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Jonathan, Rachel, Benjamin and Gabrielle Loeb, May 22, 2006, Bryn Mawr Hopsital, photo by publisher

Living Judaism

The Mitzvah Child

The more the merrier. 
Herei zeh meshubach.

I recently wrote a column sure to aggravate the singles. Always one to be fair, let me see how I can do with those who are married.

Recently, I heard my teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, speak about matters of medical ethics as they relate to reproduction. Rabbi Dorff is one of the leading authorities (and innovators) in the field of Jewish law and medical ethics. After teaching about the various methods of birth control and induced conception, he addressed the broader question of why these technologies and protocols were necessary.

Part of our success as Jews in America has been our emulation of the birth patterns of other affluent and socially progressive groups. The results have been disastrous for the Jewish birth rate. Because young Jews are postponing marriage and pregnancy, often well into their thirties, we are producing fewer children farther apart. The replacement rate for a population is 3.1 children per couple (taking into account infertility, death and those who do not reproduce at all). The current Jewish birthrate is less than 2.7. Additionally, with a generation which is now closer to thirty-two years than twenty-five, we are producing three generations of Jews in the years we used to produce four.

Rabbi Dorff suggests a redirection of priorities in the Jewish community. The first is to encourage people to marry and have children in their early twenties, instead of using graduate school as a contraceptive. By doing so, couples will maximize their chances to take advantage of their most fertile years, produce healthier babies, and have larger families. As anyone who has struggled with fertility challenges will tell you, nature is preferable to technology for a host of reasons, no matter how grateful we are for medical advances and the blessings they bring.

The second and concurrent change of priority has to do with the rest of us. Both community and the older generation (of which Rabbi Dorff is a member) must put their money where their mouths are. If we expect our young married couples to continue to pursue their career goals, we must provide them with day care, health care, in-home support services, tuition assistance for their children's Jewish education and subvention for their living expenses. We have the wherewithal to do so if we are serious about addressing the regular diminishment of population among Jews.

To this teaching of one teacher, I add the teaching of another of my teachers, Rabbi Kassel Abelson of Minneapolis. For the years of his rabbinate, Rabbi Abelson encouraged his congregants to have a "mitzvah baby," that is, one more child than they initially intended for the sake of the Jewish people. When his successor arrived in Minneapolis, people often introduced themselves to him as one of Rabbi Abelson's "mitzvah babies." The congregation and the individuals took great pride in this title of honor.

Some of you would like nothing more than to accommodate my suggestions, but God has not so blessed you. Some of you resent any attempt to peek into your pocketbook or your bedroom. Some of you hold deep convictions about population growth, or your readiness to parent, or the relative value of education. I know. But each of you can do some part of the above, if not for yourself, then in support of someone else. And if you would like to do something more than pray for the future of the Jewish people, you will.

Reprinted courtesy of Rabbi Jack Moline. Rabbi Moline is the spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. He is an adjunct faculty member of the Virginia Theological Assembly and has contributed to speeches by President Clinton including his eulogy for Prime Minister Rabin. Rabbi Moline's humor column appears irregularly in the New York Jewish Week. All rights reserved by the author.

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The Living Judaism feature in each issue focuses on Jewish spirituality, meaning and activism with invited columns written by rabbis belonging to the various movements of Judaism. Jewish clergy interested in writing for Living Judaism are invited to make contact with Rabbi Goldie Milgram at judaism @ pjvoice.com