This is part four of my series on fertility challenges within the American Jewish community that started in the now shuttered altFem magazine. It is also the second part of my deeper dive into options available to younger Jews (high school and college students, in particular), who may not be thinking seriously about parenthood just yet.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff has earned a rare reputation over the years. While most Jewish clergy and communal leaders shy from commenting on personal choices like who to marry or the ideal time to start a family, Dorff is known as a rabbi, bioethicist, and writer who speaks frankly about fertility to young Jews.
Whether they’re in high school or training to be rabbis at California’s American Jewish University, those Jews hear the same message from Dorff: Put yourself in places where you’re likely to meet fellow Jews, because you’re never too young to meet your future spouse. And start your family while you’re still young, because it only gets harder with age.
Many of these young people may never have thought seriously about starting their own families before. But after hearing from Rabbi Dorff, who is incredibly passionate about these issues, they have the best gift anyone could give them in this area: Time. Time to plan, time to make significant choices, and time to build a life that includes a family.
Every adult may have different ideas about what constitutes an ideal family. However, young people face the best possible chance of converting their personal dreams into reality, if they set goals and work toward them, as they do with their academics and careers.
I caught up with Rabbi Dorff by phone, and we discussed fertility, Jewish continuity, and how to live a meaningful life. Our interview, which follows, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your famous fertility talk.
As I say to high school students, go to a college with a lot of Jews. It raises the odds you’ll meet another Jew you want to marry. College isn’t a waste if you don’t meet someone, but it’s not too soon to look for a mate. If you find one, it’s not too soon to get married shortly after.
The pressures of graduate school will be less than those of your first job. So, as difficult as it is, it’s better to have kids in your 20s, when you’re in graduate school, than to wait until your 30s. It’s better to start your family in your 20s, if you can. If you do have infertility problems, Jewish tradition is very open to ARTs (assisted reproductive technology) to help you have kids of your own.
As I say to teens and college students, why marry a Jew? Marriage is an adjustment. If there are religious differences, there are many more adjustments to be made. So, it’s not surprising that divorce rates are higher among intermarried couples than among in-married couples. There are no guarantees in life besides death and taxes, but you want to shore up the odds of success by marrying someone who shares your culture and religious traditions.
Do you get blowback for raising fertility with high school students?
With teenagers? I don’t get blowback. I say to them fertility is a man’s problem as much as it’s a woman’s problem.
The other issue involved is that in our time, it’s still the case that if you’re talking about the primary caregiver, it’s still more likely to be the woman — but not always. In 25-30 percent of homes, it’s the man who’s the primary care giver. That’s true for my older son, who’s a professor married to an oncologist.
Do you have a sense your audience is hearing this message?
I give this talk every summer at Ramah California to the staff. A number of couples have come back to me and said, “You’re responsible for our deciding to have kids now.”
Every once in a while, the other thing I say is that we Jews are in a major demographic crisis. We were about 18 million pre-Holocaust; we’re about 13 million in the world now, but we’re not reproducing. You need to be at 2.1 or 2.2 kids in order to simply reproduce yourselves. Having 2.0 kids per adult isn’t enough, and our reproductive rate is 1.7. If you don’t count the Orthodox, you’re at 1.5.
Why focus on age?
People can be infertile even in their teens, but age is a complicating factor for everybody. Up to about age 27 it doesn’t matter. From 27-35 years old, you have a 30 percent infertility rate, after 35-40, that skyrockets. From age 40-42, there’s a 9 percent chance of taking home a healthy baby.
What spurred your interest in this issue?
My wife and I had fertility problems, and I do a lot of bioethics. I just started reading the literature. I developed friendships with infertility doctors; I heard what happens in their practices.
This started with the 1990 Jewish Population Study, which was the first one that gave statistics on reproductive rates. The 2001 North American Jewish Federation population study, the Pew study in 2013— they all indicate these issues. That’s where all of this stuff came from. These population studies made it clear fertility was an issue across the board.
So, you’ve been there. What do you tell others facing fertility challenges?
I have counseled a lot of couples with infertility problems. Your heart aches for them. It causes them many problems in the marriage because when they marry, they assume they can have kids whenever. Every menstrual period is a final exam, and if you’re having fertility problems, you’re failing every time. There are a lot of divorces over this.
There are no guarantees, but you’re much more likely to have as many children as you would wish in your 20s. Graduate school and your career will be around for the rest of your life, and they don’t have a time factor nearly as much as reproduction does. It’s not a message I’m happy to deliver. I’d much rather say, “Do whatever you want, whenever you want,” but I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t tell them.
Jews trust medicine immensely, thinking doctors can resolve any issue. It’s more true now than it was ten years ago, but ART techniques work much better for younger people than older people. Roughly 50 percent of couples with troubles can have kids with help. You don’t want to depend on that; that’s people of all ages. People in their 20s, it’s probably more like 75 percent. People in their 30s, it’s less than 50 percent.
Is Jewish tradition at odds with American culture on this?
I wrote something called “Mitzvah Children” with a rabbi at Beth El in Minneapolis. When I visited there, a number of parents came over to point out their “Mitzvah Children.” The rabbi had given a Yom Kippur talk encouraging everyone to have one more child than you planned to have for the sake of the Jewish people. We got a lot of blowback on that one! One article said, “These rabbis are trying to get into my uterus.”
It’s for the Jewish people. The Jewish tradition is much more communitarian than the American tradition. On many things, we coincide and reinforce each other, but on this issue, we’re 180-degrees apart. Especially on having kids, that difference really manifests itself. But I don’t care, I really care about the Jewish people. It’s not PC, but they need to hear this, because otherwise, they’ll be in my office or somebody else’s worrying about how to keep their marriage together.
Any final thoughts?
Of all the mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, I think the first one is the most important in the whole Torah, given our demographic crisis today. This isn’t the whole of our tradition, but you can’t do any of the other important things, like caring for the needy, if you don’t have Jews.
Talk to people who are elderly or dying, and ask them if they have any regrets. For men in particular I hear, “I spent too much time at my job, and not enough time with my family.” Have that perspective in your 20s, and do something about it. Have a family; take time to be with them.
We have wonderful relationships with our four kids and our grandkids. I’m 73 years old. Am I proud of what I’ve done? I’m most proud of raising kids who get along with each other, with Jewish convictions, and making the world a better place. I haven’t retired because I love my work, but after it’s all said and done, the family stuff is all much more important.
For more from Rabbi Dorff on bioethics, check out his book, “Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Ethics.”