Single Jewish moms seek a place for their families in religious life

Every day, Shana Zatinsky spends an hour and a half in the car. Though she works and lives in Oakland, twice a day she drives back and forth to San Leandro, where her son attends preschool. As a single mother who felt strongly about giving her child a Jewish education, she found the preschool at Temple Beth Sholom to be more affordable and have more convenient hours than the Jewish preschools located closer to her home.

“For the ones in Oakland, I didn’t feel their hours were set up for people who work full time,” said Zatinsky, 46. “They’re so expensive; it’s hard to make happen if you make one income.”

on the cover: Rachel Alexander with her children Ryan and Danny on a synagogue camping trip with Peninsula Sinai Congregation.

Zatinsky decided to become a parent at age 40 “in spite of being single,” she said. The nurse practitioner is a longtime member of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, where she takes her 3-year-old son to tot Shabbat services on alternate Friday nights. Though she’s an active member of the East Bay Jewish community and has received valuable support from fellow congregants, clergy and preschool staff since her son was born, she’s also struggled with financial and logistical hurdles to participating in Jewish life.

Zatinsky is not alone in facing such challenges. Though many Bay Area single mothers have a strong desire to be involved  in Jewish life, they often face significant social, practical and economic barriers to doing so, according to a new study published this month. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and its Jewish Women’s Fund commissioned the study on single Jewish mothers to investigate ways local Jewish institutions could better serve a population that is more likely to struggle financially and be underserved by existing Jewish resources.

“Single moms seemed to be an issue that was emerging but hidden,” said Elisa Gollub, a federation program officer who provided staff support for the project. “It was really an unmet need that no one else was looking at in the community at all.”

The Jewish Women’s Fund is a giving circle established in 2014 to focus philanthropy on the needs of Bay Area Jewish women. With the federation providing staff support for the research and grant-making process, the group of 21 met monthly to study the issues and identify a cause where they could donate their own money and make a positive impact (the fund disbursed $223,000 last year).

Shana Zatinsky and her son, Jakob, 3, at an Oakland A’s game

The participants ended up turning their attention to the needs of single Jewish mothers, expressing concern about data showing how much they struggle to make ends meet. A 2004 federation study found that children under age 12 in single-parent Bay Area Jewish households were twice as likely to be poor, and close to 60 percent of single Jewish parents earned “below or close to what is needed to survive.”

Across California today, one in three households led by single mothers live in poverty.

 “As a group, one of our goals is to have a more inclusive and welcoming Jewish community,” said Julie Levine, a member of the fund who lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children. “When it was revealed to us that this target population was somewhat invisible and didn’t have the access that we all had sitting around the table, it upset me. In a way, I felt a little embarrassed.”

What upset Levine most was hearing from single mothers that they felt the cost of raising their kids Jewish was at times out of reach. To learn more about their needs and what resources would be helpful, the Jewish Women’s Fund commissioned the study, which surveyed 40 single Jewish mothers in detail through interviews and focus groups (the study, conducted by the research firm HMA Community Strategies, also relied on interviews with 18 community leaders and a review of existing literature to reach its findings).

Elisa Gollub

Many of the of single mothers surveyed reported feeling a sense of isolation in the Jewish community, trouble learning about and accessing the resources that are available to them, and a need for more community support.

“Yes, there are scholarships out there, and that’s so wonderful, but constantly having to ask for that, to fill out forms, to negotiate synagogue dues — it’s hard,” said Levine, who watched the struggles her sister went through as a single mother (she died of breast cancer in the spring). “A lot of women don’t have the ability to navigate it on top of working full time.”

Based on the study results, the Jewish Women’s Fund decided to provide funds to hire a “solo moms” concierge to help connect single mothers from throughout the Bay Area with resources such as preschool scholarships and to tailor recommendations about how they can access Jewish programs for themselves and their children.

The concierge hired this past summer, Nancy Brunn, is an employee of Big Tent Judaism, a New York-based organization whose mission is to connect individuals who are less engaged in Jewish life with institutions that are inclusive and welcoming, as well as to assist the organized Jewish community in creating that environment. Brunn, a single mother herself, also plans to host social gatherings for single Jewish moms.

“A cookie-cutter approach wouldn’t work,” said Brunn, noting that parents have different needs according to their backgrounds, which include a wide range of incomes and children of different ages. On top of that, each woman comes to be a single mother in a different way: some are divorced, some are widowed, some are single mothers by choice. “There isn’t one typical story,” Brunn said.

The average survey participant was a 47-year-old mother with an 8-year-old who has a master’s degree, works full time and earns about $50,000 per year. Though on the whole, single Jewish mothers tend to be well educated, they struggle with the cost of living in the Bay Area and chafe against dues and tuition costs at Jewish institutions that appear to assume children are coming from two-earner homes.

“It seemed like what I learned from the study was people who think of themselves as middle-class and didn’t expect to have financial challenges might find that they have some in today’s Bay Area,” Gollub said.

Rachel Alexander with her 5-year-old daughter, Ryan, and 3-year-old son, Danny

Rachel Alexander lives in Mill Valley with her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. Alexander, 44, fits into the “never married” category; she had her daughter with a partner and had her son on her own after she and her partner split up. She’s been an active member of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City since she was in her 20s. She also now belongs to Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar, where her daughter attends religious school (her son goes to preschool at the Osher Marin JCC).

Alexander grew up in Marin, where her family still lives, and converted to Judaism in 2002. As her children’s only Jewish family member, she said it is vitally important to make sure they get a Jewish education.

Otherwise, “they could think I’m making this up,” joked Alexander, who owns a consulting business. “It was really important that I had community around.”

Alexander considers herself a proud single mother, though she said she’d still like to get married one day and have more children. And while she’s committed to participating in and supporting Jewish institutions, she said navigating the financial requirements can be frustrating.

“The financial business model is all based on families,” Alexander said. “Not only am I expected to pay the same even though I have only one income that’s covering three people, but I feel like I’m getting less for it because I’m paying the same that families of six are paying. I feel like I’m subsidizing the community.

“I know Jews don’t turn away other Jews, and I’ve experienced that firsthand. Financial [barriers] have never stopped me and my kids from doing things in the Jewish community, and I’m grateful. But I don’t want to ask. It would be great if there was a tier in synagogues and the JCC for single families, as opposed to me having to grovel and beg.”

In fact, that’s one of the recommendations the Jewish Women’s Fund study makes: Synagogues, preschools and day schools should consider single-parent family rates to make services more accessible without having to apply for financial aid. The study also suggested that Jewish institutions simplify their financial aid processes and consider issuing multiyear scholarships to provide families with long-term stability, as well as make sure their marketing materials and the language they use represents and welcomes single-parent families. The Jewish community should also look for other ways to provide tangible support to single mothers, the study said, such as offering child care at events or transportation to Hebrew school, and leveraging community networks to assist single mothers during times of need.

Nancy Brunn

That would change the game for some single Jewish mothers who find the current level of community support lacking. An Oakland mother who chose to send her son to Jewish preschool largely to find community said she has felt left out by other families.

“There are events for [preschool] families, and I go, but I always feel like these families have friendships that are couple-based,” said the mother, 50, who did not wish to be named. Despite reaching out, she feels she hasn’t been accepted by other families in the school and said she’s still searching for her community as a parent. “I feel like people aren’t being, frankly, good Jews.”

Joy Shmueli, 45, is an elementary school principal who lives in Sunnyvale with her 6-year-old son. Like Alexander, she’s active at Foster City’s Peninsula Sinai Congregation, where her son attends religious school and where she’s been a member with her family since 1976. She’s not shy, she said, about involving herself in the life of the temple and the Jewish community, though she hasn’t felt quite ready to join one of the synagogue’s havurahs, or friendship circles, maybe because they are so family-based. She appreciates when others can be flexible about her needs, such as when the education committee allowed her to Skype into an evening meeting after she put her son to bed.

The financial obligations associated with synagogue life can be a challenge, Shmueli said, and there have been times she’s had to ask for help: “Sometimes you have to eat your pride and say something.” But, she noted, having her son has only strengthened her commitment to Jewish life. “It gave me more reason to be connected … I want him to experience those things and have that foundation.”


Living Jewishly comes at a cost

sarah moessinger   |   kveller via jta

I have a unique perspective on the high cost of being Jewish: I can see the costs of Jewish life both through the lens of being well-off, and where I am now since my divorce — much less well-off.

My feelings crystallized this year during the High Holy Days, when the “good” seats in the sanctuary are sold to full-dues-paying members for $150 per seat. Where the aliyot to open the Ark, bless the Torah and carry the Torah are auctioned off every year. Even the choice parking spots in our small parking lot are a fundraising opportunity — full-dues-paying congregants can reserve a spot for $150.

My overall feeling is that the High Holy Days have become monetized in a very public fashion. Even when I was married and my husband was earning a good income, it felt vaguely wrong.

I say this knowing the additional fundraising during the holidays allows the synagogue to cover the costs that dues don’t pay for. For most of my childhood, my mother was the financial manager for our temple in New Jersey. I grew up hearing, “The temple is a business; it’s in the business of religion.”

Synagogue dues have received a lot of attention recently as some move to a dues-free model, opening the door to conversations about how dues should be structured. I’m lucky my synagogue has “single parent” dues, so I don’t have to ask.

But raising children Jewishly and living Jewishly does cost a lot of money. My kids attended Jewish preschools wherever we’ve lived. They’ve also attended day camp at the JCC and Jewish overnight camp.

I know financial aid is available for camp, youth group and even preschool. But I have to ask for it, and that means sharing tax returns, pay stubs and the finances of my divorce, all of which are deeply personal. I have to explain to overnight camps that my federation does not have aid for overnight camp, and no, there are no extended family members who would be willing to help defray the costs. Trust me, these are not easy conversations to have.

The bar and bat mitzvah, too, can be very costly. There’s Hebrew school and the additional cost of tutors. You have to pay for the Friday night oneg and Saturday afternoon Kiddush, traditionally hosted by the family.

And the list keeps growing. While my children are in a private secular school due to a very generous financial aid package, other families pay $18,000 to $20,000 per year per child for Jewish day school.

I am grateful to the many generous people in my community who make Jewish life possible and wonderful. I’ve been told to “get over it” and to “make being Jewish a priority.” Both are probably true. I could develop a thicker skin, and I’d like to believe I’ve made Jewish life a priority for my family. But my mortgage, utilities and medical bills are also a priority.

I don’t know what the solution is. But I know we as a community will never find one if we aren’t willing to talk about it openly and honestly, whether you’re a “have” or a “have-not.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.