jews, Israelis are more familistic—that is, they marry earlier (28% of American Jews aged 35 and younger live alone—which means they aren’t married; compared to less than 7% of Israeli Jews), are more likely to have children and less likely to be child-less or child-free (only a quarter of American Jews have children under 18 living with them, compared to nearly half of Israeli Jews; only 3.4% of Israeli Jewish women have no biological children compared to 17.5% of American Jewish women aged 40–59), and they have more children (in fact, Israel’s fertility rate is the highest of the top 94 most developed countries in the world, DellaPergola 2015)—and this is true even when comparing Israeli and American Jews in similar denominations and with similar educational levels.

Some of these differences seem to be related to the broader population among whom American Jews live as opposed to Israeli Jews who are the majority of the population in Israel. But the value differences between American and Israeli Jews are also related, as is the more well-developed infrastructure of policies and services supporting having children in Israel as compared to the United States, as we’ll discuss more later. In terms of the distinctiveness of Jews, the Israeli pattern seems to reinforce the interpretation that Jews are more familistic than the broader American population, which we mentioned above.

The Israeli-US comparison raised many issues, which I decided to expand in my newest project, an edited book showcasing a global comparison of Jewish families (H. Hartman, in progress). I’d like to present the framework I am proposing for comparing diverse Jewish families to you today.

Comparative Framework

Part of my inspiration for adapting this framework is the recent qualitative longitudinal study of Canadian Jewish families, in which Alex Pomson and Randal Schnoor suggest that we need to apply a family systems’ perspective to correctly understand the centrality of the family in Jewish lives and the construction of Jewish identity through the lens of families (Pomson and Schnoor 2018). I would like to build on their suggestion and apply an open systems model to the study of Jewish families. This “is an analytical model that can be applied to any instance of the process of social organization, from families” to education to nations, “within which any number of different substantive theories of social organization can be constructed” (Olsen 1978, 228; see also Ballantine, Hammack and Stuber 2017).

Let me walk you through its five components, and then elaborate in terms of the Jewish family (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

An open systems model of family

In the center box we have the central concern for the analyst, in this case the microsystem of the Jewish family—what actually transpires within families, how they vary one from the other, what is “Jewish” about them, but also what other important identities and concerns constitute this central unit. Within every family there is a structure with a certain composition of roles, genders, age differences and hierarchy, whether it is explicit or implicit. How the family makes decisions, communicates with one another, its “emotion work,” how flexible and cohesive it is, are all part of the processes that occur within the family. Families provide opportunities for developmental activities and growth for each of their members. All family members are directly affected by this microsystem, even if the effect is not the same for each of the members. These features are dynamic and may change over time just because of the life course of each of the members—that is, their aging, and their entrance and exit from various life stages (such as graduation or retirement), as Pomson’s and Schnoor’s longitudinal research so clearly demonstrates.

What has become clear from recent research on Jewish families is the tremendous diversity within their microsystems. Sylvia Barack Fishman’s edited volume, Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families: Paradoxes of a Social Revolution (2015), brings us cutting-edge research on many of the variations in contemporary Jewish family microsystems, from the younger American generation postponing marriage until their careers are settled, to religious Jews negotiating dual careers and religious obligations, to same-sex couples raising children, to single mothers by choice, to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews negotiating a very different environment outside of their communities.

Of course, variation in microsystems is not only a modern phenomenon. Jonathan Boyarin, in his Jewish Families (2013), also explores variations in Jewish family forms and ideologies. From stories of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs and their children, through the Gospel’s Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and to modern Jewish families in fiction, film, and everyday life, Boyarin shows that the family has been considered key to transmitting Jewish identity, but he shows how widely Jewish families have varied through time and place. Current discussions about the Jewish family’s supposed traditional character and its alleged contemporary crisis tend to assume that the dynamics of Jewish family life have remained constant from the days of Abraham and Sarah to those of Tevye and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and on to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. But Boyarin shows us the opposite, through vast expanses of history and culture as well as the social pressures and strategies that have helped shape Jewish families, including strictly Orthodox communities and same-sex parents, suggesting productive ways to think about possible futures for Jewish family forms.

Microsystems are also affected by life-course transitions (Geffen 1993). Common transitions for Jewish families are birth (celebrated by the brit milah or circumcision for boys, and sometimes baby-naming for girls), Bar/Bat Mitzvah for 13-year-old boys and 12- or 13-year-old girls (depending on the denomination), weddings and their preparations, and death.

This microsystem is influenced by several forces external to it. To begin, unless they are a child born into the microsystem, family members come into the family system with what we sometimes call “baggage.” This provides input from somewhere external to the microsystem of the family. Each member brings with them positive baggage in the form of social capital—who they know on the outside, how they’ve learned to communicate with other people; human capital—what they know how to do, the languages they’ve learned, the skills they have; and cultural capital—values and norms that situate them in a particular broader society or group. Sometimes people bring relationships into the family from their family of origin, which becomes the extended family of this family microsystem. Or they may have been married before, and have children born in a previous marriage or relationship. They may have a relationship with their ex-partner. Some of this capital may be what we refer to as Jewish capital—knowing the rituals and the holidays, knowing Hebrew or Yiddish, having previous exposure to ways of “doing Jewish,” knowing other Jewish people and being able to call upon them to share in the family’s celebrations or times of need—or it can be non-Jewish capital, whether it be secular or from another religion the person has been engaged with (see Phillips and Fishman 2006).

Input may also be ongoing, especially as families outsource some of their needs to external services (Hochschild 2012). So families may employ domestic workers and nannies on a regular basis; grandparents and other extended family members may visit on a regular basis; sometimes a family member is ill or disabled and needs nurses or doctors to visit on a regular basis, or a caregiver who is not a member of the family; school children may need tutoring on a regular basis; and most family members have friends or peers who visit the family or at least the household on a regular basis. Each time they visit the family they bring some input from the outside society which penetrates the family microsystem.

The input is part of the family’s environment, which is a source of change within the family, as we have seen. This environment is made up of the immediate or primary environment, and the secondary environment which is somewhat farther removed. I have added structure to the category of environment in the open systems model, which I think will enable comparisons to be more productive (Fig. 2). This structure comes from Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, which has been developed for understanding child development and socialization (Bronfenbrenner 1979, 1989; Bronfenbrenner and Morris 2006; Parke and Burel 2006; Berns 2016).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model applied to family

The Mesosystem

Bronfenbrenner divides the “environment,” the surroundings of any particular microsystem, into four parts: The immediate environment consists of organizations or groups with which the family interacts, or what Bronfenbrenner calls the mesosystem—other microsystems that the family interacts with, such as the children’s schools, a synagogue if the family is involved with it, close friends and relatives; the mesosystem is comprised of links between two of a person’s microsystems. If we’re centering our focus on the family microsystem, this would be the links between the family and our friends, the family and our workplace, the family and school, the family and synagogue, the family and neighborhood. We know from Pomson and Schnoor’s earlier work, Back to School: Jewish Day School in the Lives of Adult Jews (2008), that there is an interesting linkage between the family and children’s Jewish day school, for example; not only did the family have an effect on the day school (e.g., by the particular child they sent there, the child’s background, the parent’s interest in the program, and the support of school activities and homework), but the children’s day school had an effect on the family, strengthening Jewish identity and practice through the school community and its activities and emphases. But we also know from their more recent work (Pomson and Schnoor 2018), as I mentioned earlier, that how long-lasting that mesosystem effect is on the family varies from family to family, often interacting with the input the parent entered the marriage with (their memories from childhood, their orientations to religious practice developed prior to the current marriage) as well as processes that transpired in the family unit itself (divorce, for example). The mesosystem is thus influenced by the chronosystem, or history, of the family and its various components, which we will discuss in more detail below.

The secondary environment is more removed and might be more amorphous, such as the technological environment, or religious environment, or political environment, which most surely impact family microsystems today. The most radical example might be when a family moves. If it relocates to a house down the block, it may cause some temporary ripples but may not occasion major change. But immigration to another country will necessitate many more adaptations, which may affect the role system in the family, opportunities for growth and accumulation of cultural, social or human capital—or the opposite. If that immigration draws on prior cultural and social capital of a family member who lived in the new country prior to the marriage, it will change dynamics in the family because of the new strengths that family member offers to the rest of the family. Hence, this model also allows us to study some of the effects of transnationalism—an identity that spans two or more countries—on families.

Fishman’s volume (2015) is not just descriptive of the inner workings of Jewish families. A great variety of research is presented on topics related to family which intersect Jewishness, including religiosity, nationality, gender and sexual identities, and life course perspectives. In some of these research examples, it is the meeting of more than one microsystem that affects family life (i.e., mesosystems). In other cases, the intersectionality is between the family microsystem and various aspects in the macrosystem, another element in Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory. This intersectionality is a major feature of Fishman’s book, which teaches us how familial Jewishness cannot be understood without its national and cultural context (here illustrated by the United States and Israel), its religious context (ranging from secularity to haredi or ultra-Orthodox to mixed marriages), its temporal context (contemporariness in its struggles with historical religious and legal practices adopted long ago). The way that Fishman has juxtaposed the chapters helps us understand that child-rearing among gay and lesbian couples encounters different challenges than among heterosexual couples—and yet so many of the same ones; that there is an added dimension to combining work and family when religiously observant families are considered; and that being haredi when so much of the outside society is ultra-secular can both empower haredi women in a shift toward egalitarianism, while maintaining a “soft patriarchy” that must balance gender blurring with temptation toward secularity.

Environmental influences may vary according to Jewish denomination. For example, haredi families (both in Israel and in the US) often interact closely with the rabbinic leaders in their community, which revolves around the yeshiva where the husbands spent years before and after their marriage. They receive spiritual and religious guidance, social support and even material support through this mesosystem relationship (Boyarin 2013; Friedman 1998). The haredi social structure of the “family community” came about as traditional Orthodox rabbinic leaders adopted new, quasi-family roles within the parameters of a new voluntary community, one that by its very definition would be separated from the secular world and actively isolate itself from the secular and modern sociocultural environment (Friedman 1998: 169). “This family-community revolved around the rabbinical academy, or yeshiva, where young men spent years before and after their marriage. The yeshiva became both the locus of social and religious authority and also to a considerable degree the locus of material sustenance” (99). This close linkage between families and the rabbi-led yeshiva became a mesosystem providing not only social capital but also material sustenance for the family, a pattern which continues among contemporary haredi families both in the US and in Israel.

In another example, this time from the Israeli context, intermarriage between different Jewish denominations is not common: 95% of haredi Jews marry other haredi Jews in Israel; 85% of “Dati” (religious) Jews marry other “Dati” Jews; 64% of the “Masorti” (traditional) marry other “Masorti”; and 93% of the “Hiloni” (secular) marry other “Hiloni” (Cooperman and Sahgal 2016, 212). This reinforces a Jewish society segregated by denomination, related at least in part to segregated patterns of residence between different kinds of Jews in Israel; segregated schools in terms of haredi, dati, and the less observant and secular; segregated youth movements; and segregated participation in community activities between denominations. In other words, mesosystem factors mitigate opportunities to meet and feel comfortable with Jews of other denominations than one’s own.

While the Jewish community often forges linkages with all sorts of families and becomes an important source of support, social and cultural capital, sometimes these linkages are weak and actually marginalize non-traditional Jews whose inclusion would stretch traditional boundaries. For example, disabled members often face a lack of opportunities for inclusion in Jewish communal activities, and sometimes meet up with a lack of sensitivity which further alienates them (see, for example, RespectAbilityUSA Sometimes virtual Jewish organizations provide virtual community when the local community does not. B’chol Lashon (, for example, is an organization that was founded in the year 2000 as a response to the Study of Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the American Jewish Community that found that 20% of America’s 6 million Jews are African American, Latino-Hispanic, Asian, mixed race, Sephardic and Mizrahi (—in other words, non-Ashkenazi. The organization reaches out to non-Ashkenazi American Jews through blogs, events, speakers, and they provide training to help other organizations become more inclusive. Their summer camp is the only multicultural overnight camp that teaches about global Jewish diversity and incorporates multiculturalism in its training for leadership in the Jewish community. Some who have been marginalized from mainstream Jewish activities or prayer form their own synagogues or organizations, and while this is an important source of support for individuals and families, it often does not integrate them into the broader Jewish community (see Scheckner 2003, for example).

The Macrosystem

The second part of the environment is the macrosystem, which is comprised of institutional structures in the wider environment, such as the demography of the country, the government and political system (e.g., democracy, Communism), the economy (capitalism and socialism, for example, and their respective values), religious systems (Judaism and its place in the wider society; state religions vs. plural religions); science/technology and its attendant values, expectations and opportunities; the media, an expression of culture and its norms and values; and the geographical setting and its characteristics (Berns 2016).

When Moshe and I first tried to make sense of the Israeli-American comparison in a chapter in our 1996 book, we found it surprisingly difficult. The wider societal infrastructure and support and some of the values were so different that it was difficult to make sense of the comparisons. We were not the first or the last to observe this, of course. In Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences, Liebman and Cohen had explored this comparison in 1990. They wrote that not only do Israeli and American Jews share “the myth of common descent, common destiny and a strong mutual responsibility…They share a set of symbols that are reflected in liturgy and ritual…[and they] are linked by their enemies…and by ties of family…” (Liebman and Cohen 1990: 171–173) These transnational ties suggest interaction and influence on one another. But Liebman and Cohen went on to contrast the American Jewish values with those of Israeli Jews, and more recently such scholars as Daniel Gordis in We Stand Divided (Gordis 2019) and Sylvia Barack Fishman in her report to the American Jewish Committee on Israel-Diaspora Relations (Fishman 2019) reinforce the contrasts between the two cultures. Whereas American Jews value individualism, Israeli Jews value family and national loyalty and collectivism; whereas American Jews value universalism, Israeli Jews value particularism; whereas American Jews root for the underdog and vulnerable minorities, Israeli Jews are more concerned with their own national insecurity and vulnerability; American Jews value Judaism for its justice and morality, Israeli Jews relate to Judaism as a nation and in survival mode.

Numerous other differences stem from the fact that Israelis are the majority in their society, responsible for creating social institutions, many of which reflect Jewish values in their institutionalization. Many of the significant factors differentiating American and Israeli Jewish families are institutional parts of the macrosystem: the role of the military, the infrastructure in the economy which allows women’s part-time work, and the National Insurance system which provides support for each child under 18 living at home, to name but a few of the institutional differences (M. Hartman and H. Hartman 1996a, b, Ch. 7).

In our comparison of the influences on Jewish families and secular achievement and their interrelationships, it was difficult to determine which of these many factors (Jewishly related or not) would account for similarities and differences between the two groups of Jews or even subgroups within them. This framework at least helps us to organize the differences and give a valence to each of them.

In my collaborations with Ira Sheskin, we explored several macrosystem variations between Jewish communities within the US to explain differences that we found. We used the data set that Ira developed by aggregating all of the community studies he personally had administered since the early 2000s, first into a Decade 2000 data file and then into a Century 21 data file. Currently there are 29 community studies in the data file yielding interviews with more than 27,000 American Jews and representing 737,000 American Jewish households. Ira and I looked at many macrosystem characteristics of different Jewish communities across the US in an effort to find influences on the Jewish identity and engagement of the individuals living in those communities, what we initially labeled “a sociology of Jewish place” (Hartman and Sheskin 2012, 67). We found that many of the macrosystem variations were not related to Jewish identity patterns in the community. Clearly, the size of the Jewish community was not a clear recipe for strong Jewish identity, nor was the density of the Jewish population or the mobilization of a strong Jewish Federation campaign. Strong Jewish identity could be found in stable Jewish communities and not-so-stable Jewish communities (Hartman and Sheskin 2012, 70).

But Jewish identity and engagement are affected by the collective denominational profile of all Jews living in their community (another macrosystem variable). “Orthodox Jews, for example, behave differently in a community with a significant Orthodox population than in a community with few Orthodox, but many Reform Jews” (Sheskin and Hartman 2015,1). In contrast, a high percentage of “Just Jewish” or nonaffiliated in the community lowers the level of private ritual practice, as well as ethnic identity, for individuals in almost all of the denominational groups. A high percentage of Reform in the community raises the level of Jewish engagement in ethnic (as opposed to religiously based) types of activities—among all groups affiliated with a denomination, suggesting that the activities in which the Reform invest impact all denominations in the local community.

We also concluded that “interpersonal ties between denominations …may be related to generational and family differences” (ibid., 14). “Ties to one’s childhood denomination may also result in persistent ties to (significant) others in that denomination, … influencing individual Jewish identity, especially if living in an area with strong representation of that childhood denomination” (ibid., 15) (in other words, enabling these mesosystem effects to have an influence). These interpersonal ties between denominational groups likely also contribute to the discomfort of identifying with a particular denomination, and therefore inconsistency in terms of the different norms and behaviors associated with religious and ethnic identities… “[I]nterpersonal contacts between denominations, whether through family, friends, or through community activities, also promote the understanding of denominations other than one’s own, and bridge their differences” (ibid., 15). Significant denominational switching among American Jews may also result in intermarriage between different denominations of American Jews (H. Hartman and M. Hartman 1999; M. Hartman and H. Hartman 2000).

Actual rates of interfaith intermarriage vary greatly between Jewish communities in the US—from 9% in South Palm Beach, Florida to 61% in East Bay, California and Portland, Maine—as Ira and I have shown using the Decade 2000 community studies data (Sheskin and Hartman 2018). The reasons for that variation seem to be related to several macrosystem influences on the families in the communities, most strongly to the denominational composition of the Jewish community, in particular what proportion are Orthodox and what proportion are unaffiliated; the age composition of the Jewish population, in particular the proportion of adults who are over 18 and under 35, and the proportion of adults who are over 65; and whether the community is in the western portion of the US.

Importantly, there is an interaction between whether the husband or the wife is the Jewish partner in the interfaith marriage and whether the intermarried couple raises their children as Jews, with Jewish mothers being more likely to be raising their children as Jews than intermarried Jewish fathers. One explanation for this is that the broader Jewish community may be more likely to accept Jewish women’s children as Jewish and therefore welcome them into their community (in other words, it is a mesosystem influence, reflecting an interaction between the Jewish composition of the couple and the Jewish community’s acceptance of them and their children as Jews.) The increase in interfaith couples raising their children as Jewish that I mentioned earlier (Saxe 2019) may also be related to the non-Jewish partner’s greater acceptance of the Jewish way of life, reflecting the broader community’s positive acceptance of Jews as part of the contemporary mainstream, a macrosystem influence.

The Exosystem

A third part of the environment is the exosystem. The exosystem includes external events or policies over which the family has no control or direct involvement but which may nevertheless affect them. For example, 9/11, except for the families living in the immediate area, affected families all over the US—heightening anxieties, instituting accountable practices when children left the home; the election of Trump (except for those families directly involved in campaigning) is largely an external event, and it can cause strain between family members, so much so that a recent New Yorker cartoon (April 1, 2019) shows a marriage ceremony in which the marriage vows include agreeing to hate the same people (see The shelling from the Gaza Strip that dotted the southwest of Israel (and beyond) in 2019 developed beyond the family’s reach, yet families in Israel had 90 seconds or sometimes only 30 seconds to scramble for shelter when the siren alerts sounded, often resulting in trauma to family members, which impacts families for years after the event. Years of the conflict between the Gaza Strip and the Israeli towns just over the border of Gaza have left families on both sides traumatized (O’Loughlin 2008; OCHA 2011; i24news 2019).

On another note, the presence of the #MeToo movement in the US, or the #GamAni movement in Israel, parts of the exosystem for most people, may well alter the power dynamics between men and women within the family, and eventually lower tensions that penetrate into the family from unequal power positions in workplaces (Berman, Rosenblatt and Stahl 2018; Elliman 2019). (See the Appendix for an application of the theoretical framework to gendered interpersonal interactions.)

Another example of the exosystem is immigration policies, which are fashioned by governments well beyond interaction with most families, but they can tear families apart, bring them together unexpectedly, change the trajectories for the near- or long-term future, all of which have great impact on families (Langhout et al. 2018). These have affected Jewish families the world over. In Finland, for example, according to research by Mercédesz Czimbalmos which will be published in my upcoming comparative volume on Jewish families, Swedish immigration policies allowed Jews to immigrate to Finland (then a part of Sweden) only if they converted to Christianity (Czimbalmos 2020). When Finland became a part of the Russian Empire in the 1800s, they were able to stay in Finland as Jews, but could only become Finnish citizens when Finland became independent in 1917.

The Chronosystem

The fourth part of the ecological system is sometimes considered part of the macrosystem, but really is a separate facet. The chronosystem consists of change over time, which often becomes a part of the collective memory, also affecting families. In Keepers of Memory: The Holocaust and Transgenerational Identity (2019), Jenny Rich finds several patterns among grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, with their grandparents’ experience of the Holocaust either empowering or traumatizing them, influencing their choices of careers, their commitment to Judaism, the importance they place on having children, and more.

Israeli families often live with their memories or collective memories of the 1948 War establishing the state of Israel, the massacre of Jews living in Gush Etzion which provides a justification for living there after the 1967 war, the assassination of Rabin, which expressed the destroyed unity of the Israeli Jewish population. American Jews live with commitments forged from the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate, the antisemitism of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting—these are part of the chronosystem, which constitute part of the collective American Jewish memory, with more or less influence on individual families. The different specifics of collective memories in different settings of Jews—from Eastern to Western Europe, from India, from China, from Africa, from Latin America—help to explain some of the variation from setting to setting in the sensitivities and customs of Jewish families the world over.

In her introduction to Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (1995), Yael Zerubavel describes the collective memory characterizing her experience of Israel, how entrenched her family was in it, and how it resulted in a cultural gap between American and Israeli Jews when she came to live in the US.

She describes her parents’ adolescence in reference to WWII activities and Israel’s War of Independence of 1948, and her own childhood in terms of the Suez Campaign and her rites of passage into adulthood with respect to the 1967 Six-Day War and the War of Attrition that followed it. As she analyzed the role of particular events in Israeli history contributing to the collective conscience of contemporary Israelis, she recognizes “the role of commemoration in establishing invisible ties between the communities of the living and the dead” (xiv). Yet she also is sensitized to the role of silencing some stories and elaborating on others as societies reconstruct their collective memories. Thus the “chronosystem” is not necessarily an “objective” link to history, but one reconstructed for the purposes of emphasizing certain values and attributes of the past for the present context. Families are part of that context, and partake of this reconstructed collective memory for their own purposes.

Boyarin (2013) also points out that “comparisons between ‘today’ and ‘the way things used to be,’ including discussion of how Jewish family life has changed, often allude to the way things were ‘in the shtetl,’ almost as though the ancestors of all Ashkenazi-descended Jews had come from the very same place”; yet, “At no time did all [italics added] East European Jews live in such shtetlekh, and the living conditions and folkways of different shtetlekh in different countries have varied considerably” (81). Nonetheless, these shtetls are part of the collective memory of Ashkenazi American Jews and provide a common symbol for comparison to contemporary families.


The open systems model also accounts for feedback from the family’s outputs (grown children, for example) back into the original family and forward into new families that the children form (as adults). Who among us has not had feedback from their grown children (or been a grown child giving feedback to our family(ies) of origin), often in the form of criticism, occasionally in the form of praise. While parents can’t change the past, they do on occasion change their current behavior in order to help open up relations that have become stuck in an unproductive pattern or to help a child get over some hurt they carry around, whether it was a result of intentional or unintentional behavior or verbiage on the part of the parent. Children can’t change the past either, but sometimes they “get over” whatever has been an obstacle to closeness with their parent, sometimes with the aid of external help such as a therapist, and sometimes in time to “make up” with their parent as the parent ages but before they die. Without recognizing the role of such feedback on families, we miss many of the dynamics that affect the family and its system.

Value of this Model

So, here is the model with all five components put together as applied to the (Jewish) family—the microsystem of the family in the center, with its inputs, its outputs, surrounding environment, and feedback mechanisms. In my opinion, this model can help us to organize and make sense of variations between the wide diversity of Jewish families and to distill the distinctiveness that Jewish families share (if they do) (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Open systems model of Jewish family

It is first and foremost an analytical model, which allows us to map out the various influences on what happens within the microsystem of the family; to isolate what is truly internal to the family, and what is a result of interaction with the external environment. I think this is important both for designing and interpreting research on the Jewish family, and for policy-related applications as well.

Mapping out what we know—and don’t know—about families we wish to compare can guide us in determining the research we need to know. For example, DellaPergola’s research on fertility among Israeli Jews—which at 3.1 is the highest among the 94 most highly developed countries in the world—reveals that many Israeli Jews would consider having another child if they had more space in their apartment (DellaPergola 2015). Do you think that is the same for American Jews? If you could subsidize increased dwelling size for American Jews, could you grow the number of children per American Jewish family? I know that this makes for a lively conversation starter (I’ve tried it)—but I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think any of us do, because we’d need research among American Jews that addresses this question, and to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have it.

Or perhaps we realize that macrosystem variables, such as the conceptualization of gender roles and subsequent expectations for gendered behavior and attitudes, differ greatly for Jews in India and in Canada. We can better understand the gendered challenges of adaptation for Indian Jews who have migrated to Canada by focusing on the different gender schemas common in each society, and tailor appropriate support mechanisms for the immigrants, as a result. (You’ll read Kelly Train’s research [Train 2018] about that in my upcoming volume of comparative Jewish families.)

With Respect to Microsystems

Despite Fishman’s (2015) contributions to understanding new contemporary Jewish families, there are a number of different family microsystems which have not been adequately researched. For example, what of aging Jewish families? Families meeting chronic illness and mortality? The effect of adverse environments on family functioning, such as high unemployment, disability, or terrorism? (See Hartman 2014 for a more complete list.) What of transnational families—families who themselves move from country to country (as my own did), or families who have a transnational member and extended family? What of the comparisons of American Jewish and Israeli Jewish families of a particular sort, with European or Scandinavian Jewish families? Latin American, Australian or South African families? How do the microsystems of Jewish families vary according to the type of religiosity they practice or relatively new Jewish family forms, which have now come to include single parenting, same-sex marriage, and the inclusion of Jews and non-Jews in the same family (Boyarin 2013)?

With Respect to Mesosystems

We have some research on how Jewish peers influence the outcomes in terms of individuals (e.g., Sinclair and Milner 2005) and even have the beginnings of some mesosystem effects on Jewish families, such as Pomson and Schnoor’s earlier study (2008) of Canadian Jews, or the studies of Birthright parents inspired to visit Israel by their teenagers who went on Birthright (Aronson 2017). But we have little information on how much Jewish capital matters in occupations, or whether certain occupations present pressures that challenge the Jewishness of families (we know they used to in the past—Korman 1988; Mael 1991), or whether certain high school activities undermine the Jewishness of teenagers’ families (though some of the narratives in Pomson and Schnoor’s recent book [2018] are suggestive that they do). We also don’t have cross-cultural research on mesosystem influences, which might be extremely important. The synergy between school and family in the Israeli Jewish scene, for example, may be very different from that between most US and Canadian Jewish families and their children’s Jewish (or non-Jewish) day schools. And what of the mesosystem influences of the extended family of non-Jewish spouses or non-Jewish places of worship for interfaith intermarriages? Samira Mehta’s Chrismukkah (2018) broadened the perspective of intermarriage with Jews to understanding better the non-Jewish perspectives, but we need more of this.


Analysis of macrosystem similarities and differences will also allow us to focus in on whether similarities between Jewish families in different contexts stem from external contexts in which Jewish families live or from internal composition and structure stemming from Jewish capital. Perhaps we will find cross-cutting axes globally among all Orthodox families, or all secular Jewish families, rather than between Orthodox and secular in a particular country or setting. Should we be interested in promoting more Jewish solidarity, we will need to analyze this and make recommendations for promoting bonds between diverse Jewish families. For example, one of the positive takeaways from the Pittsburgh shooting in Squirrel Hill was to showcase an example of a pluralist Jewish community which was able to transcend ideological and organizational barriers to cooperate on multiple levels, not only in the time of crisis, but during the time of stability and “normalcy” (Whelan 2018). How did they do this? What resources are needed?


Suppose we find that exosystem variables vary widely between Israeli and Diaspora communities with lower fertility, such as the National Insurance subsidies that Jewish families in Israel receive for every child under 18. Could this be modified so that Jews in Diaspora communities receive similar subsidies? Would this be helpful? (From the Israeli research, we would doubt it, as neither men nor women seem to associate increased family subsidies with the motivation to have another child [DellaPergola 2015]). Research—at least through focus groups, or a survey with hypothetical scenarios—would give us a clue of potential impact in various Diaspora settings. Note that this Sklare address was prepared for delivery prior to the coronavirus outbreak, clearly an exosystem influence that has had immense effects on microsystems, mesosystems and macrosystems alike, and is bound to alter the chronosystems of all experiencing it. Look for a special issue of Contemporary Jewry later in the year for an analysis of multiple and varied impacts on contemporary Jews the world over.


In terms of chronosystems, think about this: I’m the fifth woman to receive the Sklare award in the last 10 years—but only the seventh woman to receive the award in the full 28 years it’s been given. I construct that as progress! And I’m happy to have been a beneficiary of it. And just imagine where we can go from here….


In Conclusion, I think this framework has great value for determining what research data would be most valuable to collect and analyze, at what level and with what methods.

And ultimately, applying these models to a comparative analysis of Jewish (or other) families, be it historical comparison, comparison within a country or a subpopulation, or comparison between countries, will be fruitful in a number of ways. Most simply, it will help us organize the similarities and differences, and to locate those similarities and differences at the microsystem and mesosystem levels, or at the broader macrosystem, exosystem and chronosystem levels. I hope, for example, that it will help to make sense of the Israeli-American comparison Moshe and I had such challenges with.

We have a great diversity of families within our Jewish communities, both within the United States and globally. We can expand and deepen our conceptualization of Jewishness and its distinctiveness to encompass worldwide Jewry, with greater understanding and detail, by applying this comprehensive framework and using it to organize the information that is available, as well as information that still needs to be researched. Jews do “Jewishness” the world over, and we can systematically understand what that Jewishness means, and what features of Jewish families are distinctive in particular (or all) contexts.

I hope that this theoretical modeling will provide a handle to better understand the changes taking place among Jewish families across the globe and across the United States, and help us to make better use of existing research and plan future research for more effective and efficient policy and, ultimately, enable more open and honest assessment and respect for difference as well as commonalities throughout the contemporary Jewish world.


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We can apply this open systems ecological model to the problematic of gendered interpersonal interactions, which have surfaced in public awareness in the past several years (Fig. 4). Applying this model, which incorporates multi-levels of the environment, shows us:

Fig. 4
figure 4

Open systems model of gendered interpersonal interactions

First, the complexity of the interactions. No interpersonal interaction exists in a vacuum. The context within which it occurs is relevant, the input each partner brings to the interaction is relevant, the outcomes vary, and what is done with the outcomes varies depending on the type of feedback that is generated and where it is directed.

Second, the model allows us to isolate what might be under the control of the participants in the interaction (and what isn’t). It allows us to empower participants by alerting them to contextual information that might affect the process and outcomes of the interaction. This also helps in the aftermath of a damaging interaction, by lifting the burden from the victim and helping the individual deconstruct the meeting more objectively, with a healthier personal outcome.

We can (attempt to) manipulate the inputs by changing mainstream socialization, including exposing unhealthy gender schema, in every venue of socialization.

The model alerts us to possible impacts or outputs from the interaction, which can run the gamut of positive to negative. In other words, the same type of interaction may have multiple consequences, and how these are framed by each of the participants is something that affects the interaction as it happens.

Importantly, the model delineates elements of the environment that are important influences on the interaction, many of which are manipulable. Mesosystem influences are extremely important to understand in terms of the ramifications of unethical sexual encounters and represent important inputs to empower victims and to fashion consequences for perpetrators. They also provide important handles for fashioning effective policies, or for adapting existing and successful policies and programs. The model shows us the effect of empowering the role of the bystander, for example, and the role of the workplace, and the role of professional associations to prevent, to monitor and to react appropriately to improper encounters. We can make sure the laws are in place and that they are communicated to the vulnerable and the powerful alike. And hopefully, we will be able to tell different stories about “whistle-blowers” as the times change.

By mapping where successful policies fit into this model, we can more easily adapt to new settings (or understand why an imported policy doesn’t work).

And we can determine the impact of “Jewish” at every stage of the model (to what extent Jewish gendered interactions are uniquely Jewish and/or share many commonalities with the broader society in which they occur).

In terms of inputs, what are the impacts of Jewish religion—of varying conceptions of gender and gendered interactions, the impacts of typical Jewish social/cultural/secular human capital and non-Jewish social/cultural/human capital that are commonly part of American Jews’ upbringing?

In the microsystem, what are the prominent Jewish settings, processes, purposes that might be manipulated and monitored for healthier outcomes?

In terms of outputs, what are the most common kinds of outcomes from Jewish settings? How do they compare to non-Jewish or non-denominational settings outside of religion?

In terms of Jewish environments, how can they empower and improve interactions? Most of the focus so far has been on this level of change, perhaps appropriately, and this fits in with efforts in the broader American settings as well. However, the model sensitizes us to other areas related to gendered interactions which can be addressed, such as improving the socialization which becomes the input for interpersonal interaction, in varied settings such as family, school, and community workshops and events.

Finally, we can strengthen feedback channels to improve interpersonal interactions in the future.

In conclusion, American Jewry—as well as Jewry in every community within the US, and Jewry in every country outside of the US—operates within an environmental context. This model gives us some tools to better understand that environmental context and allow us to compare and contrast, so as better to share policies and practices where feasible or learn to adapt them appropriately.

Like families (and other social phenomena), gendered interactions are complex and influenced by many variables external to the interaction. This model allows us to contextualize these interactions in ways that facilitate addressing patterns of behaviors and attitudes that are unhealthy and unethical at several levels, including the input each participant brings to the interaction, the immediate environments which can alter interactions as they occur, the secondary environments which can adopt policies and practices for prevention and correction, the exosystems which can stabilize consequences and support systems and change the collective consciousness for how these interactions occur.

Family and gender come together in terms of how children are socialized into gender schema, and the models that they see through their primary child-raisers. But the family also provides an important mesosystem impact when it interacts with other microsystems, and it can also monitor feedback that is input into recurring situations.

I hope that this theoretical modeling will provide a handle to better understand the changes taking place among Jewish families across the globe and across the United States, and a handle to deal with more proactive policymaking and programs to improve the quality of interpersonal interactions and empower potential victims.

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Hartman, H. The 2019 Sklare Address: How Gender and Family Still Matter for Contemporary Jewry. Cont Jewry 40, 161–185 (2020).

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  • Family
  • Gender
  • Jewish identity
  • Open systems model
  • Ecological model of environment
  • Jewish exceptionalism