The Rise of the Israeli Single Mother
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can be religious and still have a baby on your own.
By Zara Stone
A few years after Yael Ukeles left her Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem for a smaller, close-knit community nearby, she became pregnant. She was especially appreciative of her neighbors’ support, because Ukeles, now a freelance product and marcom consultant, was unmarried, and her pregnancy was the result of fertility treatments, something not traditionally accepted by the Orthodox community. “I did not have a child to be radical or change the world,” she says. “I did it because I wanted to be a mom.”
But after Ukeles delivered a bouncing baby boy, the new mother discovered that she was part of a growing trend that extends even to women in religious communities who face the prospect of a childless future if they don’t partner before their ovaries expire. In Israel, where 41 percent of the population identifies as Orthodox, the number of single mothers increased by 60 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to a report from the Central Bureau of Statistics. Of course, many single-mother households are the result of divorce, separation or death, but overall there’s a growing number of Israeli Orthodox single mothers by choice — and a corresponding acceptance.
The quest for a marriage partner should not be a reason for those who want to have a child to remain childless.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance
Perhaps the highest-profile example of the trend is Meirav Ben-Ari, a member of Israel’s Knesset. In October, the 40-year-old parliamentarian announced that she was having a baby solo, through in vitro fertilization (Israel covers IVF treatment for women up to age 45). “The quest for a marriage partner should not be a reason for those who want to have a child to remain childless,” says Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). “We need to be aware that women are choosing to have children outside of marriage in a halakhic manner” — that is, according to Jewish law.
Weiss-Greenberg has scheduled panels on this subject at JOFA’s annual conference since 2013; this year she included two sessions. She notes that both marriage and parenting are considered religious commandments, and the current thinking is that one does not necessarily supersede the other. One panel at the 2017 conference was titled “When Plan B Becomes Awesome: Jewish Single Motherhood by Choice,” an unfortunate (and unintentional) allusion to the morning-after pill.
Film producer Debra Gonsher Vinik explores the unwed Orthodox mother theme in her 2014 documentary All of the Above: Single, Clergy, Mother — but with a twist. The film follows the stories of four female rabbis on their quest to have children. “There’s a biological time limit,” Gonsher Vinik tells OZY. “You’re constricted by a window of opportunity; even with adoption you can age out.” The filmmaker knew she’d struck a nerve when her usual sources turned her down for funding, even though she’s a four-time Emmy winner. She attributes the rejection to people’s discomfort with the subject matter. But her tale ends well: When the film was released, she received a check from the board of Lilith, a Jewish feminist organization.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking element of this change is the growth of Israel-based KayamaMoms, a group Ukeles co-founded with friends Dina Pinner and Dvora Ross in 2011 to support observant women who are single mothers by choice. Since then members have given birth to more than 50 babies, and there are plans to expand to the U.S. and the U.K. “In the beginning this was much more taboo,” Ukeles says. “The world has changed, and KayamaMoms can take some credit for putting it out there.” The network also has encouraged other religious organizations to run their own awareness-raising events, including talks and catered dinners. These support groups have had a knock-on effect for sperm sales — an estimated 85 percent of Israeli sperm-bank clients are single women or lesbian couples. “We’re really busy right now,” Limor Yarkoni, CryoBank’s office manager, tells OZY via email, which is impressive, considering Israel’s famous shortage of sperm. (Imports make up an estimated 25 percent of Israeli sperm-bank material.)
But as rosy as this picture is, there’s one glaring omission. According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, households headed by single mothers have a poverty rate of 35 percent, which is twice that of partnered Israeli households. On the flip side, a report in the Marriage & Family Review journal found there was no difference in quality of life between the households of divorced mothers and those of single mothers by choice. “The actions taken by women’s organizations have undoubtedly increased the public visibility of single mothers in Israel,” wrote Anat Herbst in a paper published in 2013 in the Israel Studies Review. But Herbst, a sociology professor at the Open University of Israel, also notes that more work is needed: Single mothers’ “eligibility for social rights is often perceived as an act of mercy rather than an issue of legal rights.”
Still, there’s hope for the future. In 2016, the first national conference for the economic and social advancement of single mothers was held in Israel, and in 2013, the Tel Aviv Labor Court ruled that it was unlawful for a religious school to fire a teacher who had used IVF to become a single mother — the school’s religious beliefs did not take precedence over the teacher’s autonomy. “Almost all the women I met said that [ideally] they’d have somebody to parent with,” says documentarian Gonsher Vinik. “But life doesn’t always work like that. They didn’t want to give up a family — they said no. That’s inspirational.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this article misstated a sequence of events. Yael Ukeles moved from Jerusalem to a smaller community prior to becoming pregnant. In addition, members of KayamaMoms are single mothers by choice, and the use of Plan B in the title of the conference panel was unintentional.