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July 08, 2011

How Many Children Is Enough?

Alleged victim "I think that among the young women, thoughts about contraceptives start earlier.'" Y. notes that there are still Haredi circles "in which the norm is to have 12 children. But when I look at the younger groups, my neighbors, I do not see them with 12. All [the women] are working and are very career-minded, and their parenting is very influenced by psychology. They invest in their children, in extra-curricular activity and enrichment programs, in buying them brand-name clothing ... And their husbands still study in the yeshivas. Such a woman tells herself: 'I cannot do all that with 12 children."


How many children is enough?
While recent data show that the birthrate is gradually declining in their communities, some Haredi women still opt for large families - and careers, too.
By Tamar Rotem • Ha’aretz

Each time, the news was declared as if a gong was being sounded: "Mazal tov - you have a new sister." That imaginary gong was struck every year until I was 10 years old. However, when my brother was born, I was still a baby and I guess nobody troubled to formally inform me about it.

In any case, one day, during an ordinary afternoon and without any prior warning, my father turned up in the yard where we used to play. His appearance, before sundown, was unusual; most of the time he was busy with his own affairs and did not have contact with his children. This time, however, he came over and reported the news of yet another birth dryly, standing by the carriage I was guarding, which as usual had two toddlers, my little sisters, inside. There was no happiness in his voice.

I did not comment and did not ask questions. I knew that life would go on as usual, just with a bigger load of laundry to fold and a new baby in the carriage. But it was still a heavy moment: The playing stopped at once, the other children disappeared and my father and I went silently back home, to the absence of my mother's usual dominant and enveloping presence.

As a child, I did not like to be trailed by my younger sisters wherever I went, or to put them to bed. This familial-communal life was not something I chose. It was not easy. But over time, irritating memories faded and were replaced by recollections of a childhood in a house packed with siblings and also girlfriends, and with talk and laughter that continued until dawn.

The refrigerator did not burst with food back then, but the clothes closet was full. Thanks to that pool of shared clothing, we were never short of something to wear. We managed almost without quarreling amidst the crowding and entanglement. We grew up in it until we emerged into the world.

My sisters and I did not follow in our mother's footsteps, as a matter of principle. Nor could we ever imagine giving birth to so many children. We left the ultra-Orthodox world and moved to another one, in which the rules concerning pregnancy and birth are different.

A few weeks ago a Haredi woman from Bnei Brak, a mother of nine, told me that her daughters, who are also strictly ultra-Orthodox, did not follow her example and have "only" six children each. She mentioned, with evident appreciation, that "they did not give birth naively, with a lack of understanding as I did, one after another." She added that, in conversations with young women her daughters' ages, she hears that "the pressure and the atmosphere that once existed in the home, where there was no individualism," made them decide to have "reasonably sized" families.

Such a backlash might explain, at least in part, the decreased number of children born to many Haredi women in recent years. And among such women, the time span for bearing children begins at about the age of 19, with marriage, and lasts until about 49, or when they are no longer fertile.

A study conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics on fertility among Jewish and Muslim women, covering the years 1979-2009, noted interesting trends in Haredi society - among them, a drop from an average 7.6 births per woman some six to seven years ago to 6.5 births three years ago. It also showed that the peak age in terms of fertility is 30.

The author of the report, Dr. Ahmad Hleihel, explains that Haredi women apparently want to stop giving birth at the age of 30, since this is when many opt to use contraceptives. He notes, however, that "the research does not take into account the frequency of pregnancies - that is, the time that passes between giving birth to one child and another, or the respondents' attitudes toward use of contraceptives."

Some sociologists and economists believe that the cutting of child allowances in 2002 by Benjamin Netanyahu, while he served as finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government, was a factor that contributed to the lower number of births in the Haredi population. Members of that community, however, vociferously rejected, and still reject, the idea that there is any link between the stipends and the birthrate. For his part, Hleihel, a demographer and a sociologist, is also doubtful about such a connection: "In the Arab sector too there were such arguments - meaning that perhaps the [cuts in] allowances affected the birthrate, but in fact it began to drop even earlier, in 2000." Yet he acknowledges that the reduced payments may have expedited the trend.

"I believe in trends and social influences more than in the idea that a couple makes its decisions on the basis of allowances," he adds. "Today the Haredi community wants to raise its standard of living, to live more comfortably. Women too want to improve their quality of life and not invest all their energies in producing children."

An unprecedented, dramatic increase in the birthrate of Haredi women occurred in the early 1980s. Until then, the average family had fewer than six children. In the '80s, the number rose to seven children, and in the '90s there was a drop to between 6.5 and 6.7. In 2005-2006, according to the CBS data, there was another uptick, with an average of 7.5 children per family. Such fluctuations might reflect other phenomena in the Haredi community, between religious extremism and lenience, between being open and being insular.

A 'career' of births

In my childhood landscape, a few decades ago, in the (non-Hasidic ) Lithuanian community of Bnei Brak, families of six or seven children like ours were the bon ton. Families with 12 children were very rare, and even looked down upon then. But about 10 years ago, things changed and families with more than 10 children became a model for emulation.

Sociologist Tamar Elor, who specializes in the Haredi community, says that in the 1970s, bearing a large number of children was a means for ultra-Orthodox women to distinguish themselves.

According to Prof. Elor, "If you wanted to be outstanding you had to give birth and be a go-getter, a champion and an achiever, to look good and succeed at everything. Today, more venues in which women can excel have opened up - for instance, in education and professional training; there are more women who now focus on careers. This generation of the new 'superwomen' felt what it meant to be a mother to 12 children [from their own childhoods]. Nowadays it is more difficult to return to having a big family supported by only one breadwinner. In earlier generations when families were big, [grandparents] were sometimes in a position to help and contribute to the household, but today there is no help."

Elor acknowledges that "there are families who lived off the allowances and when they were cut, their [financial] situation deteriorated. In the face of poverty, when families are forced to move from one apartment to another ... there are those who admit, very quietly, that things cannot go on this way. The power of poverty has hit the Haredi community hard. In the present generation it is difficult to justify being poor in the name of religious piety."

Moshe Grylak, founder and editor of the Haredi paper Mishpacha (Family ) sees the ultra-Orthodox tradition of having large families as an expression of "a feeling of responsibility for the Jewish people," which must fight what it sees as a demographic threat.

"I remember that after the Yom Kippur War there was a general surge in births," he says. "It was seen as expressing a fear of 'extinction.' But today, the low birthrate among the public at large and the fact that women are giving birth later reflect indifference, hedonism and a feeling of everyone for himself. The Haredi community, on the other hand, still feels committed to the struggle."

Grylak adds that "the women have taken this upon themselves ... The rabbis never said women must keep having children; and even in the [women's religious] seminaries there was no such explicit statement." However, he adds, "competition has developed: 'You have six, I have eight.' Like men who lift weights to prove who is manlier, women want to show they have more children. It is true that in a closed society like ours, where it is difficult to make a living and help is not always available, this sometimes causes problems."

While Grylak generally does not see a dramatic change in the trend of having many children - "Nothing has changed around me," he asserts - a younger man who is very active in the Haredi community, and preferred to speak anonymously, says: "It is known that the great granddaughter of an important rabbi in Bnei Brak told that rabbi, 'I do not want to give birth now' - and he told her, 'No problem, wait for two years.' There is a sense that 'the generations have changed.' One can no longer demand that women have a lot of children and also work from morning to night. More than once you see couples with four or five children, and that is not always because of problems of fertility. Today every rabbi authorizes contraceptives, even after the first child and not just when there is a health problem. If a woman asks for it, it means she's having a tough time."

By contrast, however, one young ultra-Orthodox woman told Haaretz that rabbis give women permission to use contraception only after they have borne two or three children.

Sara Pachter of Betar Ilit, a living advertisement for large families, and thus a sort of "superwoman" in Haredi terms - she recently gave birth to her 11th child - noted with regret that the trend has changed. Pachter, who says she easily maneuvers between family and a career, writes a column on parenthood on Yedioth Ahronoth's Ynet website under the pen name Mali Green, and says, "Most of my female friends and sisters have the same number of children as I do, but I have already heard from one friend that the economic situation is a consideration - that she will at least slow down between having the third and the fourth child."

For younger women in her circles, Pachter says, "parenthood is very important. They think that if the children are born in quick succession, their ability to care for them declines. This is a generation that has more opportunities ... and not everyone is willing to live frugally."

Pachter is currently writing a guidebook for pregnancy and birth with Prof. Simcha Yagel, a gynecologist from Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. Says Yagel: "More women are seeking contraceptives, and it is clear that they have received permission from the rabbi to do so. The period of time between having one child and another has lengthened. Fewer women give birth after 40. There was a time when many would give birth with their daughters. Today that is less common."

'Why this madness?'

Y., a 32-year-old Jerusalemite and a mother of six, grew up in a family with 11 siblings. Her parents, born to Holocaust survivors, grew up in families with four children.

"My mother was crazy about having a big family," she says. "We have a wonderful family. All of us have an excellent relationship, but we had far fewer children. With my sister and me, it did not happen right away: I gave birth to my older kids practically every year. It took us time until we said, 'Hey, it is difficult for us. Why this madness of having children one after the other?' Today every rabbi accepts the fact that after three children, a woman needs a break to gather strength.

"My husband is not ready for more, and every time he sees me with a baby who is the child of a friend or a sister, he says: 'Take him away.' I think that among the young women, thoughts about contraceptives start earlier.'" Y. notes that there are still Haredi circles "in which the norm is to have 12 children. But when I look at the younger groups, my neighbors, I do not see them with 12. All [the women] are working and are very career-minded, and their parenting is very influenced by psychology. They invest in their children, in extra-curricular activity and enrichment programs, in buying them brand-name clothing ... And their husbands still study in the yeshivas. Such a woman tells herself: 'I cannot do all that with 12 children.' I agree, but on the other hand I am debating with myself. Perhaps we are less spiritual."

The cries of her month-old firstborn can be heard in the background when H., a 20-year-old Haredi woman, speaks with Haaretz on the phone. Her view of family life involves children but also a career - and thus perhaps contraceptives.

"In theory I would want even 16 children, but I cannot afford it," she says. "I study in a college and must complete my degree. If I become pregnant again, I would have to quit studies, and who will provide for my husband? That is why I am debating whether to use contraceptives. Of course, I will consult a rabbi. My sisters and I talk about it freely. This is a possibility that did not exist for us women in the past. I am not happy about it, but it is a way out."


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I don't know if i mentioned this topic on this blog or not. But i have noticed that many haredei and chassidic families here in brooklyn and in other places are having less children.

I have seen children from families that have 10 or more children have 1-3 kids. And they are married at least 7-8 years.

I call this the "silent rebellion".

I worked for years in a firm that routinely hired Haredi men. It disgusted me that over the years they tended toward competing with one another over the number of times they could father a child. I finally lashed out at one who upon hearing of someone else in the firm fathering a new child said that he'd better get to work at getting his wife pregnant again. I said, that if that was his only motivation in life, he had better fear that his wife wouldn't cut his little winkie off.

How does a woman have that many children, a husband that doesn't work, and her own career?

why are you printing this article from a left wing news paper?

Now to ship some of these women over to the UK and US to tell the haredim there. Living in Gateshead made my mind boggle, it makes a shtetl look progressive. Of course I'm only referring to the Haredi part, not the rest of the place. It was always jarring to see them in 21st century settings like the new bus station, or on the Metro. Don't forget though, separate buses for men and women! Nope. I'm not joking. Chaim and Sholom and Mendel would get on the #54 (direct to the shtetl) and Rivky, Yehudit and their combined 30 kids would have to wait for the #53, which took a circuitous route to the shtetl and took three times as long.

But then "single mothers" of 15 kids in the UK stand to get almost 5 grand a month in cash benefits, before housing and council tax allowance. Why would they listen to pleas to cut down on the amount of kids they're having?

BTW - the Haredi problem in Gateshead is never, ever spoken of by the local council. They know all the women are religiously married, but will not say anything about the benefit fraud going on in the community, they're too scared. There'll be occasional newspaper stirrings about the high (meaning four or five) birth rate of other communities in Newcastle or Gateshead, but if you didn't live there, you wouldn't know there was a Jewish population at all, let alone an ultra-shtark megashtetl.

The benefit changes proposed by the current govt (spit) have been labelled as direct anti-semitism by the (more vocal) Stamford Hill mob. Govt plans to limit total benefits to under 500 pounds a week (including housing assistance for the houses they totally don't own under cousin. Avi's name) should nip the birthrate in the bud pretty quickly. We'll see then whether it's really been about piety or money all along. Time will tell.

How many are enough? The absolute upper limit is the number you can support.

How many are enough? The absolute upper limit is the number you can support.

Posted by: anuran | July 08, 2011 at 09:40 AM

Sometimes the best answer is the most obvious one.

I think they should have a new reality show, competing with “19 and counting” to see who could produce more offspring’s.

You guys, and this article, are forgetting something fundamental to the declining trend of having obscenely large families among Hareidim.
Back when Benyamin Netanyahu was Sharon's finance minister, he cut the government stipends that were given on a per-baby basis (remember all that rallying, and how they did their typical thing of blaming the world's problems on this?). Right after this, the numbers dropped DRASTICALLY.
It just goes to show that they preach about how holy and Gdlike it is, but at the end of the day, its all about money.

Reb Shmarya's doing his best to lower the average, and being darn successful one might add!

Shabbat Shalom from the Dirty South

one should always have as many children as one can afford it only makes sense, what doesnt make sense should not be done its as simple as that its a no brainetr.

I think it's better to have 1.2 children per Jewish family and let the Arabs keep breeding like jackrabbits so that they can once and for all kick all the Jews out of Eretz Yisrael in a generation or two and the world can be at peace..... isn't that what some of you are really saying?

Somehow the world always seems to find a way to limit the number of Jews in it, so as far as I am concerned, we should make as many beautiful Jewish children as possible, who will be strong, proud Jews, aware of their heritage, their history, and their God.

And I am NOT orthodox (anymore).

gevezener- youre a 1st class moron you think others should finance someone elses lifestyle you are out of youre puny mind if you cant afford more then 3 then dont have them whyat in the universe are you thinking that other should give their money for youre children you fool

My former shliach was a prime example of too many. Just popped out his fifth not that long ago. (He's still young don't worry, in fact he once boasted at a farbregen about his lack of birth control and that he won't stop until the babies do) This dirt bag hasn't had a job in seven year and isn't looking. Managed to beg and fool people into putting the minimum down payment on a house he has NO WAY of sustaining. He would constantly leave bills unopened for months. He sits at home all day "learning" while his wife works part time at the day school. He just put up $250 mezuzos throughout the entire house, and bought $2,500 pair of tefillin. This came out of his wife's pocket. He drives 20 miles everday in his minivan to make minyan when he can barely afford food for his FIVE children and WIFE. The man is totally unemployable. He "speaks" english, yiddish, hebrew. Yet, he isn't proficient in ANY of them. No technical skills, college degree, or even a high school education. This is what your food stamps pay for. I feel so sorry for his children and his wife.

If he was your (I assume Chabad) shaliach, wasn't that his job? Does he not have income from that job?

gevezener- youre a 1st class moron you think others should finance someone elses lifestyle you are out of youre puny mind if you cant afford more then 3 then dont have them whyat in the universe are you thinking that other should give their money for youre children you fool

Posted by: jancsipista | July 08, 2011 at 12:49 PM
maybe you should *ask* him what he thinks on this issue, before assuming you know what he things, and then jumping down his throat daring to let you think he supports those things. All he said was:

>beautiful Jewish children as possible, who will be strong, proud Jews, aware of their heritage, their history, and their God.

So, how does someone *strong* and *proud* behave? Ask him that. Then if you don't like what he says you can say something, but even then why name calling?

Here, I will set an example:

Gevezener: for all these strong and proud Jewish children, how should it be financed? Also, how come you are former"Orthodox". Like what happened. Don't mean to pry but inquiring minds what to know.

yoel- he is still orthodox just not a chassid gevezener means and x he was

As a non-Jew with 2 children, the idea that men would father 6 to 12 childre while expecting their wives to support them financially is mind-boggling. I'm amazed women remain in this culture and tolerate this life. I'd like to offer them -- and women in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries that view the lives of women as secondary for bogus religious reasons, asylum, and I'd like to offer any man with more than two children a free vasectomy.

It is not only how many you can support, but also how many you can be a good parent for.

How many children can parents provide a true parental experience for?

Since in these families, generally the older children look after the younger children, there is little in the way of common decency, respect, understanding, individual time, midot, etc. That is being handed over to the children.

They do all the mitzvot etc, but like automatons. (still considered as a good Jew?)

Hence the prolific disfunctionality in these families.

Jansipista; i just interpreted what he wrote in the plain meaning.

Somehow I cannot blame those touched by the Holocaust for having lots of children.

If he was your (I assume Chabad) shaliach, wasn't that his job? Does he not have income from that job?

Posted by: R. Wisler | July 08, 2011 at 02:19 PM

We are talking about a campus shliach (students spend their days in lecture or the library). I'm not sure if i'd consider donations (almost exclusively from family/chabaad and 2-3 years of Rohr money count as "income". This person has failed to develop ANY regulars and has alienated more jews than I have fingers for. After years of failure the man now fails to support his GROWING family. But that doesn't bother him of course. The "abishter" will provide after all. All he has to do is sit at home reciting tehillim, learning, and buying expensive crown heights meat and dairy his family cannot afford.

I hate to post again. But this subject touches a raw nerve. Innocent Jewish children are being born into completely impoverished families in the U.S. and Israel. These families in turn raise more impoverished families. These large families are in no way sustainable. What would happen if a serious economic collapse? What will they do without the money they get from hard working tax payers? It is terrifying to think about.

Look... Many othodox jews DO have a different mentality to life. It is NOT just a "fashion" to have a big family. Many see it as a mission with a sense of purpose. JUST like many other women (and men) see their careers as being the purpose of their existence.

The mitzvah of "piryah v'rivyah" is fulfilled (I believe) once one has a family containing at least one girl and one boy.

Do we have to subscribe to the western fad of "family planning"? I think most orthodox Jews don't see it that way. You get married, and expect the kids to come along. There may be many reasons (physical health, emotional well-being, or even, in some cases, financial), to take a break, or even call it quits. But they are exceptions. This isn't halachah, it's just a different mentality to the secular one.

As to money, it is, to some degree, a question of "how long is a piece of string"? If you want a plasma TV in every bedroom, yes, you better limit the number of bedrooms you'll need. But if you see life as having a purpose, money will stretch - to a degree.

Obscene and useless waste of money IS a problem people are aware of. Note the "guidelines for weddings", made due to precisely such a situation.

But, if you don't value each and every child, you shouldn't be having them! (The "competing" fathers above are indeed disgusting). I have ten siblings, and yes, I feel my parents love them ALL, and see raising their children as fulfilling and rewarding.


Family planning is hardly a "western fad". It's something people have always done. In Africa and Latin American women will walk an entire day in secret to get to a place where they can find birth control. And it isn't "secular". These are mostly religious Christians and Muslims.

I'll be blunt. In the past people had lots of children because many died. A woman would have six kids. Half might die. That's why populations stayed stable for thousands of years. People bred to replacement.

Then we got better nutrition, sanitation and medicine. More children survived. In the real world it took a generation or two for women to realize they could have two or three children with a good chance all of them would make it. In the meantime they had just as many babies, and the population shot up. Then they started having fewer.

One of the biggest changes is education and economic opportunities for women. When women have the hope of something in their lives besides being wombs with legs they cut way down on the number of children than have.

That's what happened in Europe, North America, the developed parts of Asia and so on. Now it's happening in developing countries.

The places it's not happening are ones with high infant mortality, countries that are just beginning to develop and fantasy land. Fantasy land includes places like Saudi Arabia and Charedi communities. Women have less access to education. Opportunities for women are severely limited. There is severe pressure to crank 'em out. And it's subsidized in ways which completely distort how things work in the real world.

If you look at the frumma women work. But there's a strong prejudice against them getting real education. A bullshit "certificate" maybe. Not a real degree. Oh, there are a few acceptable professions, almost all things like therapy, childhood education or care-related. Carefully constrained, safely "women's work".

At some level the rabbis and mullahs understand that their power only goes as far as they can enslave their women.

Anuran, by "family planning" I didn't mean it to be synonomous with "birth control". It's simply that the western idea of a "schedule" for having a family isn't something I particularly consider admirable.

As to careers, I'm all for opening up more opportunities for frum women. (Medicine is an area where we could use more women). But again, "career-mindedness" (as in, your career being the centre of your life) would be foreign for many frum jews, male or female. One needs to support one's family - but a career is a means, not an end. And yes, having a family kind of gets in the way of full-time study.

Spacing your children and limiting the number is not a "secular" or "Western" idea. Women have been doing it for millions of years. Extended breast feeding, contraceptives and abortifacients, non-penetrative sex, none P.I.V. sex, and in extremis selling children into slavery and infanticide have all been common in times past.

"Don't have a child until the last one is walking" is an old proverb on at least four continents.

The only difference is that we have better methods now, lower infant mortality, no economic incentives and quite a number of economic disincentives for breeding in litters.

The human population should stabilize at about 8 billion by 2050. As the process of turning all people to G-d continues to unfold the general welfare of various nations will improve. Having a child is the most responsible thing you can do in the world. It really is up to parents to choose how many children they have. I think I would like two but the decision will not be mine entirely.

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