Imagine a Jewish family. Go on, close your eyes and envisage what a Jewish family looks like.
How many of them are there? Where are they? What do they look like? What are they wearing?
OK, you can open your eyes again.
Perhaps you pictured one of the families from Shtisel. You’ve conjured up Haredim in black hats and long coats and white socks. You might be picturing women with covered heads, racing around a dinner table, providing food and clearing away dishes, while a bearded patriarch at the head of the table murmurs prayers from a benscher. Yes, that is a Jewish family.
Or maybe you imagined the family from Gogglebox. A husband and a wife. Two children, a boy and a girl. They sit on the sofa in front of the TV. They eat their meals on their laps. They light the shabbes candles and sing together the brachah, then go back to watching X Factor.
Yes, that’s a Jewish family too.
Or maybe you’re remembering your own family, from your own childhood, at some festival or simchah, and seeing yourself in your own family make-up.
You might reminisce on siblings, cousins, single mother, married parents, step-parents, step-siblings, uncles, aunties, grandparents, great-grandparents, step-great-grandparents, neighbours, babies, babysitters, cats, dogs, goldfish. You can scratch out and fill in whatever applies. You’ve got a Jewish family.
If you’ve got a family and there are Jews in it, that’s a Jewish family.
The truth is there is no one way to have a Jewish family. We come in so many shapes and sizes. We are too diverse even for a single stereotype.
Still, people often have an idealised vision of what a Jewish family should be and how it should look. Take today’s Torah reading.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read of Sarah’s anguish at having one too many children.
In our parashah, Sarah knows she must provide an heir to Abraham. At first, she offers up her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate so that Abraham might sire a child. This is successful, and leads to the birth of Ishmael. Later, God blesses her with her own child, Isaac.
But this is where things get really complicated. Sarah wanted Hagar to have Ishmael when she thought he’d be the only one. She liked the idea when she was providing her heir for her husband. But now Ishmael looked like a competitor for her son Isaac’s birthright.
Sarah had an image in her head of what her family was supposed to look like. When her surrogate son plays with the child that she gave birth to, Sarah decides only one of them can last. Sarah instructs Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Now, the Jewish family of five gets swiftly reduced down to two.
Sarah had an image in her head of how her Jewish family was meant to look. But it didn’t match up with reality. Rather than adjust her expectations to her reality, Sarah decided to make reality conform with the fantasy. Even if it meant making people destitute and homeless. Even if it meant cutting up the family she had.
Unfortunately, this desire to force reality to fit the fantasy still permeates Jewish life centuries later. In our communities, people still want to police what a Jewish family should look like.
The result can only be disappointing for everyone. Families that don’t fit the mould find themselves excluded and cast out from communal life. The people who are “on the inside” get increasingly frustrated that nobody is coming along to synagogue who matches up with their idealised vision of the Jewish family. Eventually, synagogue leaders find themselves exasperated that their membership is dwindling and short on children.
Rather than fighting reality by clinging onto a fantasy, successful synagogues find ways of embracing change. The best and most active shuls make sure they celebrate diversity, rejoicing in how manifold their membership can be.
So, let’s take stock of what Jewish families really look like today.
Today, a Jewish family may only have one Jew in it. According to research, a quarter of Jews are in mixed relationships with people from other religions and none.
In the 90s, moral panic about Jews “marrying out” meant a lot of community resources were spent trying to get Jews into relationships with each other by any means possible. After decades of bemoaning mixed families and complaining that these Jewish groupings don’t look right, there are more mixed families than ever. That number is set to grow.
Contrary to Orthodox and establishment Jewry, Reform Jews made it our mission that we would celebrate families in all their diversity. People could know that, no matter who they loved, the synagogue would be here for them and support them through every step of their life’s journey.
Because the family has changed, conversion has changed too. Decades ago, you could reasonably assume that, if somebody was converting, it was for marriage. That is no longer the case.
The vast majority of Jewish converts over the last few years have been “spiritual seekers”: people looking for God who have found something meaningful in our traditions. Last year, over 80% of candidates at the Reform Beit Din were lesbian, gay, bi and trans. They are people who looked for a religion of integrity that celebrated them as they are, and found it with us.
Like the rest of the country, our families reflect the choice that people have over how they want to live. Our families are sometimes one dad with three children and sometimes two mums with a baby; they are cousins and grandparents living under one roof; and they are friends raising children together as neighbours.
So, imagine your Jewish family again. And again. And again. Keep picturing them until, as in Abraham’s promise, you have as many configurations of families as there are stars in the sky.
Yes, now we know what a Jewish family looks like.
And now we can welcome and encourage them in all their diversity. We can find ways to bring everyone into the synagogue and feel like this is a home where they are loved and encouraged. We can make sure that nobody is turned away.
Imagine the possibilities.
I gave this sermon on Second Day Rosh Hashanah at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue