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Ask a Jew: How do ultra-Orthodox Jews support their large families?

Ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn/Wikipedia photo by diluvi.com Anna i Adria

Ask a Jew: How do ultra-Orthodox Jews support their large families?

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By Neal Schindler

Watching and reading about ultra-Orthodox Jews, I fail to understand how they can support their large families. [As] a surgeon with relatively good pay, [I] have chosen two kids to be able to give them a good life. If I had 10 children in Norway we would rely on the welfare system to provide for part of us.

I’m not Orthodox, or even close. So I posted your question in a Facebook group I’m a part of called God Save Us From Your Opinion: A Place For Serious Discussion of Judaism, which I know many Orthodox Jews are members of. Here’s what several group members said in response:

  • Isn’t the answer that indeed many of them are very poor? Kiryas Joel is the poorest place in America.
  • Some of them are simply very wealthy or have very wealthy parents. Some of them rely heavily on community or government assistance. Some of them forego a lot of things to be able to do this.
  • Yes, some families make the choice that it’s better to have 10 children and be poor than only 2 children, but with the best of everything. Who’s to say which way is better in the end?
  • They have a very strong cooperative safety net, due to volunteerism and an ethic of tzedakah in their communities. That helps a lot.

Another commenter said the Talmud demands that Jewish men support their families and cautions against dependency on the government. He added that after the Holocaust some rabbis said some Jews should live on entitlements in order to focus on procreating and thus rebuilding the devastated Jewish population. The commenter indicated that although most Jews consider the crisis averted and the strong focus on procreation no longer necessary, deprioritizing the “be fruitful and multiply” movement is easier said than done.

By the way, a resident of Norway weighed in on your final comment: “I’m originally American but now live in Norway. While not the question, his comparison doesn’t work. I don’t recommend he rely upon Norwegian welfare to raise a family of ten in Norway. He might be able to get enough to equate to an American working class life, but that isn’t much.”

As the New York Times article linked above indicates, Kiryas Joel is a fascinating case study. The Times explains why the village of ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews remains so poor:

About 70 percent of the village’s 21,000 residents live in households whose income falls below the federal poverty threshold, according to the Census Bureau. … Women marry young, remain in the village to raise their families and, according to religious strictures, do not use birth control. As a result, the median age (under 12) is the lowest in the country and the household size (nearly six) is the highest. … Most residents, raised as Yiddish speakers, do not speak much English. And most men devote themselves to Torah and Talmud studies rather than academic training — only 39 percent of the residents are high school graduates, and less than 5 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Several hundred adults study full time at religious institutions. 

One commenter linked to a blog post by Varda Meyers Epstein, adding: “Here is one Orthodox mother of 12’s story of how she did it.” Epstein tells her backstory as follows:

It was as simple as this: our rabbi didn’t let us use birth control. He said that after the Holocaust, we had a duty to replace the 6 million souls who were systematically gassed and incinerated as part of the Final Solution.

The rabbi’s version of the final solution was my womb, churning out baby after baby, as quickly as possible.

Today we know other rabbis would have allowed me to use birth control. My husband and I just didn’t know better. We were newly religious Jews from nonreligious backgrounds returning to our roots. Our parents weren’t orthodox and all this stuff was new to us. We were doing the best we could and were told that in listening to our rabbi on matters of birth control, and well, everything else, we’d be blessed.

And blessed we were, with a lot of little mouths to feed.

Epstein doesn’t get into details about the financial burden of having 12 kids, apart from this passage toward the end of her post: “Because each and every one of my children is exquisite, filled to the brim with unique gifts and abilities. I love them as much as you love your own 1.2 children. I love my 12 even if the jury’s still out on how they feel about me, for bringing them up so hardscrabble.”

Another group member drew my attention to a recent New York Times article about Brooklyn night court Judge Rachel Freier, who “was raised in a traditional ultra-Orthodox home in Borough Park, graduating from an ultra-Orthodox high school for girls that discouraged college. Shortly afterward, she married a Hasidic man, David Freier, and became a legal secretary to support his Judaic studies.” The article continues:

Then Mr. Freier, who is now a mortgage broker, decided to go to college so he could earn money for the family. That was already a groundbreaking decision among the insular ultra-Orthodox, where even for a man to enroll in a secular university was rare. At his graduation, Mrs. Freier remembers saying to herself, “It’s my turn,” she recounted in a speech to an Orthodox Union women’s group in June. Her husband agreed. Over the next 10 years, she graduated from Touro College, and Brooklyn Law School. By then, she was 40, with six children.

The de facto motto of Ask a Jew is “Jews are not a monolith,” and it’s as true in this case as in any. Some large ultra-Orthodox families may indeed rely on welfare; some may be headed by mortgage brokers or judges, who make plenty of money to support a big mishpocha. It’s definitely a subject worth exploring in greater depth online, where you can find many more stories of sizable Orthodox families that make ends meet.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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